In Search of Sacred England – Part 1

The Sussex Downs above Wilmington

The Sussex Downs above Wilmington

I get pretty fed up with empty patriotism – the sort that allows the otherwise selfish and dim, the greedy and mediocre a sense of superiority simply through the tenuous link of having been born somewhere. You know the people I mean; the barroom bores who read endless books about the SAS or who hark back 200 years to Waterloo, or 600 years to Agincourt for something that puts them a rung or four above every Frenchman who ever lived.

Sure they may be insurance clerks or selling double glazing but they are British born and bred and damn it their passport means they can look down their noses at Voltaire or de Gaulle, Satre or Renoir just by virtue of that fact.

This is the sort of twaddle peddled by the Sun, the Mail and the Express. It’s long been an effective way of bending the will of regular people to that of their lords and masters. Look back a hundred years and the slaughter of stable boys and factory workers in the quagmire of the Somme on the orders of generals for whom the rank and file weren’t even fully human and you’ll see clearly how it works. Heaven forbid we should ever empathise with people much like us who differ mostly through where they live and the language they speak. And we know this to be true or we wouldn’t celebrate the fabled football match between the German and British lines of Christmas 1914.

But there is a sort of patriotism in which I do allow myself to indulge. It’s a simple pleasure in the traditions and history of the place in which I grew up and still live. It’s not a ‘my culture is better than yours’ sort of patriotism, let alone a flag waving, this side of the border-that side of the border, jingoism.

Indeed having just come back from Paris I again have a slight sense of regret that English is ever more widely spoken in Parisian restaurants and that by capitulating the French are becoming less French.

I got a perverse pleasure, while visiting Minerve in the Haut Languedoc, of venturing into a shop selling the output of a local vinyard and getting by more or less in halting French, eliciting a screwed up face and a ‘je ne comprend pas’ from the proprietor when, on my way out, I wish him a jolly nice afternoon.

But, as anyone who has followed this blog will know, I have a deep affection for England all whimsical English things. And so when I have a visitor I tend to show them some of what I love.

A few weeks back I had a particularly special visitor with whom I really wanted to share all of that and so I planned, if not quite a grand tour then certainly a whirlwind charge around sacred England.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of having grown up in the south but most of the sites I think define sacred England stretch across the landscape from Sussex to Bath and north to the Berkshire downs.

So here are a few photos from the first day of our trip. We got up early and I fried up a proper English breakfast before jumping in the car and heading south.

The Long Man...  ...and some rather less long sheeps

The Long Man…

Our first stop was the downs above Wilmington. The Long Man is one of three ancient hill figures carved into chalk hillsides across southern England. We trudged up the slope (trudge, trudge, trudge) and then picked our route down into Alfriston.

Tea shoppe the first - Alfriston

Tea shoppe the first – Alfriston

Alfriston is a wonderfully pretty Sussex village boasting three mediaeval pubs and a great bookshop, one of my favourites.  We stopped for tea and on our way back to the car we filled a plastic bag with sloes and damsons from the hedge by the path. It was bursting with fruit and we made a large jar of damson vodka and a couple of bottles of sloe gin (which will have to wait a few years to be worth drinking).

Then we headed off to lunch at the Cricketers in North Berwick, pretty much around the corner from Alfriston and Wilmington. The Cricketers is an almost perfect downland pub, flint-studded and red tiled. The garden was in the last flush of high summer, flowers everywhere. We probably should have eaten outside but it wasn’t as warm as the end of August, start of September should have been. But the food was good – we just shared a smoked fish platter. I vaguely remember pudding. It was probably unnecessary.

The Cricketers, North Berwick, Sussex

The Cricketers, North Berwick, Sussex

Having done that we jumped in the car, stopped briefly at Middle Farm to look at chickens, as you do, and headed up to join the A272. The A272 (along with the A303) is one of England’s legendary roads. OK, so it doesn’t quite have the same rock n roll resonance as Highway 61 or Route 66, but it does carve its way through Sussex from one end (almost – it starts in the middle of nowhere between Heathfield and Mayfield) to the other and ends up in Winchester via places like Petworth and Midhurst. Being a two-tea-room day we stopped for a cuppa in Midhurst. Tearooms seem to have become all a bit fancy with single estate teas these days when once upon a time it was a mug of builders and a nice bit of cake. The prices have become similarly chi chi too, but hey…


Jane Austen’s gaff – presumably the sign advertising that she lived there was added later…

We stopped off at Chawton to wave at Jane Austen’s House, strolled around the Cathedral grounds in Winchester, dined at the Fish Tale on Eastgate where we shared another platter and ate a laksa that managed to turn a comforting noodle soup into something far too delicate, fey and lacking in heart. Then we jumped onto the A303 heading to Salisbury via a detour that took in Stonehenge, lowering in the last light of day, for our room for the night.

There we had a near disastrous mishap involving rope, a magnificent four poster bed and a yale lock, that had it not been for the Houdini-like abilities of my companion could have ended very badly. But that is a story for a log fire and a few glasses of decent whisky as the winter nights draw in. But I’ll guarantee you’d laugh.

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How To Pick Up Women

Hi, thanks for dropping by.

Now as the author of a popular blog about life in Sussex (and wherever else I go) people often ask me for advice about relationships.

I think this demonstrates a degree of intelligence. Of course you can find all sorts of advice like this all over the internet, most of it from sad, illiterates scribbling click-baitey articles from the comfort of their apartments in St Petersburg or Dishwash, Idaho, many of whom have managed to avoid talking to adult women their entire lives.

I’m not going to give you that sort of advice. No sir. I’m going to give you good, solid advice about how to pick up women founded on experience and solid scientific evidence. And don’t worry. It’s simple. And there are very few long words. Or metaphorical allusions. Damn. Except those ones.

So to the point.  Let’s start by looking at posture. People often neglect the horrendous back injuries that people sustain because their pick-up technique is poor. Therefore please ensure that your feet are approximately shoulder width apart.

Then decide whether you are going to take hold of the woman you are going to pick up from the front or the back. Generally I prefer to grasp them from behind. This sidesteps the issue of finding your face wedged in their cleavage. This can be both distracting and cause breathing difficulties. It’s also awkward if you haven’t yet been introduced to the person concerned.

Then you must decide at what point to grasp them. You will want to bend your knees before lifting so you can keep your back straight and let your thighs do all the work.

If you are taller than the person you are picking up then it makes sense to take them by the waist. If you are shorter then perhaps by the thighs. Remember; bend your knees and keep a straight back.

Finally try not to pick up anyone who is too large for you. Someone who is petite and only 150cm tall might well weigh less than 50kg. Someone more solidly built and around 175cm might well be 75kg. If they are over 190cm and have a fondness for cake (don’t we all) then you may wish to proceed with caution. If you injure yourself trying to lift them they might be deeply hurt and take your subsequent course of physiotherapy as a comment on their worth and attractiveness. By attempting to pick someone up and failing you risk hurting not only yourself but them. Don’t do it. It’s not worth the pain. For anyone.

Lastly, to turn around Miss Piggy’s immortal advice that one should never eat more than one can lift, one should never lift anyone that one doesn’t feel is, in a manner of speaking, edible. It can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

So there you go. Good luck with picking up women. Just mind that back!

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Well, I Kept My Deposit…

So, that was the election.

I absorbed the results with mixed emotions. The Greens did well. We’re well placed to take a seat in Bristol next time and Caroline Lucas cemented her standing in Brighton. She is a good thing and a growing number of people in the city seem to agree.

Here, in Bexhill and Battle, I received 2807 votes; 5.06% of the total and some 46 votes more than I needed to keep my deposit. Given that only six Greens achieved that feat in 2010 I felt quite satisfied, quietly elated even.

But above all the entire experience served to remind me how precious our democracy is. The taking part was a valuable experience. And as we husted together I sensed that all five of us standing for election actually listened to one another and found points of agreement.

I have to say I found the first hustings in Pevensey difficult. It was a small audience and UKIP had bussed in a phalanx of supporters who muttered and harrumphed through the answers of candidates with whom they disagreed. They particularly objected to my pointing out that far too many UKIP candidates have, in recent months and years, said things that were outright racist, homophobic or misogynistic.

One woman with a UKIP rosette stomped over while I was sitting down during the interval and, looming over me, berated me for being divisive and told me she had no interest in hearing what I had to say in my defence. My heart sank.

Thankfully that was the low point.

As the campaign progressed I came to realise how important the process is. Despite the disillusionment in politics engendered by the constant media attacks on almost anyone involved in politics, hundreds of people turned out in Ticehurst, Bexhill and Heathfield to ask questions and listen patiently to our answers.

But when we went out to meet people, on the streets of Bexhill and Battle, I sensed how wide the disengagement has spread. People don’t seem to think about politics and policy in the way they might have thirty or sixty years ago. It’s become a beauty contest. I heard quite a bit about what people thought about Natalie Bennett, but not a lot about what people thought about our ideas.

And that disengagement cannot be helped by a system that has translated 5,000,000 votes for UKIP and the Greens into precisely two seats. I don’t agree with vast swathes of UKIP stands for but I’m not afraid of the debate that’s to be had and the people who voted for them do deserve representation.

And in the end it all felt very civil. At the count I extended an invitation to lunch to Hum Merriman, our new Conservative MP, Labour’s Michelle Thew, the LibDems’ Rachel Sadler and UKIP’s Geoffrey Bastin. They all said yes. I actually hope we find a date when everyone can come. I’m guessing we’ll try and fail not to talk politics, but that’s fine. It’ll be a celebration of the fact that, for all its flaws, the democratic process is the best way we’ve yet found of parlaying our differences and I think the five of us did a pretty good job of that.

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Roast Pepper, Tomato and Garlic Soup with Smoked Paprika – Recipe

soup 2It’s been a while since I posted about food.  Actually there are a few things I want to write about but I’ll start with what’s fresh in my mind.

I’m something of an instinctive cook. I probably find easiest those aspects of cooking that are an art rather than a science.  In a couple of weeks, when I can find the time, I’m going to share some thoughts about all those things it took me a while to figure out about baking sourdough bread – rough and ready science but the science is important.

soup 3Soups however are definitely an art.  I rarely taste while I’m cooking. Smell takes me a long way but so does imagination. I can picture flavours in my head. And it was that which led me to this recipe.

One flavour I’ve become very partial to in the last couple of years is smoked paprika. Indeed smoked pretty much anything appeals to me. There’s a Persian dish I really like, mirza ghasemi, which is based around aubergine cooked over a fire. It’s wonderful. I’ll post that here as well when I have time.

However let me digress no further. The soup I dreamed up is very simple and it tastes beautiful. It’s based on oven roast peppers, tomatoes and garlic (though roasting the peppers over a fire would add a wonderful something).

It’s not complicated. Few soups are.

Ingredients (serves 4)

2 red capsicums

6 large vine tomatoes

½ banana shallot finely chopped

1 small or ½ large bulb (yes bulb, not clove) garlic



Olive oil

Crème fraiche

Lemon (or lime juice)

Toasted sesame oil

Vegetable stock

1 tsp Smoked paprika (hot or sweet as preferred)

Oven roast the capsicums, tomatoes and garlic until well done. Watch the garlic carefully. The peppers and tomatoes will probably need 30-35 minutes, the garlic rather less – so check it after 10, 15 and 20 minutes. When soft take it out of the oven.

soup 1Put the shallots in the pan with a splash of olive oil and soften. Then add the roast garlic.  When they’ve had the sting taken out of their flavours (the roast garlic should already be pretty mellow) add another splash of oil – this time toasted sesame and the smoked paprika. I used a teaspoon of sweet (mild) smoked paprika and about a third of a teaspoon of hot, just for the kick. I happen to have both. If in doubt just get the mild one. Take off the heat or keep the heat low – all you want to do is key the flavours into the onion, not cook them.

The add the roast tomatoes and peppers. Cook them down, adding a little stock if the soup gets too thick. I added passata the first time I made this. It makes the soup too thick. Finally take off the heat, add crème fraiche, season with salt and pepper and add lemon or lime juice to bring out the flavours. Heat again but don’t allow to boil. Serve, preferably with a nice slice of sourdough.

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Why I’m Standing for Parliament

Jkent1I don’t often stray into politics on this blog. It’s really just my chance to write about some of the things close to my heart, whether that be food, books or, as is often the case, the place where I grew up and where I live – the Sussex Weald. However in May I will be standing for parliament in Bexhill and Battle for the Green Party and I think that I ought to say a little about why I’ve taken that step. My primary reason for doing this is simply to give people in the area who share similar values a way of expressing those through the ballot box.

So what are those values? Above all, as a Green, I believe that we should build a fairer, more equal society, where the state is servant and not master and where it works for the good of all and not just a few. That means that the proper role of the state is to do what we, the people, tell it to do.

If we want it to provide health services, free at the point of use, that’s its job; likewise defence or education, transport or welfare support. If we vote that the state makes smartphones then that’s what it should do. However most people understandably want to leave making smartphones to Apple, Samsung and co and allow the state to focus on delivering our priorities as well as possible, things that are best done for the common good and not self interest – things like the NHS.

Yet over the last thirty years the idea that the free market does everything best has come to be an article of faith across most of the political spectrum; an unquestioned ideology. Moreover public services are increasingly seen, first and foremost, as an opportunity for business.

We risk forgetting that the point of a public service is to provide a service to the public to the best possible standard for a given cost.

The NHS, for instance, is one of the cheapest health services in the developed world, and for the quality of care provided, the most cost effective. Americans pay, on average, two and a half to three times as much per head for healthcare but outcomes and care are worse.

The East Coast mainline produced a surplus for the exchequer when the government nationalised it – more than £200 million in 2012/13 – and yet it was re-privatised and taxpayers are paying private rail companies more than £2 billion a year in subsidies while they put up fares and make bigger profits. If an essential service can be provided better and cheaper by the state and generates revenue to pay for other services, why let private companies run what are, in effect, monopolies? There’s no competition and so no obvious case for privatisation.

Moreover political parties have taken to using private sector provision of public services for dubious reasons. Not only does it allow them to pass the buck by passing responsibility for services to a third party – a third party that often uses commercial confidentiality to avoid proper accountability and scrutiny, but by signing contracts with businesses to provide services it allows one government to bind its successors to its decisions in a way that is really undemocratic. It’s zombie government – voters may have thrown out an unwanted party and its policies but it continues to dictate policy regardless from beyond the political grave.

Where people see opportunities to innovate, create new products or services, open up new markets, meet unforeseen needs, private enterprise can work very well. The entrepreneurial process can often be inspiring and I’ve worked with plenty of start-ups and growing companies where the seat-of-the-pants process of building a new enterprise has been exhilarating. But where we, the public, have no option but to use a service, be it mobile phones, trains or water or power or banking, all too often companies exploit monopolies, or form what are in effect cartels to stifle competition, to screw the consumer. Even Adam Smith recognised that; “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

So what I’m arguing for is not a large state or a small state but a limited state whose boundaries are set by us, one that does what we tell it to so long as that is concordant with principles of justice, fairness, democracy and human rights. I’d like to see the state stop freelancing and going to look for things to do that we don’t want it to do. I’d like to see it butt out of our bedrooms and our email accounts, stop spying on campaigners, cease fawning over oligarchs, financiers and multinationals and focus on our priorities.

Where there are effective monopolies over essential utilities, for instance with the railways, I’d like to see them taken back into public ownership. Where there is a real possibility of cartelling in essential sectors there should be at least one player working in the public interest. So at least one energy company and one retail bank should be nationalised and used to make the market and force competition on the others where cosy, shared interests have previously predominated. That practice might be extended to other essential sectors where competition doesn’t seem to be serving the public.

I’d also like to see a state owned industrial bank on the German model to back employee buyouts and make strategic loans to encourage small and medium sized enterprises that provide good local jobs and pay their taxes to boot. I want to scrap trade treaties like the TTIP that would allow companies to sue the UK if we pass laws to stop them misbehaving.

Above all I want public service providers acting in the public interest and properly and publicly accountable. If that’s incompatible with private sector involvement then we should curtail its involvement.

As a Green I believe we should be promoting the fundamental equality of all our fellow citizens; that all should stand the same before the law, enjoy the opportunity to make the most of their talents, to live, laugh, love and loaf as they please, and to have their interests defended with equal vehemence by the government of the day. By that token the needs of the businessman, stockbroker and banker are no more or less important than those of the teacher, hospital porter, pensioner or jobseeker.

I believe in government of the people, by the people and for the people, where ‘so celestial an article as liberty [is] highly rated’, where business can thrive on its merits and not at the expense of consumers, employees, the environment or the exchequer, where we educate our children to live a full life and not just for the world of work and where we put wellness and not just statistics at the heart of our healthcare system. It’s time we saw capitalism for what it is – not markets or trade; both long predated what we know as capitalism – but the exercising of power through money. Call me old fashioned but, for all the flaws in our electoral and parliamentary system, I prefer one person, one vote to one dollar one vote. And finally, being a Green and believing in the amazing things we can do when we work together, I want us to recognise that our future ,and that of our children and their children, rests on our working together to protect the world we live on from exploitation, destruction and the catastrophic effects of climate change. These seem enormous and insoluble issues. But, in truth, they’re manageable if we take them on with the same verve as we did the defence of democracy against fascism in the 1940s or the effort to put a human being on the moon in the 1960s. And we will either overcome these looming disasters together or we will succumb together. I vote we show future generations that we can put self interest aside and work for the common good.

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Valentine’s Schmalentines

No one I know seems to like Valentine’s Day. I can understand that in so far as it has become yet another excuse for a commercial binge. The underlying message seems to be; ‘if you don’t spend money then it isn’t love’.

I find it hard to be cynical. But equally I refuse to see love in cash terms. The real leveller is time. Rich or poor you only have so much time on this earth and the giving of yours to those you care about seems to me to be the gesture that really counts.

So I wrote a poem for Valentine’s. It’s not about anyone, though it was written for those I care about; an expression of appreciation. It’s just playing with an idea, one expression of love amongst countless billions; but I liked it.

I love you, he said,

More fiercely than the all-consuming fire

At the raging heart of a star

Its flames neither burn nor diminish me

I shall bask in its warmth

And, in its light, shine all the more brightly


I love you, she said,

More deeply than the fathomless ocean.

The weight of the world’s water

Does not, cannot, crush my love

But carries it on its every current

To the last corners of creation


I love you, he said,

More wildly than the wildest wind

That holds the trees in its arms

And leads them in a dance

That takes every breath away

Yet breathes life into all it touches


I love you, she said,

More steadfast than the tallest mountain

More life-full than the fertile soils

On which long-vanished Babylon flowered

It nurtures me that I may nurture you

And together we may grow.


I love you, he said,

Further than the naked heart can see,

More vast than the universe,

To infinity plus one

A love so great it can exist only in the mind of god

It knows no limits and no end


I love you, she said,

In all the smallest things,

My molecular desire is bound by unbreakable bonds

Within the nucleus of every atom you will find it,

In quarks, both strange and strangely charming,

There is no part of you in which it cannot dwell.


Our love, they said, is…

Without chains

Without rules

Without conditions

And what I give to another

Does not take from you

But makes us both the greater

And though eternity may end next Tuesday or possibly never

It will outlast us all.

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Losing the Last 3kg All Over Again

Feb15Back on August I wrote about my attempt to lose two or three kilos during a healthy September. I didn’t write about the results.
In short they were pretty good.
When I started my healthy September I weighed around 72.5-73.5kg. At one point during September that had dropped to around 71kg. Obviously weight fluctuates but that certainly suggested I shed a kilo or two.
However at the start of my healthy month I had a half hour stint with Olli, one of the trainers at my local gym. He suggested that aiming any lower than 71kg was probably unhelpful. He pointed out that during the month I could expect to lose fat and put on muscle and muscle weighs more than fat.
My gym routine basically consisted of a couple of circuits using a rowing machine, kettlebell and four weights machines for upper body muscles with a two to three minutes plank on the first circuit. During September I went to the gym four or five times a week and did two circuits each time taking about 20 minutes on each. If I went on a fasting day I’d just do one.
At the end of the month I measured my body fat using the special scales at the gym. I’d been aiming (and expecting to fall short of 15%). I managed 12.9%.
Oddly that was a bit undermining. I no longer had a goal and my gym routine didn’t translate well into one I could do at home and I didn’t make the transition back to my old home routine well.
Christmas also took its toll. Lots of lovely people gave me lots of lovely chocolate.
As the plan was to have a healthy month every fourth month January was earmarked. In the event I started mid month.
It took me about two and a half weeks to get back to my end-of-September condition. I upped the circuit count to three and decided not to exercise on fasting days at all as it would allow my muscles to repair themselves. I’ve got a week left – 4-5 trips to the gym. I haven’t weighed myself at all. I’ve been to a wedding dinner. I’ve had the odd glass of red wine but no sugar. And, yes, I did get up to Billingsgate again and bought fish. Overall my diet the last three-and-a-bit weeks has been really good – though not totally free of pasta.
The recipe isn’t really complicated; good, home-cooked food, reasonable exercise and avoiding sugar and being in reasonably healthy shape isn’t an unattainable goal.

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