New Year’s Resolutions

I had a wonderful Christmas time. A minor mishap when I forgot everyone’s gifts notwithstanding, everything went as smoothly as a sleigh ride. Presents were opened and well-received, Christmas dinner was delicious, and much merriment was had over a few games of Articulate. My favourite present? Maybe my set of four antique canopic jars; not something you see every day, but something very much suited to my macabre tastes. Anyway. Christmas is passed, but not forgotten, and it’s time to look ahead to the New Year. To plan those New Year’s Resolutions.

That old chestnut

I have made New Year’s resolutions before; everyone has. Have you ever stuck to them? I’m not sure if I have, technically. How long do you need to stick with a resolution for it to count? I remember resolving to do thirty press-ups a day in one of my teenage years. That one had failed by the third of January.

I think the missing element back then was real motivation. When I was in my teens, and indeed, through my years at university, I didn’t have to actively keep fit or make time for any new hobbies. I kept in reasonable shape simply by going out for bike rides and by walking to and from the university campus each day, and I could indulge all my hobbies because being a student, whether at college or university, is a pretty flexible occupation. There’s homework and coursework but it’s to be done in your own time. You can get it all out the way to make room for more enjoyable pursuits or you can decide to take a longer break from work, returning to it once you’re in the right frame of mind. Such flexibility is a double-edged sword, to be sure, and led to a few last-minute reports or concept models. But it’s an arrangement that if treated sensibly allows you to learn good time management and how to achieve a balance between work and leisure.

Work nine to five…

Now that I’m employed in a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five job, I’m finding it more difficult to maintain my previous levels of fitness and dedication to my hobbies. The motivation is there, now, for me to work for that formerly easy compromise between work and play. The incentive to keep (or should that be ‘to get’) fit is there too; an office job is by its very nature sedentary, and writing isn’t the most physical of activities. After some time off to recharge over the Christmas break, I feel I can work on integrating the things I find most enjoyable back into my daily routine. I can make time for my hobbies and fitness just as I make time for my job.

The key to achieving my resolutions is to set a number of clear, quantifiable goals. These goals should build on how I already organise my recreational time. By setting resolutions that are themselves building blocks to further targets, I should be able keep pushing myself to achieve more. If nothing else, posting my resolutions on my blog for anyone to see should also be an encouragement. Giving up isn’t an option when you’re being watched!

New Year’s Resolutions 2015

Maintain my blog.

I’ve always enjoyed writing and I know that consistent practice is essential to keep things moving. But, as with many activities, it can be hard to muster the enthusiasm to start writing, particularly after a day of work. I resolve to post on my blog at least once a week. One or more posts, usually between 500 and 1000 words, is an achievable target, and one that should keep me writing consistently. It should also ensure that I find it easier to sit down and immediately start hammering out words when I write creatively. This is my sixth post on liamsdesk and I’ve already noticed an improvement in my writing speed and an increased ease with which I can now slip into a writing frame of mind.

Write creatively at least once a week.

Blogging is fun, cathartic and good practice at using words, but it’s different to producing definable, contained stories. I want to keep my creative writing alive in tandem with my blogging; to dedicate an evening or afternoon at least once a week to getting a good chunk of writing down. I find that my writing productivity increases within the course of one session. In three consecutive hours of writing I’ll produce twice as much as I would in three one-hour sessions.

Crack the morning jog.

I go for the odd run, perhaps once a week. I’ve always found it difficult to pump myself up for a morning run – it’s not as enjoyable when the world is still dark and cold, or with the shadow of a working day looming – and I always put off running till a weekend afternoon. I’d like to start jogging in the mornings – short routes to begin with, once or twice a week before work. Once I’m acclimatised to early exertion it’ll be easier to maintain a fitness routine throughout my week.

There we go: a trio of New Year’s Resolutions that I should be able to accommodate, with a little effort, into my current weekly routine. I don’t plan on reinventing my lifestyle in anyway, just on applying a little discipline and organisation to what I do already.

If I make to February then I’ve already beaten my personal best.

MacBride is the New Black: a Stuart MacBride review

I have just finished reading Flesh House by Stuart MacBride. It was brilliant, though I don’t know why I sound surprised – I’m not a MacBride novice by a long stretch, and I was in fact re-reading this one. I’ve actually read most of his novels. My first, the aforementioned Flesh House, must have been back when I was twenty or so. It was (and is) an extremely gripping police procedural, veined with a delectably black sense of humour and splattered with enough visceral detail to keep Jack the Ripper himself happy. We could analyse it to work out what makes it so good. But this post is more of a Stuart MacBride review; an effort to pinpoint the attributes that make one of the best active authors out there.

Anyway. After reading Flesh House for the first time, I tracked through the remains of MacBride’s oeuvre, devouring his books on sight. Of course, this reading fervour rather blinded me to the chronology of his Logan McCrae series; I don’t think I read a single book in consecutive order, having started with the fourth and finishing with the first. Not a problem – they’re all great stories and they work well as independent novels. But that hasn’t stopped me going back and reading them all again from the beginning.

A top-tier author

There’s a small clutch of authors I consider to be my favourites. I find that nowadays I don’t have absolute favourite authors or bands or films. I tend have inner circles, pantheons of admired figures and pieces, usually champions of different genres. Stuart MacBride is in that inner circle, alongside Neil Gaiman and Stephen King and probably a few more. And out of all of them, I think MacBride writes the best story.

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A Mean Tagine: a Lamb Tagine Recipe

This one’s a recipe. My lamb tagine recipe.

Two years ago, I couldn’t have told you what a tagine was. All that had changed by Valentine’s Day 2013. My relationship with my girlfriend had been ‘Facebook-official’ for just a couple of months by that point – long enough, importantly, to warrant some romantic obligations. I decided  to kick my flatmate out for the evening and invite my other half round for an amorous evening of gifts, candles and a homemade meal. I offered her an invitation and enquired of her: what would she most like to eat that night? Nothing too difficult, came the response. A tagine?

I kept the expression of bafflement and fear from my face. Of course, I replied. Sounds like a great idea. I dashed home to check the damage on Google and discovered that a tagine is in fact a Moroccan stew-style dish, named after the conical pot in which it’s cooked. After analysing a dozen lamb tagine recipes from across the internet I picked out the most common ingredients and averaged out a formula of my own. Of course, having never so much as seen a tagine before, I was still going in blind.

Ultimately, the evening went wonderfully. Having left my Valentine in the living room with her gift (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust – the most romantic book I could think of), I fumbled my way through an adapted BBC recipe, frying up all the ingredients in my evicted flatmate’s wok and serving it with some Mediterranean bread and a bottle of red with a posh-looking label. Throw in a dimmer switch and a vinyl copy of Spandau Ballet’s True for ambience and I was onto a winner.

My own tagine recipe has developed since then, and now gets cooked in a real tagine – a present from Valentine’s Day 2014. That said: I’ve never previously gotten around to writing it down, so it’s been subtly different each time, if anchored around my favourite core ingredients. So here it is, as it currently stands. A mean tagine for two.

Tagine ingredients

  • 250g lamb, cut into bite-size chunks
  • 2 medium pink onions, or an equivalent handful of shallots, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 small sweet peppers, or 1 chunky sweet pepper
  • 500ml vegetable stock
  • 100g dried apricots
  • Handful of seedless raisins
  • 50g spinach
  • Fresh coriander
  • Turmeric, cumin seeds, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, paprika, bay leaves
  • A few spoonfuls of honey
  • A few glugs of olive oil
  • A knob of butter
And serve with…
  • Cous cous
  • Fancy bread, buttered
  • A bowl full of olives, with some kind of poking stick
  • A Dead Can Dance album on a low, sultry volume

My lamb tagine recipe

Chop your lamb.

I cut up my lamb first and pile it into the tagine dish. It’s probably worth pointing out that, with a tagine, you’re not supposed to pre-heat your oven. The pot goes in cold, and heats as the oven does to avoid cracking. Likewise, nothing needs browning in a frying pan first. The tagine will be bubbling away like a Persian hookah for two-and-a-half hours; enough time for lamb to cook through. I’m not always a fan of lamb but after it has stewed in spices and oil for so long it goes deliciously tender.

Chop your veg.

Chop up your garlic, onion and pepper and chuck those in the pot too. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, according to da Vinci. Keep it sophisticated.

Spice it up.

Next up comes the spicing. Turmeric’s my favourite; it burnishes the dish to a lovely Saharan gold colour and provides the dominant flavour. Throw loads on. I like to puff a bit of ground cinnamon and nutmeg in as well, but more to use exciting spices than because I feel it adds to the flavour especially. A small spoonful of paprika and thyme, a few spoonfuls of honey, then a bit more turmeric for luck.

I like a bit of heat in my tagine, so I sprinkle in a healthy dose of cumin seeds as well. Chilli flakes would probably work, but I tend to colour-code my seasonings. Tagines and curries get yellow and olive-green spices and pasta dishes get red and deep-green ones – chilli flakes, cayenne pepper, oregano.

Once the spices are added, glug a healthy shot of oil over it all and get your hands in there and mix it all together. If your hands don’t come away yellow, add more turmeric. Throw a knob of butter in as well for extra decadence.

Slop on some stock.

Time to add the stock. I tend to use vegetable stock since I think it adds a complexity of flavour, rather than sticking to safety in lamb stock. I doubt it matters actually – the amount of turmeric in the pot’s already made the kitchen look like a sandstorm’s hit it. The stock should pretty much cover all the ingredients in the tagine – top it up with water if need be.

Get it hot.

Time for the alchemy. Plonk the lid on the tagine and stick it in the oven. Once it’s in, switch the oven onto gas mark 2, which I’m reliably informed is around 140°C. Give it perhaps 15 minutes to heat then whack it up to Arabian sun level: gas mark 3, or 150°C. The conical shape of the tagine helps to circulate the steam back down into the stew, keeping everything moist.

Um… clean up the kitchen.

The tagine will be stewing for a while. If you’re a regrettably kinetic cook like me then the kitchen will be covered in onion off cuts, spice smudges and stock spills. I wasn’t kidding when I said “throw a knob of butter”. The tagine cooking gives you an ample opportunity to clean up a bit.

Once the tagine has been in there for an hour, take it out and have a peek inside. Check the lamb is cooking through and give the whole thing a stir around. I’d give it another half an hour and then carefully place your apricots and raisins in. Whilst you’re there, stick about half the spinach in too, and fold it into the stew. It might seem like a lot but it will wilt down pretty quickly.

Set the mood.

For the next hour, you can prepare the dining table.

Get a heatproof mat down to the side, so you can serve your masterpiece directly from pot to plate. I throw a couple of different varieties of olive in a tapas bowl with some cocktail sticks and an old fondue fork and stick that on the table too. Next, butter up some fancy bread and arrange it in a decorative pattern. One day I’ll bake the bread myself, but for now I just nip to the supermarket bakery and take advantage of their impressive range of baked pleasures.

Nip back to the oven after half an hour and fold in the rest of the spinach. Chop up a few strands of coriander and dapple it over the surface of the stew before adding a couple of bay leaves and returning the tagine to the oven for the last time. Stick on an album of ethereal world music to finally transform the dining room into an exotic chamber of near-eastern delight. Get your cous cous cooking ten minutes prior to serving so it’s nice and hot at the table.

Serve with a flourish and enjoy.

So it seems I have my own speciality dish. Nothing too hard either – throw it in a pot and let it cook. Even the tagine dish itself helps with presentation. It’s easy to add or remove ingredients and seasonings too, for a personalised meal. Which is of course where this started anyway. Give it a go – it’s lots of fun cooking with such a cool dish, and the results speak for themselves.

Ford Coppola’s Dracula: film review

This isn’t going to be another Dracula film review. Honest. But I watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula last night and loved it to such a degree that I’ve got to muse over it. As its title suggests, it is intended to be more faithful to the 1897 gothic horror novel than previous exhumations. This is not difficult when considering the character-juggling 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi or the comparatively action-packed Hammer production of 1958 with Christopher Lee. But this isn’t quite Bram Stoker’s story – this one belongs to the director. This is a Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula film review.

Vampire: the creature that can never die…

I love vampire fiction. Most of all I like to see how different authors and filmmakers all riff of that same idea – that of an immortal bloodsucker, creeping through the night, preying on soft white throats. Some vampires must sleep in coffins, others can rise during daylight. To some, half a century passes in the blink of any eye. To others, it’s above and beyond their expected lifespan. Some ideas work better than other of course, but it’s all subjective, and everyone has their own favourite vampire character. Personally, I think author Kim Newman has the best grip on vampire mythology. His Anno Dracula series embraces and reinterprets everything from John Polidori to Anne Rice and even references Twilight and True Blood. But I digress. We’re discussing Coppola here, and his interpretation of that most famous vampire of all.

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Beneath the Surface: Poetry in Architecture

I have a philosophy about poetry. This philosophy informs a lot of my views about writing and the arts and, despite its simplicity, it took me a while to figure out exactly what it was that made me like some genres of art and not others. In turn, it’s helped me deconstruct those genre prejudices and figure out what it is that I truly like and dislike, irrespective of labels. Being an architecture graduate, I’ll use an example below of poetry in architecture, but other art forms can share this philosophy too. It goes something a little like this:

Art has to look good on the surface before it can have a deeper meaning.

As I said: simple. It even has a flaw, like so many great philosophies – what looks good on the surface is entirely subjective anyway. And likewise, what people take from art, whatever metaphor they unearth from behind its exterior, is also a personal interpretation. That’s what poetry is all about. But let me explain with an example: in this case, using architecture.

Chiswick House Cafe

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