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Saturday, 30 October 2021

Thought for the day

Who wouldn't want to read about Tallulah Bankhead, who caused a scandal in 1928 when she hosted sex and cocaine parties for Eton schoolboys. An Eton teacher was said to have told her, “We don’t at all mind you taking some of the senior boys over for a smoke or a drink or a little sex on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn’t upset me. What does upset me is you giving them cocaine before chapel.

And from the brilliant and tawdry to the outskirts of Monmouth  as seen coming down from

Offas Dyke. The photos are with the kind permission of  Bernadette. I was aching, lacking joie de vivre, and just in need of a beer. 

Friday, 22 October 2021

Two days in Shropshire, Mad Jack, and Hedgehogs

Shropshire began under water and, during the carboniferous period, 360 million years ago, drifted northwards from the equator before rising roughly in its present position. It is also the birthplace of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (1892) All very interesting, but no eccentricity—not until Mad Jack Mytton burst upon the scene.

The mad bad English squire  often crops up in Victorian literature, but few match the reality of Mad Jack Mytton, born in Shrewsbury in 1790. 

Mad Jack rode and hunted in these hills—as well as his drawing room—in that particular instance riding a bear. He burst into the room in full hunting dress employing spurs on the bear, understandably annoying said bear, which turned and bit through Jack’s leg. How they laughed.

 Mad Jack had the constitution of an ox, thinking nothing of hunting in thin clothing in deepest winter, or on other occasions chasing ducks over ice wearing no clothes at all. When bored, he would dress as a highwayman and frighten his friends.

His drinking habit included eight bottles of port a day followed by brandy, and he once killed his horse after forcing it to join in the fun with a bottle of port.

He spent lavishly on clothes, alcohol, and hunting—importing huge amounts of game to hunt, never mind being master of two packs of foxhounds and up to 20 horses at a time for breeding. His attitude to women was much the same. His first wife died shortly after giving birth, so he moved on to wife number two who gave him five children.

By his late thirties, Jack Mytton was death-on-legs and incarcerated in a debtors’ prison. His friend and biographer described him ‘a tottering old-young man, bloated by drink. . . a body as well as a mind in ruins. Shropshire survived.

Hedgehogs and Mad Jack notwithstanding, this landscape will still be here (in one form or other and
perhaps somewhere else) when we have long gone from the scene.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Fact and fiction overlap

Books have hidden consequences. Intrigued by a fine biography of Dennis Wheatley I made the mistake of reading his Gregory Sallust series. By book six (5 more to go) decided I didn’t like Gregory Sallust very much. He’s tireless, like the Duracell bunny, forever evading capture, getting caught, escaping, getting caught, and this goes on until the very last chapter. Exhausting stuff. The writing is competent but pedestrian with Sallust having to explain his thought processes in-between drinking champagne and eating fine food, occasionally with a woman in his arms. 

Despite obvious shortcomings, what made Wheatley the best seller was his ability to pile crisis upon crisis and never letting go, a template known and followed by contemporary best-selling thriller writers. An unashamed fan of Wheatley is Neil Gaimain. 

 On another level, the Sallust series are compulsive reading for any who’d like to savour and slip into mindset of the recent past. They are set in World War II and are pure propaganda, the Nazis possessed of a cheap glamour but essentially subhuman and led by psychopaths.

 Sallust is the kind of old fashioned ‘no nonsense’ right winger common amongst the British establishment at the time, his mindset not so far away as the fascists he fought. There is throughout a sense that there could be a rapport with ‘sensible’ Nazis like Goering, a view likely shared by others amongst whom Wheatley circulated, likely by Wheatley himself. Certainly, he has the ability to get in the mind of those who saw Bolshevism as a more profound menace to civilisation. 

In Sallust, Wheatley is following the old dictum of ‘write what you know.’ His hero very much shadows Wheatley’s own life, surviving the rigours of naval training in HMS Worcester and finding in ‘Sir Pellinore Gwayne Cust’ the idealised father figure Wheatley himself lacked. The books are replete with British war time strategy and breathe Wheatley’s own experience as a ‘Wing Commander’ in the war office. In ‘The Black Baroness’ Sallust is posted there, too, following the same route and with the same title as Wheatley.  


One of the less obvious pleasures of the series are insights and references to long forgotten places, such as the Hungaria Club. Throughout, Wheatley writes about what he knows, and you enter his world and, with google, an infinite number of rabbit holes. The Hungaria for example.

The Hungaria was founded by Joseph Vecchi, and hotels ran through his veins (an unfortunate image, I’m sorry) Vecchi was a friend of Wheatley, so of course he and the Hungaria appear in his novels. 

Joseph Vecchi

Vecchi's  career began in Claridges before moving on to the Grand Hotel in St Petersburg, where he was restaurant manager; soon after, he established a restaurant of his own in Kiev. After the Bolsheviks confiscated what he’d built up, Vecchi fought with the White Russians in the civil war, and finally walked 200 miles to Murmansk, where he was rescued by the British navy. After a short period of unemployment in London, he found work at the Hotel Piccadilly and crowned his career by opening the Hungaria Club, his lasting achievement—in legend though alas no longer a reality.

 There he told scandalous tales of Rasputin, whom he’d entertained along with up to twenty Russian aristocrats, all of them women. Here, too, Wheatley would entertain the likes of Aleister Crowley, tapping him for ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and other satanic novels. Gregory Sallust, too, dines at the Hungaria in a world where fact and fiction overlap

Friday, 8 October 2021

I can't afford another lockdown

Last week I was sorting out some cupboards and drawers in the kitchen perhaps (at the back of my mind where  fluff gathers) looking for space. It hit me then how lockdown had affected me in an unexpected way. I had been buying things which is unlike me because I'm as mean as sin. But then, as they say, the devil finds work for idle hands—or those stuck in lockdown.

These are a small selection of things bought whilst temporarily insane

Two egg coddlers. Why? I read about coddled eggs in a book and was immediately intrigued. Coddled eggs sounded so warm and soothing in the winter of lockdown. Coddled eggs, it rolls off the tongue. Were they worth it? In one sense no. They’re basically boiled eggs sans shell and they don’t slip out as easily as advertised however liberally you butter them. Mind you, they are nice and buttery and perfect if you want to cook eggs with a topping like spinach, cheese, cream, or perhaps all three.

Two ‘toasties’. How many of you still have one of those Breville cheese toasty machines ie two slices of bread crammed with cheese and onion/ham/ etc sealed and toasted on both sides? The end result is predictably wonderful, but cleaning and maintenance is pernickety hell. We retrieved ours from the bottom of a drawer on a whim and found the inside covered in mould. Gorganzola toasties are not to everyone’s taste, so it went in the bin. But the contraptions above have, in fairness, proved brilliant. The bread and filling are sandwiched in them and then placed on a hob, turning after five minutes or so. End result as good as a Breville and child’s play to clean. They might work even better over a fire.

The Jean Patrique ‘Whatever Pan’ is as good as advertised, great for chargrilling, needs little or no fat and can be used in the oven. I read some reviews moaning how the handles got hot, presumably from those who hadn't heard of oven gloves.

The Bake Stone: a must for those who love welsh cakes. I’ve used it once but the results were not brilliant—my fault not that of the bakestone. I got the mix wrong, nice enough but chewy. Shop bought ones are more convenient but nowhere near as nice those made by one who knows what he’s doing. Memo to self. Try again.

And—God bless it—the salad spinner for those who want to wash their green leaves. Never thought I’d want one of these in my rock and roll years, but it makes a nice whizzy whizzy sound when you spin it. 

Has anyone else experienced a similar madness? It would be nice to know it isn't just me.

Friday, 1 October 2021

Oysters don't have attitude



A few years ago, we passed Aberaeron and were struck by the pastel-coloured houses and the iconic Harbour Master Hotel. It made our bucket list, but the earliest we could book it for this year was for the last few days of September when, on the west Welsh coast in particular, the weather can be variable at the best of times. It rained all the way up there, which kyboshed any thoughts of a wander around Lampeter enroute. We ended up in Lampeter carpark drowned in grey drizzle. Lampeter’s not a pretty place on a rainy day.

 But on reaching Aberaeron the weather broke as you can see from the sky, rain and sun in mortal combat.

And the following day!

Breakfasts and dinners were included in the price, which encouraged a certain recklessness. I hadn’t tried oysters since my student catering days and it was well worth the wait, the six oysters slipped down like the essence of ocean. God knows why you’d want to ruin that with Tabasco sauce.

We explored the harbour and town and the following day walked inland to the C18th manor house of Llanerchaeron. 

On the way we passed some splendid cows, which put me in mind of the evening meal to come.At that moment, sirloin or a generous ribeye steak seemed irresistible, even at the expense of what I thought I had already decided: roasted ocean bream, something I had never tasted before. It was something to mull upon as we entered the grounds of the house. Bream, I had heard was bony, but how bony was bony? 

House and gardens where I learned about bream

Google told me very bony. Sirloin suddenly seemed good. But, sitting on a bench surrounded by lavender, I learnt more. The ocean bream changes sex from female to male—or is it the other way round? —the whole process taking in place in just over a week. The bream it was then; the mystery of eating a non-binary fish, a cis-poisson or somewhere in between. The bones were a nuisance but sometimes mysteries have to be earned. Mike and the non-binary fish, not quite on the same scale as Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, but then nothing is perfect. 

Nor was the bream, glaring at me throughout, the mouth—a definite snarl. I had to turn the plate round.I learned later that the oyster changes sex too, male in its youth and female for the rest of its life.* But at least oysters don't glare of snarl and they have no bones. Oysters don't have attitude. 

*A female can produce half a billion eggs a year and a male three billion sperm, so I guess changing sex from male to female evens the balance out between sperm and eggs somewhere along the way.