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Friday, 13 August 2010

a little learning

F11 was crashing around in his pyjamas, over which was stretched his new rugby protective top (think: ‘80s meets slut: black netting and big big shoulders, not improved over bulky wincyette), thick socks and brand new school shoes. He was clutching Catty, and a cane, and was in search of his monocle. It’s possibly disloyal to share that he was miaowing, too. Ornaments quaked at the swish of the cane. The miaowing segued into something even more tuneless.

How can he possibly be big enough (isn’t) and mature enough (most def isn’t) to be going to secondary school in 3 weeks’ time? He isn’t.

“Chemistry, Physics, Biology, English, German, French, Maths, RE, PSCHE, History..” I said. I felt wretched at the range of subjects. The too-much-ness.

“ICT,” he said. Silly mummy.

“Geography,” I finished.

My heart sort of sinks for him.

Perhaps because even today I feel all pig-ironed out. Geography is very popular now but back in my childhood geography was just pig iron; pig iron, ox bow lakes and market bloody gardening in Denmark. Really. Christ, it was dull; the highlight was the end of term treat of watching the volcano film run backwards. No wonder my reliance on Sat Nav is so great. But if geography strangely flourishes (I’ve not investigated, I’m just grateful), history is on the ropes.

We’ve done virtually nothing this holidays. Just dossed around. The children have watched far too much rubbish telly. They’ve gone to bed far too late and got up far too late. It’s been fantastic.

There have been odd flirtations with real life. A man, big Jim, came to fix the drains and told us of that he's been banned from America for ten years. For hitting Wolfman at Universal Pictures. “I’d paid $300 for a tour,” he said. “I told 'em, I said, 'you can kick me out at 6 o’clock but not before.' Besides, Wolfman hit me first. It’s on CCTV and everything.”

But the joy of such time, the freedom from routine and the tyranny of the lunchbox, is occasionally tempered by memory of that from which we are temporarily free. I’ve been saddened by the struggles which T13, a very sparky boy, seemed to be having with some subjects.

Take history. Last term, I was trying to make out what it was that he was actually learning and, naturally, blaming him for the inexplicable randomness in dotting chaotically through centuries and continents. I couldn’t see the connection.

I asked his teacher, “Er, last month it seemed to be Henry VIII, then Cecil Rhodes and now it’s the English Civil War …?” I shrugged a ‘has T13 got it wrong’ shrug at her.

She blushed. “It’s the curriculum,” she mumbled. “We have to teach in, er, themes. This is Empire…. I know, I know, it seems crazy.”

“But there’s no context,” I said, “no sense of chronology, or consequence, or of … history.”

“I know,” she said meekly.

With a sense of dread, I rummaged through his English. He was ‘doing’ “Frankenstein.” From photocopied pages.

“Don’t you have the actual novel?” I ask.

“We read bits of it. In class. Joe’s rubbish at reading and gets all the long paragraphs.”

“But why?”

He shrugged. Shrugging seems to be integral to modern education. “Dunno. Something about Gothic novels. And then we write our own.” His, it goes without saying had been light on monks, and shadowy cloisters; no whey-faced heroine or evil uncle. He’d adopted a more slasher approach. Murder in a ski chalet. But that’s an interpretation, mkay, so that’s fine.

It goes without saying that while one rightly deplores our old friend Dumbing Down, there is also something deeply stupid about foisting ‘bits’ of “Frankenstein” on 12 and 13 year olds. It is a book which I loved … at about 17; the language is complex, the themes sophisticated, both lost on young boys and designed to anti-encourage them. I find it very depressing.

Randomness when self-instilled is one thing, having it imposed is quite another.

“Do you know,” F11 said, order restored with his monocle back screwed into his eye, and busying himself spreading almond butter (yum) mainly onto a wonky muffin and only a bit on poor, beleaguered Catty, “that China had some pyramids? Yes. They’re missing and the Greeks had a god for everything? Even cupboards? And their god of the sewer was called something like Cloaca…”

“Cloacina?” I said, the word landing from somewhere. Possibly too much time spent cleaning lavatories.

"Weirdo," said T13, strolling by in his cricketing helmet to log onto Facebook.

“Yes. (Shut up T13, freak) you’re so clever. Shall I tell Big Jim?”

I thought of Big Jim, in his stained beanie, jabbing furiously at the drains, frequently wiping a gloved hand across his face, tiny splatters. “Best not,” I said.

“Yes, and if an organism doubles itself 3 times in an hour then after 24 hours there are … well, I don’t know how to say it, but this many.” He showed me a piece of paper riddled with 72 computations, leading up to an impossibly long number which I can’t even type correctly (possibly 2361183241434822606848 but it was really really hard to do). I started checking on a calculator – which gave up at 2147483648, which tallied with his 32nd sum. I blinked. The teachers better not waste all this.

“I did it in my head,” he said. “Watching the Turtles. You just keep doubling. It’s easy.”

There is a God. Whether of the sewers or not.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


I don't like soup. It goes cold while you're talking, during which time it develops a granular texture which makes my stomach turn. It involves a slurping, bits of the gunge bleed from other people's mouths and a nasty dragging of the spoon across the china bowl is akin to nails on a board. The anonymity of soup disturbs, too. Just how bendy was that friendless carrot prised from the botton of the fridge, how damp that seeping of celery?
If I manage to deal with that lot, then there's the miniscus of leavings lining the bowl to hate plus that, around now, someone always breaks off some bread to drag across said miniscus. It can make me really quite faint, but then I'm a delicate soul in permanent need of an excuse to collapse on the chaise longue.

However, this is very nice.

I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to make some soup mainly because for me it's quite an event when I put aside my shuddering and twitching and pretend I'm a normal person without Little Ways. Lots of people contacted me later asking for the recipe, so, for the nicest possible Roasted Tomato Soup, what happens is this. Quantities are vague. En passant, the pulped stage, of the roasted garlic and the toms alone, is a lovely base for pasta, for pizza bases. I use it a lot. The amount I've mentioned here, the 25 toms, will do soup for about 6 twice over, and a tupperware-ful for a pasta meal and pizza bases. Time well spent and easy peasy.

So, roast some tomatoes - I've just done about 25 big chunky ones, vine attached, and a bulb of garlic , bulb being the whole big thing - slug of oil, s&p, scattering of basil if it pleases you. The lot for 40 mins at about 190/200 (mine is a fierce oven). The success lies solely in the roasting. All the rest is window dressing. There is no need for any of that steeping in boiling water business, to de-skin, or to fiddle about with the seeds. Not if you have a beast of a food processor there isn't, anyway. Here's mine. Click and weep.

Meanwhile fry up a couple of red onions - last time I just chucked in some salad onions, too, because I only had one dismal little red chap and I felt embarrassed for it, knowing it wouldn't be up to the job without help.

When fried, blitz the onions in a processor (last time, I did indeed add some sad celery and a couple of predictably ropey carrots, too. As we all know, it's that or the compost bin. In the past, I've put in a couple of anchovies - not that I like them (cue more jerking), but in small quantities they add a nice saltiness and, again, the fridge needed clearing. Pesky tiny jars.)

[note: In retrospect, it's worth affirming that messing about with naff veg is a mistake. Particularly if you've princess stamped through your DNA like me. Keep it simple. The compost bin IS your friend. No need to pretend you're half way to being All That with bloody stock. Celery, my arse. It must be the most over-rated food-type substance on the planet.]

Put in a large pan.

When the toms are done, blitz them, maybe in batches, including the greenery: sometimes you have to fish out the fibrous bits which won't fall dutiful victim to the swishing blades, but it's all flavour-enhancing stuff so worth doing.

When cool enough squirt out the pulp of the garlic (a waiting game you only get wrong once... owch!)

If have 'em, blitz half a dozen of those sullen turds which go by the name of sun dried tomato. Don't think about it, just drop them in the machine. And don't fret if don't have, no one will die.

(at this stage you can save some of the thickened mixture for other recipes, it's a playing by ear thing)

Stir together in the pan with a tad more olive oil, a spoon of sugar (I don't always bother, toms are sweet enough, but sometimes the children like to "help" (the lies bloggers tell the world, me and my magazine children) and it's the sort of thing they can do without too much disaster); a hefty shake of Bouillon (vegan, reduced salt) powder and maybe a litre of water. Or, if you must, if you're a bone keeper and have bits of old carcass hanging around, real chicken stock. Bit of s&p.

While it's just sitting there simmering gently - for maybe 40 mins or until you're bored or hungry - make some pesto with random amounts of parmesan, olive oil, pine nuts and basil. Or, failing that, just grate some parmesan in. If I'm feeling uber-mummy, I'll have knocked up some tiny bread rolls in individual tins. Really.

The colour is that comforting orange of Heinz tomato soup, the taste is out of this world. Even for ghastly princesses. Just wear blinkers and ear puffs to save you from your fellow eaters.