D H Lawrence’s Rananim: another failed Utopia

As I truly enjoy most everything Richard Smith writes in his non-medical blogs I want to share this with some of my followers, who, I hope include all my children.

Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

During the First World War D H Lawrence wanted to found a society of friends with whom he could “sail away from the world at war and found a little colony.” He called it Rananim after hearing the Hebrew song Rananim Sadekim Badenoi (which unusually I can’t find on Google or Napster and can’t translate using Google translate). It would be in Florida, and its emblem would be a black phoenix.

Florida, the penniless Lawrence soon realised, was impractical and so he opted for Garsington in Oxfordshire, the home of his then great friend Ottoline Morrell. “I want you,” he told Ottoline, “to form the nucleus of a new community which shall start a new life amongst us, a life in which the only riches is integrity of character…We can all come croppers, but what does it matter? We can laugh at each other, and dislike each other, but the…

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My musical career

When I turned 50 I was on sabbatical in London, England. One of our sons – an excellent pianist – was a final year student at Pimlico secondary school. We chose Pimlico because it had a highly-regarded music program. The father of one of his classmates played and collected clarinets. Our son thought this would be a suitable birthday gift and persuaded my wife to buy it for me. I then found an excellent teacher who lived nearby and began taking lessons. My teacher quickly persuaded me to change to a more modern, lighter, clarinet. Because it had fewer keys it helped me overcome many fingering challenges. Subsequently I enjoyed practising and developed a reasonably good tone. Unfortunately, my timing was poor and is still pretty awful.

After returning to Montreal I found a new teacher at the Mcgill Conservatory. Under his patient guidance I managed to pass the Grade II examination. That was truly a proud moment. I continue to play, but as I age I’m definitely slipping.

For my 80 birthday the same son, gave me six lessons with his splendid teacher.  Her unusual teaching technique got me off to a good start. Interestingly, however, the first piece she chose for me to learn was a Bach prelude from the Well Tempered Clavichord.  Six years later I’m still struggling to master it. (‘Master’ is actually a much too strong word! I just want to be able to play the darn thing without making mistakes or having to look at the score!)

The question for readers of this blog is whether I should persist or give up? Having asked questions previously and received few answers, I’m forced to conclude one of the following: few actually read this blog, all the readers are shy, or they simply can’t be bothered with my silly questions. I will continue to ask until I get a good answer. And I will persist with the Well Tempered but not well-played Bach.

PS… I am also trying to learn a Satie ‘Gnossieme’ which is actually a much greater challenge because my hands are not large enough. (That is the best excuse I can come up with.)

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A book lover’s dilemma

A few nights ago an old friend came to dinner. I asked what was new. With considerable excitement she replied, “I just finished re-reading War and Peace! It was much better than when I read it 30 or 40 years ago!” That got me thinking about what I should be reading at age 86. I expect that, like me, most book-lovers have a pile of books beside their bed, favourite chair, or on their ebook reader that they intend to read. But, realistically, if the list is as long as mine, they are not likely to fit them all in before ‘the last page arrives’. (That is another euphemism for dying!) (See former BMJ editor Richard Smith’s blog on Pet Peeves… this is one of them). So, the question becomes: which should we choose – reading or re-reading greats like War and Peace or settling for current favourites like Peter May’s books (see my blog), those of Philip Kerr, or Michelle Obama’s promising autobiography? Truly, I can’t decide. Last year, encouraged by something I read and by one of my sons, I started reading (and listening to) Moby Dick. I was loving it, but it got bumped for something else. I have resolved to finish it come what may. Which reminds me that, for me, and perhaps other elderly folks who belong to a library, thanks to Overdrive, there is often the option of listening to ‘affordable’ (i.e., free!) audiobooks. A bonus from listening,  apart from sparing eyesight, is that most audiobooks are brilliantly read. That poses yet another decision: read or listen?

Readers of this blog are invited to submit their thoughts. But, please do so promptly before the list gets any longer and the time any shorter!

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Help! I’m hooked!!

A few years ago our children bought me a high-end Epson scanner. It comes with holders in which you put slides or negatives. I scanned a lifetime of colour slides years ago but then found a loose-leaf album with old black and white negatives. These were photos I had not seen before, probably because black-and-white prints were expensive in the old days. Although I had a darkroom, printing was also costly and time-consuming. Last year I started to scan these negatives, most of which yielded discoveries so wonderful that I kept going despite the time it took. But i was hooked: driven partly by my curiosity and also because the ‘children’ (ages circa 50) loved most of the results as did I.


The scanner with film holder on top

And worth it because I am retired and presumably have time on my hands. And time in abundance is what is needed because the scanning is fiddly: you slide each negative strip into the holder, attach a thing to hold them in place, run a preview, choose the ones you want, and then look at each for possible editing. This whole process takes about 20 minutes, even at a low (800) resolution.

After nearly a year of off and on scanning I had nearly completed the album. Then came the shocker. As housecleaning continued I discovered a box with 6 (!) more albums including a gigantic one with triple the number of pages. What to do?

Clearly, I shall continue. The upside is the many new revelations that lie ahead. The downside is that I estimate I may have to live until I am 117 years old to complete the task. Below I share one of the lovely photos and the looming challenge of the monster in the box!


The family – about 40 years ago

Below: Left – box of albums.  Right – the Monster!

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Quotes from a favourite author

Peter May is the author of many books, including a trilogy set in Lewis, an Isle in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I became a huge admirer after reading the Blackhouse, the first of the trilogy. Now that I have completed all three, I am more convinced than ever that May is one of the best writers of our time.  His writing is sensitive and his plots are intricate. Interestingly, I recently learned that the Blackhouse was rejected by all the major British publishers to whom he submitted it.  However, some while later, after May left the UK to live in France, he sent it  to his French publisher who immediately acquired world rights. This extract from Wikipedia describes what happened next: “The book was hailed as “a masterpiece” by the French daily newspaper L’Humanité and was immediately nominated for several literary awards in France. It won the Prix des Lecteurs at Le Havre’s Ancres Noires Festival in 2010 and won the French national literature award, the Cezam Prix Littéraire Inter CE …. The Blackhouse went on to be published all over Europe and was bought by British publishers Quercus.” It appeared in 2011 and won major awards in the UK and the US. 

In describing his books, reviewers use such words as “Magical”, “Spell-binding”, “Haunting”. Then there is this marvellous accolade from a New York Times Reviewer, “Peter May is a writer I would follow to the ends off the earth.”A reviewer for the Independent wrote: “This is the sort of novel that will have the reader relishing every tendency of description and characterization… A perfectly formed trilogy.”   

To tempt you further into reading this splendid set of books, here are some quotes from the Lewis Man, the second in the trilogy:

When you are young a year is a big part of your life and seems to last for ever. When you are old, there have been too many of them gone before and they pass all too fast. We move so slowly away from birth, and rush so quickly to death.”

“and the moment was gone, carried off in the wind with their words.”

“of a view, Fin thought, to take with you to eternity: the smudged and shadowed blue of distant mountains beyond the yellow of the Scarista sands; the ever-changing light from a never-resting sky; the constant refrain of the wind, like the voices of the faithful raised in praise of the Lord.”

Final word and a small confession: Instead of reading the last book, The Chessmen, I listened to it. The wonderful Scottish accent hugely enhanced the magnificent reading by Peter Forbes. I warmly recommend readings for  fellow octogenarians.




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Boxing Day Cooking: tribulations and triumph

The holidays are nearly over.  Xmas turkey was lovely, but I did not have any cooking responsibilities.  Later, however, for a belated Boxing Day meal, I did. Ambitiously I set out to do roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, Plum pudding, and mince pie tarts. This is a report on my successes and failures. It may help others, but more importantly, it may serve as a reminder for me for next year.

I started off bravely by downloading recipes as needed. Usually those on line are pretty good so I just grabbed the first ones to come along, with little further thought. Top of my list was Yorkshire puddings because last year they were a disaster. I chose Chef Ramsay’s recipe which suggested making the batter the day before and keeping it in the fridge. In my one and only blender I proceeded to add eggs, milk, flour and blend. It was a bit messy and when I decided to double the amounts so that I would have 24 puds I discovered the blender was almost overflowing. Still, I managed this, but only barely. Then, inspired by how easy it was, I ran out the next day and got more milk and eggs and made another batch. So all was in readiness in three containers in the fridge, awaiting the cooking of the beef.

The five pound beef had been in the fridge since Boxing Day but it seemed happy, albeit bloody. It was labelled roast beef so I sought a recipe by that name. I did not really need much more than temperature and cooking time. However, when I clicked the top ranked site I got one that was for pot roast. I didn’t pay any attention to the apparent difference but was panicked when it said 3 hours at about 375. We had planned to eat at 5 pm and it was already 3 pm.  Our oven takes ages to reach a reasonable temperature so I turned it up high and shoved the beast in without trimming fat as advised. I then called the kids and said the best I could promise was 6 pm.  I then waited patiently for the internal temperature of the beef to rise; it made little progress in the first hour so I shoved the meat thermometer in to keep track and continued to offer up little prayers.

Meanwhile to keep with family tradition, I wanted some dough to make mince pies. I had a jar of mince left over (who knows how long, but unopened so probably OK). Making dough should be easy and it might have been if I had not assumed my blender was the same as a food processor. I froze many cubes of butter, and when the time came dumped them in the blender with the flour and start pulsing. No luck. Just a smell of a burning motor. Kept trying; still no luck. Took everything out and chopped by hand then put it back in; lumps remain and the mixture was not at all what was described in the recipe. When daughter arrived and patiently explained that a blender was not a food processor (which I had given away!) I gave up on the machine, dumped the contents on a floured board and tried to chop it by hand. Daughter added water; texture still wrong but it needed to sit in the fridge for at least an hour and time was running out. The fridge phase was bound to solve all my problems. It did not. In desperation we shoved squished bits of dough into a small muffin tray, added a scoop of mince to each, and put it in the small  oven at 375. What later emerged was a crumbly – but tasty – mess! I will share with neighbours who may not know what real mince pies are supposed to look like.


Mince Pies (sort of…)

Finally, the time was nearing for the ‘piece de resistance’ – the Yorkshire puddings. By this time the son born in London arrived and together we followed the instructions. There were no drippings from the now properly cooked beef.  I say, properly cooked, even though the thermometer I had inserted was now completely melted and destroyed. Only the metal probe remained. But another less fancy thermometer told us it was medium rare, which was our goal. We put  a small amount of oil in each of the muffin tin slots – 2 x 24 in all (two trays) and put the tins in the oven at a high temperature. When son concluded they were sufficiently hot, we took them out, I ladled in the precious mixture, and quickly put them back in the oven for 20 minutes. What emerged was…. perfection! We even had extra gravy to add. The only problem is that we could easily have eaten another trayful because we, at that point, were 7 adults and 4 grandchildren.


Yorkshire puddings… yay!

The roast potatoes were a bit burned. The cauliflower was overlooked. The broccoli and carrots were fine. Good wine. Amazing chocolate trifle desert made by daughter rendered the need to try to rescue the Plum Pudding that had burned unnecessary. Tonight I start in on the far too few left-overs, so I conclude that, all in all, we did pretty well.





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Soft boiled eggs

I know this will seem silly for some, but the point is this: I am 86 years old and recently discovered that I was not sure how to soft boil an egg. I thought it would be a kind gesture to share what I have learned and what I am still a bit uncertain about. I trust there are some readers who may be in the same boat. Granted, we all   realize the key step is putting the egg in water in a pot on a stove. But this is where it gets a bit complicated. First, assuming the egg has been in the fridge and you forgot to take it out a while ago, is it OK to put a cold egg in boiling water? Or might it crack, as cold things tend to do when the are suddenly heated. Second, if you want to play it safe and put it in before you boil the water, does the time it takes for the water to start boiling count towards the total recommended cooking time? I like my soft boiled eggs runny but cooked; I hate it when they get hard or even nearly so. One kind web site suggests: “Bring the water up to a boil, then lower it to a rapid simmer. Add the eggs to the pot, and then begin timing. If you’re just cooking one or two eggs, five minutes is perfect for a runny yolk, or cook as long as seven minutes for a more firmly set, but still spoonable, yolk.” Seems sensible, but I still worry about the fridge-to-pot question. Obviously the best solution it to take the eggs out some time before you can cook it. But, how many cooks can remember to do so, especially if they are in their eighties?  Comments welcome.

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