Category Archives: Food and Drink

Hay Festival 2014

The Hay Festival couldn’t be more middle class if it changed its name to Pippa and married its cousin. And I love it. And if it becomes more Hay Market than Hay Festival at times, with the clear purpose of shifting tomes, then who cares? It delivers what it promises: a literary festival, a celebration, putting the word above all else and giving us all permission to sink into a proper vocabulary and literally indulge in wordplay.


I have spent most of this week sloshing around in mud listening to and talking with people who love words, people with something to say but who reached that point by listening to others and by reflecting and not by following dogma.  Joyfully reaching for the right words and finding them, hearing new ways of using them, turning context on its head and finding a new way to slip the surprisingly appropriate word prolepsis into general conversation – thank you Margaret Drabble! – has been a genuine inspiration.  Rustling about happily under the trestle tables in the Oxfam bookshop in the boxes filled with rummageable delights waiting in the dark to be found was the best time I have had in weeks. Possibly months. WarHorse and Michael Morpurgo  thrilled everyone, watching Marcus Brigstocke casually overtake a bunch of feathered aliens without a second glance on the path outside the Friends coffee shop was a little surreal, noticing the fact that we probably all had a proper education under our belts and were using it to good effect was a significant pleasure, and hearing children pronounce their words properly and insert the letter “t” in the right place was phenomenal! No extraneous or dropped aitches either, bliss! Not a baggy trousered foul mouthed rap artist in sight or hearing, and there were times when I was one of the youngest in the queue, and it is a long time since that happened………

Listening to a group of academics with serious life experiences attempt to shed light on prison life and its consequences – dear to my heart – it occurred to me that even in a room full of Telegraph readers, and I am one, the Grauniad Effect (my husbands media drug of choice)  was apparent. Most of us gave a damn, giving the lie to political drubmongers who like to insist on the differences rather than the similarities between groups of people.  That was also apparent in other conversations, and one that focussed on corporate greed was particularly pertinent. The workshops around Social Enterprise were a real pleasure and welcome at the heart of the Festival as a demonstration of how things can be done  ethically and well.

Downsides? Well……..I was unprepared for the ill mannered stampede of middle aged middle class audiences as they clambered over and around people to find their favourite seats! The wonderfully patient and charming stewards allowed those of us with mobility issues into the tents first to avoid catastophe – no-one wants Hay Headlines about mangled elders or the dissed disabled – but as soon as the hordes, or to use their title Friends of Hay (and I am also one) were released into the tents all Hell broke loose with disabled feet trodden into the dirt and bags ground into the floor as they shouldered and elbowed their way to “their” seats. Clashes were inevitable and there was,  I am sorry to say, a degree of braying involved at times. And although the lavatories maintained their dignity against all odds I did occasionally wonder, as I took my ease,  on  the number of buttocks that had been pressed against those seats during the week……..I was also a little alarmed to find I shared Jonathan Millers haircut and colour so startlingly that I wondered who had put the mirror on the table as I entered the bookshop……..

Being a seasoned Hay Friend I staggered my meals so that I ate between the usual meal times and avoided the crowds and it was very pleasant with all tastes catered for, although I did wonder if vegan and gluten free also meant salt and pepper free a couple of times as I searched for seasoning – but once I had found it the food perked up. In fact, the food even for us fussies was indecently good and I enjoyed it very much. Good choices, well prepared, charmingly served. The people running the show, from box office to stewards to food hall and more, deserve a medal!

The B&B, The Old Vicarage in Prestiegne, where I always stay was, as usual, perfect and this year they even have alpacas as well so I woke to the sound of sheep, alpacas and chickens and a real symphony of birdsong, and breakfasted brilliantly with a view over the fields and with the sound of a stream in the background. It couldn’t have been better. Best start to a Hay Day ever.


And now my Hay Days are over for 2014, but the mud is still on the car and my boots – and my jeans and my skirt and my jacket! And I have a fresh stash of books, images and memories and the certainty that words matter, that we can use them better, and that we should.  And I will plan for next year when I hope that we will make Hay in the sunshine and not the rain and I can rummage and read and rest and draw comfort from more wordsmiths. Hay Ho.






Food Glorious Food?

Sharing meals allows us to come together and spend quality time with each other. It increases communication and understanding.  How many of us had our first experience of another culture through food? And coming together to prepare and eat food is part of many rituals and traditions. Food plays a big part in faith and in worship. When one shares in the Eucharist, it is said to be a  sharing of Christ’s body and blood, and worshippers are reminded of their responsibility to share all our meals with others. As St John Chrysostom once said, “You have tasted the blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognise your brother…You dishonour this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal.” Most faiths and religions have food rituals, most cultures have food rituals and norms. Food is significant. Food rituals – cutlery or lack of, how the food is produced (is it Halal? Organic? Vegan? Kosher?), how it is presented, how it is eaten – matter deeply to us all. The only people for whom those things no longer matter are the hungry, and even then I have known seriously hungry people refuse non-kosher or non-vegan food. So it is quite simply that important.


How many times recently have we heard about nurses now being expected to “feed and wash” patients for a year before they train? How many times do support workers and health professionals refer to “feeding” their patients or clients? The act of eating is reduced, for some, to the passive “feeding” offered by “carers”. It is reduced, for the care-givers, to a task to be got out of the way before the serious business of training, the important job of “nursing”, can be carried out. This simple attitude reduces human and humane care giving to the status of animal welfare. Now, let us acknowledge that there are similarities between the two, and animal welfare is very important. But in offering to care for and support other human beings we need to respect and acknowledge their humanity, and one of the few things that identifies humans as distinct from other animals is the development of specific and identifiable social rituals, especially around food, and the food rituals often define what we are as people: they indicate and specify how we live, what we believe, what matters to us.

The attitude that accepts us saying we are going to “feed” people when what we should  mean is that we are going to help them to eat or support them to eat is the same attitude that allows nurses and care givers to say things like “I have done Mrs Brown” when they mean they have helped or supported Mrs Brown to wash, or dress, or change her colostomy bag, or any of the other deeply personal, uncomfortable and intimate things carers do for us.  Those words, casually used and casually accepted, reduce our collective humanity, remove our independence. They remove the respect for our humanity that we properly expect our nurses and carers to demonstrate. They allow the casual neglect – and even the active cruelty – that we have seen in Winterbourne and at Stafford, and the many other places that have not yet hit the headlines. How can we pretend to be surprised by those events when we use the words that support the attitude of neglect and cruelty?

The words we use define how we behave, demonstrate how we think.  Let us challenge the use of words that encourage patient-passivity such as “feeding”, let us encourage the words that support active care such as “supporting, or assisting, to eat”. The former gives us a picture of food being shovelled into a patients mouth as a “carers” task, the latter gives us a picture of  someone in control of their food, being helped to perform their own task.  Notice the difference between “bathing” someone and “helping someone to bathe”.

When we become vulnerable through age, illness, disability or other reasons we often lose the option of privacy or dignity only because of the attitudes of the people tasked with supporting and assisting us. There are many discussions about why care can be poor, and often the poor wages are cited. And that is a factor – pay peanuts and you get chimps, and low wages do not reflect the importance of the job – but there is never, at any price, wage or  reward any excuse for reducing another persons humanity, for dragging away another human beings respect and trampling on their dignity. Individuals are responsible for their own behaviour and we should expect people recruited to care and support to behave properly – but the modelling of those good behaviours will flow from the leadership. If the people leading the services and the organisations do not demonstrate the crucial behaviours that indicate respect, humanity and the support of autonomy and independence for all then the people following those leaders will have no incentive to do so.

If you offer someone care and support, please, feed your dog but support your patient to eat.

Real Lives for Real People

I love eating and drinking………actually what I was going to say was “I love eating and drinking in different places” but I could just have left it at those first five words!!

Anyhoo……I like trying out new and very different places to eat and drink. I enjoy a sophisticated restaurant as much as I enjoy a greasy spoon, depending on how I feel and where I am, and I guess also on with whom who I am eating. Being veggie makes it a bit of a hit and miss affair sometimes, but that says as much about the restaurant as it does about my dietary habits. Eating out isn’t just about the food though – it’s nice to go out for a meal with friends or the Old Man or alone, and one of the best evenings I have had in a while was when my three daughters and I went out for a pub dinner in Ireland one evening recently, simple fun, talk, hugs, food and some good beer and a bit of an unplanned but very necessary private wake for my Mother.

Just like the meal in Ireland when my daughters and I relaxed into an informal evening oiled by a few beers and some traditional food, some of the best and most rewarding meals out have been in simple surroundings with basic food. On that occasion we  had good company which didn’t intrude but kept us happy, was amusing and warm with a charming smile, and made us feel happy. Where I live now in the UK there is a simple eating house called Aminas. It serves basic but well cooked food in a simple environment and with a smile, and when my Mother and I used to go in there they always accommodated her wheelchair without a fuss, no big deal, just one of those things. That felt nice. And very different to places like some coffeehouse chains (not Cafe Nero which is always a pleasure) where there is hardly room to walk never mind place a wheelchair, the staff generally grump around and behave as if they are doing you a favour, and bring out the vacuum around 16.30 so that you don’t outstay your welcome and hold up these young things pretending to work there from their evenings merriment spending their wages to which you have contributed for the pleasure of being grumped at.  And the punters in the coffeehouse in question are often a little, well, homogenised and dull.

In Aminas it is possible to sit for hours watching people and not get bored. All human life passes through the doors and gets a welcome and a smile. I sit and read the paper or scribble bits of dialogue overheard from other tables and find endless interest and fun, and there is a communal feel to the place, the feeling that whoever you are you will be welcomed and the tea will always be hot and strong, the eggs perfect and the toast just right. People smile and greet one another and the odd bit of behaviour that might attract attention elsewhere simply doesn’t. It is, in short, a place of comfort and good tea and a fab people watching venue. The meals are always the sort of meals that people actually want rather than what they say they want and they hit the spot perfectly.

I love splendid food in rich surroundings, look forward to experiencing complexity of cuisine and maybe a new taste and a bit of fine dining, but for simple all round daytime pleasure and people it is the coffeehouses like Aminas that get my vote. Like the B&B in my hometown in Ireland where we stayed last month, Killurin Lodge in Castlebridge, Wexford,where the food was terrific (the breakfasts were like the ones I have at home but oh so much better and I didn’t have to wash up or chop the fruit……bliss. And the cooked breakfasts made with the eggs laid that morning by their own hens were pitch-perfect) and the accommodation was so comfortable, the room actually seemed to cuddle me the bed was so soft and clean and warm. But the glue holding the entire experience together was the people: warm and caring, charming and fun, they made it the kind of place you recommend and re-visit, and especially given our own rather sad reason for being there (funeral, estate sorting and other things you prefer not to think of until it is too late) they made it easier and less traumatic simply by being kind and pleasant.

So, however the environment is dressed up, as long as it is hygienic, it is the people that make a meal memorable and comfortable. And the same goes for any business: however well presented the premises and however pretty or clever the advertisements, if the people are not warm, friendly and go the extra mile it is still a second rate business and less likely to attract returns and recommendations. Whatever the surroundings, what the punters will remember are the receptionist who did not smile, the lengthy wait as other appointments run over time and no explanation is offered, the arrogance of the people on the front line, the lack of a handshake or even worse the flip-flop handshake of someone in a hurry who doesn’t care if they impress or not . No amount of pretty wallpaper or plantpots will rectify that. This principle applies whatever the business. The guys who managed my Mothers funeral last month and my Dads three years ago, Brownes in Enniscorthy, were terrific. They were warm and kind without being so kind as to prompt loss of control, charming and gracious, sensitive and surprisingly amusing,  and absolutely perfect in what they had to do, slick and practiced at the graveside as much as they were warm and charming in their offices. I couldn’t have asked for more.

There is a great emphasis on the environment in the delivery and inspection of nursing and residential care services, and quite right – it matters and should be taken seriously. There is no justification for shabby premises or tatty decor and to deliver support services in a poor environment simply sends out the message that the people using the services do not matter enough to smarten it up. Not acceptable.

BUT, some of the warmest and most person centred services I have encountered have been delivered in untidy and less than perfect environments. Not shabby, not neglected, not dirty, just lived in and comfortable. The kind of places that don’t mind if knitting is left lying around or books left open and squashed, where the odd sock on the bedroom floor or a few plates in the sink aren’t a hanging offence and there is evidence of people actually living there rather than inhabiting the space where their “care” is delivered or, worse, getting in the way of the staffs routine and tasks. The people living in the house own the space, and they matter and have lives, and that is shown by the stuff lying around and the “real life” gribble. People don’t, as a rule, live in hotel environments, so why should we expect people who need support to do so?  My house is perhaps more shabby and untidy than most, stuffed with paints and paintings, books and papers, files and guitars. And I love it like that. Maybe a little tidier……perhaps I shouldn’t find, as I did recently, the tin whistle I was looking for weeks ago under the piano along with some coins, two books and a half eaten biscuit. And actually my office area is as organised as can be with filing cabinets and desk clear and easy to manage. But where I live, where I relax and do other stuff, is comfortable and interesting, and we all need that.  Inspectors and commissioners need to bear that in mind when assessing services – look under the surface and into the heart of the place and accept the gribbly every day living stuff that makes a house a home. Hospitals and clinics are not the same, they are workplaces where people visit for treatment and move on. Homes, places where people live and have lives, should always be treated differently with different criteria, so that the people living there can really live there. Real Lives – that’s what we want. It’s what attracts me to Aminas (along with the perfect fried eggs and the wonderful people-window…) and what everyone deserves whether we need support or not. And frankly, if we don’t need support today tomorrow could be a different story. Would you give up your Real Life because you needed help to wash and dress or support to shop?

Real Lives for Real People. Now that’s what I call Living.

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