Saturday 25 January 2014

Life on a Plate

In 2013, we discovered that horse meat, sometimes as high as 80%, had been added to our food. People were shocked and outraged. Cheap burgers and meat products were removed from supermarket shelves and even the 'reputable' supermarkets found they were not immune from the scandal as expensive ready meals were tested and found to contain meat from more than one animal.

None of these products would have harmed or killed us outright - indeed in many countries, horses are slaughtered for the table. It was the deception, and the realization that we had less control over the contents of what we put on our plate that caused such anxiety.

In Victorian times, food was adulterated to a far more dangerous extent. There was no Food Standards Agency, no Inspectors to discover and prosecute the offenders. Reading what was found in some everyday foodstuffs, I am amazed that people survived as long as they did! (And that's apart from the lack of universal refrigeration which made meat go ''off'' very quickly in the Summer months).

OK, those with weak stomachs .... do not read on.

* Sulphate of iron was added to tea and beer.

* Wine and cider both contained lead.

* Milk was frequently adulterated with chalk and watered down.

* Coffee was mixed with acorns.

* Sugar was mixed with sand.

* Gloucester cheese had red lead added to give it that distinctive colour.

* Butter, bread and gin all contained copper.

* Red lead was also used to colour red sweets.

Like today, street food played a large part in the Victorian diet. In each of my Victorian Detective novels I write about an elderly couple who ran a coffee stall. There were lots of these all over London as most offices and places of business did not have a canteen. As well as coffee, they sold bread and butter and ham sandwiches, which were a Victorian favourite. Amazingly there were whole stalls devoted entirely to ham sandwiches. Street stalls also sold soup and baked potatoes in winter months.

Seasonal food appeared on the streets as the year progressed. Watercress, strawberries and cherries were often sold by small girls, who turned up at Covent Garden in the very early morning to buy them. Muffins were sold by muffin men who rang their bells to announce their presence. Anybody apart from me remember the children's song: ''Have you heard the Muffin man ...who lives down Drury Lane''? Roast chestnuts were sold in paper twists off a brazier in the colder weather, as was cat's meat ...which was sometimes bought for human consumption as it was cheaper than butcher's meat.

In 1860, the government passed the Food and Drugs Act in an attempt to stamp out widespread food adulteration, but although the quality of food gradually improved, there was still no means of checking the street vendors or mass suppliers. Ring any bells? In 1868, machine produced tins of food began to appear for the first time on grocers' shelves. And of course, that opened up a whole new can of worms ...


Saturday 18 January 2014

Headbanging with HMRC

And so we bid farewell to Operation 2, and another small piece of me is on its way to a lab to be scrutinized. One way to lose weight, though not one I'd recommend. Frustratingly, I had to go through the same three blocks of paperwork with three different members of staff answering the same questions as I'd done 23 days ago when I had Operation 1.

They had my files sitting in front of them. They could have saved time and trees by just writing: see above. Paperwork. Of which more anon. Also according to the hospital, my height is now 5ft 10 inches, which means I am bucking the universal trend and getting taller as I get older. I have always been 5 ft 8. Either that, or they are now including my hair as a separate component.

I ended up discharging myself this time, because the Powers That Be had closed wards over the weekend and there wasn't a bed for me. This would have meant staying in the Recovery Room until a bed materialized somewhere, so that I could go and sit on it while the ward staff filled in the relevant paperwork to discharge me. As I resolved ages ago never to be in to Mr Stupid, and the Recovery staff said I was OK to go, I went.

Which brings us to New Year's Resolutions. Some people make Resolutions, some have Resolutions foisted upon them. It has been pointed out to me by BH, in whose company I spent a lovely Christmas break, that I always leave kitchen top cupboard doors open. This was initially hotly denied, but in the face of empirical evidence, I agreed. It might explain the ongoing and daily minor head trauma. The 2014 NYR is to close them after use. So far I have to record a success rate of zero%.

Mind, I am in good company: my friend Lissy not only leaves cupboard doors open, she also leaves drawers out and doesn't replace the kettle on its stand, according to Designer Dave, who treated us to a demonstration with commentary when I went round last week. He has irritating habits too: Lissy and I were driving back from London Colney, where we'd gone to return stuff to M&S (universal post - Christmas activity round here), when she observed that Designer Dave always carries out a running remark-fest on other drivers, which makes her so mad that she has threatened not to drive with him any more.

I was doing precisely the same thing at the time but she'd said nothing, which leads me to the interesting conclusion that bad habits are relative ...  especially when committed by relatives. But back to paperwork. At Hedges Towers the time has come to fill in our self-assessment tax forms. This (apart from Ikea flat-packs with instructions in Swedish and no allen key) is the one thing that causes most strife in the house, because there is always a point where the reconciliation of the various amounts doesn't work and the sum of all my carefully kept receipts and statements and invoices and pay slips is 34p out somewhere.

It happens every year. I dread it, but alas, the whole ghastly soul-destroying, gut-churning, head-banging, marriage-disrupting shebang is kicking off once again, even as you are reading about it. So if you'll please excuse me, there's a top cupboard door waiting for me, and it's got my name on ...

If you would like to read a FREE sample of my latest novel: Diamonds & Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so here. US readers can do so here.

Friday 10 January 2014

On The Bench With Seumas Gallacher

An early career as a trainee banker led to a spell in London, where his pretence to be a missionary converting the English fell on deaf ears. Escape to the Far East in 1980 opened up access to cultures and societies on a global scale, eventually bringing the realisation that the world is simply one large, extended village.
 Seumas now lives in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, which is nowhere near Scotland.

''…my kinda Blogger… my kinda lady, that Carol Hedges… on my perpetual slalom through the SOSYAL NETWURKIN whirl, I try never to miss the opportunity to accept invitations to Guest Blog, be the subject of Q and A, wannabe-darling-of-the-Web, me… when Ms Hedges offered to endanger the quality of her pages by allowing this ol’ Jurassic aboard, I asked the standard gambit of ‘…what would ye like?… WURD count?... topic?...’ …the response was immediate…and blunt… ‘an opinion post’, she said… ‘…length, short-ish, like I usually do,’ she said… and more than a wee hint that just getting on with it would be a good idea… LUVVED IT!... but, ‘opinionated?’… Moi? Moi?... yeez bet yer sweet a*ses, Moi!... when yeez reach my longevity milepost, it would be a bluudy miracle if there wasn’t a major streak of opinion coursing through these ancient veins… I could give yeez dozens of posts on opinion material, but let me focus on where my head’s at with the modern self-publishers’ eternal question… is it better to labour away at finding an Agent and/or Publisher or to polish yer WURK and devote yer energy to BUILDING THE PLATFORM as an indie?… the answers are ‘open’ …if ye’re lucky to get a good Agent/Publisher relationship early in yer writing adventure, go for it… most will not get that immediately, myself included… but that can actually be a positive thing, and here’s why… yeez get to own and drive a major part of yer own destiny… first opinion, understand the competition for readership eyeballs is massive… getting heard through the cacophony of blether on the virtual channels is difficult… second opinion, define realistic ‘success’ for yerselves… sometimes achieving a few positive reviews does the business… for others, trillions, or hundreds, or dozens, or a pair of sales/downloads suffices… soothes the angst-ish beast that lurks in the breast of every quill-scraper, the doubt, ‘am I good enuff?’…’fess up time… I’ve been amazingly fortunate thus far… my first two wee crime thrillers have so far managed to garner 70,000+ downloads on the Great God Kindle… but the peaks and troughs on the sales figures would drive yeez nuts if yeez let it… which brings on, the third opinion…don’t get hung up on measuring yer own success against the gazillions of other WURKS out there… developing and nurturing relationships on the Web will help to zone in on yer market, which JONGGR (‘genre’ to the grammar police) to pitch at, get marketing support… and the fourth opinion… welcome critique in order to keep honing yer craft… the universal scribbling family is the most generous-spirited bunch of Lads and Lassies yeez will ever have… LUV ‘EM… and fifth, and most important, opinion…ENJOY YERSELVES… I’ll keep the other million and a half opinions until a later date…off yeez go now…''

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Saturday 4 January 2014

Save the #NHS!

UPDATED 15th January 2016

On Monday, I had my 2nd year checkup at the Breast Care Unit at Luton & Dunstable. I had a mammogram and was seen by the consultant quickly and efficiently. I am cancer clear again - BUT my point still is: I had all this treatment 'free'.

On Wednesday, my husband had a bad fall - we thought he'd broken his wrist. A visit to the Minor Injuries Unit at St Albans and an X-ray and bandage later, he is home and recovering. Again, 'free'.

Neither of us, with our age and medical histories, would be taken on by any sane insurance company. I believe that this current government wants to do to the NHS what Margaret Thatcher did to the miners: destroy it. I stand with everybody fighting to save this wonderful and truly egalitarian institution.

As part of my research into Victorian London, I've been looking at mid-Victorian medical training and surgery. It was a fascinating time - just on the cusp of the surgeon as ''star'' as in: 'I can whip this leg off in 3 minutes; don't bother with anaesthetic, just give the patient a leather strap to bite on' to the realization that sedation played a huge part in the ultimate recovery process and that patient comfort and saving lives was more important than scoring reputation points.

The training was very different in those days. If you didn't have a degree from Oxbridge, which was a fast track way of entering medicine, you paid to be a dresser or apprenticed yourself to a surgeon at one of the country's teaching hospitals, where you watched endless dissections, took a rather basic exam and 4 vivas, and eventually there you were. Have Knife & License, can operate. The research has taken on extra piquancy because as some of you know, I was admitted to hospital just before Christmas for a breast cancer operation.

Amazingly, surgeons were performing my operation in the 1860's. The survival rates were not high, although some women did survive. They didn't have a big arrow stamped on their shoulder pointing to the bit to be operated on as I did though. Nor, bizarrely would they have had their leg labelled - presumably in case it got bored during the op and wondered off. And in those days they were not injected with radioactive blue dye. Surgery has come a long way! (I have to report that I do not now glow in the dark. Sadly).

However my main point is that in 1861, the prospect of my operation was not only fraught with fear and pain and a pretty low success rate, but was largely dependent upon your finances. There was no ''free at the point of delivery'' option. If you were poor, you just suffered terribly and then died. Whereas I had the services of a top Consultant, a skilled anaesthetist and a Registrar all highly trained, and FREE.

The government, as did its Conservative predecessor under Mrs Thatcher, regards FREE as a dirty word and seems determined to control, outsource, de-fund and dismantle the NHS. I experienced some of the results of their malign handiwork when the nurses in the recovery room were so busy getting my paperwork sorted that they forgot to discharge me with any pain relief - I have to report that varying red wine with Prosecco works admirably!

I am so grateful for the NHS - for the ''right'' to medical care 'free at the point of use'. Given my 'swarm' immigrant origins and plebeian status, I doubt I'd have been able to afford my operation in 1861, whatever my chances of survival. And I will fight for the right of others to have the same marvellous treatment that I had. A return to Victorian values? No thanks!