Jul 182018
 

Today is the birthday (1811) of William Makepeace Thackeray who in the 19th century was considered second only to Dickens in the British literary world. These days he is mostly forgotten except for Vanity Fair, a staple of Eng. Lit. classes. Thackeray was an only child, born in Calcutta in British India, to Richmond Thackeray (1781 – 1815), secretary to the Board of Revenue in the British East India Company, and Anne Becher (1792–1864), the second daughter of Harriet Becher and John Harman Becher, who was also a secretary for the East India Company.

His father died in 1815, which caused his mother to send him son to England in 1816, while she remained in British India. The ship on which he travelled made a short stopover at Saint Helena, where the imprisoned Napoleon was pointed out to him. Once in England he was educated at schools in Southampton and Chiswick, and then at Charterhouse School, where he became a close friend of John Leech. Thackeray disliked Charterhouse, and parodied it in his fiction as “Slaughterhouse”. Nevertheless, Thackeray was honored in the Charterhouse Chapel with a monument after his death. Illness in his last year there, during which he reportedly grew to his full height of six foot three, postponed his matriculation at Trinity College, Cambridge, until February 1829. Thackery was indifferent to academic studies and so left Cambridge in 1830. However, some of his earliest published writing appeared in two university periodicals, The Snob and The Gownsman.

Thackeray then traveled for some time on the continent, visiting Paris and Weimar, where he met Goethe. He returned to England and began to study law at the Middle Temple, but soon gave that up. On reaching the age of 21 he came into his inheritance from his father, but he squandered much of it on gambling and on funding two unsuccessful newspapers, The National Standard and The Constitutional, for which he had hoped to write. He also lost a good part of his inheritance in the collapse of two Indian banks. He was thus forced to consider a profession to support himself, turning first to art, which he studied in Paris, but did not pursue it directly. In later years he did produce illustrations for some of his own novels and other writings. He married 1836, Isabella Gethin Shawe (1816–1894) in 1836, second daughter of Isabella Creagh Shawe and Matthew Shawe, a colonel who had died after distinguished service, primarily in India. They had three children, all girls: Anne Isabella (1837–1919), Jane (who died at eight months old) and Harriet Marian (1840–1875), who married Sir Leslie Stephen, editor, biographer and philosopher (and Virginia Woolf’s father by a different wife).

Isabella

After marriage, Thackeray began “writing for his life”, as he put it, turning to journalism in an effort to support his young family. He primarily worked for Fraser’s Magazine, a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued conservative publication for which he produced art criticism, short fictional sketches, and two longer fictional works, Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Between 1837 and 1840 he also reviewed books for The Times. He was also a regular contributor to The Morning Chronicle and The Foreign Quarterly Review. Later, through his connection to his school pal, John Leech, he began writing for the newly created magazine Punch, in which he published The Snob Papers, later collected as The Book of Snobs. This work popularized the modern meaning of the word “snob”. Thackeray was a regular contributor to Punch between 1843 and 1854.

Self caricature

Thackeray’s wife, Isabella, succumbed to depression after the birth of their third child, in 1840. Finding that he could get no work done at home, he spent more and more time away until September 1840, when he realized how grave his wife’s condition was. Struck by guilt, he set out with his wife to Ireland. During the crossing she threw herself from a water-closet into the sea, but she was pulled from the waters. They fled back home after a four-week battle with her mother. From November 1840 to February 1842 Isabella was in and out of professional care, as her condition waxed and waned. She eventually deteriorated into a permanent state of detachment from reality. Thackeray desperately sought cures for her, but nothing worked, and she ended up in two different asylums in or near Paris until 1845, after which Thackeray took her back to England, where he installed her with a Mrs Bakewell at Camberwell. Isabella outlived her husband by 30 years, in the end being cared for by a family named Thompson in Leigh-on-Sea at Southend until her death in 1894.

In the early 1840s Thackeray had some success with two travel books, The Paris Sketch Book and The Irish Sketch Book, the latter marked by hostility to Irish Catholics. However, as the book appealed to British prejudices, Thackeray was given the job of being Punch‘s Irish expert, often under the pseudonym Hibernis Hibernior. It was Thackeray, in other words, who was chiefly responsible for Punch‘s notoriously hostile and condescending depictions of the Irish during the Irish Famine (1845–51).

Thackeray achieved more recognition with his Snob Papers (serialized 1846/7, published in book form in 1848), but the work that really established his fame was the novel Vanity Fair, which first appeared in serialized instalments beginning in January 1847. Even before Vanity Fair completed its serial run Thackeray had become a celebrity, sought after by the very lords and ladies whom he satirized. They hailed him as the equal of Dickens.

He remained “at the top of the tree”, as he put it, for the rest of his life, during which he produced several long novels, notably Pendennis, The Newcomes and The History of Henry Esmond, despite various illnesses, including a near-fatal one that struck him in 1849 in the middle of writing Pendennis. He twice visited the United States on lecture tours during this period. Thackeray also gave lectures in London on the English humorists of the 18th century, and on the first four Hanoverian monarchs. The latter series was published in book form as The Four Georges. In Oxford he stood unsuccessfully as an independent for Parliament. He was narrowly beaten by Cardwell, who received 1,070 votes, as against 1,005 for Thackeray.

In 1860 Thackeray became editor of the newly established Cornhill Magazine, but he was never comfortable in the role, preferring to contribute to the magazine as the writer of a column called “Roundabout Papers”. Thackeray’s health worsened during the 1850s and he was plagued by a recurring stricture of the urethra that laid him up for days at a time. He also felt that he had lost much of his creative impetus. He worsened matters by excessive eating and drinking, and avoiding exercise, though he enjoyed riding (he kept a horse). He has been described as “the greatest literary glutton who ever lived” (which is certainly hyperbole – there have been many). His main activity apart from writing was “guttling and gorging.”

On 23rd December 1863, after returning from dining out and before dressing for bed, he suffered a stroke. He was found dead in his bed the following morning. His death at the age of fifty-two was entirely unexpected, and shocked his family, his friends and the reading public. An estimated 7,000 people attended his funeral at Kensington Gardens. He was buried on 29th December at Kensal Green Cemetery, and a memorial bust sculpted by Marochetti was placed in Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a few memorable quotes:

To love and win is the best thing. To love and lose, the next best.

Good humor may be said to be one of the very best articles of dress one can wear in society.

If a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relative to do the business.

People hate as they love: unreasonably.

There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.

The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief which the very virtuous do?

And now a rather longer quote from Vanity Fair leading to our recipe du jour.

“Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear,” said Mr. Sedley, laughing. Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. “Do you find it as good as everything else from India?” said Mr. Sedley. “Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper. “Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested. “A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried.

Hot curry it is then. You may indulge in “guttling and gorging” if you wish — or not. You can take your pick of recipes I have already given, or make a vindaloo, which is often the hottest curry you can get in South Asian restaurants in Britain. Lamb vindaloo is my favorite, although it is commonly made with pork in Goa where it originates. I have had it made with duck and chicken as well. In this recipe I will list “meat” for the ingredient, and you can take your pick. Just remember that cooking times will vary depending on the meat you choose. The masala paste is the key to the dish. It gives it the pungent and fiery taste. Use brown sugar for the dish if you cannot get jaggery.

Vindaloo

Ingredients

75 ml cider vinegar
700 gm meat, cut into chunks
4 tbsp ghee
500 gm finely sliced onions
60 gm tamarind pulp
10 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
5 cm length of ginger, peeled and cut into slim matchsticks
4 ripe tomatoes, diced
2-4 small hot peppers
10 curry leaves
1 tbsp jaggery
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black mustard seeds

For the masala

2 tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder or paprika
Seeds of 8 cardamom pods
1 tsp black peppercorns
8 cloves
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp turmeric
5 cm cinnamon stick

Instructions

Grind to a coarse powder all the ingredients for the masala, then stir in the vinegar. Rub the mixture into the meat and leave it to sit for three to four hours.

Heat the ghee in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat, and fry the onions until they are soft and golden. Take your time with this step, stirring periodically to make sure the onions are evenly caramelized. Meanwhile, soak the tamarind pulp in 120 ml of hot water for 15 minutes, then gently rub any remaining pulp from the seeds and strain off the liquid, discarding the solids.

Stir the garlic and ginger into the onions and cook, stirring, for another five minutes, then add the tomatoes, hot peppers and curry leaves, and cook until the tomatoes start to break down.

Add the pork and the masala rub to the pan and turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir well, add the jaggery, salt and mustard seeds, followed by the tamarind liquid. Bring to a simmer, cover tightly, turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and cook for one hour.

Partially remove the lid and cook for another 30 minutes, until the meat is very tender and the sauce has thickened.

Serve with your choice of Indian flatbreads, Basmati rice, and a dish of dahl (at minimum).

Nov 172017
 

Today is the birthday (1937) of Peter Cook who is widely regarded as the leading light of the British satire boom of the 1960s. Cook had an enormous influence on legendary British comedians who achieved worldwide prominence including his partner Dudley Moore and the Monty Python group (many of whom started on Cook’s shows). He was also a major player in the rise to fame of the likes of David Frost whose stage presence was actually modelled on Cook’s. I want to focus on Cook today because he was both brilliant and completely misunderstood in his personal life and ambitions.  On his death some critics chose to see Cook’s life as tragic, insofar as the brilliance of his youth did not translate into a lifetime of international fame and fortune as it did for so many people he got started in the business. However, Cook himself always maintained he had no ambitions at all for sustained success. He assessed happiness by his friendships and his enjoyment of life. Eric Idle and Stephen Fry said Cook had not wasted his talent but rather that the newspapers had tried to waste him. Some put his lack of fame and ambition down to alcoholism or bad luck or poor choices or whatever. It’s all nonsense. Cook lived the life he wanted and I admire him greatly for that.

In 2005 The Guardian called Cook “the father of modern satire” and he was ranked number one in the Comedians’ Comedian, a poll of over 300 comics, comedy writers, producers, and directors throughout the English-speaking world. He was the master of the dry, laconic, one-line comment that perfectly summed up the absurdity of his era and of life. A very small sample:

All in all, I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. And what’s more, being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with judges.

What terrible sins I have working for me. I suppose it’s the wages.

As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are.

We believe this to be the work of thieves, and I’ll tell you why. The whole pattern is very reminiscent of past robberies where we have found thieves to be involved. The tell-tale loss of property — that’s one of the signs we look for.

Here’s a classic clip of Pete and Dud in a pub scene from Not Only . . . But Also. It’s such a period piece that you’ll never see the likes of it again. You can tell that Cook and Moore are not using a script, but are just working on a dialogue impromptu, based on a general idea they thought up. Cook also “corpses” in the sketch, that is, breaks character with a faint laugh when he is amused by his own banter. Nowadays such scenes would be consigned to blooper reels. In later life Cook readily admitted that one of his favorite things in the world was to sit and chat with friends.  It shows.

Cook was born at his parents’ house, “Shearbridge,” in Middle Warberry Road, Torquay, Devon. He was the only son and eldest of the three children of Alexander Edward “Alec” Cook (1906–1984), a colonial civil servant, and his wife Ethel Catherine Margaret, née Mayo (1908–1994). He was educated at Radley College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German. As a student, Cook initially intended to become a career diplomat like his father, but in later life he claimed that he couldn’t because “Britain had run out of colonies.” Cook was a good student and was awarded an upper second in his final tripos. He could have achieved first class honors, but in his final year at Cambridge he was also running reviews in London’s West End. He always considered himself an amateur comedian, and would have sat the Foreign Office exam and joined the diplomatic service if he’d attained a first. Just as well. He did say in later life, though, “I’d still say yes if the governorship of Bermuda came up. I’ve always wanted to wear a plumed hat.”

At Pembroke Cook performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the Cambridge Footlights Club, and became president in 1960. Whilst still at university, Cook wrote for Kenneth Williams, providing several sketches for Williams’ hit West End comedy revue Pieces of Eight and much of the follow-up, One Over the Eight, before finding prominence in his own right in a four-man group satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore. Beyond the Fringe became a great success in London after being first performed at the Edinburgh Festival and included Cook impersonating the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. This was one of the first occasions satirical political mimicry had been attempted in live theater and it shocked audiences. During one performance, Macmillan was in the theater and Cook departed from his script and attacked him verbally.

In 1961, Cook opened The Establishment, a club at 18 Greek Street in Soho in London, presenting fellow comedians in a nightclub setting. Cook said it was a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” As a members-only venue it was outside the censorship restrictions. Cook befriended and supported Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British solo career at the club. Dudley Moore’s jazz trio played in the basement of the club during the early 1960s.

In 1962, the BBC commissioned a pilot for a television series of satirical sketches based on the Establishment Club, but it was not immediately picked up and Cook went to New York City for a year to perform Beyond The Fringe on Broadway. When he returned, the pilot had been refashioned as That Was the Week That Was and had made a star of David Frost, something Cook resented. He complained that Frost’s success was based on copying Cook’s own stage persona and Cook dubbed him “the bubonic plagiarist.” Cook said that his only regret in life, according to Alan Bennett, had been saving Frost from drowning. This incident occurred in the summer of 1963, when the rivalry between the two men was at its height. Cook said he realized at the time that Frost’s potential drowning would have looked deliberate if he had not been rescued.

Around this time, Cook provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, supporting it through difficult periods, particularly in libel trials. Cook invested his own money and solicited investment from his friends. For a time, the magazine was produced from the premises of the Establishment Club. Cook expanded television comedy with Eleanor Bron, John Bird and John Fortune. His first regular television spot was on Granada Television’s Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured his most enduring character: the static, dour and monotonal E. L. Wisty, whom Cook had conceived for Radley College’s Marionette Society.

Cook’s comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to Not Only… But Also. This was originally intended by the BBC as a vehicle for Moore’s music. The working title was Not Only Dudley Moore, But Also His Guests. But Moore was unsure about going it alone, so he invited Cook along to guest in the pilot (along with Diahann Carroll and John Lennon). The studio audience loved their double act, in particular the first “Dagenham Dialogue,” “A Spot of the Usual Trouble,” and so Cook was invited to become a permanent fixture and the show became Not Only Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, But Also Their Guests, though it was only ever really referred to as Not Only… But Also. Cook played characters such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and the two men created their Pete and Dud alter egos for which old gits like me will always remember them. Other sketches included “Superthunderstingcar”, a parody of the Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows, and Cook’s pastiche of 1960s trendy arts documentaries – satirized in a parody segment on Greta Garbo.

When Cook learned a few years later that the videotapes of the series were to be wiped, a common practice at the time, he offered to buy the recordings from the BBC but was refused because of copyright issues. He suggested he could purchase new tapes so that the BBC would have no need to erase the originals, but this offer was also turned down. Of the original 22 programs, only eight still survive complete. With The Wrong Box (1966) and Bedazzled (1967) Cook and Moore began to act in films together. The underlying story of Bedazzled is credited to Cook and Moore and its screenplay to Cook. Bedazzled is a comic version of the Faust story, starring Cook as George Spigott (The Devil) who tempts Stanley Moon (Moore), a frustrated, short-order chef, with the promise of gaining his heart’s desire – the unattainable beauty and waitress at his cafe, Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron) – in exchange for his soul, but repeatedly tricks him. The film features cameo appearances by Barry Humphries as Envy and Raquel Welch as Lust. Moore composed the soundtrack music and co-wrote (with Cook) the songs performed in the film. His jazz trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivered in a monotonous deadpan voice and included his familiar put-down, “you fill me with inertia.” The Brendan Fraser 2000 remake of Bedazzled is – mercifully – completely re-written, and is funny in its own way. But it pales in comparison with the original.

I won’t wear you out with reams of biographical stuff from the late 1960s until Cook’s death in 1995. You can look it up.  While you’re at it, find his old routines on YouTube. Cook died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on 9 January 1995, aged 57. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were buried in an unmarked plot behind St John-at-Hampstead, not far from his house in Perrins Walk. Dudley Moore attended Cook’s memorial service at John-at-Hampstead on 30 April 1995. He and Martin Lewis presented a two-night memorial for Cook at The Improv in Los Angeles, on 15 and 16 November 1995, to mark what would have been Cook’s 58th birthday.

Stephen Fry had this to say in memoriam because he was so disgusted with the mainstream obituaries treating Cook as a man with “undeveloped potential” and “unfulfilled promise” (and such):

Being British in this part of the century meant living in the country that had Peter Cook in it. There are wits and there are clowns in comedy, I suppose. Peter was a wit, it goes without saying, but he was funny in an almost supernatural way that has never been matched by anyone I’ve met or even heard about. It wasn’t to do with facial expression or epigrammatic wit, or cattiness or rant or anger or technique: he had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty or dancers have line and grace. He had an ability to make people gasp and gasp and gasp for breath like landed fish.

Fry also said that Peter Cook was, “The funniest man who ever drew breath.”

There’s a certain ironic pleasure in finding a recipe to suit a man called Cook. In a newspaper interview he remarked, “Food is so simple. You go out, buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it. What could be simpler? But they will muck it up. My favourite food is asparagus.” I’m not sure you can take him seriously, but it’s a start. In that same interview is this:

He lit another cigarette, pushed his plate away, leaving untouched a side dish of spinach. I said huh, what about the spinach? “What are you, some sort of nanny? I always order spinach when I’m here. I hate spinach. I get my own back by leaving it.”

I love asparagus too, so this is not hard. I had an asparagus patch in my garden for 20 years and loved harvesting great handfuls and cooking it simply: steamed and served with butter or hollandaise sauce. If you grow it at home you can be sure to cut only the tender parts of the stalks, but commercial growers harvest the stalks below ground level and you end up with a lot of useless woody ends. If you buy your asparagus, bend the stems before cooking them. They will naturally snap at the point that divides the edible tender tops from the woody bottoms.

I agree with Cook’s general point – “buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it” – but I don’t know what he means by mucking it up. Does he mean cooking it badly, or making too complex a dish? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Asparagus is dead easy to cook badly. Drowning it in water and boiling it for too long will do it. Light steaming for 5 to 10 minutes is all it takes. If you burden asparagus with too many other ingredients you can also lose its subtle flavor. It does not need herbs or spices, and will get lost if you use them.  Butter and eggs are fine partners, though. I’m fond of asparagus omelets, for example. Lightly steam the asparagus first, make an omelet and then add the asparagus as a filling when serving.

My favorite sandwich, without question, is grilled ham and asparagus. Butter two slices of good white bread.  Make a sandwich, with the butter on the outside, with a layer of ham and a layer of steamed asparagus stalks. Cook the sandwich in a hot, dry skillet browning both sides evenly.

Aug 042016
 

jv7

Today is the birthday (1834) of John Venn, English mathematician and logician, primarily remembered for his use of diagrams, which we now call Venn diagrams, to help explain concepts in set theory. Venn was not exactly a giant in his field, but I’d settle for having something reasonably commonplace named after me. Venn diagrams have served me very well in my own work.

Venn was born in Hull, and educated at private schools in London before studying mathematics at Cambridge University, at Gonville and Caius College where he subsequently became a fellow and then head of the college.

Venn’s father was an Anglican clergyman and Venn followed suit in the late 1850s, as was normal for fellows at Cambridge at the time. In fact, after receiving his degree in 1857 he did parish work for a few years before devoting himself full time to mathematics. Even after he left the clergy in the 1880s he continued being involved in the church, although he found strict Anglicanism incompatible with logic and mathematics.

jv5

Venn’s first major publication was The Logic of Chance (1866), a significant accounting of the laws of probability. He then turned to George Boole’s work in logic and produced Symbolic Logic in 1881. It was in this work that he introduced Venn diagrams which he had been using as a teaching device for several years:

I began at once somewhat more steady work on the subjects and books which I should have to lecture on. I now first hit upon the diagrammatical device of representing propositions by inclusive and exclusive circles. Of course the device was not new then, but it was so obviously representative of the way in which any one, who approached the subject from the mathematical side, would attempt to visualise propositions, that it was forced upon me almost at once.

As Venn notes, other mathematicians, notably Gottfried Leibniz and Leonhard Euler, had used similar diagrams earlier, but Venn popularized them as well as extending their application to a wide variety of fields outside of mathematics and logic, and making their application more rigorous than previous attempts.

Venn diagrams don’t actually serve a technical function in mathematics or logic, but they do make certain concepts easier to grasp by displaying them visually. Here’s a simple example showing the Greek, Russian, and Roman alphabets each contained within circles which are drawn to overlap. Symbols in common between two of the alphabets are shown at the intersections of their circles, and symbols common to all three are shown in the central intersection.

jv2a

Venn diagrams also have the possibility of excluding items from any of the circles, such as in the example below of a diagram concerning “people I know” and the use of social media. Harry uses neither Facebook nor Twitter so fits inside the rectangle representing people I know but outside the circles representing social media.

jv3

Venn was elected to the Royal Society in 1883 and continued to publish other works, including The Principles of Empirical or Inductive Logic (1889) and volumes on the history of Cambridge and a list of its alumni, compiled with the aid of his son, John Archibald Venn.

Venn died on April 4, 1923, in Cambridge at the age of 88. He is memorialized by a stained glass window at his old college.

jv6

When dealing with mathematical subjects before I’ve focused on mathematical objects. The Venn diagram is not a mathematical object per se, but it does lend itself to cooking ideas. This site gives an idea for a Venn diagram pie. http://www.quirkbooks.com/post/happy-pi-day-make-venn-pie-agram  It was created for Pi Day (3/14 in countries that use month/day format), so it is more about being a pie than being an accurate Venn diagram. But you can take the original and modify it.

jv4

The site shows you how to cut two disposable pie pans to make the Venn diagram shape, and the crust conforms to the general idea of sets – no crust and full crust intersect to make a lattice crust. The recipe fails with the fillings. It just suggests using three different ones. It shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with categories such as fruit and dairy, so that one side is fruit, no dairy, the other is dairy, no fruit, and the middle is fruit and dairy. I’ll leave it to you.

Jul 312016
 

neot2

Today is the eve of Lammas which is not in itself a church celebration, but is recorded in Shakespeare as Juliet’s birthday, giving rise to one of my most popular posts: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/juliets-birthday/   Today is also the feast of St Neot, a Cornish monk who is mostly remembered in the names of towns. Neot is mentioned in an interpolated passage in Asser’s Life of King Alfred. He died around 870 and is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

neot1

Neot, who is said to have been four feet tall (121 cm), some sources say even shorter, may have begun his adult life as a soldier, later renouncing the army for life in a monastery. He first served as sacristan at Glastonbury Abbey, then was ordained as deacon and then as priest.  However, he was never happy in a community and asked leave of his abbot to live as a hermit. He moved to a place near Bodmin Moor where he lived in solitude for some time. Apparently he became known for his strictness in devotion as well as his charity for the poor, so a group of monks eventually gathered around him. It is also said that birds and animals were charmed by him – a sort of St Francis in miniature.

According to Asser, King Alfred visited him for his counsel, but we need to be a little skeptical of the source. In the same book Asser tells of King Alfred burning the cakes when hiding from the Danes at Athelney. It’s certainly a good story, but undoubtedly apocryphal. Butler in his Lives of Saints (1866) has a long-ish section on Neot in relation to Alfred but it all seems to be nonsense. For example, Butler credits Alfred with founding Oxford University, and suggests that he considered Neot for the position of professor of theology. This is all hopelessly anachronistic thinking, let alone inaccurate. Nonetheless, the basics of Neot’s vita seem simple enough, and perfectly believable.

neot3

Neot was buried in Cornwall and his bones were preserved as a holy relic in the Cornish village of his name. St Neot’s body was removed from Cornwall to Eynesbury in Huntingdonshire in around 980 when a monastery was founded there and renamed St Neots in his honor. The town now lies in Cambridgeshire on the river Ouse, close to the Bedfordshire border. According to some accounts, the monks returned with their prize, pursued by angry Cornishmen. The bones were housed in the priory for many years but were lost during the reign of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

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Although Neot’s feast day is 31st July it is customarily celebrated at St Neot on the last Sunday of July, which, by coincidence is today this year. He is regarded as the patron saint of fish, although I’m not sure what that means. There are many churches dedicated to St Neot and at least one Holy Well. Legend has it that the well contained three fish, and an angel told St Neot that as long as he ate no more than one fish a day, their number would never decrease. At a time St Neot fell ill, and his servant went and cooked 2 of the fish; upon finding this, St Neot prayed for forgiveness and ordered that the fish be returned to the well. As they entered the water, both were miraculously returned to life.

A Cornish fish dish is obviously warranted for the day, but I’ve already given several – especially for pilchards, crab, and stargazy pie. However, for St Neot I can go with simplicity – Cornish scrowled pilchards. “Scrowled” just means grilled.

neot5

As I’ve mentioned several times before, “pilchard” (as well as “sardine”) is a generic term for a number of small fish in the herring family. Cornish pilchards are Sardina pilchardus (very helpful).  Traditional scrowled pilchards can be grilled whole or with the heads removed.  Sprinkle them generously with sea salt and grill them quickly on both sides so that the skin browns and crisps. Then the trick is to slap a cooked fish between slices of bread and munch away, bones and all. Couldn’t be simpler. White bread will work, but homemade whole wheat is better. These days it is common in Cornwall to eat grilled fish with a salad of cucumber and tomato. Works for me.

Jun 102014
 

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On this date in 1829 the first Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities took place, making it one of the oldest official sporting events in the world. The Boat Race is an annual rowing race between the Oxford University Boat Club and the Cambridge University Boat Club, rowed between competing eights on the River Thames in London. It usually takes place on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April.

Although the first race was in 1829, the event has been held annually since 1856, except during the First and Second World Wars. The course covers a 4.2-mile (6.8 km) stretch of the Thames in West London, from Putney to Mortlake. Members of both teams are traditionally known as “blues” and each boat as a “Blue Boat,” with Cambridge in light blue and Oxford, dark blue. As of 2014 Cambridge have won the race 81 times and Oxford 78 times, with one dead heat. As a graduate of Oxford, and bow oar for my college as a student, I am an avid fan.

The race is a well-established and popular fixture in the British sporting calendar. Upwards of 250,000 people watch the race live from the banks of the river each year (in 2009, a record 270,000 people watched the race live) while a further 15 million or more watch it on television around the world.

1841

1841

The tradition was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, and his school friend from Harrow, Charles Wordsworth, who was studying at Christ Church, Oxford. Cambridge challenged Oxford to a race at Henley-on-Thames but lost easily. As the Oxford stroke, Staniforth, and four of his crew were from Christ Church, then Head of the River (a story for another time), the decision was – eventually – taken to race in the dark blue of that college, which still persists. There is a dispute as to the source of the color chosen by Cambridge. The second race was in 1836, with the venue moved to a course from Westminster to Putney. Over the next two years, there was disagreement over where the race should be held, with Oxford preferring Henley and Cambridge preferring London. Cambridge therefore raced Leander Club in 1837 and 1838 instead. Following the official formation of the Oxford University Boat Club in 1839, racing between the two universities resumed on the Tideway and the tradition continues to the present day, with the loser challenging the winner to a rematch annually. The race is governed by a Joint Understanding between Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs.

1877

1877

The only race to be declared a dead head was in 1877. Legend in Oxford has it that the judge, “Honest John” Phelps, was asleep under a bush when the race finished, leading him to announce the result as a “dead heat to Oxford by four feet.” This is not borne out, however, by contemporary reports. This was from The Times

Oxford, partially disabled, were making effort after effort to hold their rapidly waning lead, while Cambridge, who, curiously enough, had settled together again, and were rowing almost as one man, were putting on a magnificent spurt at 40 strokes to the minute, with a view of catching their opponents before reaching the winning-post. Thus struggling over the remaining portion of the course, the two eights raced past the flag alongside one another, and the gun fired amid a scene of excitement rarely equalled and never exceeded. Cheers for one crew were succeeded by counter-cheers for the other, and it was impossible to tell what the result was until the Press boat backed down to the Judge and inquired the issue. John Phelps, the waterman, who officiated, replied that the noses of the boats passed the post strictly level, and that the result was a dead heat.

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The course is 4 miles and 374 yards (6.779 km) from Putney to Mortlake, passing Hammersmith and Barnes; it is sometimes referred to as the Championship Course, and follows an S shape, east to west. The start and finish are marked by the University Boat Race Stones on the south bank. The clubs’ presidents toss a coin (the sovereign used in 1829) before the race for the right to choose which side of the river (station) they will row on: their decision is based on the day’s weather conditions and how the various bends in the course might favor their crew’s pace. The north station (‘Middlesex’) has the advantage of the first and last bends, and the south (‘Surrey’) station the longer middle bend.

boat clash 2003

During the race the coxes compete for the fastest current, which lies at the deepest part of the river, frequently leading to clashes of blades and warnings from the umpire. This year (2014) a clash caused the Cambridge #2 to become unseated and lose his blade for several strokes, and broke his rigger. In consequence Oxford won handily, and the clash was ruled Cambridge’s fault for being in Oxford’s water despite being warned off by the umpire. A crew that gets a lead of more than a boat’s length can cut in front of their opponent, making it extremely difficult for the trailing crew to gain the lead. For this reason the tactics of the race are generally to go fast early on, and few races have a change of the lead after halfway (though this happened in 2003, 2007 and 2010). Here’s the 2014 race (the first 5 minutes are the crucial bit):

The race is rowed upstream, but is timed to start on the incoming flood tide so that the crews are rowing with the fastest possible current. If a strong wind is blowing from the west it will be against the tide in places along the course, causing the water to become very rough. The conditions are sometimes such that an international regatta would be cancelled, but the Boat Race has a tradition of proceeding even in potential sinking conditions.

In the 1912 race, run in extremely poor weather and high winds, both crews sank. Oxford rowed into a significant early lead, but began taking on water, and made for the bank shortly after passing Hammersmith Bridge to empty the boat out: although they attempted to restart, the race was abandoned at this point because Cambridge had also sunk, while passing the Harrods Depository. In the Book of Heroic Failures it is further reported, colorfully but perhaps not entirely reliably, that Oxford’s attempted restart was briefly delayed as a crewman exchanged words with a friend called Boswell in the crowd: and that as the abandonment was announced, some of the Cambridge crew came swimming past the Oxford position, minus their boat. The race was re-rowed two days later, again in poor weather, and Oxford won by six lengths.

Cambridge also sank in 1859 and 1978, while Oxford did so in 1925, and again in 1951; the 1951 race was re-rowed on the following Monday. In 1984 the Cambridge boat sank after colliding with a barge before the start of the race, which was then rescheduled for the next day. Here’s the 1951 sinking with wonderful 1950’s newsreel commentary style – very different from today’s:

Recent years have seen especially dramatic races. In 2001 the race was halted by umpire Rupert Obholzer just over a minute after the start, following repeated warnings to both crews to move apart, and then a clash of blades. The blade of Cambridge bowman Colin Swainson dislodged from his hand and in consequence the umpire immediately stopped the race. Despite Oxford having a lead when the race was stopped, the boats were restarted level with each other; this decision was highly contentious, especially when Cambridge went on to win after the restart.

In 2002 the favored Cambridge crew led with only a few hundred meters to go, when a Cambridge oarsman (Sebastian Mayer, who was later part of the winning 2004 Cambridge crew) collapsed from exhaustion and Oxford rowed through to win by three-quarters of a length. They did so on the outside of the last river bend, a feat last accomplished in 1952.

In the 2003 race Cambridge were substantially heavier and appeared to be the favorites. Two days prior to the race, however, the Cambridge crew suffered a collision on the river in which oarsman Wayne Pommen was injured. With a replacement (Ben Smith) in Pommen’s seat, Cambridge went on to lose by the narrowest margin ever: just one foot (30 cm). In that year, there were two pairs of brothers rowing: Matt Smith and David Livingston for Oxford, and Ben Smith and James Livingston for Cambridge. All four had been pupils together at Hampton School in south-west London. Cambridge gained revenge in 2004 in a race marred by dramatic clashes of oars in the early stages, and the unseating of Oxford’s bowman.

The 2006 race was won by Oxford. Cambridge had started as strong favorites but, despite heavy rain creating rough water, made a tactical decision not to use a pump to remove excess water from the boat. Oxford did use a pump and overtook Cambridge to win. Cambridge had introduced pumps as early as 1987.

boat5

In the 2012 race, after almost three-quarters of the course had been rowed, the race was halted for over 30 minutes when a lone protester, Australian Trenton Oldfield, entered the water from Chiswick Eyot and deliberately swam between the boats near Chiswick Pier with the intention of protesting against spending cuts, and what he saw as the erosion of civil liberties and a growing culture of elitism within British society. Once spotted by assistant umpire Sir Matthew Pinsent, both boats were required to stop for safety reasons. The umpire, John Garrett, decided to restart the race from the eastern end of Chiswick Eyot. Shortly after the restart the boats clashed and the oar of Oxford crewman Hanno Wienhausen was broken. Garrett judged the clash to be Oxford’s fault and allowed the race to continue. Cambridge quickly took the lead and went on to win the race. The Oxford crew entered a final appeal to the umpire which was quickly rejected; and Cambridge were confirmed as winners by 4 ¼ lengths. It was the first time since 1849 that a crew had won the boat race without an official recorded winning time. After the end of the race Oxford’s bow man, Alex Woods – a medical student at Pembroke College – received emergency treatment after collapsing in the boat from exhaustion. Because of the circumstances, the post-race celebrations by the winning Cambridge crew were unusually muted and the planned award ceremony was cancelled.

boat6

Oldfield was convicted in October 2012 of causing a public nuisance, fined £750 and sentenced to six months imprisonment. In June 2013 he was refused the right to remain in the UK, a decision against which he successfully appealed, with the appeal judge stating that there was “a public interest in providing a platform for protest at both common law and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

There are no sporting scholarships at Oxford or Cambridge, so in theory every student must obtain a university place on academic merit. But there have been unproven accusations that some students are admitted to the universities for their rowing skill without meeting the normal academic standards. Participants in the boat race are indeed academically capable: the 2005 Cambridge crew, for example, contained four PhD students, including a qualified medical doctor and a veterinarian.

From 1978 to 1983 the race was won every year by Oxford crews that included Boris Rankov, who was then a graduate student at Oxford and recognized as a powerhouse of the crews. Although Rankov was a bona fide student (and is now a professor at the University of London), this led to the establishment of the informal “Rankov Rule,” to which the teams have adhered ever since, that no rower may compete in the boat race more than four times as an undergraduate, and four times as a graduate.

In order to protect the status of the race as a competition between genuine students, the Boat Race organizing committee in July 2007 refused to award a blue to 2006 and 2007 Cambridge oarsman Thorsten Engelmann, as he did not complete his academic course and instead returned to the German national rowing team to prepare for the Beijing Olympics. This has caused a debate about a change of rules, and one suggestion appears to be that only students that are enrolled in courses lasting at least two years should be eligible to race.

Sue Brown

Sue Brown

The race is for heavyweight eights (i.e. eight rowers with a cox steering, and no restrictions on weight). Female coxes are permitted: the first to appear in the Boat Race was Sue Brown for Oxford in 1981. In fact female rowers would be permitted in the men’s boat race, though the reverse is not true. Although the contest is strictly between amateurs, and the competitors must be students of the university for which they race, the training schedules the teams undertake are very grueling. Typically each team trains for six days a week for six months before the event.

I am going to show my unmitigated bias and give you an Oxford recipe. Oxford sausages are a distinctive variety of pork and veal sausage commonly associated with, and thought to have been developed in, the city of Oxford.  Oxford sausages are noted for the addition of veal, in contrast to many traditional British sausages which contain only pork, and their high level of  seasoning. References to the “Oxford” style of sausage date back to at least the early 18th century, but it was more widely popularized owing to inclusion in Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), which regular readers will know as one of my foundational cookbooks for classic British recipes.

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The first published reference to a sausage that closely resembles the modern Oxford sausage is by John Nott in his book The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion, (1723). In the text Nott, cook to the Duke of Bolton, refers to the sausages as “Oxford Skates” (or “Kates”, as listed in the index). Whether this was a common local recipe or one created by Nott is unclear. By the late 18th century the spice-rich nature of the Oxford sausage had entered popular consciousness to such an extent that Thomas Warton used The Oxford Sausage as the title for his compilation of “highly spiced” political and satirical college verse, first published in 1764 and republished a number of times in the following 50 years. A number of variations on the recipe were published over the years, until Isabella Beeton selected the Oxford style as her exemplar for a typical pork sausage in her cookbook. With the popularity of this book the recipe reached a much wider audience, and Oxford sausage was for a time available as a canned, processed product. However, with the rise of mass-production, supermarkets, and global distribution, the Oxford sausage fell out of favor. The modern rise of local food movements has resulted in the Oxford sausage being revived, albeit in a revised form.

As with most regional foodstuffs, different recipes for Oxford sausages vary in many aspects, but all follow a similar ingredient list. The modern Oxford sausage is typically a mixture of ground pork and veal, seasoned with lemon and herbs and spices. Nott’s 1723 recipe calls for pork or veal, seasoned with salt, pepper, clove, mace and sage. The spice content also appears in many other late 18th and early 19th century recipes, with mace or nutmeg being consistent ingredients. Mrs. Beeton’s recipe broadly follows the same formula, excepting that a 50:50 mixture of pork and veal is specified, with the addition of a similar quantity of beef suet. Beeton also includes lemon peel, although she was not the first to do so. As first produced, the Oxford sausage did not have a skin or other casing, but was hand-formed and floured before frying. However, modern forms are commonly made in a conventional, linked “banger” style, with natural pork or sheep casings. Beeton mentions both types.

Here is Beeton’s recipe.

TO MAKE SAUSAGES.

(Author’s Oxford Recipe.)

837. INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of pork, fat and lean, without skin or gristle; 1 lb. of lean veal, 1 lb. of beef suet, 1/2 lb. of bread crumbs, the rind of 1/2 lemon, 1 small nutmeg, 6 sage-leaves, 1 teaspoonful of pepper, 2 teaspoonfuls of salt, 1/2 teaspoonful of savory, 1/2 teaspoonful of marjoram.

Mode.—Chop the pork, veal, and suet finely together, add the bread crumbs, lemon-peel (which should be well minced), and a small nutmeg grated. Wash and chop the sage-leaves very finely; add these with the remaining ingredients to the sausage-meat, and when thoroughly mixed, either put the meat into skins, or, when wanted for table, form it into little cakes, which should be floured and fried.

Average cost, for this quantity, 2s. 6d.

Sufficient for about 30 moderate-sized sausages.

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I use these sausages for classic English bangers and mash – sausages embedded in mashed potato and smothered in onions and gravy. The basic sausage mix can also be used for any recipe calling for sausage meat, such as Scotch eggs.