Saturday, 19 December 2009

Christmas carols

I love Christmas carols – proper ones like Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, and While Shepherds Watched, and Little Town of Bethlehem. I love going to church or standing on a village green singing my heart out with people who were strangers only minutes ago but with whom I now share a bond. There’s something warming about communal singing, whether at carol services or on football terraces. I have sung carols at schools, churches and old people’s homes, on streets and in parks, and, on one memorable occasion, Digbeth Coach Station.

I was coming home from Manchester for Christmas; it was Christmas Eve; snow had fallen steadily and the M1 was closed. I spent hours huddled in a freezing coach station in Birmingham that smelt of wee with the bus driver and several other passengers as we waited for news that the road had been cleared and we could carry on our journey. I just started singing Silent Night – I thought I was singing to myself until other people joined in. It was a magical moment.

In the Bleak Mid-winter was the first solo I ever sang. I went to a C of E primary school and we were taught the carols for school assemblies. I loved the words and the sentiments – there were often sheep and donkeys and little baby Jesus lying in a manger. It was all jolly lovely I thought.

Once my siblings and I made a tape for our cousin, who lived overseas, onto which we recorded ourselves reading stories, singing songs and playing instruments. My brother sang Once in Royal David’s City and he could hardly get the words out through his explosive nervous laughter. Every time I hear about the lowly cattle shed I think of him.

Recently I was having a discussion about how I hated ‘modern’ Christmas music, such as Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and the like. I was horrified to find that someone whom I previously liked and even respected had a secret penchant for Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas. I’ll never look at her the same way again. Fairytale of New York is about the only decent non-carol Christmas song I can tolerate. I was at this concert.

At the local English language school where they teach English to foreign language students, the ‘festive season’ has dispensed with carols altogether – many of them celebrate a denominational religious holiday which is not accepted in current culturally sensitive circles, but also the language is too archaic and difficult to understand.

It always was. My father, who hates blind faith, insisted that if I was going to sing those ‘infernal tunes’ around the house, I should at least know what they meant. When I was about eight, he sat me down and we went painstakingly through the lyrics of Good King Wenceslas until I fully understood the socialist principles of the 10th Century Bohemian king, who believed in helping the poor.

I loved the part where the page and monarch went forth together ‘through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.’ I have often thought of this carol when trudging through snow on seemingly endless walks or skiing trips when I have trailed behind Him Outdoors, following in his footsteps. The merry tune and the positive thoughts it inspires does indeed help to ‘freeze my blood less coldly.’ Father dear wasn’t so keen on the good king’s politics or the inherent Christian message, but I think he may find more cheer in the fact that the regal Wenceslas is also the patron saint of beer.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Food waste

When I was a child, I was subjected to school dinners. Actually, they weren’t that bad – I heard horror stories of far worse meals than the ones we were served in our canteen (liver with tubes is often mentioned by Him Outdoors in tones of horror and revulsion). But we were made to eat semolina.

It’s still one of the few foods that I don’t like (melon and tripe are the others, in case you’re interested), although I’ve tried. Back then I simply couldn’t see the point of it, once you’d swirled the blob of raspberry jam into it and made it go pink. The dinner ladies were aghast and told me that ‘starving children in Africa would be grateful for that’.

I wished no harm on the starving children in Africa and thought I was doing them a favour by transferring the congealed goo into an envelope and addressing it to them. Apparently not. I got into quite substantial trouble for that, and I have been concerned about food waste ever since.

8.3 million tonnes of food is thrown away by households in the UK every year. That’s a lot of food. The ‘
Love food hate waste’ website states that if we all stop wasting food that could have been eaten, the CO2 impact would be the equivalent of taking 1 in 4 cars off the road. That’s a lot of cars. A recent study conducted by the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, reveals that almost half of the food in America goes to waste. That’s outrageous.

I blame the supermarkets and the advertising – they tell us that we need to eat this or that in bright shiny packaging to be better people. There are mounds of tempting fresh fruit that we just have to have – we take it home to rot in its bowl. We are bombarded with advertising for ready meals and additive enhanced snacks that will supposedly fill the emptiness in our souls. Anita Desai’s 1999 novel Fasting, Feasting explores this concept horrifyingly well.

We need to buy it all at once because we don’t want to make excessive trips and burn extra fuel. We can’t take a trip down to the local high-street greengrocer, butcher or baker because they no longer exist – the corporate supermarket in the shopping mall squeezed them out of existence.

And the effort of getting there and parking and walking around the impersonal, clinical cavern with the soporific music, and then waiting in the line with tantrum-throwing toddlers and loading it all onto the conveyor belt and taking it all off and getting it all into the car and returning the trolley and driving home and unpacking it all and putting it all in the fridge and the pantry is such that you don’t want to do it any more than you have to – so you buy as much as possible in one go, and are rewarded with coupons if you spend over a certain monetary value.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, but I am crawling out of the pit and have discovered my own form of resistance. It’s called planning. I plan my week’s evening meals. I buy magazines (Dish is a current favourite) and I try out new recipes from them and old cookbooks. I write out a list of the ingredients that I need to make these meals and that’s all I buy, plus some fresh fruit and salad stuff for snacking on, and (of course) cat food for Chester.

I write the meals up on a blackboard and I know that either Him Outdoors or I can make anything on that board because we have a recipe and the ingredients. I don’t have snacks in the house because I will eat fruit if I need a quick fix.

If I do ever have leftovers I have a pantry full of herbs and spices, dried pasta and tins of beans – a mixture of some of these staples can make something healthy and tasty (and if we have a civil emergency I’m sorted for a good few weeks).

It’s not a massive step (I need to start a compost heap to make use of the scraps) but it’s a little thing that makes me feel better about the starving children in Africa. I may not be able to do much to help them individually, but I can at least not waste the resources that I have.

I’m also adopting this procedure for Christmas presents this year – make a list and stick to it. Impulse buys are rarely a good idea in the long run. 'Waste not; want not' as the old folk used to say. They probably still do, but now I agree with them – help; I’m becoming an old folk!