Forgotten Dishes 8: Soufflé Suissesse

This title is cheating. Souffle Suissesse is very much not a forgotten dish. However, I felt I wanted a link of some sort……

I was looking through the Sunday Times magazine, and found a recipe for this soufflé which looked fairly easy. Oh silly me. It’s apparently a Michel Roux Jr. signature dish… but hey, it’s a soufflé! I can make soufflés!

How can I have got it so wrong? Maybe I haven’t got the right dishes. Maybe I haven’t got the right techniques. I’m sure I got the right ingredients. There’s oodles of cream in this. It should be a sure success, even if not perfect.

Well, it was very rich, but as you can see, it was a puddle of rich goo. We ate it; the ever-enterprising Mrs O. even turned the left-overs into a flan. I think I’ll stick to tried and tested cheese soufflé in the future and leave such things to the professionals.

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So, what would YOU do about education? Part 5

There was some grumbling in the café of the (apparently) posh supermarket today about school in-service days. In England, these are taken at the discretion of individual schools, for the in-service education or professional development of teachers. Basically the staff are working while the children have a holiday; it can admittedly be very difficult for parents when children are at different schools. This got Mrs Oblique and I thinking about some radical changes which are long overdue in education.

  1. Why not allow parents to send their children in for INSET days? They could play while the teachers are doing whatever teachers do.
  2. School staff ought to be grateful to have these short breaks; they should feel privileged to have electricity, water, gas, etc. provided for them. In fact, they should pay the school for all these facilities.
  3. On second thoughts, this ridiculous professional development idea ought to stop. If teachers aren’t good enough, they should either get out or learn how to do it properly in their own time.
  4. School holidays are clearly too long. Much, much too long. This is the grumble of all parents. Parents actually have to acquaint themselves with their children, which is clearly not a good idea. Instead, we propose that staff should run free holiday clubs on all holiday days. These could start nice and early in the mornings- say 6 a.m.- and end at around 9 p.m. Regardless of ability, these could make sure that all children achieve good progress. It would enable staff to keep themselves active. They must get bored during the holidays. They could also do the cleaning, which would widen their experience.
  5. In fact, let’s extend this idea to weekends.
  6. In fact, school should run 365 days a year from 6 in the morning to 9 in the evening. Whatever do teachers do all the time?
  7. We get the impression that some parents feel that teachers are being inconsiderate in having any time off at all; and some teachers will argue that they won’t have any time to get home. To allay their fears, we are prepared to allow teachers to camp on the school field overnight. We might even provide tents. In return, they can cut the grass every morning. With school scissors.
  8. We have heard ridiculous tales of parents buying £40 and £50 gift tokens for teachers. Ridiculous.  (Do we repeat ourselves? Tough.) We feel that teachers ought to buy presents for teachers instead. £100 tokens for each child in the class should do it.
  9. While we’re about it, the standards in education are apalling. Penalty clauses for underperformance will fix this. Let’s say… £250 for every child who doesn’t hit their targets.

It sounded much funnier when we were coming up with the ideas. I wonder how many people would agree with at least 50% of it. Happy holidays, staff and students.

 

‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo

I wanted so much to like this novel, because it was given to me at a special time (see ‘A Literary Wedding‘) and it looked like a special book.

Hopeful anticipation is always in danger of disappointment. I want to consider carefully why it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

It begins with a prologue, set at an epic baseball game in the 1950s. Characters include Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, a radio commentator and a boy playing truant to attend.

Next setting is an art installation in the middle of nowhere, at which redundant aircraft are being painted by volunteers. We meet Nick Shay and start to discover his life; it appears he might be the first-person protagonist of the novel. Themes from the baseball game start to reappear, and I feel I’m getting a grip on it, just. Then Mr de Lillo drops in a chapter where every paragraph is a different part of Nick’s life, and I start to find it wearying.

We encounter the civil rights movement, student protest, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, comedian Lenny Bruce, the baseball from the epic game, The Highway Killer, another possible murder, Jesuits, adultery, chess and a miraculous apparition. Among others. Viewpoints, settings and chronology vary wildly.

It’s a book of epic length, 827 pages in the paperback edition, and soon I started making notes. I’ve done this with Dickens and Tolstoy, to keep track of the characters. With ‘Underworld’ I did it to keep track of the plot.

There is some beautiful writing in it: “They’re all back there in the railroad rooms at the narrow end of the night.” The speech of Italian/ Americans is evocatively written. There are some superb set-piece descriptions, for example of the enormous art intstallation of painted aircraft.

UnderworldI am very aware that I’m not a literary reader; I am primarily plot-driven. I can’t grasp the overall narrative arc (or do I mean plot?) of the story. Is it centred on nuclear warfare? The baseball? A murder? A life- Nick’s? I’ve briefly looked at reviews, which seem universally good, and have seen the novel described as “cinematic”; but this is clearly not plot-driven mainstream cinema. I searched in my mental cultural database for a suitable comparison, and could only come up with the Beatles track ‘Revolution Number 9’, which has a similar repetition of themes, only perhaps without the closer ties of the narrative themes in ‘Underworld’. I am however reminded of other variations of chronological narrative structure, such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell as well as books by Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks. I can’t at the moment think of any that are particularly satisfying. (William Gibson tends to write in trios of chapters, each centered on a particular protagonist, but brings them all together eventually; and there are of course flashbacks in all sorts of novels. I am not familiar with more experiment work; I am not going to attempt James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. As I have remarked before, I am over reading books because I think they will be good for me.)

In the end, I just wanted to get to the end, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book.

Oh, and it’s too big, at least for a paperback. It makes my wrist ache. This is a good reason for Kindles.

‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)

Danger in the Suburbs

I am very relieved to be able to show you these lovely photos of a hazardous area near the Oblique mansion which has recently been made safe for young and old.

These areas border a historic pathway which is now a footpath.

There are still fungi, stag beetles, butterflies, owls and other wildlife in the area, but over years it has been gradually tidied and urbanised. We have protested more than once, but to little effect.

The semi-wild edging to the footpath has very recently once again been strimmed or cut right back. When I say cut right back, I mean hacked, as you can see.

I did my little bit. I wrote to the Borough Council. It appears I had no idea about the hazards involved in suburban England. The hacking was apparently done because- gasp- an elderly resident had allegedly slipped and fallen into the scrub, and parents walking their children to school had asked for it to be cut back.

As you can imagine, I was relieved that our council had dealt with this danger in the suburbs. In fact, I have decided to help them out and go out weekly with my shears to keep the dangerous shrub at bay. In fact…. no I haven’t. I’m lying. I think this explanation is hard to understand and unjustified.

I can understand why it might be sensible to trim the edges of the wild area and make sure it doesn’t cause a hazard by encroaching on the tarmac area; but the complete obliteration of it seems pointless. If the scrub along here was such a danger, why hasn’t the scrub all over the borough been cut back and all the paths completely paved? We walk in the area daily and there are very many footpaths and pavements where vegetation is far closer to the tarmac areas. Almost all gardens have growth bordering the pavement, some of it spikey. Carried to its logical conclusion, there would be no vegetation at all next to pavements and footpaths.

Surely there can be some better, more sympathetic way of managing it? We are by no means experts, but some healthy neglect (while making sure the vegetation does not handicap pedestrians) would seem suitable.

I’ve written again, making these points. I’ve written to the local wildlife trust. I’ve even written this blog. I haven’t got much optimism about it.

Am I being hopelessly idealistic? Is this relentless obliteration of wild or semi-wild areas inevitable? What else can I do?

Answers, please.

(I have no idea why the font size suddenly changes in this post. One of life’s mysteries.)

Jumpers for Goalposts

I have slowly come to realise that I enjoy professional sport less and less. I could rant about why at length, but here is a small selection of reasons.

Football The obscene wages; “professional” fouls, lack of local roots (in some cases) and lack of regard for fans (in some cases) as typified by shirt and ticket prices.

Rugby The enormous injury toll on players as they all become huge and hugely muscled, and are even (in some cases) coached to cause injuries. I am told that some teenage players are being encouraged to take steroids to bulk up.

Tennis The obscene wages and the increasing lack of subtlety as power takes over.

Cycling Drug use (in some cases).

Cricket I think I had better write about this separately, because this was my great love and now I find I have fallen out of love with it, at least as it is now played.

Obscene wages seem to be a theme here. Yes, I do mean obscene, given that we still have people living on the streets. (See my blog £367, 640). Drug abuse is another problem underlying a lot of sport. I also hate the way professional sport seems disconnected from the grass roots, and how children are hothoused rather than just having fun. Children’s sports and amateur sport increasingly copy the excesses of the adult professionals. There are a host of reasons for all this happening, but what are my answers? I haven’t got any. Instead I present to you….

Jumpers for goalposts. That is, I know, a very loaded cliché. However, I do hanker after a return to sport played just for fun, so as light relief I offer you these alternatives to professional sports, to reclaim the lost territory of the real amateur:

BadmintonGarden badminton I am not entirely joking when I say that badminton is better outdoors. It adds an element of judgement that is lacking, especially at the top level, involving judging the wind and the terrain, as well as avoiding the offerings of next door’s cat. It’s also very easy to set up and relatively cheap. Unless you trample on your Mum’s precious flowers.

CricketRough cricket There are of course many variations of this, but it’s disappearing fast. I remember painted wickets on the school wall. A tennis ball was used, of course- but it still hurt if it hit you in the face if you hadn’t been paying attention. In the summer we’d have epic Test matches on our local field; a true rough sport rule for us was that you could only hit the ball on the on side, as the field was too small. Beach cricket of course is an honourable tradition, the terrain levelling skill differences. The picture, which was tagged as copyright free, is of cricket on the Bramble Bank at low tide. True rough cricket.

Table- top table tennis As a teenager, we played intense table tennis tournaments on a large sheet of hardboard in a friend’s barn. To my huge pleasure I found that my Mum and Dad used to play on their dining room table using books for the net and the bats, at least initially. A return to this type of improvisation is long overdue. (I’m delighted to see tables being set up in city centres in the summer.)

Football tennis ball squash In the playground at school we had a corrugated iron fence. We used to play a version of squash against it. As long as you could kick the ball against the appropriate panel of the fence you were still in the point. The killer move was to get the ball going down the sleep slope and into the outside boys’ toilets. It should have honed our skills to high standards….. but it didn’t, and that’s not the point of true amateur sport. It was just fun.

Rough football Oh dear, this is turning into reminiscences; our cub scout goals were just a little more sophisticated than jumpers, being bamboo poles. I was a master of the mighty toe punt. It could go anywhere, occasionally into goal. Oh how they ducked.

Cross-country golf This really does exist, and I don’t mean just on golf courses. Be careful playing it in urban areas…. I should also add garden putting. There’s another challenge.

Road bowlsRoad bowls Again, this does actually happen in Ireland. It might be a bit difficult in our crowded island…..

Although this is light-hearted, it has at heart a serious point. It might surprise my small circle of friends that I really do value sport, for young and old. It doesn’t matter what you play, or at what level. You don’t have to be Maro Itoje, Jonny Bairstow or Justin Rose. It should just be fun.

(No, please don’t mention Quidditch.)

Novel Thoughts

It is said that everybody has at least novel in them. Mind you, I’m not sure who says it. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure what it really means. (And I’m sorry for starting a sentence with “and”. It just came out like that.)

In one sense, everybody has the story of their lives to tell. Fictionalising your life or taking aspects of it to use in fiction; well, that’s another story.

I know of at least three people who are writing novels. One of them is apparently writing a novella, so he can publish ahead of his friend. A novella, according to the nearest dictionary, not the internet, is a short narrative story. Before you scoff, presumably ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ are novellas. Enough said.

I know at least one more who has a plan, this time for a series of children’s novels. I will not rant about ‘celebrities’ who think they can write children’s books. I am very sure the person I have in mind will make a superb job- she’s a teacher. Which is not to say that all teachers can write good novels.

Of course, writing and publishing are not necessarily the same thing, but I feel there are some remarkable novels that have never been published. However, the authors are probably not starving in the traditional garret.

Novel thoughtsMore than 30 years ago I wrote a 100,000 word novel which is best left unread. It was a pre-marriage project, written last thing at night. At least I was a disciplined writer. Last year I started to put bits of it on a WordPress blog (see obliquefictions). However it’s so poor that I have lost interest. It’s the story of…. gasp, a teacher! Who is frustrated but can’t get a boyfriend! No, not a girlfriend- I had what I thought at the time was the brilliant idea of writing it from the point of view of a woman. Hindsight makes me see it was a tiresome idea. It only proved that I had little insight into a woman’s point of view. The novel also proved that I had little idea about sex, for obvious reasons.

I started on this post after realising that so many people have wonderful stories to tell from their lives. I seem to have had more time to listen after finishing teaching. That’s nothing to do with teachers not listening, just to do with being busy.

I’ve met a man who was separated from his twin at birth, and fostered; he has only just learnt he also had another brother. Another gentleman worked for a small industrial firm whose owners turned out to be gangsters. A lady I was talking to recently saw a West Indian immigrant in the 1950’s, immediately resolved to marry him and did so, defiant of the prejudices of the time (from both sides of the relationship). They are still happily married. Others have spent their entire lives looking after their severely disabled children, now adults. Just this morning I was hugely entertained by stories of adolescence in- let’s say Tyneside. Motorcyle misadventures (how many teenagers can you get on a bike?) featured largely. I wish I’d had a recorder or a notebook.

Perhaps they are, after all, best left unfictionalised. Should they tell their stories? It would be lovely to think they could be shared. I am astonished how many people quite happily tell of affairs they or their partners have had. Maybe we have a compulsion to tell stories of our lives, even if we don’t write them down. Perhaps, having clarified my thinking in the course of my writing, as so often, I should stop there.