The Perfect Cuppa, Mr Orwell

Orwell and tea

 


 

It’s a point of contention, isn’t it: how to make that perfect cup of tea? Putting to one side the fact that some people insist on having tea without milk while the rest of us stick to our traditional milk and tea formula, the biggest divide is the battle between the BIFs and the MIFs (the Bag in Firsters or the Milk in Firsters). Now, interestingly, I was brought up as something of a MIF until I finally saw the error of my ways halfway into my teens. Bag in first has got to be the way to go. Why? Well, as George Orwell himself helpfully pointed out in his essay A Nice Cup of Tea (1946) . . .

 

“. . . this is one of the most controversial points of all [. . .] The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

 

Well said, Mr Orwell. Also, I just can’t help feeling that the bag just brews better without all that damnable milk getting in the way. Another key point is that the water needs to be boiling to make the perfect cup of tea – cold milk reduces the temperature and thus decreases the tea’s brewability (yep, pulling out the scientific vocabulary here) and so there’s plenty of arguments for the BIF School. Following on from this point, I have to say, somewhat ashamedly, that I go so far as to re-boil the kettle if I miss it just when it’s boiled – this has driven housemate’s of mine insane in the past – all to make sure that I get the water as close to that holy 100 degree point as possible. Orwell again had some advice of his own here, recommending you always bring the cup to the kettle and not vice versa to ensure the water doesn’t have time to cool (and you thought making tea was as simple as bag, boil, pour . . . for shame!)

 

The final point of consideration is how long to brew the tea for. This has to be a matter of taste but, personally, I tend to give the bag a couple of stirs and then leave it in the cup for about two minutes. Then I’ll pour in the milk and give it an extra stir if I pour in too much. I do, it has to be said, favour strong tea and friends of mine have compared it to gasoline in the past (yeah, for some reason it warrants the American term because, let’s face it, it just sounds so much filthier than “petrol”). Again, I have to reference Orwell, who wrote that, “All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.” Now did you know that interesting nugget of history?

 

Which brings us onto bags. I’ve been a Yorkshire Tea man myself, well, for most of my twenties anyway, but I’m not too anal about this. I’ve definitely had a good cup o’ Tetley before and the Twining’s English Breakfast is always good if left to brew that little bit longer. You can keep your fancy herbal teas because for me, tea is about the only thing that gives me a spark of patriotism: British brands all the way. One final note on this topic: Yorkshire Tea have been doing a “Hard Water” brand; I live in Oxford which is in the hard water region and, after using both versions, I can honestly say there’s no real difference. So, after spending a month or so on the hard water version, I’ve reverted back to the normal because – in fairness – it’s cheaper.

 

That’s about all I have to say on the topic. If you’d like to read more then check out Orwell’s essay, which is in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, 1943-45.

 

Other interesting bits of advice he gives are: use a pot (though who really has time for one of those, these days?); use a cylindrical cup and not the low cup type (this is apparently because they keep the heat in for longer but, unless you’ve got a bus pass, you’re probably drinking tea from a mug anyway) and lastly, drink tea without sugar “. . . how can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it?” Orwell grumbles.

 

So there you have it. If I’ve not swayed you in any way I at least hope to have shown a few people that George Orwell could be a pretty down-to-earth guy . . . well, kind of . . . capable of taking a break from dystopia to talk about quaint old lovely tea.

 

Thanks for reading and take care.

 

Cheers,

 

James

The Illusion of Genius and The Lure of the Villain

Frank Underwood

So, I’ve finally got around to watching House of Cards these last two weeks (I know, I know, very late on this one!) and I have to say that I was really sold for most of season one. It dipped a little bit for me closer to the end but then it had a nice little shock in store, which reinvigorated the show. Season 2 started off with a bit of a bang but I found I just wasn’t as involved with the drama as much in this season and now I think I know why . . .

It got me thinking about what I’ve called (for want of a better phrase) “The Illusion of Genius”. Basically, House of Cards, if you haven’t seen it, revolves around an anti-hero played by Kevin Spacey. As is the case with many antiheroes, because we generally become so familiar with the darker aspects of the character, it’s when the story shows us the human side of this otherwise villainous personality that we really become invested. I found this was definitely true of HOC; the story excels when it shows us this other side of Spacey’s character – his relationship with his wife; his fears, his worries. Heck, even his love of singing, which came out in a later episode, became riveting precisely because it was, at first, difficult to reconcile this passion with an otherwise cold, calculating megalomaniac. This in itself is a great point for analysis – the lure of the villain. Present us with a villain and then peel away the layers of their personality with a gripping narrative and we’re hooked. Great villains such as Count Fosco in The Woman in White work so well because of this. Or, for a more sympathetic example, how about Captain Hook? Most of us are drawn to darkness but there’s something truly compelling about exploring how the light can function in the dark or vice versa. That, I feel is one of the most interesting things that is at work with antiheroes here but I would welcome other peoples’ opinions for this really is something I’m only just starting to think about.

Now, the “Lure of the Villain” is one thing, how about this “Illusion of Genius” stuff? The other common aspect of the villain is maintaining their devious nature and maintaining this sense of a higher intellect. What I said to a friend was that, when creating a good antagonist, you basically have to create a character that is cleverer than you yourself are, maybe a great deal more so. It’s not good enough just to have them saying witty things or to be constantly confounding the protagonist – their very actions are what’s steering the plot of the narrative because the villain’s actions are what the hero reacts against. So, put simply, you have to make these actions damn clever if you really want to make a memorable, well-written villain. What’s more, you can’t just cheat and make your good guys stupid so that your villain seems a genius in comparison, no no, to really succeed you have to make your good guys clever as well. It’s comparable to trying to turn yourself into a genius every time you sit down to write – pretty much an impossible task. Of course, the time you can spend planning a single choice or action as a writer – a whole day spent crafting the tiniest remark, for example – certainly tips the odds in your favour but it can still cause a dilemma for even the best of writers.

Back to my model, House of Cards. In my opinion, the illusion of genius was compromised in the second season of the show. Kevin Spacey’s character seems clever, I still felt somewhat in awe of what he’s able to do (usually a mixture of awe/repulsion) but Senator Frank Underwood’s (Spacey’s) machinations are often directed against a host of witless adversaries. Everyone seems to fall for Spacey’s tricks and there were moments when I thought, “Hang on, would I have fallen for that?” “No . . . then why have you got mateyboy who you’ve just spent a whole season convincing me is much more adept at dealing with people/manipulating people/who is, in all respects, far more intelligent than I am – falling for it?”

The result? I lost interest.

I’d love to hear some feedback about this problem in narrative writing. Do you have any examples of characters who break the illusion of genius? And, if you write yourself, have you had any problems building up such an illusion? Finally, what are your thoughts on “The Lure of the Villain”? Again, do you have any examples of villains that have really won your heart? Or even just feedback with a list of your all time favourite villains/anti heroes; FYI, one of my all time favourites has to be Steerpike from Gormenghast! What a character!

Thanks for reading,

Cheers,

James

Final Note: I’ve since watched the third season of House of Cards and I have to say that they do a good job of raising the bar of Frank Underwood’s competition – people are generally not fooled so easily in this series and Underwood is challenged a lot more. Still, I feel that by this point the ambiguous morality of Spacey’s character, which was so absorbing in season 1 has diluted into a man with fairly one-dimensional motivations. Again, I just wasn’t sold.

All this being said, if you haven’t checked out House of Cards already, I would definitely urge you to do so because it still makes for some excellent viewing and it’s a great example of the sort of quality story writing which is becoming (more and more) such a big part of modern day television. Just a shame about Hollywood, eh!

Game of Thrones Season 5 Episode 1 – Tyrion’s got a Beard; Lancel Has Shoulders and the Nudity Count is Still as High as Ever!

 

Lancel


Tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones was a great start to the new season. It doesn’t exactly kick-off with a bang and it doesn’t particularly end with a bang but it was a thoroughly gripping episode nonetheless. We’ve been told to expect a host of new characters this season so it was surprising there weren’t any new faces, but this, I feel, was probably a good move at this stage. However, there were a lot of jumps between the characters we do have, with the show reverting to the classic Game of Thrones switcheroo formula (which stood out a little bit after the more streamlined narratives that formed the last few episodes of Season 4).

Despite this, the fact that they have kept to the characters we know means that the show did an excellent job of picking up on each of the storylines we’re already familiar with whilst enticing us with the possibilities of where each one of these characters might well be heading. Just when things couldn’t look bleaker for Tyrion, he now has a purpose (even if it is a drunken “Why the hell not?” kinda purpose); Jamie and Cersei will either be torn apart or they’ll come together to face-off against what could very well be the whole of King’s Landing; Khaleesi might have to go back on all she stands for if she wants to prove her strength to her people and good-old Jon Snow has shown us exactly what he thinks about all this Lord of Light hoo-hah. In short, we know exactly where we are with each character; it’s a comfortable position to be in and this is a solid strategy for the first episode of the series – leave the mystery for when the narrative has had time to develop.

As for the bad points of the show, hmm, there was maybe a somewhat random scene with Lancel Lanister (who’s had a complete makeover for the show, it seems, along with a personality change and about 10 kilos of extra muscle put onto him), not quite sure where they’re going with this particular thread but it seems they’re making efforts to get us closer to Cersei’s motivations regarding Tywin and Tyrion. This is paralleled by a flashback scene at the beginning of the episode – a scene which leaves out a critical piece of information that was given in the book. With regards to this, I think the Cersei storyline could very well develop in both interesting and unexpected directions in the TV show.

So, OK, I might be guilty of turning that bad point into a good one there but still, it’s yet to be seen what they’ll do with Cersei’s storyline and whether they’ll pull it off. One thing I was a little disappointed in this episode, however, was the dialogue between Tyrion and Varys – though this might just be me nitpicking. It was good, I’m not denying that, I just can’t help thinking it could have been better. We’ll have to wait and see how things develop between these two. The whole Tyrion/Varys thing is one of the biggest changes from the books this season as Varys effectively disappears at this point in the books only to reappear right near the end. I think it was an inspired choice sending him along for the ride with Tyion as what use is Tyrion’s witty banter if he hasn’t got another great mind to banter with? All I can say though is that I was really looking forward to the dialogues between these two and although they got a couple of titters out of me this episode – that was about it. Having said this, Tyrion is obviously at a low point at this part of the tale and the book really did milk this for quite awhile. I get the feeling that the series is going to tone down this side of Tyrrion, giving us just enough of Melancholy Lannister to be realistic yet, at the same time, I get the impression we’ll soon be seeing Peter Dinklage doing what he does best – stealing the show. So yes, I guess that’s another bad point turned good.

It seems then that I really am fully sold on this episode. Ultimately, it does exactly what an opening episode in a latter season should do – it takes us back into the narrative whilst providing a strong focal point as to where things might be heading and this, in-turn builds up anticipation and excitement – emotions which subsequent episodes will either play on mercilessly or squander hopelessly. Let’s wait and see!

Who Said No Poaching?!

nopoaching


A lot of people are often surprised when I tell them I poach my chicken. “How can you poach chicken?” They say and I’m guessing they’ve maybe thought about or even tried poaching eggs but that this is about as far down that particular road they’re willing to travel. Well, I say, this needs to stop! Poaching is a great way to cook your food. Of course eggs are great poached – plenty of people are willing to admit that – the thing is, lots of people shy away from it because they think the egg is basically going to end up as one big gooey mess. To be fair, it probably isn’t going to be perfect but by keeping two key principles in mind, you can have relatively “goo-free” poached eggs.

Principle 1: Keep your eggs out of the fridge. Apparently, the temperature difference causes them to come apart more easily in boiling water.

Principle 2: Once you’ve got the water boiling and reduced the temperature to a simmer, break your egg just over the water – don’t drop it in from too great a height.

That’s about it. I’ve heard all kinds of other tips, such as – use vinegar, create a vortex by stirring the water first and then put the egg in after that but, to be honest, I’ve not really noticed much of a difference. Yes, the egg will spill somewhat once it’s in the water but the white part will be just as edible and all you need is something to scoop it up with (one of those metal spoons with the holes in it will come into its own here). Voila! Healthy, yummy-runny-eggies.

So now let’s up our game: chicken. I almost always poach or steam my chicken now. It couldn’t be easier. If you buy frozen chicken fillets then defrost them in the microwave first; otherwise just heat up the water, place in the fillet and go. I tend to simmer them for about 15 minutes. I’ll turn the fillets twice in this time and then I’ll cut them and make sure they’re cooked properly inside. Again, it’s super healthy and – especially if you get your timing right – super tender! Say goodbye to those all those days of dry, chewy chicken and welcome in this new era of mouth watering, meaty morsels. Ultimately, for me, there’s just something about being able to eat chicken on a regular basis whilst maintaining a healthy diet.

Now, all this being said, I probably do need to start varying things in the kitchen a bit more so any other ideas are very welcome! Thanks for reading.

Strangers in Hokkaido


Hokkaido

Our journey into Japan’s Daisetsuzan National Park started with a six-foot bear. Luckily, it was stuffed and confined to the Tourist Information Office but from that point on, I was going to be picturing bears everywhere.

 

How did I manage to get my girlfriend to agree to this? ‘Only fifty-five kilometres from one end of the park to the other. The guide calls it The Grand Traverse. With a name like that, we have to do it!’

 

So there we were, hiking up the daunting Asahi-dake Mountain. Five hours of hiking in boots that weren’t as worn-in as we’d hoped and then half-walking, half-sliding to the campsite on the other side. We slept that night on nails of cold that bit through the groundsheet.

 

A long hike over mountaintops the next day with Hokkaido laid bare before us. Vocal renditions of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack were now the norm. That evening the reds of sundown threw our tent into a ghostly silhouette as I warmed our hot chocolates on the camping stove.

 

On day three, winds blustered as feet blistered and ached. We failed to reach the next campsite by dark and pitched the tent in a ravine to avoid the chill. I hung our bear bells on a nearby bush. Cling, cling, throughout the night but it was every crack of a twig that pushed sleep further and further away.

 

Over thirty hours without seeing even a solitary hiker. The mountains in the distance rolled into more mountains, with snow-draped valleys nestled in-between. A troop of deer watched us from the other side of a glistening ice cap. It was the last evening and it began to snow. We headed for a mountain hut but we would not be alone. Four Japanese hikers were already there and they gave us a friendly welcome. Within moments they were offering us warm food and sake. Communication was a mixture of charades and speed-reading the phrasebook.

 

Dawn. A touching goodbye as we headed our separate ways. I was determined to complete the route we’d marked on the map. Unfortunately, I’d miss-read it; we came out, ten kilometres shy of our exit, into an empty car park with two elderly men waiting on a bench. A middle-aged woman in a jeep came to pick them up and the snow came down harder.

 

We huddled together – maybe we argued just a little – but the jeep returned. The woman beckoned us in and chatted away happily in Japanese as she drove us to the bus stop. A surprising sight awaited us; our hikers were already there. We soon found ourselves squeezing together for a nine-person strong photograph. There were many bows, thank yous and repetitions of the new word I’d taught them, “cheers”, which soon became “cheersarigato”.

 

That night, in a warm hotel room, I smiled at this new word. I couldn’t help thinking that of all the beauty of Daisetsuzan, it was the congeniality of a few Japanese hikers that really made our journey.

7 Books to Take to a Desert Island . . .

James 5-001
Fairly common question but what better question is there for a first blog post? A friend asked me to choose 7 books from my bookshelf the other day and challanged me to write a sentence as to why I chose each. Here goes . . .

Gormenghast

Dark enticing tone, richly weaved at the backdrop of writing’s most compelling antihero.

The Tale of Desperaux

The ultimate romantic tale of a hero overcoming all odds to save the day, and the hero is a mouse!

Peter Pan

The classic tale of never growing old, who can fail to relate to the boy who refuses to leave his childhood behind?

The Princess Bride

Best book ever to read aloud, so good that I would be reading it aloud to my lonesome self on that desert island and maybe even acting out a few of the action scenes.

Earthsea Quartet

You have to take a book with magic in and, in my opinion, no one has ever captured spells and wizardry with the captivating simplicity of Ursula Le Guin.

Watership Down

The ultimate journey with a cast of characters that feel like family by the time you reach the end, and yet they’re rabbits!

The Brothers Karamazov

There has to be a Dostoyevsky book and something to inspire deep thinking amidst all this adventure and Brothers Karamaov has got to be the one to go with.