Aug 282017
 

Today is the birthday (1906) of Sir John Betjeman, English poet, writer, and broadcaster who described himself in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”. He was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death. In his own words:

I was born in London and so were my parents. I have lived in London most of my life. I was born in 1906. I am a poet and prose-writer, particularly on English architecture and topography. I founded and for many years edited the Shell Guides. I edited Collins’ Guide to English Parish Churches. I started in journalism as Assistant Editor of the Architectural Review. I was for some years architectural correspondent to the Daily Telegraph. I am a Companion of Literature and an Honorary Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Until my extended term of office expired last year. I was a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission. I am an honorary advisor to the Historic Buildings Committee of the GLC and one of her Majesty’s Commissioners of Ancient Monuments.

I’ll add a (very) little to this, but mostly appraise his poetry. Betjeman is a bit of a kindred spirit of mine in a way. He detested Oxford University teaching but enjoyed the overall experience (particularly the libraries and the fellow students), loved the English countryside, traveled a great deal, and saw humor in even mundane things.  Where we part company is in our view of England in general. His England was a comforting and reassuring home for him, full of foibles that could be endearing or irritating.  I mostly find the country irritating, with endearing bits around the edges.

Betjeman was born “John Betjemann”. His parents, Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann, had a family firm at 34–42 Pentonville Road which manufactured the kind of ornamental household furniture and gadgets distinctive to Victorians. The family name was changed to the less German-looking “Betjeman” during the First World War. His father’s forebears had actually come from the present-day Netherlands and had, ironically, added the extra “-n” during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War to avoid the anti-Dutch sentiment existing at the time, more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islington, in north London.

Betjeman was baptized at St Anne’s Church, Highgate Rise, a 19th-century church at the foot of Highgate West Hill. The family lived at Parliament Hill Mansions in the Lissenden Gardens private estate in Gospel Oak in north London. In 1909, the Betjemanns moved half a mile north to more opulent Highgate. Betjeman’s early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by T. S. Eliot. After this, he boarded at the Dragon School preparatory school in North Oxford and Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire. In his penultimate year, he joined the secret Society of Amici in which he was a contemporary of both Louis MacNeice and Graham Shepard. He founded The Heretick, a satirical magazine that lampooned Marlborough’s obsession with sport. While at school, his exposure to the works of Arthur Machen won him over to High Church Anglicanism, a conversion of importance to his later writing and conception of the arts.

Betjeman entered the University of Oxford with difficulty, having failed the mathematics portion of the university’s matriculation exam, Responsions. He was, however, admitted as a commoner (i.e. a non-scholarship student) at Magdalen College and entered the newly created School of English Language and Literature. At Oxford, Betjeman made little use of the academic opportunities. His tutor, a young C. S. Lewis, regarded him as an “idle prig” and Betjeman in turn considered Lewis unfriendly, demanding, and uninspired as a teacher. Betjeman particularly disliked the coursework’s emphasis on linguistics, and dedicated most of his time to cultivating his social life and his interest in English ecclesiastical architecture, and to private literary pursuits.

Here I resonate very much with Betjeman.  I have no doubt that Lewis was a self-important prick who looked down on his students. His writings on Christianity are grotesquely simplistic and the Chronicles of Narnia are not much better – 19th century “muscular Christianity” dressed up as fantasy. He was the quintessence of the Oxford scholar I could not stomach at any cost: thinking that all things in the world worth knowing are contained within half a mile of Carfax, and the top of Magdalen tower is the pinnacle of the universe.

At Oxford Betjeman was a friend of Maurice Bowra, later (1938 to 1970) to be Warden of Wadham. Betjeman had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and served as editor of the Cherwell student newspaper during 1927. His first book of poems was privately printed with the help of fellow student Edward James. He famously brought his teddy bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore up to Magdalen with him, the memory of which inspired his Oxford contemporary Evelyn Waugh to include Sebastian Flyte’s teddy, Aloysius, in Brideshead Revisited.

It is a common misapprehension, cultivated by Betjeman himself, that he did not complete his degree because he failed to pass the compulsory holy scripture examination, known colloquially as “Divvers”, short for “Divinity”. In Hilary term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time. He had to leave the university for the Trinity term to prepare for a retake of the exam. Betjeman then wrote to the Secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalen, G. C. Lee, asking to be entered for the Pass School, a set of examinations taken on rare occasions by undergraduates who are deemed unlikely to achieve an honours degree. In Summoned by Bells Betjeman claims that his tutor, C. S. Lewis, said “You’d have only got a third” – but he had informed the tutorial board that he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class.

Permission to sit the Pass School was granted. Betjeman famously decided to offer a paper in Welsh. Osbert Lancaster tells the story that a tutor came by train twice a week (first class) from Aberystwyth to teach Betjeman. However, Jesus College had a number of Welsh tutors who more probably would have taught him. Betjeman finally had to leave at the end of the Michaelmas term, 1928. He did pass his Divinity examination on his third try but was sent down (expelled) after failing the Pass School. He had achieved a satisfactory result in only one of the three required papers (on Shakespeare and other English authors). Betjeman’s academic failure at Oxford rankled with him for the rest of his life and he was never reconciled with C.S. Lewis, towards whom he nursed a bitter detestation. This situation was perhaps complicated by his enduring love of Oxford, from which he accepted an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.

This all seems wearily familiar. The vast bulk of my friends at Oxford plodded through their work and got average degrees before settling into a lifetime of drudgery in civil service, the military, or middle management; a sprinkling were meteorically successful so that I include among my erstwhile companions, Nobel laureates, knights bachelor, Oxford college heads, bishops, and the like; and a few, like myself and Betjeman, found the academic system laughably rigid and stupid, and so spent our time educating ourselves in the things that mattered to us and, having barely crawled through the examinations, found successes in various arenas of life.

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, and in broadcasting he exploited his bumbling and fogeyish image. His wryly comic verse is accessible and has attracted a great following for its satirical and observant grace. W.H. Auden (an Oxford friend) wrote in his introduction to Slick But Not Streamlined that Betjeman was “so at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” His poetry is similarly redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary. There are constant evocations of the physical chaff and clutter that accumulates in everyday life, the miscellanea of an England now gone but not beyond the reach of living memory.

In a 1962 radio interview he told teenage questioners that he could not write about ‘abstract things’, preferring places, and faces. Philip Larkin wrote of his work, “how much more interesting & worth writing about Betjeman’s subjects are than most other modern poets, I mean, whether so-and-so achieves some metaphysical inner unity is not really so interesting to us as the overbuilding of rural Middlesex.”

Here’s one of his earliest poems which I like partly because its appraisal of death is, at best, comically sardonic, and partly because I lived for a year in Leamington which is the perfectly lackluster setting for a lackluster demise.

Death In Leamington

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work’d it
Were dead as the spoken word.

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

She bolted the big round window,
She let the blinds unroll,
She set a match to the mantle,
She covered the fire with coal.

And “Tea!” she said in a tiny voice
“Wake up! It’s nearly five”
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive.

Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.

Some of his poems have been set, quite successfully, to music. This one, “A Shropshire Lad,” concerning the death of Capt. Webb, famed channel swimmer (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/captain-webb/ ), has been popular among my friends for years.

His pre-war poem (1937), “Slough,” takes issue with the general quality of life in the new Trading Estate in Slough with its grimy and faceless factories, opening with the now famous lines:

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now . . .

Bombs did, in fact, fall on Slough during the Second World War and Betjeman later repudiated the poem although it was not written so much about Slough in particular but about burgeoning industrial growth in general. On the centenary of Betjeman’s birth in 2006, his daughter, Candida Lycett-Green, visited Slough and apologized for the poem saying her father “regretted having ever written it”. During her visit, Mrs Lycett-Green presented the mayor of Slough, David MacIsaac, with a book of her father’s poems. In it she wrote: “We love Slough”.

In the first series of The Office, which is set in Slough, Ricky Gervais, in the character of David Brent, reads extracts of the poem interjected with comments such as, “You don’t solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place.”

In his deeply ironic “In Westminster Abbey” Betjeman shows his true feelings for people who pray for bombs to fall:

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
    Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
   We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.
 

Keep our Empire undismembered
    Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
    Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

 

Betjeman loved Victorian architecture and crusaded in its favor at a time when Victorian arts in general were lampooned as outdated and cluttered monstrosities. His statue stands outside St Pancras station in London which was in danger of being torn down until he put up a vigorous campaign to stop the destruction.

Victorian desserts are similarly ornately over the top so go for broke.

Meanwhile I’ll go with something a little less flamboyant in looks, but outrageously delicious: apple snow.  First, Mrs Beeton:

APPLE SNOW.

(A pretty Supper Dish.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—10 good-sized apples, the whites of 10 eggs, the rind of 1 lemon, 1/2 lb. of pounded sugar.

Mode.—Peel, core, and cut the apples into quarters, and put them into a saucepan with the lemon-peel and sufficient water to prevent them from burning,—rather less than 1/2 pint. When they are tender, take out the peel, beat them to a pulp, let them cool, and stir them to the whites of the eggs, which should be previously beaten to a strong froth. Add the sifted sugar, and continue the whisking until the mixture becomes quite stiff; and either heap it on a glass dish, or serve it in small glasses. The dish may be garnished with preserved barberries, or strips of bright-coloured jelly; and a dish of custards should be served with it, or a jug of cream.

Time.—From 30 to 40 minutes to stew the apples.

Average cost, 1s. 6d.

Sufficient to fill a moderate-sized glass dish.

Seasonable from July to March.

Next a video of an even more decadent recipe for apple snow that includes the cream that Beeton serves on the side.

Nov 292013
 

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Today is the birthday (1898) of Clive Staples Lewis – commonly called C. S. Lewis and known to his friends and family as “Jack” – novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, and Christian apologist. He was born in Belfast and held academic positions at both Oxford University (Magdalen College), 1925–1954, and Cambridge University (Magdalene College), 1954–1963. He is best known both for his fictional work, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain.

According to his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis had been baptized in the Church of Ireland (part of the Anglican Communion) at birth, but fell away from his faith during his adolescence. Owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, at the age of 32 Lewis returned to the Anglican Communion, becoming “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England.” His faith had a profound effect on his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity during WW II brought him wide acclaim.

At the age of four, shortly after his dog Jacksie was killed by a car, he announced that his name was now Jacksie. At first, he would answer to no other name, but later accepted Jack, the name by which he was known to friends and family for the rest of his life. When he was seven, his family moved into “Little Lea,” the family home of his childhood, in the Strandtown area of East Belfast.

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As a boy, Lewis had a fascination with anthropomorphic animals, falling in love with Beatrix Potter’s stories and often writing and illustrating his own animal stories. He and his brother Warnie together created the world of Boxen, inhabited and run by animals. Lewis loved to read; and, as his father’s house was filled with books, he felt that finding a book to read was as easy as “walking into a field and finding a new blade of grass.”

As a teenager, he was fascinated by the songs and legends of what he called Northernness, the ancient literature of Scandinavia preserved in the Icelandic sagas. These legends intensified an inner longing he later called “joy.” He also grew to love nature; its beauty reminded him of the stories of the North. His teenage writings moved away from the tales of Boxen, and he began using different art forms (epic poetry and opera) to try to capture his new-found interest in Norse mythology and the natural world. Through boyhood study of Classics he also developed love of Greek literature including works in rhetoric and logic, as well as the familiar legends and mythology. In 1916, Lewis was awarded a scholarship at University College, Oxford to study Classics. Before he was allowed to attend Oxford, however, Lewis was conscripted into the First World War. His experience of the horror of war confirmed his atheism.

On 15 April 1918, Lewis was wounded and two of his colleagues were killed by a British shell falling short of its target. While being trained for the army, Lewis shared a room with another cadet, Edward Courtnay Francis “Paddy” Moore (1898–1918). Maureen Moore, Paddy’s sister, said that the two made a mutual pact that if either died during the war, the survivor would take care of both their families. Paddy was killed in action in 1918 and Lewis kept his promise. Paddy had earlier introduced Lewis to his mother, Jane King Moore, and a friendship quickly sprang up between Lewis, who was eighteen when they met, and Jane who was forty-five. The friendship with Moore was particularly important to Lewis while he was recovering from his wounds in hospital, as his father did not visit him.

Lewis lived with and cared for Jane Moore until she was hospitalized in the late 1940s. He routinely introduced her as his “mother,” and referred to her as such in letters. Lewis, whose own mother had died when he was a child and whose father was distant, demanding and eccentric, developed a deeply affectionate friendship with Moore.

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In 1930, Lewis and his brother Warnie moved, with Jane Moore and her daughter Maureen, into “The Kilns,” a house in Headington Quarry on the outskirts of Oxford, now part of the suburb of Risinghurst. They all contributed financially to the purchase of the house, which passed to Maureen, who by then was Dame Maureen Dunbar, when Warnie died in 1973.

Lewis experienced a degree of culture shock on first arriving in England.  In Surprised by Joy he wrote, “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England. The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons. But what was worst was the English landscape. I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal.”

He slowly re-embraced Christianity, influenced by arguments with his Oxford colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien, whom he seems to have met for the first time on 11 May 1926, and by the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton. He fought greatly up to the moment of his conversion, noting that he was brought into Christianity like a prodigal, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” He described his last struggle in Surprised by Joy:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

After his conversion to theism in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, following a long discussion and late-night walk with his close friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. He records making a specific commitment to Christian belief while on his way to the zoo with his brother. He became a member of the Church of England – somewhat to the disappointment of Tolkien, who had hoped that he would join the Catholic Church.

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Lewis was a committed Anglican who upheld a largely orthodox Anglican theology, though in his apologetic writings, he made an effort to avoid embracing any one denomination. In his later writings, he espoused ideas such as purification of venial sins after death in purgatory (The Great Divorce and Letters to Malcolm) and mortal sin (The Screwtape Letters), which are generally considered to be Roman Catholic teachings, although they are also widely held in Anglicanism (particularly in high church Anglo-Catholic circles). Regardless, Lewis considered himself an entirely orthodox Anglican to the end of his life, reflecting that he had initially attended church only to receive communion and had been repelled by the hymns and the poor quality of the sermons.

In Lewis’s later life, he corresponded with and later met Joy Davidman Gresham, a U.S. writer of Jewish background, a former Communist, and a convert from atheism to Christianity. She was separated from her alcoholic and abusive husband, the novelist William L. Gresham, and went to England with her two sons, David and Douglas. Lewis at first regarded her as an agreeable intellectual companion and personal friend, and it was at least overtly on this level that he agreed to enter into a civil marriage contract with her so that she could continue to live in the U.K. His brother wrote, “For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun.” However, after complaining of a painful hip, she was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, and the relationship developed to the point that they sought a Christian marriage. Since she was divorced, this was not straightforward in the Church of England at the time, but a friend, the Rev. Peter Bide, performed the ceremony at her bed in the Churchill Hospital on 21 March 1957.

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Joy’s cancer soon went into a brief remission, and the couple lived as a family (together with Warnie) until her eventual relapse and death in 1960. The year she died, the couple took a brief holiday in Greece and the Aegean; Lewis was fond of walking but not of travel, and this marked his only crossing of the English Channel after 1918. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed describes his experience of bereavement in such a raw and personal fashion that Lewis originally released it under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk to keep readers from associating the book with him. Ironically, many friends recommended the book to him as a method for dealing with his own grief. After his death, his authorship was made public by Faber’s, with the permission of the executors.

Lewis continued to raise Gresham’s two sons after her death. While Douglas Gresham is, like Lewis and his mother, a Christian, David Gresham turned to the faith into which his mother had been born and became an Orthodox Jew. His mother’s writings had featured the Jews, particularly one “shohet” (ritual slaughterer), in an unsympathetic manner. David informed Lewis that he was going to become a ritual slaughterer in order to present this type of Jewish religious functionary to the world in a more favorable light.

In early June 1961, Lewis began experiencing medical problems and was diagnosed with inflammation of the kidneys which resulted in blood poisoning. His illness caused him to miss the Michaelmas term at Cambridge, though his health gradually began improving in 1962 and he returned that April. Lewis’s health continued to improve, and according to his friend George Sayer, Lewis was fully himself by early 1963. On 15 July 1963 he fell ill and was admitted to hospital. The next day at 5:00 pm, Lewis suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma, unexpectedly awaking the following day at 2:00 pm. After he was discharged from the hospital, Lewis returned to The Kilns, though he was too ill to return to work. As a result, he resigned from his post at Cambridge in August. Lewis’s condition continued to decline, and in mid-November he was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. On 22 November 1963, exactly one week before his 65th birthday, Lewis collapsed in his bedroom at 5:30 pm and died a few minutes later. He is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Headington, Oxford

I am not a great fan of Lewis’s fiction. I find The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, heavy handed in its thinly disguised Christian symbolism and moralizing, and never could get far in any of the other books in the Chronicles of Narnia.  Nor do I find his overall reasoning within his Christian apologetics compelling. Despite claiming to be ecumenical in his Christian writing, seeking common ground among all denominations, his work is dominated by high church Anglican theology which I find repellant for the most part (I was raised and ordained in the Scots Presbyterian tradition).  His justification for believing in a loving God despite the existence of pain and evil in the world strikes me as hopelessly naïve, and his thoughts on universal morality show a complete ignorance of cultures outside of the West.  Yet I have read all of his Christian apologetic works, some many times, because he has the knack of summing up profound problems in a pithy phrase. No end of times I will be reading his work, and just stop and muse for a long time on one sentence.  Here is a sampling chosen more or less at random:

“I sometimes wonder if all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.”

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”

“It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

“Of all the bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”

“We’re not doubting that God will do the best for us; we’re wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

“If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

It is no surprise to me that C. S. Lewis quotes are among the most popular on social media.

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C. S. Lewis by his own admission was extremely fond of traditional British cooking — ham and eggs being his favorite, but also steak and kidney pie, fish and chips, fried sausages, bread and cheese, roast mutton. So once again I get to extol the virtue of this cuisine, much maligned by the ignorant.  To celebrate C.S. Lewis I give you veal, ham, and egg pie which I always used to make around Christmas.  It uses what is known as “slack pastry,” unusual in that it is made with a mix of boiling water and lard.  The pastry is flaky on the outside, but sturdy enough that pies made of it can stand alone without a container.

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©Veal, Ham, and Egg Pie

Ingredients:

1lb/450 g ground veal
4ozs/110 ground boiled ham
2 tbsps fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp powdered mace
¼ tsp powdered bay leaves
shaved zest of 1 lemon
2 Medium Onions, finely chopped
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled

Slack pastry

4 ozs/110 g lard, plus extra for greasing the tin
7 fl oz/ 200 ml Water
12 ozs/350 g all purpose flour
pinch of salt

Aspic

2 tsps gelatin
½ pint /300 ml light stock

Method

Pre-heat oven to 350 °F/ 180 °C

Grease a 2 ½ pint/1.4 litre loaf tin well with lard.

Put the veal, ham, parsley, mace, bay leaves, and lemon zest in a bowl and mix thoroughly.

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl.

Put the lard and water in a saucepan and gently heat until the lard has melted. Bring to the boil, remove from the heat and tip quickly into the flour.

First with a wooden spoon, then with your hands as soon as it is cool enough to work, mix the ingredients until you have a soft pliable dough.

Take two-thirds of the dough while it is still warm and roll it flat.  Place it in the greased tin and work it up the sides with your fingers, making sure it is evenly distributed and over laps the rim.

Press in half the meat mixture and place the eggs in a line down the centre. Fill with the remaining meat mixture.

Roll out the remaining pastry for the lid. Cover the pie with the pastry and seal the edges.

Use the pastry trimmings to decorate the top, then make one large hole in the center of the pie.

Bake for 1 ½ hours. If necessary, cover the pastry with foil towards the end of the cooking time to prevent over-browning.

Leave to cool for 1 hour.

Make up an aspic jelly by dissolving the gelatin in boiling stock. Cool for about 10 minutes.

Using a funnel pour the liquid aspic through the hole in the top of the pie. You need to take your time with this step because the pie will appear to be filled, but then the aspic will seep down slowly through the meat filling.

Chill the pie for at least 3 hours or overnight (preferable).

To turn out leave the pie to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour, then immerse the tin in very hot water, making sure not to dampen the pastry top, for several minutes.

Cut into thick slices, and serve on a bed of watercress or lettuce, with hot English mustard(cook gets the end pieces as a bedtime snack).

Yield: 8-10 slices.