The Cold Shoulder

Another cookery post. I’ve been looking for ways to make the Sunday roast more exciting. We’ve tried not having a roast at all. We’ve tried whole and partial ducks, pork, beef and chicken. We’ve slow cooked, pot roasted and normal roasted.

Today, I tried something a bit different. My husband bought a bone-in shoulder of lamb and a bag of salad. He hates salad, so it was clearly aimed at me. But I turned that into the basis of a delicious meal for the whole family for Sunday lunch, but the title of this post is a clue – it takes rather a long time to cook at such a low temperature.

Slow-cooked Shoulder of Lamb with Salsa Verde

15 minutes to prepare, 4.5 hours cooking

1 bone-in shoulder of lamb (ask for one that serves about 4 people)
1 bag watercress and rocket salad
1 teaspoon chopped mint
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice + set of a lemon if you are using fresh lemon
1 teaspoon child flakes
(3 anchovies, finely chopped)
Seasoning

Preheat oven to 200c. Snip the lamb all over with scissors to make tiny pockets in the meat and fat.
Put the mint and half the garlic into a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
Chop the salad down to chopped herb size. Put one third into the bowl, season and stir. Rub all over the lamb.
Put the lamb in the oven, ideally in a baking tray that has a rack in the bottom.
After 15-20 minutes, turn down to 110c. I know it seems low. Cook for four hours. (If you are brave try at 85c for six hours – not tried it myself, but a friends with a meat thermometer swears by it! This is why I called this the cold shoulder.)
Remove from oven, cover in foil and rest for 10-15 minutes. Watch out, the bone will be hot to touch.

Salsa Verde traditionally contains anchovies. If, like me, you are not an anchovy fan, this works just as well without. Mix the rest of the olive oil, the rest of the chopped up salad bag, the rest of the garlic, all the lemon juice (and zest if you have it), the chilli flakes, and a LOT of salt and black pepper in a jar. Lid on, shake this and put it in the fridge for use later. It comes out a gorgeous bright green colour.

I served the lamb in a couple of different ways, some chunks, some shredded. I added roasted butternut squash cubes (or mini roast potatoes for the kids), with steamed carrots and asparagus. And red wine. Absolutely delicious. The salsa verde really cuts through the fat too.

The Wall that Blinked

A short story written with my son, based on his day at school…

My predator had cyan eyes with purple dots on the irises. Each one shaped like the eye of Horus, they were red rimmed and had a feline black slit of a pupil. These were not the eyes of a creature you would want to meet on a dark night.
I was really proud of them.
They dried over the lunch break. During afternoon class my teacher Miss Bayer said that she was so pleased with our predator artwork that she would put the eyes up on the wall in the classroom.
I wasn’t too sure I liked this. Have you ever walked past a wall of eyes? If you are there with your friends, then it’s possible to think of them like so many miniature stained glass windows. If, like me the following day, you have left your violin in the cloakroom again and have to pass the eyes by yourself on your way to retrieve your instrument, they can be downright creepy.
They’re just paper, tissue, paint and glue, I told myself. I made a pair. I know that. But I still scurried to find my red violin case. I carried it in front of me like a shield as I went to pass them again. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the blink.
I froze. Stupid now I think about it, I should have run. But I didn’t. Down near the bottom of the display, a pair of luminous green eyes the shape of of an infinity symbol had definitely blinked. I waited. I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
Nothing happened. I must have imagined it. I bent to examine the eyes, smiling to myself as I recognised them. My friend Dean had made them, I noticed he had managed to get a splodgy yellow capital D around each of the teardrop-shaped pupils. It was his symbol. He wanted to write it on walls and stuff.  I’d told him that, if he did that, everyone would know he’s done the graffiti and he’d have to clean it off and the police would come to his house. He muttered that everyone knowing the graffiti was his was sort of the point, but I knew that he had thought about it again, and only actually practised it on the side wall of his own house. The yellow seemed to make the green paint glow. I didn’t remember him adding black paper eyelids but when the eyes blinked again, that’s definitely what I saw. I yelped. This time I ran.
I went to bed as normal, but I switched my light back on again when my mum went downstairs. In the dark, I could imagine that there were predator eyes on my bedroom wall too. Weird, glowing eyes, as if a thousand greedy animals were watching me, waiting for the moment that I would drop off so that they could gobble me up. I tossed and turned. I sweated. I drank a cup of water and had to go out to the bathroom. I must have fallen asleep, because I woke when my alarm went off. I was ok for about two seconds, but then I felt like a bubble of sick was rising all acidy in my stomach. I didn’t want to go to school ever again.
Mum had absolutely no truck with this at all, and packed me off to be eaten by the wall monsters.
“What’s up?” asked Dean. “You look poorly.” He had run to catch up with me on the footpath that led to the school gate.
I shrugged and put my hood up on my coat. “Tired.”
“We’re doing about prey today,” he said. “Blinkin’ shame if you had to miss it and go home.”
We hung our bags and coats in the cloakroom, and I nearly walked into Miss Bayer as she stepped out of the stationery supplies cupboard. She was holding a broken piece of wood in her hand. “The whole shelf’s come away from the wall,” she said.
“Don’t look at me!” said Dean.
She twisted her mouth in the way she does when she’s thinking about a tough maths puzzle. “I wasn’t,” she said slowly. It almost sounded like she added “but I am now”, but no actual words came.
We headed to class. I looked away from the wall of eyes. The last thing I needed was my whole class hearing me shriek.
Dean suddenly stopped.
I didn’t even realise until I was a metre or so in front of him. I turned back.
“Did – ?” he said.
“What happened?”I asked.
“Nothing.” He shook his head. He started walking away.
“What happened?” I asked again, bobbing along beside him like a rubber duck in the bath.
“I said nothing.” He didn’t look at the eyes on the wall, and he wouldn’t look at me either.
It was break time before he would admit that something had happened. Even then he pretended like it wasn’t a big deal. “It looked like there was a pair of eyes glowing at me, ok, but it was just the light. I’m not a nutter. I don’t do stupid stuff.”
Dean clearly didn’t want to talk about it, so we played normal games at break and lunch. As home time approached, I started to feel nervous. I didn’t want more of the eyes moving or glowing. I didn’t know what was going on with that wall. All I knew was, I didn’t want to be anywhere near it.
I dashed to be the first to go out to meet my mum on the playground, so of course I forgot my water bottle and had to go back. I stopped just before the place where the eyes hung on the wall. There was a shadow across them and the sparkle of the glitter glue that some of my classmates had used to make their predator eyes looked like malevolent glints in the semi-darkness.
I took a deep breath. I felt like my heart was going to hammer out through my chest. I felt light headed. I didn’t want to be there. I needed to think about something else. Miss Bayer’s words from that afternoon’s class floated through my mind. “Prey has two options for survival. Fight or flight.”
What I was feeling was flight.
When the orange eyes next to Dean’s blinking green ones started to glow, I felt something else. I felt anger.
I stormed to the stationery cupboard and flung the door open.
There was Dean, torch in one hand, my water bottle in the other. He was shining light through the holes in the wall where the shelf had fallen out. They lined up exactly with the orange and green predator masks on the other side of the wall.
“I knew it!” I shouted. “A blinking shame? No one says that!”
Dean looked a bit awkward, but then he grinned.”I got you though, didn’t I? You really thought the eyes were alive.”
I nodded. “You did. But I don’t know why.”
He pulled a face. “There’s just something about walls. I see a wall, I want to decorate it. You had to go and tell me the police would be on me if I drew on walls in public, didn’t you? So I drew on the one at home. And Dad’s grounded me.”
A shape loomed behind me, casting a shadow across Dean’s face. Miss Bayer appeared. “You two. I might have known. Dean – did you pull the shelf out of my cupboard?”
Dean looked a bit scared, but admitted it.
“Great, well, as you like decorating walls so much, you can help fix the shelf back into this one. Tomorrow. Now go on, home. Both of you.”
We hurried out onto the playground to find our parents. As I ran, I glanced back.
I was almost sure that a cyan and purple dotted eye winked at me. But that was impossible.

Haiku Wizard… My Poem published!

Are you a bit of a book fan? Are you randomly on Facebook at teatime one day, scrolling through…

That was me. And I don’t know about you, but when I see “writing competition”, “free” “about your favourite books” and “haiku” all together, I automatically think I Can Do That. And my brain switched to Harry Potter…

Why Harry Potter? Well, my latest writing project is middle grade fiction, and my son’s bedtime story has taken us right through Percy Jackson and the Olympians, all through Harry Potter and back to Rick Riordan’s world, this time with Heroes of Olympus. Harry Potter takes three times as long and includes linguistic fun (look at the character names) as well as great storytelling.

It was wizard fun.

So today my ten minute’s work haikus were published in The Story, Amazon Kindle’s new reading/writing themed magazine published via tumblr.

I am a bit excited- seeing my name there as the reader responsible, with a potentially worldwide readership, and for something fun is fabulous.

No, it’s not an agent, a contract, publication (and international acclaim for) my novels etc. but it shows me that out there, people to whom I am not related believe I can be creative.

So you have to celebrate the small things as well as the big.

Please go and enjoy my haikus here. You can read it without joining Tumblr (at least I could) but just in case, you can also read it below:

Harry goes to school, 
Learns spells, makes friends, finds the stone.
How did he survive?

Kids get petrified, 
Harry talks to snakes, and fights
Heir of Slytherin.

Prisoner on the run,
Time travel saves the day – Oh!
Harry’s Godfather?!

Boy wizard competes
In dangerous magic games
The Dark Lord rises.

Ministry take school,
Order fights the Death Eaters: 
Sirius Black dies!

Who is Half blood prince?
Dumbledore self-sacrifice?
This one makes least sense!

Deathly Hallows Three,
Voldemort or Harry dies
Which one do you think?

Cake with no eggs – apple and cinnamon

   

 Kids home ill today, which always ends up meaning baking. But without any warning of illness, I don’t have the right ingredients in. I don’t even have enough flour and butter, and no eggs at all…
But they’re ill and clamouring for cake.
Ok then. Let’s see if we can make a fabulous cake with only random ingredients…
And we can! This is an awesome, fruity, light cake. I was amazed!

Store-cupboard Apple and Cinnamon Cake

5 heaped dessert spoons of soft brown sugar
5 heaped dessert spoons self raising flour
3 heaped dessert spoons polenta
2 heaped dessert spoons natural fibre boost powder (Matt Dawson branded)
4 kids’ little fromage frais, apricot flavour
2 apples, finely diced
1or 2 dessert spoons cinnamon
8 dessert spoons olive oil
2 dessert spoons lemon juice

I mixed all the above together, and baked for 1 hour at 190c.

I mixed the last of my icing sugar and butter together with some more lemon juice to make a toupee of butter cream icing on the top. It’d be great to kid myself that with the polenta, fibre powder and fruit this approximated to healthy, but it’s cake at the end of the day, and a lovely one too. After all, if you can’t have comfort food when you are ill…

Twinkle twinkle

Jake Goodman here again. I know you’re used to my usual stuff on sex, life and why I don’t have a toolshed (and if you are not, buy tickets for my shows!) but I’ve been watching the news and spending time babysitting my kids over half term.
I keep hearing that the EU stuff is all too complicated.  Really? Ok. So let’s have a sing song instead…

Twinkle, twinkle European stars,
We Brits don’t get just what you are.
We’ve been told that you’re a superstate,
Now we might make a big mistake.
Twinkle, twinkle little stars,
let’s talk about just what you are.

In the 1970s we were told,
About this project, big and bold.
Both YES and NO told us a Common Market,
Was not the end but just a start to it.
Heads of State and Prime Mini-stars
Working together as partners.

The laws that come from “Brussels” are
Made by lots of British stars.
Not laws made by “faceless bureaucrats”:
The people that say that are – not very well informed…
Council, Parliament, Commission,
The people there are from each member nation.

We elect 73 UK MEPs,
That is direct democracy.
We ask them to speak for us there.
Some will be wise and some won’t care.
They make the laws and are elected by you,
They sit with other parties of a similar view.

The Council’s filled with Ministers,
The brightest, shiniest little stars.
Ministers come from our government,
That you’ve elected so they can represent.
For each subject the expert one attends,
Debates, argues, drafts and then amends.

What about the European Commission?
Surely a democratic perversion?
It’s a civil service: makes it all work;
Collects evidence; runs programmes; gets people to talk.
Proposes drafts laws for the elected ones
To change and shape until they’re done.

If you don’t like it, you have a choice,
You’ve got a vote, you’ve got a voice.
But you should know what you have got
Before you throw away the lot.
You can live, work, set up in any Member State;
Criminals can’t hide when we cooperate.

You think there is too much “red tape”?
Health and safety, working hours? (Did we “gold-plate”?)
Foreign policy; some share a currency;
Agriculture; fair competition; fish in the sea.
Clean environment; a single market:
If you trade, holiday or buy: you’re a part of it!

We take for granted the benefit
That we get from our membership.
It’s easy to say it’d be ok,
They need us, it won’t get taken away.
But there is no guarantee
And that’s not good enough for me.

In these days of globalisation
It’s tough to be an isolated nation.
The EU exists, it won’t go away,
So it’s with these structures that you’d have to play,
To work out an alternative
Less say on rules, but more “sovereign”.

People say that what you are
Is an EU-USSR.
Or a capitalist conspiracy,
Or always voting against me.
But facts do not support that view
The question is what WILL you do?

You can’t be a superstate:
Refugees came, countries closed their gates.
The euro’s not a great success,
Southern Member States are in a mess.
But you are by far our biggest market,
We’d be mad to up and scarper.

There’s no other countries calling: “Leave them be!
We’ll offer better trade!” It’s a fantasy.
And there is no one clear view
Of what exactly we would do.
Those that promise Utopia
Seem to think its based in Westminster.

And being In matters to me.
Don’t diminish my identity.
Don’t blame problems within my nation
Just on EU immigration.
Twinkle, twinkle, little stars
Reach for them, hold on, they are ours.

Under Starter’s Orders

At the end of the day, having a single document setting out Britain’s special position with the EU is a massive achievement.
Very shortly, we in the UK will be involved in a referendum on whether to remain in or leave the EU.
It is not a waste of time. It’s not insignificant, not worth bothering about, a load of old rubbish.
It’s about Britain’s future standing in the world and whether we stand in isolation, looking across far oceans, or stand with our neighbours as well as doing the looking across oceans thing.
While the changes negotiated tonight might be the defining aspect of a REMAIN/ LEAVE thing for some, others are basing their views on other things.

Were facts the major driver, then the result should be an absolute trouncing of LEAVE, because REMAIN has the evidence of over 40 years of life in the EC/EEC/EU and the establishment on its side, and LEAVE has speculation and anti-establishment figures.
The “debate” between then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage a couple of years ago showed that facts alone don’t win – Clegg explained with facts but Farage “won” in the eyes of the media and the public because his version of reality had been given so much airtime by the media and he spoke about it with passion.
So at present everything is 50/50 because REMAIN don’t have the media or the public’s hearts won at the moment.

REMAIN have to explain why all the rights and benefits we have now as EU citizens are not guaranteed if we vote to be no longer part of the EU club. They have to sell the good things about membership, which have been ours since before I was born, to a public that has been told little about these things as coming from our membership and only really told about the EU as a faceless bureaucracy to fight against.
They have to sell membership of an outer rim of the EU (not Eurozone, not Schengen) for the privileged position it really is (after all, keeping currency and border controls have been two of the main issues under debate so far in the media during this renegotiation).
They do need to talk about business and prosperity, and the fact that if trade with non-EU countries is going up while we ARE a part of the EU, then the idea that it is somehow being held back is nonsense (trade not being a zero sum game). It is also true that the EU helps us guarantee that our working hours and wages are not something that we should be giving away to give businesses an edge against each other – it is therefore in the interests of those that work as well as those that employ for us to remain in the EU and ensure that competitiveness is not at the expense of the workforce.
They need to talk about democracy – there’s a false belief that laws are foisted on us by foreign faceless bureaucrats and “quisling” Brits. In fact, the EU has the Member States’ Ministers/ Prime Ministers or Heads of State as the Council, and the directly elected Members of the European Parliament as the two bodies making most decisions, plus the European Commission (Commissioners appointed by the Council and endorsed or not by the European Parliament, staffed by civil servants who compete for jobs there in open competition from right across the EU Member States) which produces the draft laws which are then negotiated by the Council and Parliament. It’s not identical to Westminster – both chambers at EU level are filled with individuals that have been elected! – but that doesn’t make it less legitimate in democratic terms. What it does mean is that the public of the EU ought to be taking the European Parliament elections seriously and not using them as referenda on the performance of their own national governments…
But there’s a heart issue too and it is something that REMAIN must articulate properly.
It is patriotic to believe that being British is a great thing. Being privileged enough to be born in the British isles or of British parents is great, and it is one facet of who we are and confers some rights and privileges as well as responsibilities.
We are also European (and I’m using that word correctly to refer to citizens of the EU, not just residents of a continent) with the rights and privileges that come from that, as well as responsibilities, and I don’t want to lose out on that aspect of my identity. I’m happy with the responsibilities that go with that too. The idea that my children and grandchildren would be more hemmed in, and be less able to consider Europe as a whole their continent to live, work and travel in, is terrifying.
The Germans are not less German by being European, nor the French less French nor the Dutch less Dutch – are we really to think that being British is such a weak thing that we are less British for being European too? How can that really be a patriotic stance?

LEAVE will try to say that all the things we have as a Member State are still possible if we vote to leave, that we can be given all the good things without being part of the club.
The EU bureaucrats that our politicians and civil servants cannot at the moment best as a member of the club will roll over and grant us privileged access if we leave, apparently. We have 44.6% of our exports of goods and services trade going to the EU (2014, source ONS), 48% of Foreign Direct Investment to the UK coming from the EU (source HoC Library paper 06091). The UK receives 3% of goods exports from the EU (I don’t have a figure for the services side, and the source for the 3% is NIESR), so the UK would not automatically have the upper hand in any negotiations and it certainly does   not equate to ‘them needing us more than we need them’. Indeed, even with the generous parameters used for the Open Europe simulation of Brexit negotiations (which included retaining Freedom of Movement for EU citizens which those supporting LEAVE don’t generally like), the sheer cutthroat nature of the process shone through – each Member State’s representatives have to get a deal that their voters at home would tolerate.
LEAVE will try to say that there’s a shining bright world out there that we are being denied, and that we can both shut it out and be part of it.
Some admit that we’d need migration, even retaining Freedom of Movement in return for single market access (as Switzerland and Norway do and as the Open Europe Brexit exercise simulated), others talk of the UK  being “full” – but that’s two different visions of life outside the EU that cannot coexist.

No one’s quite sure what would happen in terms of our economy either.
We’re told that the rest of the world will want to trade with us if we are outside the EU. No doubt it is partially true as we’d still be a market of 70 million. And yet America wants the UK to remain in the EU. 32 of 50 Commonwealth states already have free trade arrangements in force or agreed with the EU, they’re not a British Empire and Australia (which considers itself an Asian economy these days and said they saw no advantage to the UK leaving the EEC back in 1975) had one of their former DPMs has explained why Australia also wants the UK to remain in now… In fact, there’s not really a clamour of countries saying please leave the EU and trade with us.
I think people who clamour for free trade deals only might not know what a trade deal really is these days… Iceland might have a trade deal with China while there is no UK or EU deal at present, but it is the TERMS of a trade deal that matter – the Iceland deal is hardly equal terms between the two parties. It is ludicrous to believe that the UK representing a market of 70 million would obtain better terms than a bloc negotiation of half a billion people. Of course it is not just the free trade aspect that matters in trade deals – the major elements are about standard harmonisation – exactly the “red tape” element of the EU that those supporting LEAVE most dislike!
LEAVE say that decisions need to be made at Westminster, and yet are the same people calling for this denounced Westminster as corrupt only a couple of years ago. The same thrill of being anti-establishment that was prevalent n bringing down politicians then is being harnessed now. When its people within Westminster feeling it, that’s practically zen… But being anti-establishment is both a blessing and a curse: the public’s innate conservatism carried the anti-AV referendum result last time there was a nationwide referendum vote so there is normally a bias in favour of the status quo from voters.
No one is willing to talk about what role xenophobia is playing in all this. From the assumption that the whole of Romania and Bulgaria would “flood” here when freedom of movement was allowed to those new Member States to refugee crisis from Syria, the idea that we are somehow special and should be able to lock ourselves away from the world is based in fear, not outward looking openness to the world.  The coordinated attacks on women in Cologne have led to an unpleasant attitude among some politicians here that that EU membership equates to ‘lock up “our” women because the Muslims are coming disguised as Syrian refugees’. Never mind that only three of those arrested are recent arrivals in Germany, nor that refugees are excluded from Freedom of Movement, nor that refugees don’t get German passports for ten years…
We need to learn from history – and yet a quick look back shows that LEAVE are using  the same accusations (higher prices, lower wages, NATO not the EU stops wars between its members, we’d be better trading with the Commonwealth) as NO did in 1975. LEAVE are doing without much challenge being made against them, partly because it seems that journalists themselves don’t seem to know enough to challenge it.
But then, when they are challenged publicly, those doing the challenging are accused of being in the pay of the EU. It cannot be the case that exposure to something and learning how it works automatically means that person is biased in its favour. If that were the case, no one arguing that Westminster should be supreme should be allowed to do so if they’ve ever worked there, and if that sounds ludicrous, then that’s because it is.
They also say that there would be a second referendum, with a fantasy story that a vote for LEAVE now would somehow result in a “better” renegotiation down the line after which they could then vote REMAIN. Nonsense on toast. The only way to get change in the EU – as Margaret Thatcher knew – is to be firmly committed to being in and then fighting for change for the good of all, not just your little corner. With so much change in the world right now, we should be keeping our friends close not alienating our nearest neighbours.
Basically, LEAVE is trying to sell a utopia without being able to agree even between themselves what that looks like.
And worse, the generation that already got the chance to vote on this is the one most likely to vote LEAVE and to actually turn out to do so. Young people 18- 29 are 63% in favour of REMAIN, versus 37% LEAVE, but are much less likely to turn out.

There’s one referendum, just one, and we’re under starter’s orders. If you are lucky enough to get to vote (and loads of people affected don’t, from Brits living in other EU countries to EU citizens settled here, and 16-17 year olds who were enfranchised for the Scottish Independence Referendum), please use that vote wisely.

 

#500 words Harry Potter fiction

Trying to persuade my son to enter the BBC Radio 2 500 words competition this year, I came up with this to show him how easy it is to write 500 words…

When I woke up this morning, I was Harry Potter. I knew that was my name before I even opened my eyes. When I did open them, the bedroom was all fuzzy. Someone had cast a spell that blurred the world. I took my glasses from the bedside table, then everything looked normal. Only it wasn’t. This was an ordinary bedroom in suburban house. A toy aeroplane hung from the ceiling. This wasn’t right. Not for a wizard. This was a house for muggles.

I reached under the feathery pillow. My wand. Once my fingers closed around the holly wood, I relaxed a little. I might not know what was going on, but at least I could defend myself.

There was a rectangular plastic and metal device there too. It lit up when I touched the front of it with my wand, but not even the relashio spell would make it give up its contents. It just flashed “swipe to unlock”.

I sat up. I was wearing pyjamas. They looked a bit like my quidditch uniform. There were muggle clothes – jeans, t-shirt, pants- in a heap on the floor. My school robes hung on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. I slipped out from the bedsheets and flung the black cloak of my uniform over the pyjamas. Again I felt better, more like myself.

I could feel eyes staring at me. “Homenum Revelio,” I muttered, waving my wand. Nothing happened. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. If that spell didn’t show it, a thing, not a person was watching me. I turned towards the door but as I did so, a flash of white caught my eye. An owl. A cuddly snowy owl was perched on the bedpost at the foot of the bed. I picked her up and stroked her smooth, silky wings. “Hello Hedwig.”

I had no idea why she had that name. It sounded like a mistake. Hello Bodyclothes, hello Footshoe.” Not my choice, but Hagrid knew his creatures and it certainly fitted her style.

I was expecting the door to be locked. All those years with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had led me to expect this of muggles. It opened without even needing the alohomora spell.

“Henry Porter. I was wondering what had happened to you.” Downstairs in the kitchen, the witch was at the stove, stirring a pot of lumpy grains. Orange and green dots studded the mixture and a pile of chopped fungus lay on a wooden board. She added a handful. “It’s nearly lunchtime. It’s risotto,” she said.

I was beginning to think I had been hit with a confundus curse. Nothing was making any sense.

“You fell asleep as we left the studio tour. Daddy thought it was best to put you straight to bed.”

I felt my stomach drop with disappointment. “I’d better get dressed, then.”

She waited until she thought I had gone upstairs. “Finite incantatum,” she muttered.
Then I knew everything.

EU politics 101: what is the EU?

Guys, we need to talk. There’s this referendum on Britain’s EU membership coming and there’s a lot of people out there who basically don’t feel they know enough about what it is they’re being asked to vote on when they’re being asked to REMAIN or LEAVE. Some people are dead certain one way or another, but why? What is it they know?

I used to teach politics to adults who needed to know how government really  works. So, here’s the basics. I’ll probably add to this as we go on…

Is the UK actually in the EU?
Yes. The European Union is the current name for the political and trade bloc that dominates the European continent.

There are 28 countries in the EU:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

But we’re not in the Euro?
No. Not everyone does everything: 19 of the countries have a common currency, the Euro, and so are more closely integrated on monetary policy.
Also, some of the countries have a common border control area called Schengen… more of that later.

Why did we join in the first place?
Let’s step into history for a moment…
From about 1950, European countries started to work together to pool resources that they had previously used against each other to wage war, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community, then establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957.
The UK joined the EEC in 1973, referred to as the Common Market (a mistranslation of the French term march common which is better translated as single market).
A Conservative government took the UK into the EEC, but negotiations for this started in the 1960s. UK membership was vetoed twice (by the French!) in 1963 and 1967 because General De Gaulle did not believe Britain was sufficiently committed to the project, having established the alternative European Free Trade Area (EFTA). When he resigned in 1969, the way was clear for the UK to join the EEC.
The UK joined because:
– it was losing its empire (India, Burma and Ceylon all became independent in the 1940s) and the Commonwealth was less economically important to the UK than the continent on its doorstep;
– in the Cold War world, as clearly demonstrated by the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain had lost its great power status and could not rely upon its “special relationship” with the USA to assert its power internationally;
– the EEC’s economy was growing faster and more successfully than the UK had previously believed would happen.
Basically, it is not the case that the UK was doing fine before membership and was suckered in.
There was a referendum (a commitment by a Labour government) in 1975 – the UK voted to stay in. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in. The actual wording of the official pamphlet used by the government can be seen here. The EEC was described as having the following aims (from the Treaty of Rome):

  • To bring together the peoples of Europe.
  • To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
  • To promote growth and boost world trade.
  • To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
  • To help maintain peace and freedom.

So we joined an Economic Union, not a political one?
I’d say it was pretty clearly political. Commitments to bringing together the peoples of Europe and maintaining peace and freedom were pretty political as aims…
After the 1975 referendum, successive British governments – using their legitimate position though representative democracy – signed Treaties that changed the name and exact nature of the EEC.
Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act in 1987, introducing majority voting in the Council (ending the veto-all-areas).
Conservative Prime Minister John Major agreed the Maastricht Treaty which in 1992 introduced three policy “pillars” – Justice and Home Affairs, Common Foreign and Security policy and the single market bolstered by Economic and Monetary Union; as well as the name change to the European Union.
Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed the Amsterdam Treaty which sorted out a lot of the procedural difficulties that arose from Maastricht Treaty including identifying just one high representative for foreign and security policy, introduced EU-level labour market policy, integrated the Social Chapter, attached a range of fundamental rights for citizens and widened the role of the European Parliament as a co-decider of legislation (with the Council which represents the governments of Member States, not the Commission).
There was a lot of fuss in 2002-2004 about a second Treaty of Rome, a European Constitution, but although negotiated, it was never ratified, as several Member States voted No. Instead, the Reform Treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009. It gave more leadership of the EU to the Council, with a named President chosen by the Heads of State and Government, and to the European Parliament.
Although the Treaties govern EU law making across the Member States, there are various opt-outs and opt-ins for different countries, and the UK is the major beneficiary of this flexibility.

Next… What everyone knows about the EU…

Frozen Freedom (part 3)

Meanwhile, beyond Arendelle…

Chapter 5

“Three of them pretended I was invisible, for two years…” muttered Hans, shovelling horse dung into a cart. He wiped his brow with the back of a hand, leaving a streak of brown. “Yeah, well, I’m not so easy to ignore now, am I? You can smell me three rooms before you see me.”

“Hey! Horse boy!” Franz approached his little brother. “Hay – get it, hey’s like hay.”
“I appreciate your wit so much that you see me rolling on the floor with laughter,” said Hans, scooping up another spadeful of manure and flinging it onto the cart.
“But you’re not rolling on the floor,” said Franz, puzzled.
Hans smiled his most dazzling smile. “That should tell you all you need to know.”
There was a pause, and then Franz shoved his brother-face first towards the cart.
Hans caught the edge with his hands, avoiding a mud mask. “You’ll have to be faster that that.”
“Whatever. The King wants to see you.”
“It’s about time.” Hans pulled himself upright. “Ok, let’s go. Oh, and Franz? No hard feelings?”
His brother automatically took the proffered hand and shook it. A moment later, he recognised the squidge of manure but by then Hans had slipped his grip and was off and away towards his apartments for a bath.

In the throne room, King Uwe waited impatiently, avoiding the eyes of his courtiers in case he accidentally ordered an execution. That tended to happen when he got irritated. It was thirty minutes since he had sent for Hans. Was there anything that his youngest brother would ever be able to do competently?
The ornate white and gold doors were opened at last.
“You sent for me, big bro?” There was Hans, handsome and insolent as always. The punishments were not working to humiliate him as intended, it seemed he only had to bathe to return to his apparently charming self.
It was time, Uwe decided, for a different approach. “Everyone out. I need to talk to my brother alone.”

When the room had emptied, Hans closed the double doors, strode across the floor and trotted up the dais steps. He hissed at the cat that dozed on the queen’s throne – which fled – then leapt into its place, swinging his legs over the arms of the throne. “What’s up?”
“I am the King, you know,” Uwe reproached him.
“What’s up, your maj?”
Uwe smiled, or at least showed a lot of his teeth. “You’re getting nothing at all from all that shovelling?”
Hans mirrored his brother’s expression. “Biceps like tree trunks and the ability to cut through cr-”
“Exactly,” said Uwe. “So you do get it. I had to do something with you. International protocol demands it. You confessed to plotting to murder a Head of State, Hans. If you had only kept your mouth shut, if you’d kept that ego in check for just a few months longer, you could have been a king yourself.”
Hans opened his mouth, but Uwe waved a finger.
“No. No second chances in Arendelle for you. I heard today that your Princess is now a mother.”
Hans raised an eyebrow. “She married the ice cutter oaf?”
“She did. There seemed no point telling you, it’s not like you really cared, is it?”
Hans frowned for a moment, but shook his head.
“But now I have a mission for you,” said Uwe. “You should understand that I should be executing you and that this is your last chance. As you right royally screwed up in Arendelle, I really ought to get your brother, any one of them, to do this instead. But I hate to say it, you’re the one with the looks.”
Hans smoothed back a wing of his hair. Uwe grimaced – seeing his brother was like looking in a distortion mirror that stripped away the years, the extra pounds and restored a full head of hair. It was painful.
“Another marriage plan?” asked Hans.
“You wrecked my plans to ally with Arendelle, but you know that the Southern Isles is nothing without trade,” his brother continued. “We must have a partnership and our only choice is Weselton.”
“He’s not my type.”
“Not the Duke, you fool, his daughter. Jane.”
“I see.” Hans paused for a moment. “Is she beautiful?”
“Certainly.” Uwe crossed his fingers behind his back. “Her maternal grandmother was even known as Beauty.”
“Let’s hope she takes after her and not her ratty little father,” said Hans. “But it won’t matter for long.” He stretched lazily like a cat.
“As King, I cannot possibly condone any plans you may have beyond making a strategically important marriage,” said Uwe, standing. He paused for a moment, until Hans remembered himself and stood too.
“That’s why I’m not telling you my plan. I’ve learned my lesson on that at least,” said Hans. Without a further word, he strode across the throne room and flung open the doors at the end for a dramatic exit. If he had been in Arendelle, he would definitely have sung a song about it.

Chapter 6

Olaf bustled around, delivering burp cloths, new diapers and food for Anna. He danced as he went, singing jazzy little lullabies. There was no doubt that he was an inspired if unusual nursery nurse.
Anna opened one eye. She barely felt like the same woman who had once slept so deeply that she had nearly missed her sister’s coronation. Now, four weeks after the birth, she slept more lightly the her children and had a kind of sixth sense for danger.
“Olaf! Please, we can’t use your nose as a pacifier.”
Olaf removed the carrot from baby Sven’s mouth and popped it back into his own face with a thocking sound. “Sorry Anna, he just loves it so much. Who’s an itty bitty baby then, yes you are, yes you are!”
“He loves it and he loves you, Olaf, but please, it could choke him.”
Olaf drooped. “Oh, ok. I guess he’s just taking after Sven. Baby Sven takes after Old Sven, huh?”
For a moment, it was as if a grey cloud had settled over the nursery.
“I miss him too,” said Anna, getting up of the bed and giving Olaf a hug.
“Me too,” said Olaf. “It won’t be the same at the christening without him.”
“The christening!” said Anna. “It’s Christening Day!”
This simple fact lightened her mood so much that she and Olaf skipped around singing while they got the babies ready, and when Kristoff joined them he found he automatically knew how to harmonise the chorus. (This sort of thing seemed to happen a lot in Arendelle. Whether it was an extension of Elsa’s powers, no one knew.)

Elsa paced the floor of the chapel. She had to admit, the Prime Minister had done an excellent job. The decorations were brightly coloured but tasteful, stars, snowflakes, diamonds and triangles forming tiny crowns and sceptres. She had herself had added tiny mirrored ice jewels that floated in the air and created an ice sculpture, formed of the names Sven and Iduna, which stood in the courtyard outside. The guests from the neighbouring kingdoms were yet again converging on Arendelle for a royal occasion. Anna loved a party, but for Elsa they were always a source of stress, everything needed to be perfect and not just because it was important to be a good host.
The truth was that Elsa did listen to her Prime Minister’s briefing meetings. She knew what Anna would never understand, defeating Hans’ coup had cost Arendelle dearly, both in terms economic and reputational. Sending a royal Prince back to his home as a convicted criminal had ended Arendelle’s diplomatic relations with the Southern Isles.
Equally, the Duke of Weselton might have been odious, but losing the major trading partner for Arendelle’s wood, kitch Nordic knitted blankets and glogg was a major blow.
She very much needed to charm everyone today, but she couldn’t help but notice at Anna and Kristoff’s wedding that, even though the Arendelleans cheered for her, many visitors seemed afraid of her. That wicked sorceress rumour started by the Duke of Welseton had hurt, and that so many seemed to be able to believe it hurt more.

Elsa slipped out of the chapel and climbed into the carriage that awaited her. As Anna had hoped, Elsa used her powers to transform the outside of the carriages into iced swans. The crowds waved and cheered, they seemed happy with their ice queen and ecstatic about the next generation of Arendelle’s royal family. Would they be so happy if they knew that Iduna would also be continuing the family tradition of magical powers? She didn’t dare think about it.

All seemed to go well until the moment that the Officiant attempted to scoop water over the head of the babies. Iduna, as royal heir, was first. As the water poured over her, the Officiant named her Iduna after her grandmother and Viola for the flowers that Elsa had conjured up in honour of her birth. She giggled and cooed. Her proud mother took her into her arms for a cuddle, then passed her over to her aunt. Elsa pressed her cheek against her baby niece’s soft cheek. Iduna turned her head and planted an open wet mouth against Elsa,which made her aunt feel both proud and sad at the same moment.

Then it was Sven’s turn. Named for a reindeer and given the middle name Agnarr after his grandfather, Sven was a lot less at ease with the water than his sister. His scream of fear as the water touched him startled his sister. she jumped in her aunt’s arms and Elsa watched with horror as her niece shot a bolt of ice into the air. As if in slow motion, she watched the blue-white missile fly towards her nephew. Just as she realised that there was no way that this bolt would hit her nephew, it ricocheted off one of Elsa’s floating ice jewels and headed straight for her nephew’s face.
Anna and Kristoff both dived forward, but to no avail. Everyone watched in open mouthed horror as the bolt of ice entered Sven’s eye and the baby boy’s scream of fear became one of pain.

Frozen Freedom (Part 2)

After my eight year old loved my Frozen fanfic first two chapters, I now present chapters 3 and 4…

Chapter 3
The agitated reindeer was the first sign that all was not well.
“Bernd, what’s wrong buddy?” Kristoff gathered up the small corvine that was now anxiously butting his knee with its tiny horn buds.
Elsa swept ahead, keen to get to her sister.
Opening the door of the Royal Birthing Suite, previously the Green Bedroom, she was greeted by the sight of a troll cuddling one baby while Anna frantically rubbed the back of another.
“Elsa! She’s stopped breathing.”
Kristoff ran to his wife. He put the reindeer on the ground and lifted his baby from Anna’s shoulder, scared at the floppiness. He put his daughter gently on the bed. He placed his mouth over her tiny nose and mouth and breathed gently, while pressing her chest with his fingertips. Nothing happened. He tried again. Then Anna tried, then Kristoff again.
Elsa felt a tug at her sleeve. A short, grey troll in a green dress stood at her elbow, the little prince swaddled securely and fast asleep on her shoulder.
“It won’t work,” said Bulda, nodding at the frantic parents. “She’s almost gone.”
“But, she can’t just die?” asked Elsa.
“Everything dies,” said the troll, calmly. “But it doesn’t always have to be so soon.”
“You can change this? Then why aren’t you doing it?” demanded the Queen.
“It’s not me that can change this,” said Bulda, with a pointed look. “I cannot create life.”
“Wait -what? I don’t understand. I can’t create life.”
Olaf bustled into the room, carrying a large pile of towels and a tiny bucket of warm water. “I got these, Anna said last week that they might be important,” he said.
Elsa stared at Olaf. “Oh. Maybe,” she said. She looked at her hands, and as she did so, a simple snowflake formed, growing to the size of an Arendelle penny and twisting, turning, spinning in her palm. Its fractals were easier to see as it grew, and yet still linked to the progressively smaller versions of itself repeating on into unseeable infinity.
“Oh good,” said Olaf. “I don’t like to go on wild goose chases. I’ve been on those and they’re all hissy and flappy, which is ok if you like that sort of thing, but I’d rather spend time with my best buddy reindeer -” He paused. “That’s you now, Bernd,” he said to the reindeer that sat forlornly in front of the bedroom fireplace.
Bernd rapped a hoof on the floor in acknowledgement.
“Yeah, thanks,” said Elsa. “But you’re wrong -”
“Bulda,” supplied the troll, twisting a large ruby necklace.
“Bulda. I hit Anna with my powers, twice. She nearly died, twice. My powers and humans don’t mix.”
“Don’t they?” said Bulda. “Then why are you still wearing that fabulous dress? I’d love to have that in my wardrobe.” She held out her arms.
Elsa looked down at the violet silk. As if reflecting her mood, the flowers looked shrivelled and frost bitten. “I can make dresses just by picturing the design,” she said.
“A potentially lucrative sideline,” said the troll. “What else?”
“I can control the weather and water. I can create living ice creatures which can live indefinitely.”
“You can do all that, and you still don’t believe you can save your niece?”
“What do I do?”
“A jolt of your powers to her heart will restart it. But Elsa, there will be a price.”
“What do you want?” asked the Queen. “I can give you jewels, gold, cloth, and anything else that my Prime Minister tells me is an asset of my kingdom.” The troll tilted her head as if picking up on the bitter edge to the final words, but Elsa’s desperation shone through and she smiled. “It is not a price payable to me, but it falls to me to tell you of it.
“Long ago, Grand Pabbie Troll asked your father if you were born with your powers or cursed with them. He answered born – and it was a lie. It always is. None of you has ever been born with these powers, but you might as well have been because it is at these moment that your lives begin. You died, Elsa, moments after your birth, just as your niece is doing now. Your father faced an impossible choice. He knew of your mother’s powers, of course. She tried to save the Bjorgmans when they were trapped in the frozen lake, but you know this…”
Elsa’s mouth had dropped open.
“You did not know this,” said the troll.
Elsa shook her head. “I never knew. My mother had powers? Why did she never tell me? And the Bjorgmans? Kristoff’s parents? She tried to save them? This is all too much.” She put her hands to her head.
“But all that is of little matter now. What matters is your choice. Help your niece, and she will live, but she will have your powers. You know what it is to live in fear of them. You will need to raise her, and in so doing your sister will fear that you are stealing her daughter. You may save your niece but lose your sister. And your love for your sister is what has made you ‘you’, as you are today.”
Elsa looked anguished. Then she set her jaw. “Then there is no choice to be made. If the price of saving my niece is me, then it is a price worth paying.”
“Your mother could not live with the price she had agreed”. The troll’s ruby earrings glinted as she turned her head. “They knew there was danger in sailing the winter’s ocean, but they knew it was the only option for their youngest child to survive even if they did not.”
“Wait,” said Elsa. “My mother knew they would die on that voyage? But they went anyway.”
“Oh yes. She had no choice. Any longer and she would have given birth here at the palace, and that would have been impossible. No third child could have survived and the heartbreak would have killed her anyway.”
“Third child?”
Bulda patted her hand. “Your brother. He was born on born the ship. Grand Pabbie can feel that he has survived.”
Elsa got to her feet. “I have to do this. I have to save her. But then, I need to know. I need to know where these powers come from, and I need to know about my brother.”

Chapter 4
Anna was feeding her daughter, while her son dozed in the twin crib at the side of the bed. She felt hazy after thirty six hours awake, and she knew she wasn’t going to be at her most rational.

Something had happened. She had no idea that Elsa even knew how to do first aid, but when her sister had pulled Kristoff aside and then as he had come to put his arms around her, Elsa had picked up her niece.
Miracles existed. She was sure of it now. Her daughter had wriggled in her aunt’s arms the moment that Elsa had placed an ungloved finger over that tiny little heart. It must have been the right sort of cardiac massage or something.
There had been tears and gratitude, promises that Elsa’s debt for the past was more than paid, if indeed anything had ever been owed. Anna had never believed in keeping score on these things, but she knew that Elsa felt it strongly.
Iduna was tiring now, her sucks intermittent and little snuffly snores becoming more frequent. Anna knew she should rock her daughter to sleep and place her in the crib, she knew she should get some sleep so that she was not too tired to feed Sven when he woke. She still wasn’t totally sure that they should have named their son after a reindeer, but it seemed to matter to her husband.
At that moment Iduna opened her eyes, and her mother was sucked deep into the deep blue.  The hypnotic stare of the newborn baby, absorbing love from her mother like a little swaddled sponge, might have lasted moments or a hundred hours. Anna had no idea how time passed. Eventually the beautiful  eyes closed and she reluctantly put her daughter down into the crib next to her brother. Anna turned onto her side, attempting to sleep. It was funny, she thought as she started to drift off, all babies were said to start with dark blue eyes, but she could have sworn that her children had both had turquoise eyes when she first saw them.

Elsewhere in the palace, Elsa wondered a corridor, her head full of storms, shipwrecks and mysterious surviving babies.
“Your majesty?”
Elsa recognised the voice and gritted her teeth. “Prime Minister.”
“Are you ready to release a statement to the public?”
“A statement?” Elsa was momentarily confused. Should she announce to the world that she had a brother?
“The royal birth. The baby? The succession?”
“Oh.” Elsa smiled proudly. “Yes, I’m ready. In fact, I think I’d like to do it personally. Would you like to accompany me to the balcony?”

When the Queen stepped out onto the balcony, the cheer was so loud that it must surely have woken the royal babies.
“Good people of Arendelle, this is a great day. Today, the Princess Royal has given birth to twins.”
She waited for the gasps and coos to subside, and then continued. “Twins, a girl and a boy. And let it be known that the Princess was born first, followed shortly by her brother. As the customs and traditions of Arendelle dictate, we will therefore be welcoming my heir, the future queen of Arendelle at the royal christening in four weeks time.”
As she withdrew from the balcony to cheers and applause, the Prime Minister placed a hand on her arm. Elsa bristled at this breech of protocol, but the Prime Minister did not remove his hand. “It might have been wise, your Majesty, to inform me of the twins before the announcement. Provision will need to be made.”
“I do not see the problem,” said Elsa, coldly. “We will not require two christenings, so there is no added administrative burden to your staff, and all the new babies’ needs are being met out of the Royal List which I believe I can allocate as I wish.”
She turned, forcing the Prime Minister to either remove his hand or to execute a martial arts move. He chose the former.
“You should have informed me nonetheless. As for that little speech, this child may be born first, but she remains heir presumptive.”
“I was clear,” said the Queen, with icicles practically forming the words in the air, “that my niece was firstborn. She will be queen.”
“I did not disbelieve you,” said the Prime Minister, equally frostily. “I merely intended you to understand that, in the case of your marriage and procreation, your own child would take the place of your niece as heir apparent.”
Elsa moved to leave the room, but stopped with her back to the doors. “The only thing apparent here is that you are far overstepping your place, Prime Minister. My head may be on the coins but my private life is my own.”
She spun on her heel, flicking her plait over her shoulder and whisking her purple shawl around her shoulders  so that, as the door slammed behind her, the Prime Minister was left with the impression of a galaxy of icy, twinkling stars.