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home life

  • Waiting at midnight


    In Yeats' 'Second Coming (Slouching towards Bethlehem)' his concern was Ireland's struggle:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    In our village church on Christmas Eve the candles were lit, every window ledge decorated, every pew filled and there was an expectant buzz of chat just before the lights went down: the familiar, lilting solo of the first verse of 'Once in Royal David's City', then the congregation of 400 or more swelled the sound, familiar incantations that span me back to a dozen or more fortunate Christmasses before. You can find stables round here, sheltering not oxen but ponies, much-loved mounts of Cressidas or Saras. Our cattle sheds will set you back around £1m. These days they've all been converted to executive homes for the less than poor or mean or lowly.

    From the priest's welcome to the final blessing, the service runs like clockwork. The same carols, in the same order, latecomers pushing in from the pub, the brisk filing up to the communion rail, busy white gowned servers administering bread and wine, then back down the north aisle, faces respectfully downcast, expressions of assumed solemnity.

    The sermon quotes Betjeman, not the bible.

    And is it true,
    This most tremendous tale of all,
    Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
    A Baby in an ox's stall ?
    The Maker of the stars and sea
    Become a Child on earth for me ?

    And is it true ? For if it is,
    No loving fingers tying strings
    Around those tissued fripperies,
    The sweet and silly Christmas things,
    Bath salts and inexpensive scent
    And hideous tie so kindly meant,

    No love that in a family dwells,
    No carolling in frosty air,
    Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
    Can with this single Truth compare -
    That God was man in Palestine
    And lives today in Bread and Wine.

    (from Christmas by John Betjeman)

    In my own heart hope and doubt mingle equally.

    Pope Benedict was widely reported just before Christmas as saying 'that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction' (Irish Times). His actual words are far less simplistic, but what kind of Christmas message was this? When dogma collides so catastrophically with the secret God of the heart (the God that knows all and accepts that which is meant to be), where is the good in organised religion?

    Soon after Christmas on Radio 3's 'Belief' Cambridge academic Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim) was questioned with gentle persistence by Joan Bakewell about his conversion to Islam:

    I always wanted to have the person of Jesus who I was brought up with and who is an extraordinary world figure... as part of my religious vision of the world. Islam is the only non-Christian religion where He's really important, but actually comes closer to you in a strange kind of way, because in the orthodox Christian understanding, He is man but also God. And I couldn't figure out how you can actually be human if you're also God. So in a strange kind of way I felt that one of the consequences of becoming Muslim was to become much closer empathetically, humanly, to the person of Jesus than I'd ever managed as an Anglican.

    His answers are revealing when he is held to account on September 11, on women and democracy in Islam. He ends with his struggle to conform:

    ...you go through the door, and then the reality of religion is before you, which is ultimately about loving and adoring God, loving and adoring His creation, which is endlessly brilliant, beautiful, rigorous, difficult, fascinating. And trying to represent in one's own life a conformity to how God wants His servants to be. And that's difficult. Learning how to pray is easy, but actually conforming in the depths of one's being to what the divine, benign nature wants us to be - that's the real challenge. And I'm still working on that.

    The 'little town of Bethlehem' is now, like the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory. There's been less dreamless sleep for the Gazans since the Israeli invasion this Christmas. One religion-dominated community is yet again beating the hell out of another. What hope now for the bi-national solution imagined by humanist Edward Said?

    O little town of Bethlehem
    How still we see thee lie
    Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
    The silent stars go by
    Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting Light
    The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee tonight

    O holy Child of Bethlehem
    Descend to us, we pray
    Cast out our sin and enter in
    Be born to us today
    We hear the Christmas angels
    The great glad tidings tell
    O come to us, abide with us
    Our Lord Emmanuel

  • Spiced celeriac soup with orange

    Celeriac is a daunting vegetable: a great big knobbly thing that looks like it will be difficult to tackle. But it is worth the (small) effort and makes a wonderful, rich soup when combined with other seasonal vegetables.


    • Half a large celeriac, peeled and cubed
    • One and a half large potatoes, cubed
    • Two large carrots, cubed
    • One large leek, sliced
    • Glass of orange juice
    • Tin of large white chick peas
    • 3 pints approximately of vegetable stock
    • Ras-el-hanout Moroccan spice mix*


    Lightly sauté the leek in oil and leave to sweat down by covering the saucepan.

    Add all the other ingredients with the exception of the chick peas. Add the vegetable stock (I use Marigold stock powder, but don't make this too strong). Cook for around 20 minutes.

    Once the vegetables are soft use a hand-blender to reduce to a rich, creamy consistency. Add and warm through the chick peas and season with salt and pepper as required.

    *Ras-el-hanout is a subtle blend of spices which includes cloves, cardamon and ginger. It is an excellent compliment to the earthy celery flavour of celeriac.

  • Marrow, lentil and sage soup

    DSC00988.JPGWhat to do with the marrows? This time of year the garden and the fridge overflow. Here's my own recipe for a wonderful golden, warming soup.


    • 2lbs of marrow, cubed
    • 11/4lbs of potato, cubed
    • 4 small or two large onions, finely chopped
    • 2 large cloves of garlic
    • one large cup of red split lentils
    • 2 pts of Marigold vegetable stock
    • a generous handful of fresh sage, finely chopped
    • a dash of chilli sauce
    • 2 teaspoons of sugar
    • teaspoon of turmeric
    • salt and pepper to taste

    Sweat down the onions and garlic in red Carrotino oil (rich in vitamins A & E and made from palm and canola oil). Stir in the potatoes, marrow and sage. Coat with oil. Add the vegetable stock, lentils and seasoning and simmer gently for around 30 minutes. Either use a blender or a potato masher to reduce the soup to an even consistency. Serve immediately.

  • In the garden today

    654e4e0ef97da85635769b5d4225d153.jpgThis roe deer fawn sprinted into the garden with its mother and a sibling this morning. The fields round here are now 'set-aside' and they provide good cover for roe deer, but this was the first time we'd seen one in the garden. The mother left her offspring behind when she jumped clear over the garden wall, leaving them terribly upset.
    I never realised they could utter such sad little cries! We did our best to chase them back into the field so that they could re-join her. We hope they don't become too frequent visitors as they can kill trees and lay waste to vegetable patches.

  • Going for a song


    At this time of year the birdsong is a terrific pleasure, but not if you live in the city. The New Scientist reports the end of the dawn chorus, killed off by city noise. It was thought that light pollution was the cause, but now it seems to be simply that the birds can't make themselves heard over the din of the traffic. Late at night, on my way back from the station, I've often been stopped in my tracks by the sad sound of a solitary wren, singing its heart out under the sodium glare. Now researchers say birds are getting stressed out by this forced adaptation.

    So it's a good thing that digital audio channel Oneword is no longer broadcasting. Thanks to the alternative reality provided by the internet, you too can listen to a sample of the channel's replacement, 16 hours a day of birdsong, apparently proving very popular with city-dwellers starved of the sound of the natural world.

  • Trofie with smoked salmon

    03297bb7a087c4f27b725bd293147c91.jpgIncredibly quick to make, this simple recipe can be eaten as either a satisfying main course or as a lunchtime snack.

    INGREDIENTS, per portion
    100gm Ligurian trofie from Carluccio's or Camisa, Soho
    60gm smoked salmon
    tablespoon of crème fraîche
    quarter of a leek
    quarter of a red pepper
    tablespoon of frozen peas
    freshly ground black peppper


    Finely chop the vegetables, cut the salmon into strips.

    Cook the trofie for 15mins, adding the leeks after about 4mins, then the pepper, and finally the peas after about 12mins.

    Drain and toss in a little olive oil. Stir in the crème fraîche and the salmon; season with freshly ground black pepper.

  • Pears in ginger

    75adc6e1811a472f91bbbfdb8035b91c.jpgNot so much a recipe, more a 'pudding idea'

    I can't imagine not planting a pear tree in the community orchard we are creating locally. Earlier today a neighbour kindly brought round a big bag of Williams pears. Even if you're not fortunate enough to be given them, there are bargains to be had in the shops where under-appreciated English pears are often priced at less than apples.

    Whilst Comice is certainly one of the finest eating varieties, Williams' Bon Chretien is superb for cooking. It is described in The Fruit Manual of 1860 as "melting, with a rich, sugary, and delicious flavour, and powerful musky aroma". Best picked when green and ripened indoors.


    Peel, core and chop four large pears and add three pieces of very finely sliced Chinese stem ginger in syrup (available from Waitrose and elsewhere). Pour over a couple of dessert spoons of the syrup and microwave in a covered glass dish for around 4 minutes, stir and cook for a further couple of minutes as needed. Delicious with a good vanilla ice cream.

  • Quince syllabub recipe

    Our quince tree had a particularly good year. Quinces have such a special flavour, unlike anything else I know. This pudding has a wonderfully fragrant richness about it.

    Peel and chop four large quince; microwave in a closed dish for 8 minutes.  Purée the quince and stir in three tablespoons of crème fraîche. Add one to two tablespoons of Limoncello*. Sweeten with flakes of jaggery**. Serve chilled in small glass dishes with a little lemon zest decoration.


    *Limoncello is the 30% proof liqueur made from lemons grown on the Amalfi coast – and if you’ve never tried it, it’s delicious chilled.
    **Jaggery is raw palm sugar with a rich toffee-like taste. It’s sold in blocks and is used in Indian cooking.