Burns Night Book Group

The Fatal Tree book coverFittingly, given the literary connection, the January meeting of the book group I belong to took place on Burns Night. Bring on the haggis…

In deference to the vegetarians in our group, I made Felicity Cloake’s version of a veggie haggis which uses split peas, pearl barley and vegetables to add flavour to the oatmeal. All Spice and plenty of black pepper made it taste authentically haggis-like. For the neeps and tatties bit I went with the BBC recipe here mainly because it meant I could prepare the dish the day before. Haggis can be dry, so a creamy whisky sauce makes it more palatable. To continue the Scottish theme, the menu included smoked salmon, mackerel, a punchingly strong vintage cheddar and a Strathdon Blue with biscuits.

The Flash World

And the book? I chose Jack Arnott’s The Fatal Tree, as I read it last year, enjoyed it ever so much and wanted to know what others thought. The book is based on the real-life story of Jack Sheppard* told through his girlfriend, Edgeworth Bess. Sheppard was notorious for his repeated jail breaks in the 1720s, a period of history when crime rates soared through the roof as tends to happen when differences between the rich and poor yawn so widely. The book also featured the real-life characters, Jonathan Wild, the Thief-Taker General and a rank bad jin as we say in this part of the world, and the playwright John Gay, who wrote The Beggar’s Opera said to be based on Sheppard, Wilde and the Whig politicians of the time.

It explored the rich, underground world of London, social inequality, gay subcultures, criminality and poverty. I loved the canting vocabulary used throughout—the slang terms of the so-called flash world, the underworld of the time. Others, though, found it slowed their reading. The book included a glossary at the back but when we read the book many of us found it didn’t take long to get used to the language and work it out for yourself – Romeville for London, the flat world for ‘normal’ society, phiz mongers for portrait painters, caper merchant for dancing teacher, hempen widow, a woman whose husband has been hanged, and so on.

Our book group doesn’t spend most of the evening on the book—when you’ve all been friends for years and for some of us (me), the book group represents the bulk of our social lives so the night is an opportunity to catch up—but the consensus was… mostly in favour.

Thanks to the language and the descriptions, A Fatal Tree is terrifically atmospheric and something you can easily imagine being adapted for TV or film. Jake Arnott’s book, The Long Firm was televised some time ago. Last night, we spent some time trying to think up who could play Edgeworth Bess, Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild et al. If you’ve ever played the casting game with one of your favourite books, it’s much harder than it seems.

All in all, a great book and a great night.

Did you celebrate Burns Night? And can veggie haggis ever be as good as the real thing?!

 

*Co-incidentally, this week’s news included the story of man who fled the UK, and was then found guilty in absentia of the man-slaughter of his date. He has since handed himself into the authorities in Georgia. His name? Jack Shepherd. 

The Joy of the New

Aha! So that's where they have hidden the food...

Aha! So that’s where they have hidden the cat food…

So long January (almost) – glad to see the back of you.

Actually, scratch that. I’ve rather been enjoying 2013 so far (not least because I have my May wedding to look forward to) and there have been plenty of new and interesting experiences…

Many a Friday night has been spent sans wine, as have many other evenings. And you know what? Sobriety is OK. I won’t, however, be turning into an evangelical teetotaller as I’ve yet to find a soft drink that goes as well with cheese.

I wrote a piece of flash fiction. It is as it sounds, a very, very short story. The definition of short varies, but my story was 100 words and I wrote it for a competition to win a residential writing course. If anyone else is interested, I’m not afraid of competition (!) so here’s the link.

I had a Brazilian blow-dry. I now possess wavy, rather than curly hair. I’m pleased with the results but would caution any prospective customers to try the treatment out via a deals website. I don’t think the treatment is worth full price at all.

I took to using electrical appliance on my face to tighten it up. Ooh it hurts so is therefore good for me? One week in and I think I see a difference on the nose to mouth lines and my complexion looks brighter. However, it’s not particularly a scientific, controlled experiment. Maybe the better skin is down to all the fruit and veg I’ve been eating?

The cat was forced onto a diet. Unlike we humans, it’s much easier for a cat to diet, seeing as he gets no say in the matter. We weighed him and its turns out he has two pounds too heavy – pretty significant when you’re a wee beastie.*

As cakes have been absent of late, I made soda bread. Healthy baking hmm?
250g plain flour
250g wholemeal flour
2tsp bicarbonate of soda
2tsp salt
400ml buttermilk, or use 200g plain live yoghurt made up to 400ml with water

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C.

Sift the flours and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl. Add in the salt and make a well in the centre. Add in the buttermilk or yoghurt and bring together quickly. It will be pretty sticky. Turn out on to a lightly floured surface and knead lightly for a minute.

Place in a 20cm round non-stick, loose-bottomed cake tin and mark the top with a cross. Cook for 40-45 minutes. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool. (You’ll know it’s cooked as it will sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Serve warm with butter and raspberry jam.

My final new experience of January takes place on Monday. I’m going to an NLP session to cure (hopefully) my addiction to blasted diet coke (ahem – two litres a day…)

 

*We’re a day past Burns Night; I had to throw in a Rabbie reference somewhere.