The Surprising Books

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A few minutes ago I turned the last page of 'The Amber Spyglass', the third and final book in Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy.

When copies of these 'The Adjective Object' books with big cartoony pictures on the covers started turning up in the hands of people on public transport, I made the error of slipping into the inexcusable assumption that they were magic-related kid's fiction targetted at surfing the wave of Pottermania.

Mr. Pullman, pardon me. Oh, and while I've accidentally fallen into this direct-to-Philip-Pullman paragraph, I'd like to take advantage of the fact before I adjust the tense and my own sense of propriety and say, cheers for that Mr. Pullman, sir. Nicely done. I doff my cap in your general direction.

For anyone who is still in the dark, as it were, 'His Dark Materials' is exquisitely constructed and poetically executed fiction, and, if you haven't heard anything about the books, they neither deserve nor merit any prejudice that you would be able to bring to bear on them.

Krissa read them years ago, and persuaded me that we should buy the trilogy in paperback with a gift voucher we got for Christmas. Being in my finest reading fettle for many years, having just bested 'The Count of Monte Cristo' for the first time and throwing a few challenging glances toward the weightier Russians, I wasn't too keen to start a trilogy of children's books, but I'm glad I did.


'The Golden Compass' may have been closer to what I was expecting than the other two of the trilogy in terms of familiar storytelling ground (unusual child, odd goings on, leading to unusual and exciting adventure), but as ever, it is not what is done, but how it is carried out, and the continuing trend for incorporating such supposably adult themes as death and trauma into children's books is something I can only applaud. Some of the most vicious and merciless individuals I have ever known have been children.
I digress.

In the second book, 'The Subtle Knife', everything which traditional children's literature may have led us to expect is torn asunder, and this is only exacerbated and finished with a flourish in the final volume.

This is as good as a review as I can give without revealing plot...so. If you get the chance, I urge you to read them. They certainly opened my eyes, anyway.

I hope everyone is having a good weekend?

Pizza & Pride & Prejudice

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That's the plan for tomorrow night, anyway.

British Culture / Pop Culture Indoctrination continues apace.

Picking Up Where We Left Off

I used to be thrilled with the library in Ventnor, and continued to patronise it regularly when I lived at home after university, if more for the CD section than the books...anyway. I used to be thrilled with Ventnor Library. It is an airy white-walled building with an arched cieling and glass panels in the roof. I think it used to be a chapel or a small modern church. As a child I went to the small grey stone primary school called St. Wilfrid's just down and across the road from the library, and I remember how excited I was when regular trips there became part of our schooling. There was a whole section for children - we were 6 or 7 at the time - with hundreds of books. I was flabbergasted at the huge number of them, shelves and shelves and shelves, just books and books and more books...and they changed them round as well. They got new ones in and old ones disappeared. And it was free.

From the eyes of a primary school child with a literal mind, this was The Library. The children's section at Ventnor was and is a room of about twenty five feet by fifteen feet, with five shelves to a wall. I used to hold up the whole class, who were waiting outside in little grey shorts and skirts in neat pairs waiting to walk along the road back to the school, while I tried to decide which of the hundreds of books I would choose to take with me that day.

Today I became a member of the NYPL - the New York Public Library, and I spent about three and a half hours working in the Northern Reading Room of the main library building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue - the one from the start of Ghostbusters - the building which sits strong and elegant on Bryant Park, squat in comparison to the skyscrapers and other office buildings around it.

I liked it a lot.
I think a lot of libraries could of course be improved by enormous, vaulting, renaissance-style painted ceilings with gold embossing and large windows, with seating for several hundred, internet and power points, and a collection of books the like of which I've never seen. But I also liked the atmosphere. Periodically as I was working, couples still clad for the outside weather would stroll past, staring upwards, or taking photographs. They were quiet, and it gave the place a continually renewed sense of appreciation in me. I would lose myself in my work and then the flash of a camera would pull me out of it and I would look in the direction of the picture and think, 'Yeah, that's beautiful,' before going back to work.

Another thing is that along with the tendency for New York organisations to abbreviate themselves with Four Letter Acronyms - NYPD, FDNY, NYCD, NYSD, NYPL, DKNY, ASNY etc, (Police Department, Fire Department, Corrections Department, Sanitation Department, Public Library, Donna Karan and Autoblography Stuart respectively) there are slogans to go with them. Most readers will be familiar with 'New York's Finest' for the Police, a few others with 'New York's Bravest' for the Fire Department...and this is where it gets interesting.
The sanitation department, unsurprisingly for an organisation tasked with keeping one of the largest and dirtiest cities in the world in shipshape condition, are 'New York's Strongest'.
The corrections department tasked with, euphemistically, correcting those who choose to stray from the well-trodden path of acceptable behaviour in society, are touted as 'New York's Boldest'. The acronym-less New York Board of Education (I mean, let's face it, when was the last time the mayor needed to call for a large truck full of body-armoured teachers with a natty acronym pasted on the side?) are 'New York's Brightest'. I haven't got one, and DKNY are 'New York's Elitest'.

All this marketing and organisational pride has left some groups feeling a bit left out. The Parks for example had a competition to come up with a similar logo in 2000, with no discernible winner, which must have come as a real blow to New York's Greenest Fingered.

On the subject of New York's parks, something extremely exciting is coming up in New York in February. In the past these artists have surrounded some Floridian islands in a suffusion of pink and completely wrapped the Reichstag and the Pont Neuf in Paris, and on the 16th of February Christo and Jeanne Claude are unveiling The Gates in Central Park - over 7,000 gates with...well. You'll have to go to the site and see the sketches. It looks really exciting, and I can't wait to see it all go up.

Anyway. I was writing in the library today, and it felt good.

Walking With A Bounce

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There's something to be said for putting yourself through stuff you don't necessarily want to do.

Getting yourself kitted out and going running after a long day, for example, dodging ice patches and deep banks of snow with your partner - it doesn't look too appealing from the warmth of a cosy apartment.
It's like the leap of courage you have to take when you've been in the bath too long and the water has gone tepid and every part of your body which isn't submerged tells you that the air is bitter and icy cold, but the best thing you can do is get out, vigorously towel yourself dry and get dressed.

Both can leave you feeling better than you did before, no matter how unenthusiastic you were beforehand.

I might be wittering, but then I've done both. I know how it feels.

I walked to the supermarket earlier, listening as I have been lately, to some CDs I'd forgotten I liked...the kind you love and would unquestionably take if you had to move across an ocean, but the kind which you take so much for granted that you haven't listened to them in years.

"I never wanted very much but the chance to learn from my mistakes," sang Ms. Madan of Echobelly, "funny how you never learn but know them when they come around again..."

So I can't legally work at the moment.
I've been here before. I've been unemployed before. This is why I started this blog in the first place. I was getting good at wasting time.

I slipped past a big guy beating a shovel against the wall of the supermarket to get the snow off as the song carried on into the final chorus.

I think I ought to play less, do more. Not just play, but I should rein in my overwhelmingly world-beating time-wasting skills.

Do more.
You know.
Good things.

I picked up a basket for the ingredients for tonight's dinner, which Krissa and I are cooking together.

I wanna do Great Things, so maybe this can be a time...and I skipped the track back to its beginning. And started picking up ingredients to one of my favourite songs.

Digging Out...Literally

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I have just finished digging the car out of a large pile of freak weather.

My arms ache.

Digging Out

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I think I can safely say I've never before seen as much snow as fell in New York over the weekend.

At present the cars in the street have to be dug out of the drifts, and the city's infrastructure has been groaning under the task of getting itself ready for the first day of the working week. I'd say it's been a limited success - there are some streets which have yet to be ploughed (ours is one of them but we're in a backwater of Queens).

Krissa and I enjoyed a lazy weekend, where the only time we left the house on Saturday was for a brief foray into the elements, and a quick roll around in the drifts (not a sexual roll, more of a deliberately falling over-type "roll"), and on Sunday we didn't leave the house once, but watched films, read, napped, ate clementines and played cards...oh, and ate goodness only knows how much home-cooked food.

Making our first pie was only the beginning. I breached my first focaccia and my first risotto too over the weekend, and Krissa wheeled out some masterful cupcakes, a few improvised (and perhaps a little rusty) muffins (but *I* like them), and a chocolate cake with no flour which is jaw-droppingly good and is probably not long for this world.

There is snow on top of the air-conditioning unit in the office window. The sun off it is blindingly bright.

I think I shall go out for a walk.
Well.
As close as I can get to one, anyway.

Blizzard Coverage

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Roving Reporter Bill: So, as you can see, it's really coming down out here. Here in Forest Hills we've had about six inches of snow so far, and the storm shows no sign of abating until tomorrow.

Studio Reporter Dave: Thanks Bill. Well you're live with us here on XYZ-TV News, bringing you the up to the minute latest on the storm hitting the Tri-state area. Let's go over to Mack in the weather room to see the latest on the radar.

Blue Screen Dude Mack: Thanks Dave, I'm here in the XYZ-TV weather room manning the radar screens and as you can see on the screen behind me, we've got a thick bank of snowclouds working their way across the region. We've had six inches of snow so far in these areas, with more on its way, as you can see, with no signs of letting up until lunchtime tomorrow. In fact, we've got Sandra outside the radar weather buildings right now. Sandra?

Roving Reporter Sandra: Thank you, Mack. Well, as you can see the snow is really coming down out here and you might be able to see behind me that there are snow ploughs working their way along the roads, but they're having some difficulty as the snow is still coming down really hard. The roads are pretty treacherous. Back to you, Mack.

Blue Screen Dude Mack: Sandra, thank you. Behind me on the screen is the total snowfall so far - in most of the region, as you can see, we've had about six inches, with much, much more on the way. Dave.

Studio Reporter Dave: Thanks Mack. You're watching XYZ-TV News, bringing you up to the moment coverage of the blizzard hitting the Tri-state area. There is a storm warning across the region. Snow is expected to keep falling until around noon tomorrow. We've got Jill in the East Village.

Roving Reporter Jill: Hi there Dave. It's really heavy snow here in the Village, with people walking around being very careful because of the snowy ground. The roads are really covered in snow, and I've been talking to Buddy, a FedEx driver, about the conditions. Hi there Buddy.

Buddy: Hi.

Roving Reporter Jill: So, tell us, Buddy. How have you been finding the difficult driving conditions?

Buddy: Well, it's been difficult. It's kinda slippery because of all the snow, but there's not much traffic about, so it's awright. (laughs)

Roving Reporter Jill: Thank you, Buddy. We're going live now, over to XYZ-TV's Johnny B, who is at this time roughly one block away from where I'm standing. Over to you, Johnny.

Roving Reporter Johnny: Thanks, Jill. Well, conditions here one block North of where Jill is standing are pretty bleak. It's been snowing for a while, and we've got about six inches at present, with no sign of a let up in the snowfall until tomorrow afternoon. All this snow is making driving pretty difficult. Back to you in the studio.

Studio Reporter Dave: Thanks guys. You're tuned in to XYZ-TV, bringing you the region's most up to the minute coverage of Blizzard 2005. We're going to go over to Mack now in the XYZ-TV radar rooms to see how things are shaping up. Stay tuned-

Stuart: Do you want to watch a movie?

Krissa: Yeah, all right.

2005 And All's Well

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Yadda yadda yadda yes I know I've been updating with the most elusive randomness. Stochastic posting a great blog doth not make, or something along those lines. Still, you've witnessed the birth of a Piemaking Extravaganza, and I posted a short story which a lot of you will balk at reading...and if it's long, then you know it's quality, right?

Since New Year, Krissa and I went up to Boston over the long weekend caused by Martin Luther King Day - I had no idea he had been so honoured - and met the charming Bryan Adams and Sonia and had drinks with them looking out over the Bostonian skyline...in addition, I survived Boston, a city with a plaque to vintage Brit-killers every thirty yards (okay, that's an exaggeration, but it's not funny otherwise).

What I saw of Boston was very pretty. It's pretty much the only major American city I've seen apart from New York, and the differences stood out more than the similarities. The trains were less frequent, the subway more simplistic and nowhere near as comprehensive, the sky closer.

It's snowing periodically, and it's bloody cold (a judicious and somehow very lean use of the word 'bloody' - here interchangeable with the word 'fucking').

At the moment, I'm in a neat little bureaucratic loophole. I was given a 90 day work permit on coming into the country. Krissa and I got married, and I applied for the change of status to a legal permanent resident of the US. When this comes through it'll be a permanent license to live and work here, and because the processing time on this little application can drag on a bit, there's a failsafe that if it lasts too long, then they give you a temporary work permit.
Unfortunately the work permit they give you to apologise for taking so long with the application is only given when the application has been in for 90 days.
This means that if I had wanted concurrency with work permits I would have had to somehow obtained a NY marriage permit whilst in the UK, arrived at JFK, gone straight to my own wedding, and then spent the rest of the day filing the application. Needless to say this...gap only became evident as we were filing the application, so there might be as much as a six week gap where I can't work. I'm keeping myself occupied though.

I know I promised a 2005 To Do List as well as a review of 2004, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. It'll come. Or it might not. We'll see. It's a bit late for the New Year's resolutions, and I'm not sure I want a To Do List when previous years have shown that a year is far too random a thing to try and plan.

Incidentally, I've been clearing up my reading list on the left there. Is there anything knocking about in the blogosphere that I ought to be reading and I'm not? This is, unless you haven't realised, an invitation to plug yourself mercilessly. Has anyone moved? Shut down? Turned up? Shout me and I might link to you.

The Below

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True story.

Wasn't doing anything on the hard drive now, was it?

Eavesdropping

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It was completely dark by the time the bus pulled up outside the terminal on the quay. I quickly folded up the travel section of a Saturday newspaper I had found on the train and thanked the driver as I got off. I could see there was a boat waiting.

It was about seven-thirty on a Saturday night and the ticket office was manned by a girl who looked like she wanted to be somewhere else having drinks bought for her. The light of the terminal was white and empty after the orange streetlights in the dark. I bought a ticket in haste and the girl went back to her celebrity gossip magazine. As I hurried toward the doors of the building a group of flustered middle aged women came in and blocked the way with their wide sweeping gowns. I cut through the middle of them, apologising over my shoulder as I rushed for the tarmac ramp to the jetty. The ferry company workers were leaning against the ramp railings talking with easy slowness. There was no need to rush.

There were other people dotted around the boat in evening dress. Sitting close to the gangway in the cooler air there was a pretty girl I recognised from school on the island but whose name I couldn’t remember, and sitting at the back there were five loudly laughing men in jeans and Ben Sherman shirts on their way to a night out in the pubs of Cowes.

I like to sit at the front of the boat where the seats face each other and there is more legroom. The facing seats ran along all three aisles. Facing the opposite way to me and across the aisle was a man in his late twenties, suntanned, with good but plain clothes. His hands were worn and paint-speckled. A large blue canvas bag with a sailing logo was slung in the seat next to him. Sitting opposite him was a young woman in a ball gown of light green shimmering material with her dark hair up, curled elegantly round on itself beneath a spray of tiny white flowers. Once settled in my seat, I could only see the man. They were talking.

I unfolded the travel supplement and picked up my place in an article about New York. I meant to read for the journey, and I began to do so, but the moored boat was so quiet that their conversation was clear to me.

“So you’ve been working today then?” - her voice. It was silky smooth, rounded and without accent. I couldn’t see her and hadn’t really seen her face, but I imagined.
“Yes. I’ve just finished a job, and I’m going home. I’ve been staying on this side of the water while I’ve been working. I’ve got a week off now. How about you?”
His voice was relaxed, but he was very animated and you could tell he was excited to be talking to her. He had a soft Isle of Wight accent.
“I’m going to a ball at the Squadron in Cowes. I was meant to be meeting some friends on this boat but they’re probably going to miss it now. They took too long getting ready. I just called one of them and they’re in a mad rush.”
“Well, it’s only half an hour to the next one,” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed. There was a pause.
“So what do you do,” he asked, “if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m a student, still. I’m doing a Masters at the university.”
“Oh right, what in?” he asked.
“Oh! Er, Biological Chemistry. People don’t ask very often. I’m doing my dissertation on the effect of certain chemicals on nerve cell conductivity.”

There was another slight pause. It was a quiet moment. The boat was still moored at the quay and the engines were off. A gentle rolling motion came from the passing of a tanker heading past and out into The Solent, and its navigation lights along with those of the terminal building were the only break in the darkness. The travel journalist opined a preference for Torquay over New York.

“How do you find your work? Do you get bored at all?” she asked.
“Mm, no, not really. It’s all right. Money’s good too, some jobs. Been on double bubble this past week to finish the job ahead of time,” he said, moving his hands with his words. “You know,” he said, “if I was really cheeky, I’d ask you for your telephone number, to take you out for a drink.”

I shot a glance over my shoulder as subtly as I could to see her reaction. I expected her to be looking awkward or uncomfortable, being harassed by this random bloke on her way to a ball. Her face was open, warm and smiling.
“Do you often try to pick up girls on the ferry?” she asked, with a playful tone in her voice.
“Not often.”
“I imagine it’s quite hard to practise,” she said, “I’m Karen.”
“Mike.”
His hand went out of sight and came back, I assume, shaken.
“So what do you think? Do you think giving me your phone number might be something you might do? I know it’s cheeky,” he said.
“It is, very cheeky,” she interrupted.
“...very. We’ve been getting on really well though, so I thought, why not? Ask her. So do you think, if I have a pen, you’d give me your number?”
“It’s really cheeky,” she said, and it sounded like she was smiling.
“Yeah, I know, but would you, if I can find a pen?” he said.
“Yes, I think so,” she said. The man’s hands fell into his bag, and, surprised, I read for a while.
“I haven’t got a pen,” he said.
I put down my newspaper and lifted my messenger bag into my lap. I opened it, taking care to shake it about and clear my throat at the same time. The front pouch of my bag is a sort of netting, and in there I carry a small notebook, pencils and pens, and it was this bit I was shaking around, rummaging theatrically in the bag, eventually emerging with a bus timetable which I flicked open randomly, tapping my fingers absentmindedly on the front of my bag, giving that unique wooden pinking noise which pencils always make, so it would be impossible not to notice them.
I looked up from my timetable, and he was scowling at me. ‘Hands off’, said his expression. ‘Go away’. I attempted a half-hearted pat of my bag, but he looked back at the girl.
“You haven’t got a pen?” she said.
“No.”
There was an approaching sound of running heels on covered metal slowing to a walk, and a group of five girls came breathlessly into the boat, all dressed elegantly, but leaning on the backs of the seats with relieved abandon.
The girl across the aisle stood up.
“It’s my friends,” she said, and walked down the aisle to them.
“Do come back,” said the man, looking after her as she went.
The boat started its engines, ropes were thrown in the electric half-light, and we pulled away from the quay. The girl sat with her friends halfway down the aisle. They opened a bottle of champagne as we crossed The Solent, sounding happy, and the girl did not come back.

As we levelled with the quay at Cowes and the gangway fell heavily against the jetty, the girls were the first off the boat and their heels echoed on the ramp as they went, laughing, excited about their ball. The man and I, sitting all the way to the front, were the last two on board. I saw him standing alone outside the terminal, his bag over his shoulder, as my bus pulled away into the gentle orange lights of the town.

Pie (Continued)

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Right, well.

For those of you at the back not paying attention, yesterday I narrated the events which lead to a crunch point - at which it was decided to launch an attempt on Mount Pie.

The recipe, found here at Nigella.com, is for Bacon and Egg pie.

A cynical choice, you might think. But as we walk through the highways and byways of life, I find that when venturing into unknown territory it always pays to employ whatever strengths you may already have. If the unknown territory was, say, an area on the map marked 'Here Be Draggons' then you might choose to take your trusty compass, your camera, and several hundred heavily armed friends. If venturing into terra incognita in the equally bewildering land of culinary exploits, it might just pay to stick to what you know. And if there's one thing I know how to cook, after years of university and houseshare bachelordom, it's bacon and eggs.

From this vantage point of post-pie experience, allow me to walk you through the recipe as though you were accompanying me on my quest for the first time.

Quoth Nigella: "Make the pastry by freezing the fats and flour together for 10 minutes, then tip out into the processor and blitz to a flaky rubble."

Comparative novice that I am, I convinced myself that Nigella didn't mean to merely place the fats and flour next to each other in the freezer, as that would be silly. In retrospect, this may have been a good idea. I mixed them together, roughly, ignoring the big lumps of butter and shortening goo, and shoved them into the freezer while slicing the bacon into bits prior to frying them.

The frying of bacon commenced. (This is called jumping the gun)

At the requisite time I turned off the bacon and took the pastry mix out of the freezer. Well, I say pastry mix. At this point in time it was merely very cold flour and goo.

As Nigella made it sound so very dynamic and exciting, I was looking forward to the 'blitzing into a flaky rubble' part. I tipped the mixture into a bowl and grabbed the handheld blender. At the first touch of the spinning blades, there was a POUF and an ominous white mushroom cloud of flour rose up from the bowl and gently began to settle on all of the surfaces in the kitchen.

I mixed the butter in a little more with a fork so that there wasn't so much loose flour. At this second application of the handheld blender, the bulk of the mix was powdery, if not flaky, rubble. Like a sort of uniform rubble you might buy by the ton from your local builder's merchants if you were going to mix concrete in your garden with your Dad - not the correct, Nigella-sort of exciting flaky rubble at all. I was chasing lumps of butter around the bowl with the blades, which when they got to a lump, took the lump in and threw it with considerable force to the other side of the bowl. If I had been a lump of butter in that bowl, I would have given up. I would have told the mixer blades anything they wanted to know and quietly broken into flaky rubble. But the butter-lumps just would not give in. I was hurling them about the place with zing-thump! zing-thump! noises before I decided that, given mushroom-clouds and butterlump slinging, perhaps the processor that Nigella had in mind was of the other kind - the desktop blender, if you will.

I got our lovely 1970s style blender out, tipped the mixture in, and hit GO. Apart from electric motor noises, nothing seemed to happen for a few seconds, until I noticed that a sort of mousse was forming in the base. At this point I panicked and cursed Nigella and her recipe roundly. I poured the mixture back into the bowl with some water, the flaky, excitingly blitzed rubble now a distant fantasy.

Cursing my ultra-feminist boy-hating middle school Home Economics teacher under and over my breath - so feminist that she helped perpetuate chauvinist stereotypes by giving her earnest help to the girls and pouring scorn and occasionally boiling oil (not really) on the boys - I started to mix it together with my hands...and surprise of all surprises, pastry happened.

I regained a little faith in Nigella, and remembered how Richard Clifton had wound that teacher up so far she nearly exploded by deliberately baiting her about never needing to address a business letter to a woman (GOD we were mean - who'd be a teacher, eh?) and I felt a little better.
Back to the recipe.

Quoth Nigella: " Add enough iced water to bind, then form into 2 discs, cover them with clingfilm and rest in the fridge for 20 minutes."

Form into 2 discs. Three words and one number. This bit took me a little longer than I was expecting. I rolled and rolled and rolled that pastry. It didn't know what had hit it, it was rolled so much. I was half expecting it to ask for mercy. But could I form into 2 discs? Could I bollocks.
In the end I settled for 'form into one bit which looks a bit like Australia if it's the other way up and another bit which looks a bit like a lumpy amorphous blob of pastry rolled to death by an over-zealous piemaking novice'.

Australia was used to line the pie dish. There was no way I was going to attempt to transfer my precious 'discs' to the fridge.

Quoth Nigella: "Cook the pancetta or bacon in a frying pan with the onion, peppering well. Beat the spring onion, parsley and eggs together, and set aside while you roll out the pastry."

Um.
Seeing as the blenders were both out and covered in a fine layer of flour, I didn't just beat the onion and whatnot - I blitzed them, and damn but did it feel good to blitz something.

Back to good old Nige: "Using one of the discs, line the dish, leaving an overhang. Roll out the other half to make a lid, and set aside for one moment. Transfer the pancetta and onion mixture to the pastry-lined pie plate and pour over the spring onion, parsley and eggs. With a little cold water, dampen the edges of the pastry case and cover with the rolled-out lid. Cut off excess pastry, and seal and pinch all around the rim. Make a hole in the lid to let out steam, put in the oven and bake for 30 minutes."

Australia was uneven. I was stealing bits of New South Wales and trying to plug them into the gap between the Northern Territory and Queensland to try and form a disc. It didn't work all that well, but in the end there was a rough covering of the edges of the pie dish.

In went the bacon, and poured over that was the BLITZED egg mixture. The Amorphous Blob was placed on top, and into the oven it went.

When the pie went into the oven, the battleground kitchen looked like this:

When it came out of the oven the pie looked like this:

Quoth Nigella: "Serves 6"

Or two people for one dinner and two lunches.

Pie

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Got your attention now, haven't I?
What is it about pie? What gives pies their irresistable appeal?
I have no idea...but you're thinking about pie, aren't you? The beauty of pie pastry - fine and crumbly or soft and gooey like the pies you get from a chip shop...and the fillings - chicken and mushroom, beef and ale, steak and kidney; succulent, meaty and satisfying fillings. Delicious.

And you may well choose, this evening, to go out and purchase yourself a pie.
Damn you.

Savoury pies aren't a huge thing here in the US of A. A pie is a dessert, like the apple pies which all women are required to make as soon as any of their children join the military, or the intriguingly named 'Mississippi Mud'. You can, as with most things, buy good stuff from specialised shops here in New York, there's the renowned Myer's of Keswick for instance, which does a nice little line in pies, but there comes a time when you can take no more. When all about you are happy to submit the masquerade of pizzas and quiches being dubbed 'pies', something has to be done. You have to roll up your sleeves - should you be wearing short sleeves, but you'd be mad not to as it's a bit chilly at the moment - and head into the kitchen yourself.

And this may not be the easiest of tasks.

For pies are, in a way, sacred. It's not like my usual pasta/rice/stir fry/chili/curry-type dishes where there's so much room for manoeuvre I can accidentally add grated armadillo and then play it up as the main feature of the meal. Oh no. If I were to succeed, I would have a pie, and it would be pie-like. If I failed...it would be obvious, and I'm not sure I could convincingly present Krissa with Meat and Floury Lump Casserole.

Nevertheless, desperate times...

The lust for homemade pie was born, and a pie attempt was organised; resources were mustered.

I had never attempted anything of the kind before.

This was the recipe selected.

I'll let you know how it went a little later - I really wanted to post and now I've got to go, damnit. I will give you this little titbit of information: the house is still standing.

That is all.

Another January 10th, 2005

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And of course, that day had to be a real blower. I was tucked into a niche towards the rear deck out of the worst of the wind, one leg jambing my body against the metal, but the misty air was curling around the welded corner and there was still a chill in it, even if it was weaker than the blast on the walkway. I stuck my head out into it briefly and scanned the water to the stern. Nothing. I shot back into my cubby hole.

We were about a mile from the edge of the ice pack, beam on and rolling pretty badly, but I was facing out to sea, to the North. The sub had surfaced; we had recieved the acknowledgement to our final signal an hour before, and she should be in the area. We weren't able to pinpoint her, which was why I was standing out there in ridiculous temperatures with a pair of binoculars made useless by the motion of the ship, and every item of clothing I could manage to pull on.

The first set of readouts we got when she came out of the heavy flow told us that something had gone wrong with one of the cell packs; she was low on power, and we had brought her up on reserves and then after that just blown her tanks and hoped for the best. She was a bright tulip yellow. It was going to be old fashioned eyes and shipwork to get her on board again, and with the visibility we had, the wind and the rolling of the ship, it was going to be a real barrel of laughs. It had to be now, too. In this weather she would drift, and a fifteen-foot long GRP shell packed with instruments makes for expensive flotsam. The only thing I was happy about was that the IRS Yuri Gringiyev didn't have a crow's nest.

It was fucking cold, and my gloves were crap.
Someone knocked on the wall behind my head. Gits, I thought, they know I'm out here. Then the Yuri began to wheel around and I knew someone had spotted her, and just as I realised the wind hit me full on and shocked the breath out of me. I closed my mouth and pulled my coat collar closed over my lower face. I abandoned my bolthole and caught the rail, latching my safety line onto the runner which picks its way around the stern of the ship, and staggered inelegantly around to starboard. Rani and Mike were there, bundled up as much as I was so I could only identify them because I know whose clothes were whose. Rani pointed, and I saw the yellow hull of Ringa about two hundred metres away, very low in the water. We nicknamed her Ringa because, well, boats and submarines are feminine, and Ringa, because that's a female version of Ringo, I suppose, but we'd had all the yellow submarine jokes we could stomach by that point.

"Can we use the davits?" I yelled, in the vicinity of where I guessed Rani's ear was. She shrugged. She was a veteran of these sorts of expeditions, a paid-up member of the university staff and working on a long postdoctoral project which had her penned in for another summer's voyage the following year. I didn't envy her in the slightest. This trip to Antarctica had started out being something of a romantic idea, but the first crimp of reality had been the dates - flying to the Chilean base in the South Shetlands in mid-November for training, and then sailing on the 3rd of December, returning, if everything went to schedule, (and it never does) on January the 20th. The rest of reality had come out of its corner swinging in quick succession with the first Antarctic Summer Storm and the first cup of coffee on the morning after we left port. The stuff was bought locally by one of the staff at the Chilean research station, and it was dire.

I was seasick for the first time in my life two days out, and only really got over it three days after that. I brought three textbooks and five or six papers to look over, and one fat novel bought at the last minute at Heathrow. The novel was a terribly written fantasy dirge, but I was ridiculously hot on my fluid mechanics. Apart from a little rudimentary preparation for Ringa, study was all I had to do. A couple of other, bigger projects on board took up most of the linkup time, so checking of personal email and other communications took a back seat, and, distressingly, I was the weakest chess player on board so no one wanted to play me. If it had been anything but a research ship I'm sure it would have been the other way around.

As soon as we got the data off Ringa, I would have plenty to do. Data extraction, analysis and the first stages of interpretation would take up a lot of my time until we got back to the islands, and to be honest I was looking forward to it. It was a big thing, a big departure from my first degree, but more in the vein of my ambitions - a big question. The world's oceans effect a vast pull on the world's climate, and the oceanic thermal conveyors brought rain, drought, famine or flood to different parts of the world. Understanding the powerhouse of these conveyors would lead to a great step forward in mitigation of their effects through prior warning, and one theory was that the great bowls under the Antarctic ice sheets, with their seasonal salinities, epic rising and falling flows and temperatures, might have something to do with it.

Ringa had just been on a little trip, and now she was going to tell me all about it. The Yuri was manoeuvring, labouring heavily in the swell.

Christmas had been a bit of a bitch. There had been the emotional call home on the radiophone, but apart from that things had been pretty grim. There's an old political map on the wall in the mess room which has most of the areas around here worn away by prodding fingers so that you can see the grey of the cardboard behind, and on most days, that might as well be accurate.

We're ten days into 2005, and I can't wait to get off this ship. Ten days to go, followed by another two years of sorting the results back at the university. I know it's important work, but...

Another March 29th, 2003

After the trip to Manchester, I got a call from the board at the university saying that I had been one of just two applicants, and they had really enjoyed the interview and they're offering me the PhD! So, looks like I'm heading for Antarctica by way of Manchester. All donations of warm clothing greatly appreciated.

34th Street and Up

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I'm just getting the photos together from the holidays, so bear with me!

Coming up soon on the Autoblography, we have the results of the last Caption Competition of 2004 and the picture for the next round, the 2004 To Do List score and the 2005 List itself, my nominations for the seeming hundreds of blog award things around at the moment, as well as a short piece on possible alternate histories based on the decisions I made in the last year or so.
This last piece will of course be excessively romanticised, picturesque, detailed and fanciful, but what do you want, huh?
Something flat like a photograph?

Uptown and Queens

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Dave and James left New York on a Delta Airlines flight to Paris yesterday evening. I have yet to face wrestling with the futon to get it back into its incarnation as a sofa, and at present it's halfway between the two in a bizarre, skewed and leaning identity crisis.

We all had a lot of fun over the last week or so, and took more photographs than I would have thought possible in the time...

But in the short time we had available, we did a fair amount of New York stuff, which I enjoyed enormously - not just because of the presence of friends I've known since the start of High School, but because it did me good to look at New York through the eyes of those who are eager to see and experience and learn about the city, just at the point in time when I was beginning to settle and be content with that which I've been shown or told or the things I have discovered myself.

We ate...well.
In amongst the week's worth of meals were two of the best pizzas in the city according to different sources - Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge and a little family run place on Broadway and 102nd, (the name of which escapes me for the moment) Junior's Cheesecake, claimed to be the best in the world, burgers at Island Burgers and Shakes, also occasionally rated as the best in New York, a delicious, MSG-free Vietnamese feast at Saigon Grill and last but not least, lasagne cooked right here at home by Krissa.

In terms of the big tourist sights, we cruised past the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry, we watched the sun set over New Jersey and the city's lights flicker to life from the top of the Empire State Building, and we nosed around Grand Central Station and got strange looks from passersby as we explored the quirky acoustics of the place. We munched franks at Gray's Papaya and sauntered around St. Marks, playing Space Invaders and buying socks. We strolled around The Village, crested rocks in Central Park, tiptoed through St. John The Divine, and strode across the Brooklyn Bridge.

On New Year's Eve we ate Chinese food and went to a marvellous party thrown by friends, and at midnight we all piled up the stairs to the roof of their apartment block and watched fireworks explode over the vista of Manhattan's skyscrapers and the lower buildings of Brooklyn. Krissa and I kissed at midnight and looked up across the city, sharing the moment with a grinning Dave and James.

It was great to have them here, and I'll admit, I felt a bit homesick when it was time to say goodbye, but at the same time, they've made New York feel even more like home to me.

Good times.

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