Thursday, 15 December 2011


For years I've adopted a distinctly Scrooge-ish attitude to elaborate displays of outdoor Christmas lights, but this year it's different. This year they seem to have taken on a sort of brave defiance. If we're all going to hell in a handcart, why not do it with lots of twinkly lights? Haven't actually gone as far as putting any out myself. We lurk behind great swathes of unclipped shrubbery and trees, the sort of thing that any new person moving in would lay waste to within seconds. Any lights we put up would be completely invisible. The house itself is dour and louring, and splashing it with Christmas lights would be a bit like swathing a black clad Victorian matron with tinsel. Or worse.

We don't have a tree yet either. Well, we do, but it's stowed away in the barn, waiting for end of term when daughter and I (and her boyfriend this year) will decorate the tree. This will not take us long, the size of the tree reflecting the falling fortunes of the House of Badger. I spent some time wondering what I could do as a tree substitute, but decided that wrestling a dead elder out of the field and daubing it with decorations was an ironic statement too far, even for me.

So, we went and got a tree. It will need to be stood on a blanket box. If we carry on this way, next year's will be on a chest of drawers.

Anyway, I have been spending my evenings in a whirl of crafting activity, which is most unlike me, as any crafting I do generally goes wrong. If I have time off, I read. Or walk round in a dream. However, this year, I've started reading Cherry Menlove's blog, fully expecting that I was going to do lots of ironic and superior sniggering, but no. She's great, Cherry. She does craft and also cooking, and writes about her life brilliantly, and inspired purely by her (really, I would never have done this if I hadn't read the recipe on her blog) I made mincemeat. Now my version of doing this was not Cherry's because she doesn't have dogs and I do.

What you need when you do any sort of cooking is the very close and supportive attention only a Sprocker can give you. (This is Tarka, who we have for six months or so while my sister-in-law's away).

Perhaps I might drop something over this side. (The shoe was left there earlier by the labrador. I don't keep them in the middle of the floor.)

Labrador now back from  re-arranging shoes and ready to lend her support.

Daughter stirring the mix. Note the speed of her whirling spatula. Who says teenagers are lazy?

I couldn't photograph both dogs at this point, but the labrador is behind me, willing me to drop something. I am about to deal with a lemon. What dog would not sell its soul for a lemon?

Here's the mix. It smelled beyond amazing, but I haven't actually cooked with it yet, which might be an idea before I give the results to my unsuspecting friends.

Here's a link to the recipe. I didn't have Amaretto, and when I went to buy ingredients and found out the price of Amaretto, I still didn't. I plundered the drinks cupboard, and substituted Marsala. Not quite sure why we have Marsala, but there you go.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

War Horse - the Exhibition

The mark of a good exhibition is learning things, and being made to think about things you had previously not considered.  I freely admit military history is not something I spend a lot of time over. Sharpe and all Bernard Cornwell's fighting creations I love, but the minutiae of military manoeuvring generally leaves me cold. In that all of it impacts on living creatures; human and animal, it shouldn't, but it does.

The War Horse exhibition is right up my street, being about the effects of war on skin and bone; equine skin and bone.  A fair chunk of the exhibition is taken up with Michael Morpurgo and War Horse, the book, play and movie. That section of the exhibition is worth it if only to see the original of Victor Ambrus' illustration for the first edition of war horse.  The original cover wasn't helped by the overall cover design. The illustration on its own, framed (and now owned by Michael Morpurgo) is stunning.

The rest of the exhibition is well done. I had expected to come out of it with a broad sense of the part the horse played in war, and I did, but rather to my surprise, it was individual artefacts that made the most impression - the farrier's axe, for one. It was the stern practicality of it that got me: horses die in war, as we all know, but they are also terribly injured. I had assumed that seriously injured horses were shot, but for most of humanity's history, the bullet didn't exist, so what happened to the horse then?

What was used to deal with the situation was a farrier's axe. This had a spike on one part of the head, used to put the horse out of its misery, and an axe on the other, used to take off a hoof. Each horse would have had a numbered hoof, and what had happened to each horse could therefore be recorded.

When I think of war, I tend to think of the death-or-glory moments, and certainly not the clearing up.  All credit to the National Army Museum for including a section on the Brooke Hospital's work in Egypt. After, rather confusingly, stating that "The War Office promised that unwanted horses in Egypt and the Middle East were to be destroyed rather than sold on to cruel owners..." the next display talks about the miserable wrecks of army horses which Dorothy Brooke found when she moved to Egypt with her husband in 1930, without explaining how the horses got into that state, as they were obviously not destroyed.

When Dorothy Brooke found these horses, and there were thousands of them, not just a few, she organised an appeal through the Morning Post. It raised over £20,000 and the Brooke Hospital for Animals was born in Cairo. The Brooke Hospital did, and does, amazing work. There are still many, many working horses in the world, and the Brooke is dedicated to improving their lot through veterinary treatment and community education. It is out of print now, but if you can find a copy of For Love of Horses - Dorothy Brooke's Diaries, now sadly out of print, it is a fine read. She saw some truly terrible things. Most of the photographs following are not in the exhibition: some are graphic and upsetting, so please click away now if you are feeling fragile. The National Army Museum presumably has not included the worst lest they upset, but the end result of war for many horses was painful death, and for some unfortunates, years of suffering.

Old Bill - one of the first war horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke in 1931. His photo featured in her original appeal to the Morning Post (now Daily Telegraph) in 1931. 

Dorothy Brooke
One of the first horses rescued

An emaciated horse in Cairo 

Emaciated and suffering horse collapsed in a Cairo street
One of the first horses rescued by Dorothy Brooke 

Buying day 

Dorothy Brooke in the yard of the SPCA in Cairo with some of the war horses she rescued 

I can highly recommend the rest of the museum. If military strategy is not your thing that does not matter. The exhibits are wide ranging, and I had a thoroughly fascinating couple of hours fossicking about in what were not quite deserted galleries, but certainly not brimming with visitors. This is sad, as the museum's focus is on humanity, not tactics. I'm not entirely sure which of those categories the skeleton of Napoleon's war horse, Marengo's, skeleton comes into, but that's there too.

Thank you very much to the Brooke Hospital for supplying me with photographs from their collection. All photographs © The Brooke 

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

100 Poem Challenge

I love the poems you can see on London tube trains, which you can read as you strap hang mindlessly, tuning out humanity. Poems you don't know are like little nuggets which you might, or might not, have time to have got to the bottom of before you get off the train. After a brief, florid and unsuccessful excursion into poetry when I was 17, I settled to loving what other people do, and I do love Jen Campbell's poems. Recently she completed a 100 poem challenge, in which she wrote 100 poems in a weekend, and raised over £3,000 for EEC Syndrome.  Jen wrote each of the poems on a postcard, and here's mine:

and what I like to think of as my poem; particularly as when writing I like to drift off with the dogs along the hedgerows, telling myself I'm crafting, and not prevaricating.

Jen has collected all the poems together and published them. You can read more of the poems here.

Updated to say that one of Jen's poems will indeed be in a tube train near you (well, if you travel in London it will) as part of Words in Motion. The poem will be up in January.