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Saturday, 30 March 2013


I am wheat intolerant so when I go out for coffee or tea I often end up eating traditional flapjack. I must have eaten it in dozens of places, all over the U.K. Basically if I have been there I have probably partaken of flapjack there too. But despite my best efforts it seems to have all been in vain! Flapjack sales are falling - dramatically - 23 percent between 2011 and 2012. Apparently we Brits are turning to Victoria sponge cake, muffins and cereal bars instead. At this point I need to explain that a flapjack to us in the U.K. is not the same as a flapjack in the U.S. Apparently, over the pond, flapjacks are actually pancakes whereas over here they are baked bars made from oats.

 In the U.S., Canada and South Africa what I know as flapjacks you call granola bars and in Australia they are called cereal or muesli bars. A cereal bar here is not quite the same as traditional flapjack. We do have granola bars over here but on the whole when we eat granola it is for breakfast. This is almost as confusing as trying to explain the rules of cricket to someone who has never watched a game before.

There seems to be doubt as to the derivation of the name but a 'jack' can be a word used to mean 'any old thing' and the U.S. pancakes are flipped over or 'flapped' so that does explain the American version. But the name regarding the British flapjack remains a mystery although it has been around for ages. Flapjacks were mentioned in Shakespeare's Pericles as an after dinner treat.

'Come, thou shalt go home, and we'll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-
days, and moreo'er pudding and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome.'

Flapjack has so much to recommend it. For one thing no two flapjacks taste the same. I don't know how this happens because the ingredients can be identical but wherever you go the flapjack will always have its own unique taste and texture. Another bonus is that it is filling. Whilst I love a piece of Victoria sponge cake or a blueberry muffin (wheat free obviously), they don't fill you up and keep you going in the same way as flapjack.

The other brilliant thing about flapjack is the variety. You can add so many things to them. The last ones I made were cranberry and white chocolate chips.

But I also love crystallised ginger combined with the rind of an orange or glace cherries and a drizzle of icing over the top. You can top them with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chocolate or melted marmalade. You can make a flapjack sandwich and spread a layer of apple sauce in the middle before baking. One of my favourite tea rooms, Lockwoods does a lovely dried apricot and ginger flapjack. There are loads more combinations. They are too numerous to mention.

Of course one reason for the fall in the sale of flapjacks could be (and I really hope that this is the reason), is that people are actually making them themselves. And they really are so quick and easy to make.

So here is my flapjack recipe.

8oz porridge oats
4oz soft brown sugar
4oz butter
2tbsp golden syrup
(or honey, maple syrup, even black treacle)
Place sugar, butter and golden syrup in a saucepan and melt over a gentle heat.
Combine with oats and spread into an 8" square tin (greased).
Bake at 180 degrees for 15 - 20 minutes*
*Do watch your flapjack carefully. It is important not to overcook or they will become too hard when setting.. The edge should be browning slightly and the centre still golden. I also sometimes add an extra ounce of oats if I want the flapjack to be a bit drier.

Then all I need is a pretty plate, a cup of tea, a glossy magazine or a good book and I'm happy.

Wishing all of you much happiness this Easter weekend and thank-you for reading.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Oxford Literary Festival

I adore Oxford! There are so many things to do - browse around the Ashmolean Museum, tour some of the colleges, visit the Bodleian Library, take inspiration from the botanical gardens, wander around Blackwell's compiling a dream list of books to read or just relax in a punt, preferably with a glass of champagne and some strawberries while someone else does the hard work! And because it is such a beautiful city you don't really have to do anything at all if you don't want to except stroll around and soak up the stunning architecture.

I spent two years living in Oxford while in my teens so I know it pretty well but I never tire of it and last Saturday it was a real treat to meet up with my daughter and an old school friend for a day of culture and catching up. We had booked tickets for 3 events on the first day of the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival and our first port of call was The Great Hall at Christchurch to hear A.C. Grayling talk about his new book, The God Argument, The Case against Religion and For Humanism.

The Great Hall was the inspiration for Hogwarts' Great Hall in Harry Potter although filming wasn't done there. It was copied and re-built as a set. To be honest I was a little apprehensive about this first talk but I actually agreed with Mr. Grayling on a couple of points, one of those being the oppression of women as a result of religion.  And I particularly liked his statement that 'literature teaches us what we need to know in order to flourish - as well as about our frailties'. Even if you didn't agree with his atheist stance, it was generally thought provoking stuff and as we walked into the quad God smiled on us and the sun shone briefly -

- although Mr. Grayling would no doubt dispute that point vigorously!

After a fortifying lunch at the Queen's Lane Coffee House on High Street (do try it if you go to Oxford, the food is good, the service excellent and there's always a nice buzz about the place), we headed off to the Sheldonian Theatre to hear Alexander McCall Smith.

And what a nice, amusing man he is. Of his books, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency alone has  sold over twenty million copies and been translated into 46 languages. I love those stories. Apparently when writing he often has 3 books on the go at once, can write 1000 words per hour and doesn't edit his work. Hmm! As a writer myself that last bit did send him down a notch in my estimation. To be honest I've read a couple of his books that would definitely benefit from a bit of an edit. You must have to be extraordinarly confident not to do any self-editing. I can't foresee that I will ever get to the stage when I feel my books wouldn't benefit from re-drafting and in some ways I don't think I'd want to. In my case the art is knowing when to stop editing

Finally, after tea and cake at Patisserie Valerie it was back to The Sheldonian for Roger McGough.

He was reading a selection of poems from his book As Far As I Know. It was the perfect end to the day. There was a particularly beautiful and poignant poem written when he was 53. He was carrying his small daughter into the night after a pantomime. She was holding a star on a wand and he was wondering if he would see her grow up. He has, thank goodness, or it would have been a very sad poem indeed. But it is the very first poem he read to us that seems apt for ending my post. It is called Take Comfort and begins like this:-

Take comfort from this  
You have a book in your hand 
For me books have been and are a comfort. Meeting up with old friends, listening to inspirational authors in stunning buildings is comforting too. We are already looking forward to next year.

Thank-you for reading and I hope you have the comfort of a good book in your hand this week.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Alexander Technique

I'm fascinated by Fate, those moments when we make a decision which leads to something life-changing. I can't remember when or where I first heard about The Alexander Technique and when I booked my first appointment, about fifteen years ago, I had absolutely no idea of the impact it was going to have on my life. I've suffered with back problems off and on since I was in my early twenties but at the time my back wasn't playing up. It was my digestive system and I began to wonder if my chronic heartburn was something to do with my poor posture. So I booked myself in to see the wonderful Miriam Wohl and had several sessions with her.

As a writer and reflexologist I am often hunched over either my computer or somebody's feet. My neck and shoulders can get stiff and sore, as can my lower back. We all mis-use our bodies in one way or another and the Alexander Technique helps to correct those bad habits. It re-educates your mind and your body and releases muscular tension.

The technique was developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890's.

He was a Shakespearian actor who suddenly lost his voice during performances. When doctors told him that they couldn't find any physical cause for this he studied himself with mirrors and ascertained that the way he contracted his neck was causing postural problems which affected his breathing and vocal mechanisms. He solved his own problem and then went on to realise that many people tighten their upper bodies in anticipation of certain events and thought that his regime could be adapted to help people with their general health and well-being.

Apparently many famous people have studied the Alexander Technique. The list includes Aldous Huxley, Roald Dahl, George Bernard Shaw, Judi Dench, Paul Newman and Paul McCartney. I'm in esteemed company!

The Alexander Technique is not described as a relaxation technique but, once you get the hang of it (and it's not difficult), it does become just that. For me it has become akin to a meditation, as soothing as lying in a field full of lavender.

It has made me calmer, more pragmatic, better able to cope with those curve balls which life pitches my way from time to time. When I practise it regularly, I sleep better. And when life takes over and I don't do it for a few days I notice the difference.

I'm sure that if The Alexander Technique were offered to secondary schools students it would help with behavioural problems, exam stress and eliminate those postural problems which often start around this time.

As a reflexologist I believe it heightens my intuition and as a writer it has had unforeseen benefits too. It clears my mind, allowing new ideas to enter and many is the time a solution to a problem with my plot has revealed itself as I practised The Alexander Technique. And the beauty of it is that you can do it almost anywhere. You don't need special clothes or equipment. Following the inital instruction all you need is a bit of floor, something shallow to rest your head on and fifteen or twenty minutes to yourself.

My digestive problems weren't in fact a result of poor posture but turned out to be a wheat intolerance. But that is another story for another day.

So thank you for reading and hopefully you're not struggling with a bad back, a stiff neck or general aches and pains but if you are, I would recommend giving the Alexander Technique a try. It could literally change your life.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The value of vignettes

Sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day to write as much as we want to. Even at the busiest, most pressured times I do usually write something, even if it's just a short paragraph in my diary in order to make sense of what is going on in my world. But if I am unable to delve into a proper piece of writing I will write a vignette and I thought that I would share one with you .

In literature a vignette is a short, impressionistic scene which focuses on one moment or character. It originally meant 'something that could be written on a vine leaf'.

My vignettes definitely wouldn't fit on a vine leaf but they are short, manageable pieces of writing which you can scribble down whilst stopping for a cup of tea or coffee. They help me feel that I have achieved something when the rest of my writing life is struggling to keep its head above water!

This weekend in the U.K. it is the fourth Sunday of Lent and that means it is Mothering Sunday.
Traditionally it was a day when children who had gone to work away from home as domestic servants were given a day off to visit their families. In those days children would often leave home in order to find work at ten years old. Prior to this it was considered important in the Christian church for people to return to their home church once a year. So every year, in the middle of Lent, people would visit their Mother church and this is where historians believe our tradition of Mothering Sunday emanates from. These days we give flowers, chocolates, books and cards and hopefully come together for a meal. That meal might be in a restaurant but it might be at home around the kitchen or dining room table. Which leads me neatly on to my vignette!

This was in fact written for my writing group. We meet once a month for a critique session and read out pieces of work for constructive feedback. There's no pressure to have anything to read but I was inbetween books and had been clearing up after a family get-together so thought I'd jot something down. Here it is!

My dining table speaks of many things. In the golden oak lie stories of my family. In it's black flecked grains are the sadnesses.

It is not a perfect table. It is a little too narrow in its refectory style. But that is fitting in its own way for we are a narrow framed family, lean and small-boned. The table belonged to my great grandparents and I wonder about the people who have sat around it, the discussions that have taken place, the food that has been eaten, the letters that have been written, the toes which have touched each other across the basal plinth. I think of the tree which it came from and the land where it grew; the mill where the wood was processed and the transport used to get it there. I think of the carpenter who lovingly carved the pedestal legs with art nouveau style leaves and the shop where it waited patiently for a permanent home. I think of the vases of flowers and the petals which have dropped like tears on to its French polished surface. I think of the bowls of fruit which have adorned it, the cutlery and crockery that has graced it, the games that have been played on it and the hands like mine which have cared for it with love. It is not a precious table in a 'don't spill anything on me' kind of way. It is robust and capable and sitting at it you can't fail be be re-assured. This table is not just mine. A part of it belongs to every person who has come into contact with it for they have left a little of themselves behind like a smudge of a fingerprint. This table shows where my family have come from and in these days when everyone wants new things, when life is full of uncertainty, my table is a constant, a friend, a reminder of people lost and gained. I would not want to be without it.

Wherever you are in the world I hope you have a happy Mothering Sunday and if you are a writer I hope that you will at least have the time to write a vignette this week. Thank-you for reading.