Saturday 31 December 2016

Housing, slums and other problems

I mentioned in my last post that the kitchen is the workroom of the home.  The thought occurs to me that, maybe, I should explain how I came to that conclusion.  It seems obvious once mentioned, but I only realised when I was watching the BBCs documentary series, The Victorian Slum.

Let me explain... Using a group of volunteers, the BBC recreated life in an East End slum covering the period from 1860 to 1914.  The building they used is derelict, originally part of a fire station. It was the closest they could get to a Victorian "court house", the original type of slum dwelling.  Court houses wrap around a courtyard, hugging the perimeter of the land, with shops and workshops on the ground floor and living spaces on the upper floors.  (There is a surviving example in Liverpool which has been preserved as part of the Museum of Liverpool.)

In Victorian times, families were lucky if they could afford one room to call home.  Housing costs consumed two-thirds of the average weekly wage, with food taking up the other third.  Everyone worked:  the man tramping down to the docks or to the factories, hoping he'd get picked for a day's hard labour; the wife and children doing piecework at home, often making matchboxes or artificial flowers.  Piecework brought with it a double burden since not only did you have to make enough units of sufficient quality to get paid, but you frequently had to purchase the raw materials first. Heaven help you if you were a widow or a single mum, since there were few jobs for women and having children automatically disqualified you from those.  Life was hard.  People frequently went hungry because the first priority was paying the rent.  You were only ever a few days hard work from being out on the street.

The series caught my imagination for a few reasons.  This was the life lived by my great-grandparents and where my grandmother spent part of her childhood.  (My great-aunt was born in the East End.)

The second reason is more telling.  In today's "zero hour contract" world, many people are back to that same hand-to-mouth existence.   The Guardian recently highlighted that there are thousands living in the UK who are technically "in work" so cannot claim benefit but without a guaranteed income who cannot afford to pay for housing.  Worse, they are not alone.  I turned on BBC2 a month ago, catching the tail end of a documentary about the current generation of hidden homeless - the small part of the documentary I watched showed a young mum "sofa surfing" with the father of her child.  She is a student teacher, desperately trying to finish her degree and get a proper job.  He works in maintenance on the London Underground but his monthly take home pay isn't enough to pay for even a modest home and they do not qualify for any state assistance, so rely on the goodwill of family and friends to home them for a few days at a time.

How can this be happening now, fifty years after Cathy Come Home and fifty years after the founding of the housing charity, Shelter?  This should not be happening now! These stories are not unique.  In London, the demand for housing has passed breaking point and property prices are obscene - the average price of a flat is10 times the average salary, while rents have doubled in the 27 years I've been in London.  (Rents were always obscenely high but haven't risen as fast, with a studio flat in Ealing going for £650 per month in 1999.  Now, it'd be around £900 to £1000.).  I cannot find the article to link to, but I remember reading that five out of six recipients of housing benefit is employed.

Salaries have not kept pace with inflation, especially house-price inflation so people cannot afford to buy nor can they now afford to rent.  As far as I can tell, the causes are three fold:-

  1. House building failing to keep up with demand.  This is partially due to difficulties with planning laws/green belt legislation and partially due to nimbyism.
  2. The Right-to-Buy legislation which penalised councils replacing the housing stock they sold with new properties.   The penalties were horrendous.  They were also "encouraged" to pass their remaining council properties to Housing Associations.
  3. When new properties are built, they are often sold off-plan to foreign buyers who are not purchasing them to live in or rent out, but as "investments" to sell later.
I am writing this as a marker in the sand, on the last day of 2016.  I don't have a solution.  Beyond massive wage rises and a huge, state sponsored building program, I can't foresee a way out.

- Pam

Monday 26 December 2016

Sloe gin truffles and other chocolates

The kitchen really is the workroom of the house.  Nothing brings that home to me more than the last week, where I seem to have been on a production line of chocolate goodies and other meals.  I started the week making chocolate brownies for the choir's Christmas Social, went on to make sloe gin truffles and finished with another round of coconut rough.   Everything smells of chocolate!  With the exception of a few brownies, I haven't been able to face eating any of them.

My sloe gin recipe and sloe gin truffle recipes come from a wonderful website called  I've mentioned them before.  Unfortunately, when I went to give the link to some friends earlier in the week - and again, today - I got a 508 error message, "Resource Limit is Reached".  I am not trying to plagiarise someone-else's recipe, but in order to preserve them for posterity, here are my versions of  SloeRanger's Sloe Gin Truffle recipe and's Sloe Gin recipe.  You have to start with the gin:

Sloe Gin

Buy a litre bottle of gin.  Drink half.  To the remainder in the bottle, add a wine-glass full of castor sugar (approximately 5oz or 150g).  Then add sloes - see note - until the liquid is back to the neck of the bottle.  Put the lid back on and shake violently.  Place bottle in a cool dark place, shake daily for a week then weekly for 3 months.  Gin is ready to drink in 3-4 months but can stay steeping for up to 9 months.  (Apparently it gets musty after that.). When ready, tip the gin into a large jug or bowl - something with a pouring spout, ensuring you get all the sloes out of the bottle.  Recant the gin liquid back into the bottle, straining it and saving the sloes.  It's now ready to drink but will keep for months.

Note - for best effect, the sloes need to be pierced before use.  Alternatively, freeze them overnight because that will split the skins.  You can put them in the gin frozen.

Sloe Gin Truffles

This is best made with sloes that have steeped for 3-4 months, no longer.  To "stone" your sloes, peel them with a knife.  I've tried a cherry stoner and they're usually too small to fit.   Once stoned, the sloe flesh can be frozen for months until you are ready to make truffles. Also, I make multiples of the recipe, since I usually make multiple litres of sloe gin at a time.


25g butter
75ml double cream
225g 70% dark chocolate, broken into pieces
75g stoned sloes, chopped up (I use the blender)
2 tablespoons sloe gin

To finish:  100g 70% dark chocolate


  1. Place the butter and cream in an appropriately sized saucepan, over gentle heat.  Bring slowly to the boil, stirring constantly.  Boil for 1 minute then remove from heat.
  2. Add the chocolate and stir until melted.
  3. Mix in the sloes and the sloe gin.  Be careful with the gin - melted chocolate will seize when exposed to water, so add the gin gradually to stop the mixture splitting and stir like mad.
  4. Tip the mixture into a swiss roll tin and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until solid.
  5. Line cookie sheets with cling film.
  6. Using a teaspoon, break off pieces of the filling and roll into balls with your hands. (Wear gloves.) Arrange on the cookie sheet and put back in the fridge to chill again for half an hour, minimum.
  7. Suspend a bowl over a saucepan of  water and bring to the boil.  Melt the coating chocolate in that.
  8. Using two desert spoons, roll/dip the truffle balls in the melted chocolate.  Place the coated balls back on the lined cookie sheets and chill.
  9. With any leftover chocolate coating, make coconut rough.
The original recipe says that it makes 40 truffles. 

- Pam

Thursday 15 December 2016

Stop Catastrophising

I was watching Sylvester have a meltdown in an episode of  Scorpion today, when the thought occurred to me that one of most important life skills to learn is to stop the thought process of catastrophising. defines catastrophising as

Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing can generally can take two forms.  The first of these is making a catastrophe out of a situation...  This kind of catastrophizing takes a current situation and gives it a truly negative “spin.”

The second kind of...Catastrophizing occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. We then create a reality around those thoughts...Because we believe something will go wrong, we make it go wrong.

In other words, it's the thought process that blows something out of all proportion in your mind until you're thought processes are so consumed by the "disaster" that you cannot think your way through any alternative paths to get to your real desired outcome.   I'll give you an example:  imagine you're in high school and you want to be a doctor.  You get to your final exams, open the chemistry paper and the first question you see is about something you don't know.  What do you do?  You need to average over 80% in each subject in order to get into med school.

Once the initial panic subsides, you may decide to attempt all the questions you can answer.  "Take the easy cans off the shelf, ladies and gents," as one of my lecturers used to say.  (Best piece of exam advice I was every given.  Thank you, David.).  Who knows?  You may salvage enough marks by taking this approach.  Or you can figure out a different way to get into med school, perhaps by starting a science degree first and transferring...

Or you can burst into tears, run screaming out of the exam and throw everything away.  "My life is ruined!  I'm useless!  I'll never be a doctor!  My father will kill me!".   Catastrophising? Absolutely.  And self destructive, since you've guaranteed that you will definitely fail.  And then where will you be?  Labelling yourself as a failure forever?  (Seriously?  This happened.  One of my school teachers tried desperately to calm the girl down and quarantine her so that she could sit the exam paper once she was calm.  Worse - one friend witnessed a classmate commit suicide in similar circumstances.  He stuck pencils up his nose and slammed them down on the desk...).
How do you break the cycle?  Psychcentral give some guidance in the link above, but the best advice I've come across was on a blog, here.    It boils down to breaking the cycle.

- Pam