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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (pane basioballum)


Toast is the most important and versatile item in the gastronomic universe. At breakfast time it suppresses the pangs of night starvation. At lunch time it adds interest to boring sandwiches and in the evening, in homoeopathic quantities, it can be imbibed in a celebratory manner.

"Gentlemen, The Queen!"

"God bless her, and all who sail in her!"

Let me tell you about toast...

When I was a child we had a toasting fork and, as a special treat, I was sometimes allowed to spear slices of bread and toast them on the glowing embers of the coal fire in the dining room. Getting the toast perfect was a precise and delicate skill. The toasting fork had to be angled correctly and the bread had to be just the right distance from the coals. Failure in either of these things could ruin the whole enterprise. I had no great problems with distance, but angles were tricky; the bread had a tendency to slide around on the prongs of the fork, and on more than one occasion a minute adjustment of the slant would cause the bread to fall off the fork and land in the fire, thus defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. But when everything came properly together, the toast was just perfect. It was golden and crisp with an elusive, smoky piquancy that tantalised the taste buds. Knowing what I know now about the combustion products of coal, I am not entirely sure that eating all that toasting fork toast was a good idea. But gosh, it was yummy!

We also had a toaster, but my mother was highly dubious about it. If left unsupervised, it had a tendency to produce lumps of charcoal rather than legitimate toast. When this happened, my mother became somewhat agitated at the waste of bread.

"Eat your toast!"

"But mum, it's all black and burned."

"Charcoal is a well known antidote for arsenic poisoning. Eat your toast!"

"But I haven't been poisoned with arsenic."

"How do you know that? Napoleon died a slow, lingering death from all the arsenic in the paste that stuck the wallpaper to his bedroom walls. These things take time. Eat your toast!"

That sounded interesting. How do you get poisoned by your wallpaper?

"How did that happen, mum? Did he commit suicide by eating the wallpaper? Do you have to eat a whole wall full, or will small strips from a dark corner do just as well? Perhaps he put it in his pipe and smoked it? If I promise not to eat or smoke the wallpaper in my bedroom, can I be excused toast?"

"Prevention is better than cure. Eat your toast!"

I ate my toast. And, being full, I didn't eat my wallpaper, thereby proving that toast really does protect you from the wallpaper's deadly dangers. Always listen to your mother. Mothers are invariably correct.

Mostly my mother made toast in the grill. The grill was at eye level so she could observe it at all times and could easily remove the tray from the heat when the toast was perfect. My mum's toast was always perfect...

I'm told that Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles is the first (and possibly best) of the Faction Paradox stories. I'm unclear as to exactly what Faction Paradox is and reading the entry about it on Wikipedia did little to clear up my confusion. But none of that really matters -- Dead Romance is a novel that is complete in itself and I quite enjoyed reading it.

Stripped to its essentials, it's actually rather a childishly dumb story involving time travel, dimensional travel, a universe in a bottle and a "war in heaven". But excellent stories have been constructed from far less promising material than this, and Miles does a first class job with this seemingly rather unpromising material.

The story is told as a series of journal entries written by one Christine Summerfield, a survivor of a rather vague catastrophe that has destroyed the Earth. We learn quite early on in the story that the world came to an end on the 12th of October 1970, though we don't learn the details until much later in the book.

Christine is a hippie living in Swinging London and there is a lot of nostalgic scene setting as Christine lives an archetypal hippie lifestyle before the end of the world ruins it all. I suspect that Lawrence Miles is probably about the same age as me. This very solid scene and character setting rang very true, and its concrete and convincing reality provides a firm foundation for the later surreal and bizarre events. In other words, accepting the truth of the setting at the start helps a lot with the willing suspension of disbelief that is absolutely vital if this rather odd story is to succeed.

My only real objection is that Christine is a very annoying narrator. She keeps dropping tantalising hints of what is to come, promises to tell us all about it, and then wanders off on a digression. She does keep her promises, we do eventually learn about the mysteries she introduces so casually into her narrative, but it takes a long time. Many of the mysteries are narrated by Christine as simple infodumps. 'Tell rather than show' is seldom a good idea in a novel, but somehow Miles (and Christine) manage to bring it off. I suspect that Christine's unique voice and quirky world view adds something to the lectures that she regales us with, lectures that might otherwise have bored rather than informed.

Dead Romance is a rather odd little book which I highly recommend.

Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch is the first volume of a very promising fantasy series. On the strength of this first book, I have already pre-ordered the second and it will be winging its way across the seas to me as soon as it is published. I'm greatly looking forward to reading it.

The story is narrated by one Peter Grant, a probationary police constable with London's Metropolitan Police. One chilly night, while he is guarding the scene of a rather oddly gruesome murder, he meets a ghost who was an eye witness to the murder. This encounter brings him to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England and the man in charge of a rather obscure (but nonetheless very important) division at Scotland Yard. He takes Peter on as an apprentice and it isn't long before Peter finds himself dealing with vampires in Purley and attempting to negotiate a truce between Old Father Thames and Mother Thames (a truce that largely involves Peter making sure that they never have an opportunity to meet!). It soon becomes clear that a festering evil lurks at the heart of London. I think you could probably sum the book up by calling it an urban fantasy police procedural. Perhaps Ben Aaronovitch has invented a new sub-genre!

The book is funny, cleverly plotted and full of interesting characters and ideas. I read it in a sitting, chortling away to myself and thoroughly absorbed in the world that Ben Aaronovitch has created.

Cherie Priest's new novel Bloodshot is a brilliant novel which, although completely stand alone, may well be the start of a series. The story concerns one Raylene Pendle, otherwise known as Cheshire Red. She's a vampire and a world renowned thief. She doesn't have much to do with other supernatural entities; she's very much a loner. However she does allow herself to be hired by the mysterious and charismatic vampire Ian Stott who was blinded in secret government experiments and who wants Raylene to hunt out the files that will explain what happened to him and reveal the reasons behind the experiments. It isn't long before Raylene attracts unwelcome attention from the men in black; the government won't give up its secrets easily. And, as always with books of this kind, there's a lot more going on under the surface than meets the eye.

The attractive thing about this story is the character of Raylene herself. She is no angst-ridden whiner, worried about the morality of what she has to do (particularly when feeding); she is very comfortable with who she is and has blended well into the human society that surrounds her. She's smart, she's tough and she's clever. Bloodshot is the best of Cherie Priest's novels so far.

The Wise Man's Fear is the second novel in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy. Let me say straight away: don't even think about reading it if you haven't read the first book in the series, The Name Of The Wind. And if it has been a long time since you read the first book, you really do need to read it again so that its events are fresh in your mind when you sit down to this one. Unless you do this, The Wise Man's Fear won't make any sense to you at all.

Like the first, this is a very long book -- almost 1000 pages. It is set in a very complex, brilliantly invoked, very solid and utterly immersive fantasy world. Unlike many such creations, this one actually feels lived in; with layer upon layer of very vivid history.

The story tells of the life of Kvothe. He might be a hero, he might be a villain, it's hard to tell. For much of the book, Kvothe tells his own story, dictating it to a scribe. And let's face it, every man is a hero to himself even at his most self-critical.

This framing device is occasionally interrupted with third person scenes set in the "real" world where Kvothe is doing his dictating. Rothfuss uses this trick to warn us about upcoming events ahead of time. This adds a surprising amount of dramatic tension to Kvothe's first person dictated narrative as we see the narrator heading for trouble that we know all about, but of which he himself is unaware, at least within the time frame of the telling of his tale.

Without wanting to get too pompous about it, you can probably take this rather odd structure as an investigation of the nature of storytelling itself and the mechanisms of legend making. Certainly some of the mythic events that are part of the well known public life of Kvothe-the-hero are revealed here as being decidedly more mundane events that are part of the life of Kvothe-the-man. Watching the process of the one turning into the other is quite fascinating.

Of course, it soon becomes clear that Kvothe himself is also part of this process. He is not above deliberately starting rumours about himself for no other reason than the sheer joy of having the stories come back to him exaggerated out of all proportion.

It's a fantasy novel -- and brilliant though it is, it is not without its clichés. For example, Kvothe spends a considerable amount of time studying martial arts. His teachers are a society of very thinly disguised Zen Buddhist oriental warriors. And yet somehow, even in the midst of this utterly generic and derivative nonsense, the magic of the story keeps you turning the pages. Patrick Rothfuss' considerable genius lies in his incredible ability to suck you deep into the story, and his refusal to let you out again. I wasn't kidding when I said that this is a very immersive tale. You absolutely have to know what happens next.

Like everybody else, I'm sick of people comparing every new fantasy writer to Tolkien. And to be fair, I don't recall any reviewer or critic making such a comparison for Patrick Rothfuss. That's probably just as well because it would be grossly unfair to both of them. Their books are utterly dissimilar in content and style (though they are very similar in terms of the depth of world building). But Tolkien and Rothfuss do have one point of comparison in common. Tolkien wrote the best and most important fantasy novel of the twentieth century. Rothfuss is now busy doing the same thing for the twenty first century.

An ideal piece of toast is golden brown from edge to edge, with not a trace of black or burned bread to be seen. Once the bread has toasted, it must be allowed to cool. Only barbarians butter their toast while it is hot. Toast is not blotting paper; it is not supposed to be absorbent.

Toast cooling mechanisms are also very important for that perfect final result. Ideally the toast should be placed in a toast rack (we had a lovely silver Georgian toast rack -- I wonder what happened to it?). A toast rack holds the individual slices of toast a carefully calculated distance apart so that the steam from the hot toast can escape into the atmosphere without condensing on the surface of the toast. If you don't have a toast rack, it is also quite acceptable to prop the slices of toast together at an acute angle as if you are building a house of cards with them. Under no circumstances should the toast be left lying flat while it cools. The steam will condense beneath the toast and it will soak up the water like a sponge, becoming pliable rather than friable, soggy and quite disgusting.

Once the toast has cooled, a thin layer of butter should be applied. The butter should stretch from edge to edge but no further; no toast surface at all should be exposed and there should be no buttery overhangs. If any butter at all soaks into the toast, then you buttered it too soon and it is now ruined. Throw it away and start toasting again.

The buttered toast should then be covered with marmalade; preferably Seville orange marmalade, though other orange marmalades are acceptable if the real stuff is temporarily unavailable. Some people prefer grapefruit based marmalades. I am not one of these people, but I can understand the craving.

On the other hand, heathens, barbarians, philistines and people who are utterly beyond the pale like to cover their toast with peanut butter, vegemite, marmite or jam. Such people are barely human and they are absolutely never invited to the best parties.

Eating a slice of toast excites all the senses. There is the simple aesthetic perfection of the layered symmetry of the presentation; the mingled scents of bread, butter and oranges and then the crisp texture of the toast itself as your teeth take that first succulent bite and a delectable crunch echoes through your aural cavities. The crispness is complemented by the smooth silky softness of the butter which itself is overlayed with the bitter tang of Seville oranges. All these things combine together into a truly perfect gastronomic delight. Trust me -- when the Gods on Mount Olympus become bored with ambrosia, they eat toast.

When I was a student, we didn't have a toaster. All we had was a solid hot plate. After some experimenting, we discovered that toast can indeed be made on a hot plate, though it requires close observation and more than a little skill. Simply turn the hot plate up as high as it will go, slap a slice of bread on, turn the bread over just before it bursts into flames, repeat the same formula for the second side, and then remove the toast and eat it. We charcoaled a lot of bread before we finally learned how to precisely identify the flash point, but, on the bright side, none of us ever died of arsenic poisoning and the wallpaper remained unchewed.

This simple toast recipe proved both tasty and fraught with peril. For mysterious chemical reasons that we never quite managed to solve, toast prepared in this manner proved to be a highly effective laxative. We had only two toilets between ten of us. Consequently an evening of toast tended to involve much buttock clenching. But we were addicted to toast and we were quite unable to stop preparing and eating it...

In Shatter The Bones Stuart MacBride returns to the gritty, bleak world of crime in Aberdeen. This time Inspector Logan McRae is faced with a kidnapping. Alison and Jenny McGregor are a mother and daughter singing duo who look set to win the grand prize in the TV show Britain's Next Big Star. They are hugely popular; articles about them appear in all the gossip magazines and their Youtube videos have had millions of hits.

But they have vanished, and a ransom demand has been received. The whole country is being asked to dig deep into its collective pocket to come up with the money to save them. The police are helpless -- the kidnappers haven't left a single clue behind. There is no forensic evidence at all. Even the amputated toe of a little girl that has been sent to the police pour encourager les autres is less than it seems to be. Perhaps the kidnappers really will get away with their crime.

But there's a very clever and quite unexpected twist in the tale...

MacBride's novels are not for the squeamish. However they have a delightful gallows humour about them that rescues them from simple grue and gore. All of his novels about Logan McRae (Shatter The Bones is the seventh in the series) are completely stand alone. However it does help to read them in sequence because McRae himself and his relationships with his colleagues change quite a lot as the stories progress.

Electric Barracuda is Tim Dorsey's thirteenth novel and we all know about the mystic properties of the number thirteen don't we? I greatly enjoyed the first twelve, but somehow I simply couldn't get into this one.

On the surface, it's just like all the others (perhaps that's the trouble?) -- Serge Storms, the loveable but psychotic serial killer and avid collector of the minutiae of Florida's history, is in trouble. The authorities are closing in on him. Has his luck finally run out? Serge and his sidekick Coleman set off on a getaway trail, making sure of course to keep their blog up to date with information about their travels and travails. And yet again the body count starts to rise as Serge encounters annoying people along the way.

All the usual elements are present -- Coleman is perpetually high and perpetually looking for ways to get higher. Serge regales us with lectures on history and finds ever more sickening and ever more ingenious ways of killing people. But this time it doesn't quite work. The perfect surrealistic madness of the earlier books seems tired, sad and predictable in this one, as if Tim Dorsey was writing a contractual obligation book and his heart wasn't really in it. Who knows -- maybe that was really the case?

There is a web site that I visit called Clients From Hell. I'm sure your google-fu is strong enough for you to find it from that hint, should you care to do so. But you really don't have to bother because there is a book (also called Clients From Hell, strangely enough) which puts the best items from the site onto dead trees.

The basic idea of both the site and the book is to show just how dumb many clients can be and therefore how frustrating and difficult it is to deal with them. The emphasis is on the clients of web designers, but the attitudes expressed are universal and I think everyone will enjoy the stories.

The attitudes are exemplified by providing only snatches of dialogue and small extracts from emails. There is obviously a huge amount left unsaid. And that's part of the joy of it; a summary of stupidity perfectly encapsulated in the minimum number of words. Here's a not untypical entry:

I want it so that whenever someone visits our website, an icon with a picture of a dog is automatically installed on their desktop. The dog should then walk around the screen.

If you've ever been involved in dealing with clients, this book will make you laugh and wince at one and the same time. Go on -- buy a copy. You owe it to yourself. Maybe it will stop you from committing murder next time you visit a client site...

John Mortimer made his reputation by writing about Rumpole Of The Bailey which was made into a very successful TV series. The short stories on which it was based fill three very large omnibus collections and so many stories remain uncollected that there is probably enough material for a fourth. However Mortimer did not restrict himself to just writing about Rumpole. His novel Paradise Postponed (the first of a trilogy) is a tour de force which attempts to tell the definitive story of post war England. That's an enormous canvas on which to paint and it would be all too easy for such a theme to degenerate into polemic. It is to Mortimer's credit that at no point in the book is there the slightest hint of this.

On the surface, it's a little bit of a mystery story. The Reverend Simeon Simcox has died and left all his estate to a Conservative MP called Leslie Titmuss. On the face of it, there seems no rhyme nor reason to the will. Simcox himself was a rabid socialist who espoused many radical causes. He would have had no time for the right wing policies that Titmuss supports. On the other hand, he had known Leslie Titmuss almost from birth. As a child, Titmuss used to earn pocket money by cutting the nettles that infested the Simcox's garden.

Henry Simcox, Simeon's eldest son, decides to contest the will, much to the displeasure of both his mother and his brother, both of whom seem sure that Simeon must have had good reason to do what he did. Henry just thinks the old man was mad, and goes looking for evidence to back his claim up.

As the tale of the will unfolds, so too does the tale of the people involved. Henry and his brother Fred went to a public school, Leslie Titmuss went to the local grammar school - he is part of the generation that was created by the 1944 Education Act, that great social experiment (promulgated, ironically, by a right wing government) that completely overhauled the nature of state schooling in England. Henry grows up to become a novelist, one of the 'angry young men'. Fred becomes a doctor and Leslie, of course, is an MP.

From about 1960 onwards, (as Henry, Fred and Leslie are growing up) Britain experienced a quiet revolution in the way it was governed. The traditional model of a ruling elite drawn largely from the great public schools and the landed gentry was giving way to a more plebeian model, as exemplified by Leslie Titmuss. A left wing politician of the time (Dennis Healey, a man chiefly remembered for his enormous eyebrows) noted, somewhat acidly, that the reins of government were passing '...from the estate owners to the estate agents'. It is this process of change that interests John Mortimer. As he examines its roots, he also takes a close look at the trad jazz fashion of the 1950s, the Aldermaston marches organised by the CND, and the whole social and politically motivated protest phenomenon of the swinging sixties. He sees many connections between these things and the larger picture of a behind the scenes political revolution. Indeed, in a very real sense, they are all just different ways of looking at how the world was evolving. Each had its own contribution to make to the final result.

It's also a very English way of looking at the world, and Mortimer captures that essential Englishness perfectly. I doubt if any other country could have adjusted to such a radical change in quite the way that England did. Social (and political) upheavals are seldom comfortable. However some are more comfortable than others. Of course some things never change and the class system in England still hasn't gone away. It's just become less formal than once it was. But there's no doubt that everyone still 'knows their place".

There I go again, making the whole story sound like a tract. It isn't that at all. It's a very, very funny novel full of well realised characters living their lives as best they can. It's an enthralling story and the depth of its vision is just deliciously sweet icing on a very rich cake.

And when eventually you find the real reason why Simeon Simcox left his estate to Leslie Titmuss, you'll be quite surprised and shocked. Such a scandal!

You cannot get toast in hotels. It often appears on the breakfast menu, but nevertheless, it remains elusive and largely unavailable.

Some hotels take the easy way out and require you to order your toast and then wait for it to arrive. Experience suggests that you can read at least two newspapers from cover to cover before the toast appears. And when it does finally arrive, you are invariably presented with two slices of lukewarm bread rather than with toast. Obviously the bread has been slapped in a toaster or put in a grill for about thirty seconds in order to take the chill off, and then sent out to your table. So why does it take so long to prepare? I have never been able to solve this conundrum.

The two slices of lukewarm bread will cost you $14. More "toast" will cost you incrementally more; $7 a slice every time. Do they bake hotel bread with gold dust instead of flour?

Other hotels provide toasting mechanisms in the breakfast room and you are expected to make your own toast. Since the hotel staff have no hand in the preparation of the toast, this represents an obvious cost saving to the hotel. Consequently such self-prepared toast is charged at $10 a slice.

The most common device for making your own hotel toast is a machine with a conveyor belt that sucks your bread deep into its interior, passes the bread across a red hot grill and then spits it out again. The slower the conveyor speed, the more time the bread spends beneath the grill and the darker the toast. At least that's the theory. It tends not to work very well in practice.

The first time you send your bread through the machine, it invariably re-appears barely toasted at all. Therefore you send it through a second time whereupon clouds of smoke arise from the machine. The over-toasted bread re-appears as charcoal. Your day is ruined, though you do remain safe from arsenical wallpaper.

I have never, ever found one of these machines that could produce proper toast -- they seem capable only of extremes. One such machine in one hotel was so badly adjusted that it required multiple passes of the bread before it became even faintly toast like. A breakfast patron lost patience with it and sent his bread through once too often. The smoke alarms went off, the sprinkler system kicked in and the breakfast room had to be evacuated. The wallpaper in the hotel was alarmingly chewed that day as starving guests roamed the corridors like zombies.

"Toast! Toast"



No, I was not that breakfaster, and yes it really did happen.

Now you know the secret lore of toast. However the rules of toast do not necessarily apply to other toastable products -- and they particularly do not apply to crumpets. Unlike toast, a crumpet should never be left to cool. Crumpets are designed to be buttered and eaten when piping hot. The molten butter is supposed to be soaked up by the crumpet and then slowly disgorged as you chew.

The perfect crumpet is warm, fragrant, moist and slightly greasy. That's why Englishmen refer to their girlfriends as "...a bit of crumpet."

Lawrence Miles Dead Romance Mad Norwegian Press
Ben Aaronovitch Rivers Of London Gollancz
Cherie Priest Bloodshot Spectra
Patrick Rothfuss The Wise Man's Fear DAW
Stuart MacBride Shatter The Bones Harper Collins
Tim Dorsey Electric Barracuda Morrow
Anon. Clients From Hell Channel V. Books
John Mortimer Paradise Postponed Penguin Classics
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