An awkward thing that happened to me once


Who’s got two thumbs…

stupid comic

How to make orange and ginger marmalade


When I took my daughter to see the film Paddington, we had to leave early because she was afraid of Nicole Kidman. If my daughter had any sense, she would have insisted on leaving long before Nicole Kidman shows up. She would have run screaming from the cinema during the opening scene, when Paddington slides down a chute into a cauldron of boiling marmalade. He spends the rest of the film in remarkably good health, given that he effectively napalmed himself.

Making your own marmalade may seem like an unsufferable middle class softy trait, but it’s actually very risky, like an Indiana Jones adventure or an assault on one of the many death stars. Happily, it culminates in an elevated version of marmalade that makes the stuff on the shelves in Tesco look like garbage, and the people who buy it like utter imbeciles.

This recipe is adapted from Delia Smith’s – I’ve taken the sweetness down a bit, and added ginger.

Cooking time: 4-5 hours probably


900g Seville oranges (about 6 or 7)

2.25 litres of water

1 lemon

1.7kg granulated sugar

1 piece of fresh ginger (I don’t know how much exactly – just a bit. One stalk, or lump, or whatever it’s called. A tumour of ginger. You know how fresh ginger comes in knobbly lumps? One of those. The bigger you get, the more gingery it will make your marmalade. I don’t know – do what you want. But don’t forget to peel it.)

6 or 7 pieces of crystallised ginger in syrup



Cut the oranges and the lemon in half and juice them into a big pan, using a sieve to collect all the pips and mush. Put all the pips and mush onto a muslin.

Cut the peels in half again, and then chop them as finely as you like. Finely chopped peel gives less texture but also less trouble, whereas thick peel can be a nuisance to spread – particularly if your marmalade has a loose set.

You might want to examine your hands for cuts at this point, as the skins of six oranges and a lemon contain citric acid, and if you have any skin abrasions you’re basically inviting every molecule of that burning acid to a pain party on your nerve endings.

Finely chop the crystallised and fresh ginger and put them in the pan. You can grate the ginger if you like, but it’s quite a fibrous root and grating it leaves you with intact fibres, which look like hairs. They don’t affect the flavour at all, but whenever you serve your marmalade to anybody you’ll feel obliged to warn them that they may discover objects that look like hairs, even though they definitely aren’t – although, if you’re really honest, any given hair-like object that the recipient of your marmalade discovers COULD technically be a hair. You can’t rule it out – it’s not like you wore a hairnet or anything. I would just chop the ginger and avoid the subject of hairs altogether.

Make a little bindle out of the mush and pip-filled muslin and suspend it in the pan. You can do this by tying it to a wooden spoon and resting the spoon across the top of the pan, but I prefer to thread the end of the muslin through the handle of the pan I use, making sure that there are no stray flaps of fabric anywhere near the flame. Your pan might not have a handle though. You’ll figure it out.

Pour the water into the pan, bring it all to a gentle boil, and simmer until the peel goes soft. It takes 2-3 hours, depending on how thickly you cut it (and how soft you want it). I find the best way to test it is to scoop out a bit of peel and cut it with the edge of a spoon. If it cuts easily all the way through, bingo.

Once the peel is soft, take out the bindle and rest it on a plate. At this point you are at a fork in the road. In front of you is a ball of boiling mush, and you need to squeeze the pectin out of it. You can either leave the muslin to cool and squeeze it safely and comfortably a few hours later, or you can follow my example and impatiently compress the red hot muslin for a millisecond at a time and then drop it and silently scream in pain, over and over again, pausing occasionally to dab the tears from your eyes, until you’ve scraped off all of the cloudy orange mush that extrudes through the weave of the muslin and dumped it in the pan.

After running your hand under the cold tap and quietly weeping for 15 minutes or so, weigh out the sugar and pour that into the pan, stirring until the marmalade is clear. At this point you might want to review your safety protocols, because the substance in your pan will not only burn you but it will also stick to you, like a flaming blanket of terrible glue. Evacuate the kitchen area, ensuring that no children or cats are within 50 metres of the hob.

Crank the heat up to maximum, and when the marmalade starts to boil set a timer for 15 minutes.

Pop a saucer in the freezer.

And now the most important bit of all. When the timer goes off, take out the saucer and spoon a bit of marmalade onto it. When the marmalade has cooled, nudge it with the tip of a teaspoon. If it wrinkles, take the marmalade off the boil. If it doesn’t, try again in five minutes.

Ah, but what is a wrinkle? Not much is the answer. You want to take your marmalade off the boil at about the point that it forms a sort of half-hearted mucous globule when pushed. It needs to be the next point on the spectrum along from liquid. If its consistency even vaguely resembles that of the marmalades you can buy in shops, you’ve gone too far and might as well throw your afternoon’s work down the toilet or feed it to a pig.

You may think you want it to resemble marmalade from shops, but a) marmalade from shops tends to be too firm, and you’re just too ignorant to realise it at the moment, and b) it’s eventually going to set more firmly than it does on the saucer. The important thing is to hold your nerve and take it off the boil before it looks ready.

Pour it into jars, giving it a stir to prevent the peel from drifting to the top.

And then, well, just look at it. Look at it there. See how smug it is, judging you as it glows in those fancy Kilner jars (£1.75 from Ikea).


A very old writing exercise called Fireworks

One of the things I want to use this blog for is to give me a useful, mildly discipline-encouraging destination for the fiction that I want to get back into writing. But I haven’t done any yet, I’m just going to dump something old up here as a sort of marker.

I wrote this in 2002, for a creative writing module at university. I quite liked it at the time, and I still mostly like it, though – as I generally find with prose I wrote when I was much younger – it also makes me cringe.

In the spirit of transparency, however, I won’t touch it. Maybe I’ll pop a revised version on here one day.


I look up; there’s a corrugated awning over the platform, covered with specks of moss and twigs that I can only just make out through the translucent plastic. Sparrows patter against it, then flutter away into the trees across the track, then, after a while, flutter back.

“What time’s the train, again?” he says.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Ten o’ clock. Five past. Look at the board.” I watch him go. He walks half way to the wall where the board is mounted, then stops and comes back. He looks at his watch.

“It’s quarter-to now,” he says. “Fifteen minutes to decide.”

“I’ve decided.”

A breeze passes through the station, ruffling his hair. He plunges his hands into the pockets of his mangy suede jacket. I can remember when he bought the jacket, at Marie Curie, or Oxfam. Or maybe I bought it, and gave it to him – it was on the hook by my front door for a while. I was glad to get rid of it. I can’t remember who bought the jacket; only choosing it; rubbing the thick musty suede between my finger and thumb.

“Where are you staying, again?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“On her floor, do you think?”

“She’ll let me share the bed.”

“A single bed? I thought you hated that. I thought you said you couldn’t sleep.”

“I’ll have to put up with it,” I say. “And anyway, Jacquie and I share a single bed.”

He sits down on the cold concrete and crosses his legs. He doesn’t speak for over a minute, and I wonder whether I will ever hear him speak again. Of course I will. I try to remember his last word to me. ‘Bed’?, ‘Her’?, ‘Sleep’? The yellow digits on the clock flap forward.

“What’ll I tell Jacquie?” he says.

“Whatever you want.”

“She always knew you’d do this, sooner or later.”

Something is bearing down on me – misgivings, remorse, I don’t know. I feel like I’m being crushed; that my ribs are going to snap. Soon I’ll be in London, surrounded by high buildings, looking up at a strip of white sky. I’ll work in a sandwich shop, and get drunk with her when I can, and wake up parched and dejected. But when I step off the train today and see her standing on the platform with a blue scarf wrapped around her neck and her hair heaped upon the blue scarf, it’ll be like drinking water when faint with thirst, and I’ll feel my head fizzing like a sparkler on bonfire night.

I have to sit down.

“You okay?”

“My chest is sore.” I rub my chest with the palm of my hand.

Through the bare trees across the track I can just make out the yellow and blue of the Jobcentre, and I feel a tiny, habitual satisfaction because it’s Saturday of the second week – only two days till I next sign on. Till I would have been signing on. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this: I won’t tramp up Berwick high street at nine in the morning any more, chatting with my queue friends. Nor will I bomb down Ravensdowne hill on my bike at seven o’ clock to play pool at the Salmon. I pinch my brow. Jacquie will lie on the couch and watch TV, not moving, like she did when her mother moved out. I look across at him.

“Is that my jacket?”

I can tell he is affronted. “I don’t know,” he says. “Do you want it back or something?”

“No! For fuck’s sake! I was just asking.”

“It’s mine. You picked it, I bought it. You had a leather one.”

“Okay fine, I was just asking.” I sigh heavily, and run my hands through my hair and down the back of my head. The seconds flap onwards. I feel like my torso is in a vice.

So I stand up.

“Fuck it. Let’s go.”


“The White Horse.”

He laughs. The grip on my chest slackens.

I have £70 in my wallet that I was going to spend on the ticket. I had saved up. I sign on this Monday. I’ll buy Jacquie a box of chocolates from the newsagent, and spend the rest in The White Horse tonight, The Salmon tomorrow, and in the Co-op on Sunday; on a bumper bacon and egg-mayonnaise bloomer, so big that I have to eat it in two goes.


I once woke up with my head against an aeroplane window, looking out over Hong Kong, a hostess’s voice murmuring over the intercom. It was midnight, and against the black landscape Hong Kong glittered with colour; pink, blue, orange, green, red, like spilled fairylights, in stacks and swirls, over high billboards, around tall buildings, and in white clusters across the ground. Still bleary, I took the city for a firework display, and expected the lights to scatter and fade.

When they clung to the darkness I felt elation – awe. I could barely breathe. I pressed my face against the glass and shut out everything else until the moment we landed, and as I held my mother’s hand through the arrival hall I framed this half-dream, as if sewing it into fabric.

A representative encounter between two toddlers


Lady Edith is an evil supervillain whose terrible crimes go unpunished

Lady Edith – evil supervillain

The Downton Abbey finale definitely had too many happy endings.

(Obviously, spoilers follow.)

In some cases the happy endings were hard won. Who could begrudge Anna and Bates a little bit of good luck at last, albeit in the utterly life-ruining form of a baby? And what could possibly be wrong with Molesley climbing another rung up the ladder in his new career as an educator? And if Daisy wants to hang out at Mr Mason’s farmhouse with Andy and Mrs Patmore then I have no objections personally.

Other happy endings were less convincing. For instance, how is Carson going to be an elder statesman to Thomas when Carson himself declared this arrangement to be unworkable and is a noted bigot who has hated Thomas for years? And how the hell did hapless old Lord Merton manage to go from definitely dying in the opinion of two reputable doctors to not dying after all?

Personally I’d have preferred him to die, even though he seemed like a nice guy. It would have added an emotional dimension, allowing us to feel at once glad that he got away from his horrible children and into the arms of Isobel Grey, but sad that he’s definitely going to die quite soon. It’s fine for characters to gain something, but it’s more dramatically satisfying when they pay for it by losing something else.

Lady Mary’s happy ending sabotaged the dramatic logic of the storyline preceding it. To recap, her beloved first husband Matthew died in a car crash, leaving her a vulnerable young widow. Having considered various suitors, she settles on the only man who matches her in terms of intellect and temperament. But there’s a problem – he races motor cars for a living. His unfortunate profession makes sense dramatically, crystallising Lady Mary’s general reluctance to open up into a specific phobia. “Love is about taking risks,” Tom tells her. He might have gone on to say, “For example, there’s a relatively high probability that the second great love of your life will die in a car crash, just like your first one!”

By choosing to marry Henry Talbot, Lady Mary accepts the risks entailed by falling in love. But then Henry decides not to be a racing car driver any more, rendering her difficult and highly symbolic choice completely meaningless. At least poor old Lord Merton loses all his dough.

But one happy ending – the happiest, the showpiece ending – was not merely unconvincing, nor only dramatically illogical, though it was both of these things in its own way. No. The wedding of Lady Edith to Lord Pelham was nothing short of a full category-A travesty, because – stay with me – Lady Edith is an evil supervillain, and she deserved to be punished.

Here are some of the people that Lady Edith screwed over.

1) Lady Mary, when she writes a letter to the Turkish Embassy to inform them of Lady Mary’s fling with Kemal Pamuk, inviting great scandal upon the Crawley dynasty. Tellingly, this act destroys a potential justification for her prevarications over her own scandal later on: one might argue that her child-related vacillations reflected her desire to protect the reputations of her blameless relatives, but her spiteful letter to the Turkish Embassy proves that she doesn’t actually give much of a shit about that sort of thing.

2) Ethel the housemaid, who has an illegitimate child by a soldier during the great war and is summarily dismissed and ostracised, as was the fashion at the time. In the end, Ethel is forced to give her child up. Despite the fact that this incident foreshadows Lady Edith’s own predicament several years later, Lady Edith exhibits no sympathy, turning the other cheek SIMPLY BECAUSE ETHEL IS POOR (mitigating factors include: Lady Edith not knowing that she would later have an illegitimate child; Lady Edith possibly not knowing about the whole pregnancy thing anyway – who remembers these things?)

3) Michael Gregson, who was warned away from Lady Edith by the unimpeachable Matthew Crawley but who nevertheless chose to proceed with his long term plan to marry Lady Edith, even though this meant moving to Germany and ultimately being murdered by proto-Nazis. If only Lady Edith had allowed him to get on with his life.

4) The Hitlers. This is the name I’m giving to the couple in Switzerland who Aunt Rosamund lined up to adopt Lady Edith’s baby, because, remember, Adolf Hitler had not yet risen to power and – quite rightly – brought the name “Hitler” into disrepute in the 1920s, when Lady Edith’s abortive adoption caper took place. Let’s call them Hans and Astrid, a tragically sterile couple who finally thought their longed-for child was coming home, only to have it cruelly snatched away by the capricious Lady Edith, whose name is mud in the Hitler household.

5) The Drews. Oh god. The poor, poor Drews. We’ll need to go through this mess step by step.

Step 1. Incapable of going through with the adoption she had previously committed to for the benefit of herself, her family, and presumably in some small way her child, she decides instead to secretly conceal the infant with a tenant farmer who owes his livelihood to the Crawleys, so that she can keep her offspring close. She does not provide child support payments.

Step 2. Because Lady Edith lacks character, she finds herself unable to resist visiting the Drews with tedious frequency, despite the distress this causes Mrs Farmer Drew, who by this point naturally loves Lady Edith’s mystery child as much as she loves her own.

Step 3. Lady Edith has had enough, and so she marches into Mrs Farmer Drew’s house and takes the child while Mrs Farmer Drew literally has a mental breakdown in front of her. Lady Edith expresses no remorse at this or any other time, simply marching out the door with her bemused child while Aunt Rosamund shrugs sheepishly.

Step 4: A little while later, Mrs Farmer Drew, now totally insane with grief, abducts the child and takes her home. “They’ll have to go,” Lady Edith remarks, in effect condemning a poor farmer and his family to penury. Incredibly, Farmer Drew actually volunteers to leave before he can be evicted, and while Lord Grantham practically prostrates himself with gratitude Lady Edith is nowhere to be seen, suggesting that she has approximately the same attitude towards the impotent poor as a first world war general, exploiting and discarding them like animals. Her treatment of the Drews is the pinnacle of her career as an evil supervillain.

For a moment it looked like she might have paid the price. At the end of the last season she was single again, having been discovered in her deception of Bertie Pelham. She was sad, and it was right that she was sad, because she deserves to be sad. She had the child, she had the support of her relatives and friends, she had a scandal-free existence, and she even had a plum job and a swanky London flat (both inherited, naturally). And all this despite destroying one family and at the very least discombobulating another one in Switzerland. Surely it was only right that she forfeited SOMETHING. But no.

When I think of Lady Edith’s wedding, I like to imagine Mrs Farmer Drew looking on in her rags, peering from behind a hedge (aka her bed) and reflecting on what an incredibly unsatisfactory place the universe can be.

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