Photo of a small piece of the soda bread, on a floral paper napkin

I didn’t expect to be writing a post about soda bread so I didn’t take a picture of the loaf. Only today, when I found that it was delicious when a day old I decided to post, by which time this was all that remained.

It is well-known that ‘Irish’ soda bread is good only on the day it is made, or so I have always understood (and that has been my experience). Consequently, I only made it when we had an ‘out of bread’ emergency, as yesterday, with no time to make a more conventional loaf (shop bought bread in the UK is not good, even in my opinion expensive ‘artisan’ loaves. I’ve been spoiled by German breads).

Because there are only two of us I always struggled to make a small enough quantity to eat on the same day (I hate discarding food but the birds were happy).

As Wednesday is one of our ‘veggie days’ we decided yesterday to eat an avocado each followed by ‘iahnie’ (pronounced, roughly, yak-nee-ay), a puree of butter beans for us but of the much larger ‘boabe’ (bwar-bay) beans in Romania, with bread. It’s usually flavoured with garlic, maybe other things like herbs.

No bread so I made a soda bread (but not the ‘real’ one as it calls for buttermilk, which I did not have). We ate it straight out the oven – the iahnie is cold. As usual we had some over so it was put in a bag, hot, still steaming when broken, with the idea of giving the birds a feast today. But, guess what, it was soft and absolutely delicious today when we ate it for our lunches. Poor birds!

Here’s the recipe I made:

250g wholemeal bread flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
200 ml full-fat milk
Juice of a lemon
1 tsp honey

Mix the dry ingredients well in a bowl. Pour the lemon juice into the milk (it’s magic!). Stir in the honey till dissolved. Make a well in the flour etc, pour in the ‘artificial buttermilk’ and mix with a spatula till the ‘dough’ is ‘together’. Shape into a round loaf, put on a floured baking tray (I use coarse semolina), cut a deep cross in the top and put in the oven preheated to 180degC (that’s my fan oven; I guess 200degC for ‘conventional’ oven). Bake for 30 minutes or till it sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom.

Note. This made a very ‘sloppy’ dough, difficult to handle and shape, so next time I’d add a bit more flour.

 

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Again you might blame my writers’ club colleague, Jo Campbell, for this story.

But not completely. The 17/18 years old students (at Liceul Tehnologic ‘Nicolae Nanu’, Broșteni, Neamț, Romania) of my former Romanian student, Paula, now herself a teacher of English, so liked my ‘dark’ 5th November story, which was prompted by Jo, I promised to write another for them. Unusually, I have written to the theme given for readings at today’s meeting of our club, Writing on the Wharfe.


Not in my diary

She had been meticulous as far as her diary was concerned. By ‘diary’ I mean journal, not a place to note appointments, meetings or other dates and times to be remembered.

The journal was completed over morning tea each day, relating the most important, to her, happenings of the previous day.

She had noted, on the page for 30th April, ‘St Walburger, witches’ sabbath!’. Born close to the Brocken in Germany, she had always observed this feast.

But, and it’s a big but, Richard, the name of the love of her life she has declared, has never appeared in the journal. ‘My love’, yes; ‘he’ or ‘him’, perhaps; but never the name – Richard.

Photo of the Cow&Calf

The Cow&Calf

It began one day when, as the sun was setting, she and Richard visited the famous Cow and Calf rocks on Ilkley Moor, in Yorkshire.

Not satisfied with standing on the larger ‘cow’ and admiring the superb view over the town of Ilkley and the Wharfe Valley, they descended with a mixture of runs and jumps to the ‘calf’ below. Giggling, they scrambled to the top of the smaller rock and lay out in the fading sun.

Let’s leave our names on the calf,” Richard suggested, “with today’s date. It’s a special day.”

I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Isn’t it better to leave the rocks as nature intended?” Heidi was a keen environmentalist.

One more won’t make much difference; there are so many on all the rocks,” Richard answered as he began to scratch the rock with a knife he always carried.

3, 0, A, P, R, 2, 0, 1, 5,  H, E, I, D, I,  A, N, D,  R, I, C, H, A, R … 

he hesitated as the knife met some resistance from an inclusion harder than the surrounding rock. Exasperated, he put his whole weight behind the blade, lost his balance and tumbled down to the ground.

Eventually the air ambulance arrived – two broken legs, a broken collar bone and a dislocated neck kept him in hospital for several weeks.

The following 30th of April, 2016, early evening, found the couple wandering through the New Forest hand-in-hand in the twilight. As trees began to assume fantastic shapes in the fading light, an impressive oak, its trunk of a girth which the two lovers could not encircle with their outstretched arms, made them stop and rest, backs against the rough but somehow comfortable majesty supporting the now leafy branches above.

I’m going to carve our names here so this tree will remember us,” Richard announced.

If you do, it will remember us with pain. Don’t do it, please.”

Oh, you’re too superstitious. Trees don’t feel and anyway it can’t do any harm to one so enormous!,” Richard retorted, the irritation clear in his voice as he took the knife from his pocket and began:

3, 0, A, P, R, 2, 0, 1, 6,  H, E, I, D, I,  A, N, D,  R, I, C, H, A, R …

a large gasp broke the concentrated silence as the knife slipped to make a deep gash in his left wrist.

Blood, so much blood, fountained from the cut, obliterating the carved letters before covering Heidi’s breast. Quick thinking, she ripped off her blood-soaked shirt and applied a tourniquet.

Nevertheless, Richard lapsed into unconsciousness and the paramedics, who arrived quickly following Heidi’s desperate phone call, told her he was lucky to be alive and would not be were it not for her prompt action.

One year later, 30th April 2017, found the couple on the Brocken, following a visit to Heidi’s parents. 

They didn’t take the steam train up to the highest peak in the Harz mountains but decided to walk, though there were vestiges of snow on the peak.

About half way up they left the road, found a clearing among the pines and sat to eat their picnic. Richard lit the tiny light-weight gas stove and poured bottled water into the small pan they had brought to make a warming tea.

Etching, St Walburger’s Night, Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829

Etching, St Walburger’s Night, Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829

This is a magical place my love; I’m so glad you brought me here.” Richard wasn’t usually so easily impressed.

You just be careful; it is a magical place but it’s witches’ magic, not fairies’ magic,” Heidi warned him.

Oh you and your superstitions. I don’t believe a word of it. Anyway, it’s beautiful. I’m going to carve our names in the dry turf here,” he finished, pulling out his knife.

Please don’t. Just leave it as nature intended,” Heidi pleaded.

But Richard had already completed her name and the first six letters of his own. Turning quickly, his elbow caught the little stove and it was on its side, setting the dry turf alight.

A forest ranger found them in a tight embrace. 

In his police report he wrote: “I don’t understand how the fire burned in a perfect circle with them at the centre, or how such a small fire could completely carbonise the two corpses. Even stranger in a way was that there was a diary lying there next to them, completely untouched by the fire. The last entry was for 30th April; it just read “This is not in my diary!”

§

Photo of chart showing katakanya characters, on my fridge door

Katakanya has joined hiragana on my fridge door

Fifteen days, usually one ‘lesson’ a day, further down the duolingo Japanese course from my post with beginner’s comments, I can say that the claimed “5 minutes a day” is optimistic, certainly for me. I did complete each of the first ten ‘lessons’ in 5 minutes or so but as they became more difficult that extended considerably; I did not time this morning’s lesson but it certainly took me 30 minutes or more. On the other hand, I thought long and hard about each question and made only one mistake.

In my previous post on the subject I wondered whether I should compare the Japanese course with one for a language In which I am reasonably fluent. Let me clarify that: I can read it without a problem, understand it spoken with few problems, but have many difficulties attempting to write it. So, I decided to do the Romanian course alongside the Japanese. In four days I have completed many ‘lessons’, certainly more than 40, with very few mistakes. And I have begun to understand the complexities of Romanian articles, singular and plural, and the use of the diacritical marks, for the first time. So far so good. I’m hoping that soon I will not be asking Petronela “is it ă, â or a in …?”

Romanian on duolingo

Romanian prăjituri

Romanian prăjituri

Cupcakes. Good for children

Cupcakes. Good for children

What is clear is that the Romanians constructing this course are heavily influenced by American English so that there are some bad, misleading translations (eg, ‘prăjituri’ is said to be ‘cup cakes’; the wonderful small Romanian cakes and pastries bear no resemblance to those silly over-decorated buns (as we would call them) which have become fashionable. In fact there is no good English word for the Romanian creations (there’s probably one in German or Austrian as they have similar things). The best I can come up with in British English is ‘fancies’ but it would be better to describe them.

As far as grammar is concerned, the Romanian course developers seem never to have heard of ‘present continuous’, which would often be a more appropriate translation than the present simple given. Admittedly, correct use of simple and continuous was usually difficult to grasp for my Romanian students as they don’t make the difference in Romanian.

Back to Japanese

I wonder if the lack of explanations is deliberate in the Japanese course. If so I think, as a former language teacher, it is rather misguided as when I first began the course many things were totally confusing. I mentioned in my previous post the overall title of the first lessons being ‘hirigana’, with no explanation of what hirigana is, was confusing to me.

Even more confusing was, having completed the hirigana lessons, I was suddenly confronted with the title ‘intro’. Only after I completed a few lessons did it become clear that the ‘intro’ was to a totally different writing system ‘katakanya’. Rather late in the day I’ve realised that ‘intro’ is probably not ‘introduction’ but ‘introductions’.

Then there’s the wonder of large and small characters and diacriticals, which change the pronunciation, meaning or both.

And I haven’t got to the kanji, the Chinese characters, yet! Or I don’t think I have. In fact I don’t really know what I have got to as I have no idea  what some of characters introduced are. But, at last, some kind of logic has begun to appear and I made only one mistake in this morning’s lesson, by deduction. As I said last time, a really good thing about duolingo is the collection of forums, populated with people who are only too willing to help. Without them I would probably have given up.

An important word of warning

Beware of the advertisements. There are all sorts of inducements to view advertisements but some are hiding some well known ‘scams’. Avoid particularly those offering ‘free trials’. They will usually eventually ask for the cost of postage and packing, thereby obtaining your bank card details, and lock you in to automatic reordering of the product at a ridiculous price. At the end of each lesson you are invited to obtain some advantage by watching an ad. I now never do. Duolingo would do itself a great favour by excluding the ‘scam’ advertisements.

 

I’m not a fan of ‘dark’ tales, of Gothic literature (not even Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley) though I did have a teenage period when I was crazy about Dennis Wheatley‘s occult novels (anyone remember The Devil Rides Out, his first, and the first I read?) – not quite the same thing but certainly scary. (The film ‘The Exorcist‘ cured me of that, sometime in the ’70s I think, and I’ve never watched or read the like since). However, as the meeting of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, was a few days before 31 October we were set to write a ‘Halloween story’. I dislike what ‘Halloween’ has become too so I said I’d prefer to write around a real English tradition, a November 5th story.

Last year I did attempt a ‘dark’ story so I asked one of our newer members (Jo Campbell) to read it and give an opinion as she’s a fan of Gothic literature and writes ghoulish tales. As she is a relative newcomer to blogging I was delighted that about a week ago she extended her sparse blog to include things like her story (not ‘dark’ at all) for our ‘performance’ at the Ilkley Literature Festival, which has to be my favourite from the night. Her blog is here.

As she liked my tale from last year (suggesting one amendment, which I’ve made) I decided to try another. This is below. Last year’s, Hallow’morrow, is under the ‘Short stories’ menu.


Guy was puzzled. Forks in the road, with signposts clearly indicating the way to his destination, never seemed to get him there. In fact, it was just one fork and the third time he’d arrived at it. He was feeling ever more cold though wearing warm cycling gear and it was not yet winter, being only the beginning of November, the 5th of November to be precise.

He’d set off from his flat in Gillygate in York, close to where St. Peter’s School had been when attended by the best remembered gunpowder plot conspirator, with the idea of visiting the abandoned medieval village of Wharram Percy; there was a ruined church, parts of which were medieval, and really old gravestones, which were particularly interesting to him.

He didn’t take his road bike as he’d decided to take a cross-country route from the still populated village of Wharram le Street rather than the usual advertised walk from the English Heritage car park. However, the gear change on his off-road bike had been playing up recently so he decided not to go directly via Malton but to make a detour to Easingwold and call in on bikeWright to see if they could fix the gear problem. 

The Easingwold shop had repaired the gear change but it took far longer than he’d planned. By the time he arrived in Malton the light was already fading and a typical November mist was thickening. He debated with himself whether it might be better to go directly home from Malton but he had excellent lights on the bike, chosen for riding off road in the dark, and a powerful flashlight in his backpack so, thinking a tour of the ruined church with no-one else around might be fun, he continued. He set off down the B1248 and was soon in Wharram le Street. Having taken Station Road as he remembered from the map, it was not long before he’d reached the fork with a signpost to Wharram Percy, though he almost missed it in the deepening gloom.

When he first set off down the narrow lane signposted to Wharram Percy there was still a little light so he was surprised when he seemed to arrive back at the fork. He had not seen any turning, signposted or not, since leaving the spot. “I must have missed it in the gloom,” he muttered and set off again.

On the second visit to the fork he recalled catching a glimpse of a billboard announcing that Catesby Estates had acquired a field near the fork for a new estate. “Many people would be scared to go out at night in such an isolated place,” he thought, “Strange how the notice has disappeared – maybe it was further back than I remember, maybe it’s just the mist is a lot thicker now.”

He began down the lane for a second time, cycling very slowly, looking carefully to left and right. Finally he come to a fork with a sign post to Wharram Percy.

But it was the same fork. Of that he was sure.

Was someone or something trying to tell him he shouldn’t go there? Should he give up and carry straight on, to Stamford Bridge then home to York?

“Damned if I will,” he said aloud. “”I’ll give it one more go!”

He set off again. There was little light now but enough, he thought, to make finding the church worthwhile. The lane soon became something he did not recognise, trees on either side making it ever darker but the broad beam of his headlight picked out ruts and large stones to be avoided. “This isn’t bad,” he thought, “if only it were not getting so damned cold.” He shivered, despite the effort required on the rough track.

A large dark mass emerged out of the gloom without warning; it took him a moment to realise he was only a few yards from the church, the broken tower reaching out to a moon filtered by mist, a few dark clouds recalling scenes from a Hammer horror film. Spooky.

Then he saw them, a small group of figures, men.

“Damn!” he exclaimed softly. He had hoped to be alone.

“Must be some kind of event, or rehearsal for one,” he thought, noticing now that the figures were in cloaks, pointed hats and carrying flaming rush torches, not flashlights.

Laying his bike down he approached them but before he could say a word one of the group said loudly “Thither he is. Alloweth not him receiveth hence.”

The group surged forward, one grabbing his arms, another swiftly tying his wrists behind his back.

“Hey, I don’t know who the hell you think I am but I’m not part of your play or whatever it is. I just came to see the church.”

“Thou art Guy aren’t thee?” The question came from the man who seemed to be leader of the group.

“Yes but –“. His answer was cut off with a glare and a slap in the face, a hard slap. “Bid us, bid us, who is’t they wast.” He didn’t understand and the accent was one he didn’t recognise.

He must have been slapped very hard as the faces in front of him kept fading in and out, even disappearing for a few seconds. “He’ll not bid, Sir William;” said one. “Rack him!” shouted another.

He felt himself being bundled forwards, then up stone steps in the tower, his increasingly desperate protests: “This is crazy! I’m not who you think, I’m just a visitor, and it’s bloody dangerous to climb up here,” were ignored.

The group ceased pushing him upwards. There was now only a glimmer of light. He strained to refocus on what was directly in front. Some rope, a loop of rope. A hangman’s noose. Instinctively he took a step to the side to avoid putting his head in it.

A dog walker (Wharram Percy is a favourite place for dog walkers early morning) found him at the base of the church tower. He clearly had a broken neck. “The idiot must have tried to climb the tower in the dark,” the dog walker said to himself as he pulled out his mobile phone.


Wharram Percy is probably the best known deserted medieval village in Europe as a result of all the excavation and research which has been done there. It’s now an English Heritage site.

Did you pick up the clues ‘hidden’ in the story? Not difficult. A bit of self-indulgent fun on my part. Guy Fawkes avoided the hangman’s noose for his part in the 1605 plot to blow up the House of Lords, with the king, either by jumping or falling from the scaffold (it is not known which) and breaking his neck.

It’s difficult to believe that the leading UK cancer charities can be so thoughtless. Their advertising, bombarding sufferers frequently with reminders on both radio and television just is not helpful or supportive at all.

Start of Macmillan tv advertisement showing a dad reading a bedtime story to his small daughter

Lovely scene from the opening of a Macmillan advertisement

Of course it is probably more about money than anything. My reaction to charities spending vast amounts of money on advertising is just not to give them any. Similar considerations apply to those spending vast amounts of money on ‘rebranding’ or extraordinarily high executive salaries.

Leading cancer ‘support’ charities

Leading cancer charities? Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Nurses, Marie Curie. I’m sure they each do a good job, in fact I have reason to know this is the case with Marie Curie who supported my mother at the end of her life. But to bombard cancer sufferers daily with frequent reminders of their condition is anything but helpful.

Still from the advertisement above showing the dad being sick

Do cancer sufferers really need reminding how unpleasant chemotherapy can be

The worst I’ve seen is an advertisement with the tag line ‘A dad with cancer is still a dad‘. It is an ad by Macmillan. The clip begins with a dad telling his daughter a bedtime story; in my opinion that was all that was necessary. But then with a few flashes it shows him suffering as a result of chemotherapy, including a nurse telling him “it’s hard” and him vomiting in a wash basin.

What effect does the advertising team who came up with this, or the charity executives who approved it, think this has on someone facing chemotherapy?

I guess they don’t think as long as the money keeps rolling in.

As I wrote in a recent post, I have begun to learn a little Japanese using Duolingo. What attracted me in the first place was the promised ‘Learn Japanese in 5 minutes a day’. I cannot usually read the blogs I follow, let alone comment on them as I like to do, over my morning tea (Yorkshire tea of course!); the same often applies to messages received on Messenger. But something ‘useful’ I could do in those few minutes appealed to me so I installed the duolingo app on my iPad.

Ten lessons completed I can say that ‘learning Japanese in 5 minutes a day’ is not quite true; ‘Learn a little Japanese in 5 minutes a day’ would be more true.

Mistakes?

In the first two or three lessons I was repeatedly clicking the ‘report’ button when what I was hearing (the ‘characters’ are vocalised, which is great) did not seem to match up with the ‘spelling’, in English characters, of the sound. There did not seem to be anywhere any explanations of this, or of many other things encountered in the lessons, which further confused me.

Hiragana, hirakana – let’s call the whole thing off!

At the most basic, each of the groups of ‘5 minute lessons’ is titled ‘Hiragana #’ but what on earth is Hiragana? It’s not the obvious ‘Lesson’ but a Japanese syllabary script, one component of the Japanese writing system. Note the “one component”!

However, there are only 48 Hiragana ‘characters’, so that doesn’t sound too bad. So, we are learning one Japanese syllabary script – Hiragana. Fine. Once you get the idea of using sounds rather than consonant plus vowel it’s not so bad, so vocalises as hi-ra-ka-na. I’m not going to get into the ‘ga’ being ‘ka’, there is no ‘ga’ as such, but you can understand why I was confused at the start.

Then, for some reason I cannot remember, I opened duolingo on my Macbook, not the ‘app’, and discovered another world. In particular I found there was a forum for each of the languages. So I posted a question on the Japanese forum, something like ‘Why are there so many mistakes in pronunciation?’. Almost immediately my question was answered (they were not ‘mistakes’) by other users. These answers made me trawl through many forum postings, by the end of which I knew much more about the Japanese language, and duolingo Japanese. That probably took me 12-24 5 minute lesson times.

Hang on! In the forum words like kana, kanji, katakana, are bandied about; what on earth are those? It turns out with research (thank goodness for Google and Wikipedia!) that kana are the syllabic Japanese scripts, including hiragana; katakana and kanji are others (note I didn’t say ‘the others’). I understand that to find your way about Japan, or to read a newspaper, you will have to learn about 2,000 Kanji ‘characters’, more complex like this 漢字 – that is ‘kanji’ written in kanji.

Put off?

I haven’t been but how much better it would have been if there was a short ‘introduction’ explaining these things, before you begin the lessons.

I don’t know whether some similar confusions exist for beginners with other languages; I could check with a language I know well – Romanian – or a few I know a little – French, Spanish, Italian – but to be honest I’d rather spend the time exploring other sources for the Japanese.

Not a classroom learner

Our fridge door. The magnets and ‘common English words), remaining from many more after some 14 years when Petronela was learning English, will be replaced by kanji when I begin to try to learn them.

Our fridge door. The magnets and ‘common English words), remaining from many more after some 14 years when Petronela was learning English, will be replaced by kanji when I begin to try to learn them.

I have never been good at learning languages in the classroom but picked up the essentials rapidly when living in, or visiting frequently, the respective country (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), but forgot them equally rapidly when that was no longer the case. So a little further down the road I’ll take the opportunity to speak with other learners or, if possible, Japanese natives.

When it comes to learning kanji, I’ll resort to what I did for my Romanian wife when she first came to the UK with no more than 8 words of English – cover the fridge in stickers, in her case common words, for me kanji ‘characters’. I already write the hiragana in a note book as I’m doing the lessons and I’ll begin to do that correctly following the guide I’ve found (see picture above).

It’s unlikely I’ll visit Japan again (I was there for about 2 weeks in the late ’60s). However, even now, ten lessons in, I see why I came to the conclusion instinctively, as I posted here, that ‘haiku’ written in English are not haiku at all. If my learning efforts allow me to write a haiku in Japanese with which I am satisfied it will all have been worthwhile.

Photo of the Rex Cabernet Sauvignon bottleI can hardly believe that it’s taken me until now to discover Slovenian wine. Several decades ago, when I was a bit ‘wealthier’ than now, I used to buy ‘Grand cru’ wines by the case at auction. Despite this level of interest in wine I’d never heard of Slovenian wine. Shame!

I’d probably have passed by this odd-shaped bottle (red wine) had it not been for following a Slovenian writer/blogger for the past couple of years. That being so, I bought a bottle for interest (Vinakoper Rex Cabernet Sauvignon), quite prepared to find that it was rubbish. What a revelation: intense red, for me (and Petronela and our Saturday evening supper guest) just the right level a tannin coming through all the fruit. Just wonderful. I’ve since researched Slovenian wine and found that this tiny country is among the world’s earliest wine producers (also home to the world’s oldest fruit bearing vine, 400+ years old) turning out top class wines , particularly white wines but not exclusively, obviously. My ignorance is not entirely my fault; evidently until recently little was exported – they drank it all themselves.

From what I’ve read, the vintage I bought (2013) is probably not the best; it seems that 2012 is better so that must be astounding. Sadly, returning to buy another couple of bottles it was no more.

Better than Mary Berry? Did I dare to say that?

Photo of Six of the dozen soft hamburger rolls I made

Six of the dozen soft hamburger rolls I made

Having begun a ‘foodie’ blog, which I haven’t done for some time, I’ll continue but no recipes (though links to a couple), just a run down of our Saturday supper. As the ‘foodies’ among you will know, I rarely follow recipes to the letter but this time I did: Stefane’s grandmother’s Vichyssoise, which cannot be bettered; soft hamburger rolls from Veena Azmanov (they tasted great, beautifully soft, though too soft and sticky a dough to form well – I think I’d add more flour next time). My hamburgers are always based on ‘Biftek haché à la Lyonnaise‘ from Julia Childs, but never quite the same.

Really wicked chocolate mousse

For dessert I started with Mary Berry‘s ‘Wicked chocolate mousse‘ but made it a little more ‘wicked’. For my taste, Petronela’s and our guest’s I think even better than the celebrity cook’s version, less sweet, more intense chocolate taste and with a kick. How? Substituting 85% cocoa chocolate for 40% of the ‘plain chocolate’ specified by MB and dosing it with a little chilli. I served it with fresh strawberries. I’d recommend it.

The Slovenian wine would go well with anything like a steak or game, or such an intense chocolate dish.