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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Review: My Berlin Kitchen

Luisa Weiss is a thirty something American-Italian who was born in Berlin during the 70s and who grew up between the city of her birth and New England.
Weiss made her name as a blogger with ‘The Wednesday Chef’, back in the days when the internet was more about food than cat memes, and she writes with considerable charm.
It’s quite hard not to get caught up in the story of her relationship with a young German whom she meets as a student in Paris but later leaves to move to New York and a career in publishing. We see her narrowly escape the wrong marriage and return to the man she realises is the love of her life. Seriously, you’d have to have a heart made from the broken remnants of granite kitchen tops not to be affected by it. And I have to say I really rather enjoyed reading it. I like the fact that it’s essentially a mix of memories and food writing and that every chapter closes with a recipe somehow linked to the preceeding events.
But, and I do have buts…, it did leave me somehow frustrated.
Firstly Weiss’s story is rather lightweight. Yes it’s charming and romantic but she’s pretty much breezed through life in Berlin, Paris and New York. Yes she’s hit difficult patches with family and work and relationships. But frankly she’s young and lucky and nothing she’s had to contend with amounts to very much. If this was my life I wouldn’t try to string a narrative around it. I love vignettes that lead into food writing but here I felt they could tell one more about the milieu the dishes are from, a bit more about the people she meets and less about the author’s love life. Her observations and memories would have been enough. The mistake was to seek to weave them into a narrative thread because her life story isn’t compelling enough to be the point, better it had been about the food and the places, illuminated by the personal.
And that’s the other thing; somehow she captures the essence of New York and even evokes Paris and Italy pretty well, but this is called ‘My Berlin Kitchen’ and I just don’t feel her Berlin. She seems wierdly detached from it, as though she hadn’t properly rediscovered it when she wrote this, which to be fair may have been the case because, so far as I could tell she’d only moved back 18 months or so before writing this.
But hey I still enjoyed it, the recipes seem pretty good, it’s more that it could have been a better book without the conceit of its being a memoir.

My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes)

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The Future Starts Here…

IMG_2661Science Fiction writers (someone will pop up and tell me I should say ‘speculative fiction’ and not ‘sci-fi’ – *sticks tongue out*) have an interesting relationship with the future.

Actually that’s an understatement. Science fiction writers have an intimate and important relationship not just with the future but also with the human condition.

Ask yourself this; in what other profession do people have such freedom to speculate, not just about the future, science and technology, but about its impact on humanity and the world about us and our place in that world?

‘Oh sure,’ you may say, ‘but that goes for scientists and politicians and people too.’

Except I don’t think it does. Science is a brutal business and very political. It’s very hard to be the person who overturns accepted thinking.

Fred Hoyle springs to mind. He paid a huge professional price for suggesting that life on earth might have extra-terrestrial origins. Or Eric Laithwaite, an engineer who played a key role in the development of maglev technology but who was pilloried for positing that gyroscopes might weigh less under certain circumstances, raising the possibility of gyroscopic anti-grav.

Or more recently the Danish climate-sceptic Bjørn Lomborg was savaged for questioning the consensus, while Mark Lynas and George Monbiot came under fire for backing nuclear as a stop-gap to deal with global warming. I don’t agree with Lomborg, and I’d take issue with Lynas & Monbiot, but we need to be able to have a debate and so long as people don’t disguise having a vested interest (links to or funding from etc) and argue honestly and in good faith then we should tolerate dissent and difference.

But the reality is that the stock of scientists and politicians and many other professionals often falls, rather than rises, when they think outside the box. Apparently we don’t really like them straying too far from the comforting and familiar nor getting too far ahead of the pack.

Writers, on the other had, and none more so than fantasy and sci-fi writers, don’t just have latitude to think outside the box, it’s a pre-requesite that they do. Indeed the more imaginative, creative and perceptive their ideas, the more respect they garner. The ability to imagine the future’s every possible permutation is a core requirement.

I was always struck, reading philosophy (with theology) at university, how readily philosophers ventured into the realms of science fiction to test various ideas. Where does identity reside? Before you know it your asking yourself,  if you take all Dave’s thoughts and memories and transfer them to another brain and body, who is the real Dave? One could quite readily argue that The Matrix was an exploration of some of the issues raised by Berkeleian Esse est Percipi and his argument that objects exist unobserved because they continue to exist in the mind of God.

So writers have not just the freedom to think original thoughts but there’s an expectation that they should. That in turn provides a fertile repository of ideas that are later plundered by scientists and business people.

I worked for a while with a small Swedish team whose idea of building an online knowledge market was at least partly inspired by Charles Stross and they called their company Mancx after Stross’s protagonist Manfred Macx.

Then there are famous examples such as Arthur C. Clarke’s communications satellite, the hypo-spray in Star Trek and countless others.

So today, as the first of a new year, seems an apposite oe on which to publish this discussion from the summer, recorded alongside the one I published a few months back with the same three contributors; Charles, Ken McLeod and Ann Vandermeer.

With them I explore the releationship between SF and future tech, indulge in a little crystal ball gazing and generally have fun. I hope you enjoy this. Thanks to all three for their thoughts.

Charles Stross, Ken McLeod, Anne Vandermeer talk SF as catalyst for innovation; WorldCon London 2014 by Jonathan Kent on Mixcloud

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