Thursday, July 22, 2010

1970s cuisine

At my recent second-hand bookstall, someone dropped off a box of cookery books from the 1970s. They were too musty to try to sell for a decent price – please please don’t store your old books anywhere damp! So I put these ones out for 50p, saying to people that they could look through them and make a note of any of the recipes they might like to try, before throwing them away.

Afterwards I had a look the unsold ones, on the way to the bin, and was astonished at the difference between then and now. There was so much dairy: cream in every sauce, and sometimes cheese as well; whipped cream on anything sweet; and eggs everywhere – one cake required nine! Far more sugar and deep fat frying, and sauces on everything. Fondue was cool. Curries were still made with curry powder and tomato purée reigned supreme. Vegetables were boiled, not steamed, and the water used for soups – good idea, that. There was also an assumption that you would make your own pastry and pizza bases (pizza being a novelty), which again was probably better in terms of taste and lack of additives. Very little was on offer for vegetarians, of course. Many of the recipes were very elaborate and some included diagrams to show how to prepare and fold the pastry, or cut the vegetables, or decorate the cake.

It wasn’t just the recipes that were from an era with different expectations. One book gave the full guidance on how to ‘entertain’, including inviting your guests (by post, mark as RSVP, and telephone a couple of days in advance if you haven’t heard), seating arrangements, how to fold your linen napkins and lay out your cutlery correctly, catering for vegetarians by providing salad or something with eggs, a note on using your hostess trolley to best advantage, and tips for overnight stays such as asking whether your guests would like breakfast in bed ‘or to come down’.

So then I thought I’d take a trip back in time and cook one of the few vegetarian recipes I found. Bean goulash – the kind of thing I cooked in the 1980s, although I had to leave out the tomato purée.

It was completely inedible.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The future of bookselling

Last week I ran another second-hand book stall at work, for a good cause, all very enjoyable. But it started me thinking about the future of bookselling.

After my first book stall, I sent the proceeds to a different good cause and, a few months, later, received a letter asking if I’d like to become part of a network of ‘community booksellers’ to organise book sales on a regular basis. I refused, as I prefer not to be tied to one group. I also took issue with their use of the term ‘community bookseller’ – I pointed out that many salaried booksellers, especially those in independent bookshops, would see themselves as very much part of their community. The reply seemed oblivious to the idea that some people were trying to earn a living from selling second-hand books. So, with charities continuing to expand their bookshops with much lower overheads, how will commercial second-hand bookshops survive?

And then, of course, there’s the question of buying new books. I used to love browsing in bookshops, but now I buy almost wholly from Amazon. There are still about 1200 independent bookshops in the UK and apparently some are doing well - but I don’t even get into the chains very often nowadays. The last time I had a real bookshop browse was in York, when I was marooned due to the ash cloud and had a whole day to shop, including 3 for 2 offers in Waterstone’s. So how do independent bookshops survive?

Or perhaps we’ll stop buying books altogether. The houses of old people are stuffed with ornaments – perhaps books will be the signifier of old age for the baby boomers. What if my generation is the last to buy books in their traditional format? I’d managed to ignore the Kindle, but the arrival of the iPad was different. There was more of a sense of the start of a new era, in which it would be normal to download your reading material. The debate on pros and cons is moving from the media to real life.

Like it or not, we are entering an era when we’ll read a mix of ‘real’ books and downloadable sources. There will be arguments over which is more sustainable – the paperback that takes up resources to produce individually, or the eBook reader which was made in China and needs recharging regularly. Some will prefer an electronic device for holidays, others for commuting, but will still want to turn over the pages when at home. Bookshops – and libraries – will change in ways we can’t predict, just as they have over the past hundred years or so. Whether books will become more or less accessible remains to be seen.

But the most important question is what will happen to literature itself. Will the change in format alter what is produced? Will future generations give up on anything that can’t be expressed in 140 characters? I can’t see that happening. People will continue to write, others will continue to judge what’s worth publishing. The critics and the literary prizes show no sign of going away. In the end, reading will continue to be a popular activity. Selling books, in whatever format, will continue to be hard work, but there will always be a market.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A new approach to Northern Ireland politics

The Belfast Telegraph ran an interesting series of articles on moving away from tribal politics in Northern Ireland, from Monday to Friday last week, edited by David Gordon. I was very pleased to be asked to contribute. It was a significant move to take the debate into the mainstream – by which I mean putting the arguments outwith the blogosphere, political parties, academics and campaigns. It’s not yet clear how the general public have responded – some articles attracted a few comments, others didn’t, and I presume there will be some letters over the next week.

Here are the links to all the articles, in order of publication:

Telegraph Editorial
David Gordon introduction
David Gordon
Rick Wilford
Robin Wilson
David Gordon
Owen Polley
Lee Reynolds
Peter Shirlow
Liam Kennedy
Conall McDevitt
Chris Donnelly
Naomi Long
Jeff Peel
Jenny Muir

Friday, July 2, 2010

Retail therapy

To Belfast City Centre last Saturday, for a demonstration followed by some shopping. After having Killed the Bill in the company of Nick and a few Labour comrades, I wandered off to spend some money.

I headed for Belfast’s new shopping centre of gravity, Victoria Square. It was my first visit for quite a while. When Victoria Square first opened, I didn’t like it: too cold in winter, too complicated to find my way around, too much of a sense of being infill development on the way to the river. But last Saturday and it was buzzing. Full of shoppers of all ages, no boarded up sites, lively cafes and bars, and hooray, Jo Malone has come to Belfast at last, having set up in House of Fraser. Outside Victoria Square itself, the streets radiating out from Arthur Square now provide an intriguing mix of the older, cheaper shops and more upmarket options – with a good selection of coffee shops thrown in.

Quite a contrast to the rest of the City Centre. Of course there are some other interesting areas, but, in general, there are too many empty shops and too few people. It’s not that no-one cares. The road works in Donegall Place are an example of that. On a strategic level, the Department for Social Development has produced a number of Masterplans covering the city and also manages the redevelopment of the Cathedral Quarter. Belfast City Council also has a State of the City Masterplan. There’s a great awareness that parts of the city still need regeneration, and the waterfront redevelopment has been planned so that it doesn’t compete with the City Centre shops (although there’s an outlet centre in Melbourne’s Docklands, might be something to think about for Titanic Quarter).

But all these good intentions are swimming against the tide. People are spending less, and there are other places to go, especially if you wish to avail of free parking and a more pleasant environment than parts of the City Centre. The real problem is the lack of punters to support the number of shops and other facilities. Belfast City Centre needs to offer something different to get people like me to spend more time and money there. Victoria Square is a start.