GRUB!: Flapjacks

Monday, September 26, 2011

No, not THAT kind of flapjack.  Not the pancake kind served in stacks for breakfast, drenched in butter and maple syrup.  Over here that kind of flapjack is decidedly rare on breakfast menus, which astute GSWPL readers will remember run heavily to eggs, bacon, sausages and beans.  (In fact, you mostly hear about pancakes on Shrove Tuesday when recipes and cooking techniques appear in newspapers and on morning talk shows all over the place.  However, it seems the emphasis is not so much on eating the pancakes as it is on flipping the pancakes using only arm/wrist action with no helpful utensil between you and the foodstuff in question.  It’s weird.  Last Shrove Tuesday the media was awash with stories about celebrities (minor and major) flipping, or attempting to flip, pancakes.  I’m sure I saw a bit in the paper about William and Kate at some charity event where they were photographed, frying pans in hand, trying to coax pancakes into turning over. I don’t think I ever saw a picture of anyone actually eating a pancake.  It’s like they’re just props or something.)

(Additional pancake aside: You can buy pre-made stacks of cooked pancakes in cellophane wrappers in the baked goods section of grocery stores. I think you’re supposed to microwave them. Uck.)

But we’re not here to talk about pancakes because it’s not Shrove Tuesday.  Instead, we are talking about flapjacks!  Flapjacks are sweet oat bar kind of treat not miles away from granola bars but definitely more indulgent.  Granola bars frequently masquerade as vaguely healthy.  Flapjacks, on the other hand, are definitely in the cookies/biscuits/slices/bars category.

Work Flapjack
A “home made” flapjack from the canteen at work.  This one has raisins and dried cranberries.  I know it looks all rolled-oatey and wholesome looking, but it’s really so much more than that. And it was very, very good with my morning coffee.
Flapjacks are available pre-packaged in convenience stores, usually with different additions like raisins, chocolate chips, dried fruit and nuts and chocolate coatings. 

Industrial Flapjacks
An array of industrial flapjacks, photographed in their natural habitat, a corner store shelf.
Industrial flapjacks are ok, but certainly not as good as the home made variety.  How do I know this?  Because ever your humble servant, and devoted as I am to bringing you the most accurate information possible, I actually made a batch of flapjacks just so I could blog about them. And that’s how I discovered why flapjacks are so good.  It’s because 3 of the 4 ingredients involved are decidedly on the indulgent end of the spectrum.  What are those ingredients? Butter, brown sugar, golden syrup and of course oats.  How can you go wrong with a lineup like that?

The Holy Trinity.  And oats.
(Aside about golden syrup: Golden syrup is a light type of treacle, which is a byproduct of refining cane sugar. It’s not dissimilar to corn syrup, though it’s definitely thicker and, if such a thing is possible, stickier.  Lyle’s Golden Syrup – pictured above – is the classic in the UK.  Have a close look at the iconic green and gold tin. That picture in the middle is actually the rotting carcass of a lion with a swarm of bees. Charming.  Apparently its some kind of biblical reference. I bet the marketing guys love that: 

Marketing Guy: Say, how about this time around we leave off the rotting lion carcass?
Lyle’s Golden Syrup Guy: No way, it’s been there since 1885. My father’s father’s father’s father designed that label.
Marketing Guy: Erm… yeah.  Look, I know this may come as a shock to you, but our focus groups say they’d rather not buy food products with images of decomposing animals on them.
Lyle’s Golden Syrup Guy: You’re fired.)

Here’s the recipe I tried which I got from, with amounts adapted to provide slightly less than one million flapjacks, which is what the original recipe seemed bent on producing:

Traditional Flapjacks

Ingredients: (with helpful conversions, substitutions and hints)

  • 250g or 1 cup butter (preferably unsalted)
  • 150g or 2/3 cup golden syrup (or corn syrup in a pinch) (or honey, but not really) (Hint: coat your spoon, measuring cup, hands, and all other kitchen surfaces with a light film of cooking oil before approaching the golden syrup tin. You’ll thank me later.)
  • 167g or 1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed 
  • 333g or 5 cups porridge oats / rolled oats 
  • OPTIONAL: 100grams or 3/4 cup raisins (I say optional, but really, they’re better with raisins.)
      Method: (with helpful conversions and editorial comments)
      1. Preheat oven to 160 C or 320 F or Gas Mark 3 or 433.5 degrees Kelvin
      2. In a large pan on low heat melt butter, sugar and syrup till well combined and runny. Mix in the oats in batches, making sure none are left uncoated by the butter-sugar-syrup mix.
      3. Pour into a cookie sheet (9” x 13” or 225mm x 320mm) lined with parchment paper. Level out the mix with a spatula. Bake for 25-35 minutes (or 1.5 million to 2.1 million milliseconds).  (Note that came with the recipe: These should look seriously under-baked, that's the point. When they are done, if you grip the pan and give it a little wobble, it will look uncooked. This is perfect.) 
      4. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave for a whole day or overnight till completely cold. (Pam’s note: You’ve got to be kidding me…) If you try and turn them out before, they will be ruined. (Pam again: Not true in my experience, but see caveat below.) When they are completely cold, turn them out and cut into bars. Wrapped in cling film / saran wrap or foil these will last a week at least. They freeze well too! (Pam says: This remains to be seen.)
      Yield:  about 2 dozen modestly sized bars (1-1/2” x 3” x 3/4” or 35mm x 70mm x 18mm)

      My flapjacks
      This is a super easy recipe to make, and it worked out fairly well, especially if you consider the fact that I had the oven on the wrong setting at first (of course) and hence was broiling (for UK readers: grilling) my lovingly made flapjacks for a while.  My personally annotated version of this recipe now bears the note: “use the oven setting with the picture of one solid bar along the bottom”. (As opposed to the setting with the picture of tiny triangles suspended, points down, at the top, of course.  Duh.)  At least this slight overcooking meant that I didn’t have to wait EIGHT HOURS for my flapjacks to cool and firm up, which is a damned good thing.

      And there you have it – a little project you can try at home to get a taste of the UK wherever you are, as long as that place is somewhere you can get butter, sugar, oats and golden syrup.  And if you’re somewhere you can’t get those things, I advise you to leave immediately.  I mean really, what are you thinking?
    • Tourist Stuff: Kew Gardens

      Monday, September 19, 2011

      When last we left our intrepid blogger she was whining about Sainsbury’s and bicycle locks and uncooperative trains and London in general.  Let’s just abandon that sordid episode and get on with today’s topic – Kew Gardens.  Or, as it is more properly known: The Royal  Botanic Gardens, Kew. (Note that the word is gardenS, plural, because what we now know of as Kew Gardens is actually an amalgamation of gardens in Kew and neighbouring Richmond.) 

      The idea to visit Kew came from blog fan and friend-of-a-friend Phoebe, who was due to be visiting London with her husband John and thought that a walk around Kew would be a fun way to meet, and would also set us up well for a pint or two at a local pub once the plants got to be a bit too much. (In other words, at Pimm’s O’clock.)  I decided to go early to get in some serious blog-worthy photography and fact-finding, so I got there at about 10:30am.  I entered through the Victoria Gate, which is the one closest to Kew Gardens Tube Station, as distinct from Kew Bridge Rail Station, which is just across the river (and which was woefully lacking anything so useful as a train on that particular Sunday), and grudgingly paid the exorbitant fee of £13.90 for a day’s entry.  (The Friday before I’d been chatting with a woman at work who, while grey-haired, is certainly not notably antique and she said she could remember when the admission price to get into Kew was tuppence.  Well, times have clearly changed, but no matter; that’s the price I pay to bring you this kind of high quality bloggage.)

      Speaking of high quality bloggage, anyone who read my last blog (the witty and informative Go See Run Eat Drink) will recall that I am a big fan of guided tours when tackling large and complicated sights. This is especially true when the tours are a) free and b) conducted by volunteer guides who are there because they love the place you’re touring and want you to love it too. Happily, both those things were true at Kew, and I set out on the 11am tour with Sheila, who winningly reported that she always finds something new every time she visits Kew, and she’s been going for fifty years. 

      Sheila, guiding her little socks off.  (Important tip for anyone wanting to take the free guided tours at Kew: Show up at least 15 minutes before the tour is scheduled to start and sign in.  This is mandatory - several people were turned away the Sunday I was there, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
      We started with a bit of history, and Kew has a lot of that, having been there in one form or another for 252 years. It started life as an exotic garden owned by Lord Capel  John of Tewkesbury in 1759 and was enlarged by the Dowager Princess of Wales, Augusta.  It was further expanded by George III.  Private collections of exotic plants like those at Kew were status symbols for the wealthy in 18th century, partly due to the proliferation of scientific exploration.  The Gardens are still home to the smallest royal palace, Kew Palace, which is a relatively unassuming red brick edifice that was built in 1781 as a Royal Nursery (the kind for young princes and princesses, not the kind for young plants, ironically).  However, Kew really came into its own starting in the mid 19th century as a storehouse and showcase for the thousands of specimens of exotic trees and plants that were collected as Englishmen spread their empire across the globe.  (Scene: Englishman in pith helmet and crisp linen suit addressing native tribesman: “Hello there my good man.  I’d like to propose the following arrangement: you take these lovely glass beads, and we’ll take everything from here to the horizon. God save the Queen!”)

      The famous Palm House – Kew’s most iconic structure – was completed in 1848, by architect Decimus Burton (Yes, he was the tenth child in his family, how did you guess?) and shipwright Richard Turner, so its perhaps not unusual that the thing looks a bit like an upturned ship’s hull.  It’s famous for being the first large scale structure to be built of wrought iron, and all the panes of glass are hand-blown (and many curve in two different planes.)

      The Palm House, on a cloudy Sunday.  I was kind if miffed that it seemed the windows were so dirty, but it’s mostly condensation on the inside. 
      Naturally, Sheila took us through the Palm House, and pointed out some really excellent bits of tiriva.  For instance, she showed us this fantastic tree whose name I couldn’t be bothered to write down because everything at  Kew is labelled with its Latin name.  But the tree itself was great – its roots reach down from the skinny trunk like flying buttresses, helping to hold the whole thing stable.

      The Flying Buttress Tree (arborem fuga trajectura) (Ok, I just made that up by plunking stuff into Google Translator)
      The Palm House is also home to the world’s oldest pot plant, which is probably not what you’re thinking.  Over here they use the term “pot plant” like we use “potted plant” in North America.  (I don’t actually know what they say when they mean the not-precisely-legal thing you’re all thinking of.)  Anyway, the (probably) world’s oldest pot(ted) plant is an Eastern Cape giant cycad, which looks positively jurassic, and has been at Kew since 1775, thus predating the American and French Revolutions, the invention of the steam engine, the moon landings, and the introduction of New Coke.

      The aged cycad, which has gone distinctly horizontal
      Sheila also told us a sad but heart-warming story about one specific palm tree in the Palm House.  As palms trees are a particularly tall and fast-growing species there comes a time in the life of many of the largest of the Palm House palms  when the top of the tree starts to threaten the top of the Palm House.  At these times the directors at Kew are forced to make the decision to remove the tree, as unfortunate as that may be.  This was the case for a palm that Sheila pointed out to us.  However, just after the decision was made to remove the tree, it started to flower, and it is a type of tree that only flowers once in its lifetime and then dies.  Thus as if it knew its time had come, the tree put out a display of fantastic drooping clusters and the directors at Kew decided they’d let it live out the end of its days in the Palm House having reached the ripe old age of twelve. (I told you they grow fast.)

      The aforementioned drooping clusters of flower-ish stuff
      Yet Kew is more than just a collection of interesting plants in diverting surroundings.  It’s actually one of the world’s largest herbariums (a collection of preserved plants), with over seven million specimens.  It also employs more than 650 people, many of whom are not just there to mow the lawn and tend one of the largest compost heaps in Europe, but are actually proper botanists.  One of the great works of Kew is the identification and cataloguing of new species of plants, which they do 2-3,000 times each year.  There is also a seedbank, one of the world’s largest botanical libraries, and a forensic science department that once “were able to ascertain that the contents of the stomach of a headless corpse found in the river Thames contained a highly toxic African bean.” (from Wikipedia, or possibly from the script of the pilot episode of CSI:Q).  They even have an iPhone app, which I naturally downloaded and used throughout my visit. (It’s well worth the bandwidth.)

      However, despite all the exotic plants and beguiling vistas and plucky palm trees, my favourite part of Kew Gardens was an unassuming building tucked away in the Richmond end of the site:

      Marianne North Gallery exterior
      The Marianne North Gallery
      It was recommended by a friend who claimed it was “not to be missed”, and it turns out he was absolutely right.  (Thank Jeremy!)  The gallery is the home to an enormous collection of paintings by one woman – Marianne North, who was born in 1830 and devoted her life to traveling the world painting the native plant species of the countries she visited.  This really is an impressive feat, because though she came from a wealthy family, she did a lot of her traveling alone at a time when that was certainly not the kind of thing women generally did. (Even I, 131 years later, ran into some incredulity when it was discovered I was traveling unaccompanied.)  When North at last returned to England she approached the director of Kew Gardens at the time, Sir Joseph Hooker, and offered to pay for the construction of a gallery at Kew for displaying her work.  Hooker agreed, and the gallery was built and opened to the public in 1882.  (Note to aspiring artists – offering to pay for the construction of your own gallery is a great way to get your work into the public eye!)

      And what’s so special about the Marianne North Gallery?  Well, let’s just say that North was an exceptionally prolific artist and the view on entering the gallery is… unexpected.  Since most of you are unlikely to be there any time soon, I will spoil the surprise and give you a look at the inside of the Marianne North Gallery:

      Marianne North Gallery interior
      The gallery contains 832 paintings, all by North, and all displayed like this, in just two modestly-sized rooms.  It was “a condition of the bequest of the paintings to Kew on North’s death that the layout of the paintings in the room may not be altered”. (Wikipedia)
      It’s such an arresting thing walking into that first room and seeing the almost absurd number of paintings and their claustrophobic layout (arranged by North herself, over the course of a year) that I think I laughed out loud.  It was fantastic.  And because it was pouring rain (of course) and I wasn’t due to meet with Phoebe and John for at least half an hour I had the leisure to linger and really take it all in.  The paintings are arranged geographically, with all the works of a particular region clustered together, and with tiny numbers painted under each.  The numbers correspond to short descriptions on cards that run along the ledge below the paintings (“Angraecum and Urania Moth of Madagascar” and so on).  It was easy to while away half an hour just letting my eyes slide over the walls until something popped out that caught my attention, and then letting my eyes wander once again.

      What I especially liked was finding paintings of places I’d been to – India and Japan in particular – and seeing that those 130 year old paintings still looked a lot like what I’d seen myself.  Yes, there is a preponderance of paintings of trees and flowers and leaves and whatnot, but  there are also a lot of paintings of people and buildings and more general landscapes, which I found more interesting than the plants. You can see thumbnails of all of North’s paintings on the Kew website, via this link

      Eventually the rain slackened and it was time to go meet Phoebe and John, and we hit it off well and had a nice time wandering around that Gardens.  I spouted off incessantly with all the bits of trivia that Sheila shared, and we did the tree-top walk (beware: the elevator is out of order), and went to the Water Lily House (built specifically to house the giant waterlily) and saw the pagoda (which looks like a cross between a Chinese pagoda and a large brick bell tower), and went to the Temperate House (the largest Victorian glass structure still standing), and the Japanese Garden (including a four-fifths replica of the the Karamon of Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto).  And I dragged them to the Marianne North Gallery and didn’t tell them what to expect, and their reaction on entering was exactly like mine, which was immensely satisfying.

      And then is was Pimm’s O’Clock and we wandered out of the main gate, past a quite-respectable (according to John) cricket match, and ended up at The Greyhound,  where they had real ale and Yorkshire puddings the size of hubcaps and Phoebe and I had our picture taken.

      Me and Phoebe at The Greyhound, in a photo that Phoebe didn’t like but it’s not her blog so tough luck for her.
      And thus my day at Kew Gardens ended much more agreeably than it had started.  Phoebe and John went off to their next engagement, and I went back to the tube and retrieved my bike from Vauxhall Station (it was still there!) and pedaled my worn-out self home.  And I do believe I went to bed early.

      (As usual, more photos of my day at Kew can be found in the Flickr set here.)

      The annoyances of London: A whining blog post in 4 acts.

      Monday, September 12, 2011

      Sometimes London really gets up my nose, you know?  Don’t get me wrong – I love the city and most of the time I feel happy and lucky to live here and all that palaver, but honestly sometimes it’s like the place is out to get you.

      Take last Sunday for instance.  I had a lovely invitation from a visiting blog fan Phoebe and her husband John to meet for a stroll around Kew Gardens and a congenial pint.  Never one to turn down a gimme kind of blog topic like Kew and a beer in the bargain, I happily agreed.  I even set the alarm on a Sunday (which is practically criminal) so that I could get out there a bit early, do the guided tour, poke around on my own, have a picnic lunch and some quiet time with the crossword, and generally feel like I’d absorbed enough to be able to blog in my usual semi-coherent seat-of-the-pants fashion. 

      And so it was that I set out early on my bike intending to collect a few bits for lunch and then cycle to Vauxhall and get the train from there.  It was a sunny day, and everything seemed right.  Then I got to the Sainsbury’s and encountered…

      The Annoyances of London, Act 1 (Inadequate labeling of discount items and the perils of not paying attention):  They have this deal at Sainsbury’s (and Tesco and Marks & Spencer and blah blah blah) where you can get a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a drink for £3.

      £3 deal
      The £3 Deal, along with the fine print.
      It’s a good deal, but because you can only choose certain things as part of the deal I’m forever arriving at the checkout with forbidden crisps or something because the labeling of what is and is not part of the £3 deal is often less-than-obvious.  And so it was that morning.  I ended up at the self check-out and watched everything tally up on the screen and trusted that my discount would be applied at some stage and only when I’d already seen my £5 note sucked into the machine did I realize it hadn’t been.  So I called over an employee to complain and she explained that I’d chosen the wrong kind of bottled drink (of course) and for some reason this aggravated me to the point where I actually made that gritted teeth “grrrrrrrrr” noise and then stomped back to the shelves to discover that the label on the drink I’d chosen was not only NOT for the £3 deal, it was for a 2 for £2 deal, so I’d therefore managed to benefit from neither discount.  I know I should have just considered the whole episode a £1.55 Not Paying Attention Tax, but it just really got under my skin and I left fuming and encountered:

      The Annoyances of London, Act 2 (London Weather): Though I’d only been in the stupid Sainsbury’s for approximately 7.5 minutes, by the time I walked out the sky had turned from sunny and promising to completely grey and foreboding.  London weather.  Sigh.

      The Annoyances of London, Act 3 (The need for an inconveniently extreme level of bicycle locking): I cycled to Vauxhall Station and managed to get sweaty and uncomfortable en route though it’s really a short, easy ride.  (How is it that I see business men every day on my commute riding bicycles in shirts and ties and looking perfectly cool and comfortable, yet I can’t get from Brixton to Vauxhall without looking like I’ve just completed a mountainous stage of the Tour de France?)  (To clarify: it’s the businessmen wearing the suits and ties, not the bicycles.)  And just getting to the right part of the station was a pain because it’s in the middle of a snarl of roads and rail lines and underpasses and one-ways and crap.  I finally got to the bike locking place under a railway arch (otherwise known as The Scene of the Crime), and commenced to locking up my bike. 

      Scene of the crime
      The Scene of the Crime
      And here I have to explain something that has gradually become clear about my bike locks: they are a royal pain in the ass.  The first one (astute readers will remember there are two) is one of those rigid u-shaped ones.  I try to use it to lock the frame and front wheel to whatever immovable object I’ve chosen but the particular u-lock I bought seems to be precisely one millimeter too narrow and/or one millimeter too short to be useful in 98% of the locking situations I find myself in.  When I do find some scenario where it actually fits the two pieces have to be aligned so precisely in order to fit together that one wonders whether laser guides and micrometers are meant to be involved.  I’m not kidding, that lock has sometimes brought me close to tears and usually at least causes me to swear out loud.

      The second lock is a heavy, enormous chunk of hardened chain covered in a nylon sheath.  It’s much more well-behaved in the locking/unlocking department, and being chain it’s much more flexible.  This lock’s downfall is the black nylon sheath that invisibly collects smudges of chain grease that are then transferred to my hands, face, clothing and belongings every time I handle it.  Every time.

      But no matter.  After cursing for several more minutes I got everything secured satisfactorily and walked out of the bike-locking underpass towards the station entrance, sweaty and be-smudged.  Then the doubts started creeping in… I was, after all, leaving my new bike locked up in exactly the same place where the old one had been stolen.  But it was fine, right? I had two new (stupid) fancy (frustrating) expensive (heavy) locks.   Sure, the place was littered with lesser locks that had not withstood the test of Vauxhall Station, but my locks were better than those.  And there were TWO of them, so no worries right?  Then I spied exactly the same chain lock I’d just used on my bike lying forlornly on the pavement, still wrapped around the locking frame but certainly lacking the bike it might once have secured. 

      Abandoned lock
      Lonely lock.
      F*ck.  So back I went to my bike, undid the stupid, frustrating, heavy, dirty locks, wheeled it out to a more public area, and sweated and cursed one more time until it was all secure again.  Then, and only then, did I proceed into the station for…

      The Annoyances of London, Act 4 (The unreliable nature of public transit on weekends): I like Vauxhall Station mostly because it’s small and easy to navigate.  Big stations like Waterloo can have 15 or 20 different platforms and if you don’t get the same train to the same place from the same platform every day, you are required to stand in a huge crowd of people scanning 15 or 20 electronic signs to try and discover which platform your train will be leaving from.  This is further complicated if you’re not going to the terminus point of that train, because then you have to scan every stop listed on each of the 15 or 20 signs to try and spot your station as it scrolls past. 

      Waterloo Info Boards
      The information boards at Waterloo
      This is complicated even further if you’re not supremely confident of the geography of southern England, since it means you can’t really safely eliminate many trains from contention.  Yes, I know Kew Gardens is not on the way to Edinburgh or Liverpool, but Portsmouth? Sutton? Guildford? Bognor Regis?  I have no idea.  It’s a stupid, frustrating, mostly non-functional system as far as I’m concerned.

      That’s why I like Vauxhall; usually I can quickly scan the 3 or 4 signs in the corridor, figure out the right platform, and proceed apace.  Naturally, though, Kew does not appear on any signs at Vauxhall, and being in a somewhat fragile state of mind already I elected to simply ask a helpful employee on which platform one could expect the next train to Kew.  (I usually only have to resort to this tactic when facing the above-mentioned Bognor Regis Conundrum.)  So I waited politely behind someone else who was being served by an elderly gentleman who finished with that query and then proceeded to ignore me so patently that I was actually a bit incredulous.  He kept his head down so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge me and filled his time rooting around in the inside pockets of his jacket rearranging bits of paper in a decidedly leisurely fashion for such a length of time that you’d think he was employing the Dewey Decimal System.  I stood there for a long, awkward, annoyed moment, and then gave up and turned to his colleague who promptly told me that there was no train to Kew and I’d have to go to Barnes and get a bus from there.  “What? Is that normal? Or is that just today?” I said.  “Oh no, it’s just today.”  Of course.  And I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say this almost made me cry.  Yeah sure this sounds extreme, but keep in mind that my day had started out like an English Tourism brochure and in the space of about 25 minutes had degenerated into a sweaty, anxious, grease-smudged, increasingly time-sensitive blur.

      Vauxhall Station, brighter
      Vauxhall Station, looking deceptively innocent
      So my choices were to get the train to Barnes and then get on the Rail Replacement Bus Service (four of the saddest words a train lover can hear) or give up on the train and get the tube, which would be slower and more annoying, but not as annoying as the bus.  The trouble was I’d already tapped my Oyster card at the gate to enter the train station, and if I left I’d be charged.  So I had to go downstairs to the ticket office to get my fare refunded, and then escaped to the tube, thus negating the whole point of riding my bike to Vauxhall in the first place since it would have been simpler to just get the tube from Brixton if I’d known there was no train, thus eliminating all of the stupid, sweaty anxious, grease-smudged bike locking episodes, and the utterly unsatisfying interaction with Mr. Paper-Shuffling-If-I-Don’t-See-You-You’re-Not-There.

      So do you see what I mean about how London can sometimes really wind you up?  Luckily, by the time I actually got on the tube train things calmed down considerably, and I cooled off.  And Kew Gardens was quite nice, and Phoebe and John were lovely, and the sun even came out (eventually).  But now you have to wait until next week to hear about that, because after wading through 1,700 words worth of ranting and whining, you and I both deserve a break.

      (Oh, except for this: I GOT A NEW JOB.  Yes, I know I only just got the job I’m in, but that was always likely to be short term, and this new new job is kind of a big deal and kind of the thing I came over here in the hopes of doing, so I’m kind of totally excited.  What’s the job?  Well, let’s just say there’s a certain major sporting event coming to town next summer, and there will be a little show or two involved in the opening and closing celebrations of said sporting event.  And I’m going to have a tiny part in putting those shows together.  And really, how cool is that?)

      (And to answer your questions before you ask: No, I can’t get you tickets to the 100m Final, or the Beach Volleyball, or even the ceremonies themselves.  And no, I can’t tell you anything about the show.  There will, in fact, be a non-disclosure agreement, so just don’t bother.)


      Words, words, more lovely words

      Monday, September 5, 2011

      Honestly, I’m having a bit of trouble thinking of things to blog about these days, so I hope you won’t think it’s a cop-out to give you a bit more local lingo to chew over with your morning coffee.  And if you do mind, well, too bad.  It’s my blog, and I’ll make it boring if I want to.  Today it seems we’re concentrating on somewhat more poetic words for otherwise mundane things (with a few mundane things thrown in too).

      fairy cakes = cupcakes!  This is so much better a word than cupcakes that I think the entire English-speaking world should adopt it right now.  I mean what would you rather have – a cake that comes from a cup, or a cake that comes from fairies?
      More Fairy Cakes
      See, they’re even sprinkled with fairy dust!
      fairy lights = twinkie lights.  Those strings of tiny lights you put on a Christmas tree, or hang up on the patio.

      gubbins = an excellent word that occupies a similar place in my mind as “faffing about” but to do with things as opposed to actions.  Gubbins are bits and pieces or add-ons, or general clutter, often more specifically the inner workings of something.  As in “We’re moving house at the end of the month and I just have no idea what I’m going to do with all this gubbins!” Or: “Henry spent the whole afternoon in the garden shed faffing about in the gubbins of our old telly.”

      telly = television.  Normally said without a trace of irony or sense of how unbearably English it is to say “telly” when you mean tv.

      vest = a sleeveless undershirt of the type sometimes referred to in North America (rather distastefully) as a “wife-beater.”  Not at all poetic, but this is apparently the completely normal word for this type of garment, as was brought home to me was I was working on a crossword puzzle with Patrick (the Crossword Tutor) and, unbeknownst to me, the answer was “vest”.  At first Patrick couldn’t understand why I didn’t get the answer immediately, and then he kept trying to give me hints like this:
      Patrick:  It’s a kind of undergarment.
      Me:  An undershirt.
      Patrick:  Yes, but what else would you call that?
      Me:  An undershirt.
      Patrick:  No no, what’s the other word for a shirt you wear under another shirt?
      Me:  An undershirt.
      And so on.

      This happens every once in a while.  I’ll be having a perfectly normal conversation with someone and they’ll use a perfectly normal word but in a completely unknown way.  Imagine sitting at your desk and having a colleague ask you to pass them the carburetor.  Your mind races… carburetor… carburetor… what’s that one again?  And again they say “The carburetor, right there, next to your elbow.”  And you look at the spot next to your elbow and you think the only thing here is a stapler, and you say, “Do you mean this stapler?”  And they say “Yes, yes, the carburetor, hand it over.”  And you think “These people are all mad.” And then you hand over the carburetor and you think “I definitely have to blog about this.”

      (Totally unrelated aside: the word “carburetor” appear in the above paragraph six times.  And I did not spell it correctly once in those five times, even after I allowed spell-check to show me how to spell carburetor.) (I also got it wrong both times in this aside.)

      Lollipop man = crossing guard.  Again, how cute is that?  They’re called lollipop men (or women) because they carry a round stop sign on a pole that looks like a giant lollipop.  The popular image of a Lollipop man is a grey-haired gentleman of retirement age who plays a sort of benevolent, grandfatherly role.  Like John Hunter of Edinburgh, who was a Lollipop man for 10 years and was popular with the kids for high-fiving them and sometimes giving out sweets.  That is, until a parent complained about the health and safety risks of him high-fiving the kids and he was asked to stop.  It’s elfin safety gone mad, I tells ya.
      Lollipop man
      Not John Hunter of Edinburgh.  (Apparently the black strip on the sign is for recording, with chalk, the license plates of motorists who do not stop.  Under UK law it’s an offence to fail to stop when signaled by a Lollipop person.  Lollipoppers often stand at zebra crossings.)
      Zebra Crossing (pronounced ZEB-ruh, not ZEEB-ruh. It rhymes with Deborah) = crosswalk.  You know, the ones with alternating dark and light stripes painted on the road, like a zebra?  It makes perfect sense, and it’s fun, so why wouldn’t you call it something lovely like a zebra crossing? (Let’s set aside for the moment the fact there could possibly be some confusion about whether or not one might have to be wary of actual zebras in the zebra crossing.  Though of course the last native English zebra was killed, stuffed and mounted in the dining hall at Eton in 1883.)
      Abbey Road
      The world’s most famous zebra crossing, at Abbey Road
      Sleeping Policeman = speed bump. Literally those raised bits of pavement they put down in residential areas to force you to slow down lest you leave your muffler scattered in pieces through the streets of Lesser Wortstable-on-the-Snorfy.  I’m telling you, these people have a way with words. (And place names, but that is definitely another post)

      Cluedo (pronounced “CLEW dough”) = Clue, the board game.  Apparently this is the original name of the game, which was developed in England in 1949.  The name is a play on the name of a traditional English game called “Ludo”, on which the layout of the board is based.  This is another one of those carburetor things.  When I ask about why it’s called “Cluedo” and not simply “Clue” people say, “Well I suppose it’s because of “Ludo” isn’t it?” and what I think is “Ludo?  What the…?” and what I say is “Suuuuuuure it is…” And then I back away slowly.
       The original 1949 board layout.  In the UK version the green piece is “Reverend Green”, not “Mr. Green”.  And the victim is “Mr. Black” not “Mr. Boddy”. And of course it’s a spanner, not a wrench.
      naff = nerdy, uncool, embarrassing, out of fashion, tacky, etc.  Basically, any parent of a teenager is naff.

      torch = flashlight.  Again, I think this is sort of charming.  It’s like they’ve been around for so long over here and they’ve gone through so many iterations of the handheld light source that they just can’t be arsed to think up a different word every time something new comes along.  It’s like the guy whose job it was to name the thing was thinking, “Damnit, 'torch’ worked fine in the 11th century. Why do we need a new word just because the blasted thing’s got a battery?”

      “Can’t be arsed” =  “Can’t be bothered”.  Or: to be disinclined to get off one’s arse.  (And yes, it’s definitely your arse, not your ass.)  As in: “I would really love a curry right now, but I just can’t be arsed to go all the way to the Indian takeaway.”  Or, more likely:  “I would really love a curry right now, but I just can’t be arsed to reach for the phone to order it.”  

      And that, loyal readers, is all I’ve got for you today.  Because it’s late on a Sunday night, and I’ve got to be at work early tomorrow and really, I just can’t be arsed…