Cooking up a Storm

My eldest son kindly offered to help me cook for a charity dinner party recently. I informed him that I’d be chef and he could be sous chef as my greater culinary experience gave me top dog position. He pointed out that he was six foot and I’m five foot seven in heels. Totally irrelevant, I told him.

My role of sous chef consisted of weighing things, finding bowls, chopping and sweeping up after comments like, ‘Look, there’s a hole in this bag of sugar.’ I was working my socks off (becoming five foot six) knowing that Alex would get all the glory for the creations; no-one said ‘Fantastic! There’s no sugar at all on this floor.’

We found one of the most useless cooking instructions ever: ‘do not overcook’ pertaining to a hot compote of raspberries and strawberries. We had to aim for the mid-point of slightly warm but not done yet and frankly a mulch. Tricky, but luckily required a lot of sampling.

Facing an ambiguous instruction on how cream should be whipped, I followed my gut feeling (which was full, following the compote tasting). Unlucky decision. On meeting the chocolate gunge, the cream formed itself into little balls, so my confection looked like yummy mud with small Ping-Pong balls in it. like. There followed an intense squashing so that the younger kids wouldn’t discover, by the presence of fluffy white balls,  that their favourite chocolate torte is made with cream (which they actively dislike) (maybe that’s too strong; only passively dislike). I was trying to avoid a recurrence of the unfortunate gastronomic unveiling experience when my youngest son discovered that ingredient X in Spaghetti Carbonara is a raw egg. He was almost put off eating it, but his stomach overcame disgust, so it’s still a favourite (carbonara, not his stomach). The kids still don’t know what’s in haggis, but doubtless one day will discover the offal truth.

I’d intended to make a modified Baked Alaska, using a pineapple as the base instead of sponge. As I had no recipe for it, I ended up flying by the seat of my pants. The last major example of pant-flight was when I decided to use up everything in the freezer before buying anything more. The curried peas weren’t too bad but the spinach ice cream was interesting in the extreme.

The good thing about having a dinner party is being able to make, thus eat, what you like. Left to my own devices, this would be only puddings plus maybe a cup of really decent coffee. This would avoid the vegetable-generated paediatric kitchen exodus.

We rapidly discovered quite how far icing sugar can spread. We and the kitchen looked as if we’d been covered in a light sprinkling of snow. Clearing it up rapidly, but badly, I ended up with counters that were sticky, but tasted delicious. In the past I’ve been spattered with zabaglione, batter, chocolate cake mix, raw egg: not in a food fight, just cooking with my best friend from university who came along, but luckily didn’t teach such skills to my new chef. Once I’ve wrestled him back into sous chef position I’ll care less. Probably.

Cooking is a great switch off from Medicine, however the day job does have its moments. Patients often tell me how they examine various bits of themselves for early signs of cancer. One gentleman was so keen on this concept that he took to examining his own prostate. An interesting gut feeling.

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Aural Sax…

I have a song stuck inside my head. Unfortunately it’s Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off. Very corny. It’s a jolly song- unless superglued into your cranium- and doubtless very popular. Yet having it stuck in your head is a 12 on a 0-10 drive-you-crazy scale. I’ve worked out that the ‘pop’ in song is what it could do to your brain. There are other tunes which equally get wedged horribly easily, such as it’s a Small World After All, Happy and the nanananas from Hey Jude. I wouldn’t care if it was something classical or the sax from Baker Street, but no, it’s pop corn.

Presumably everyone in world gets the same unscratchable irritation. I have been reliably informed that this is called an ear worm, although in the old days when we listened to cassettes it must have been a tapeworm. My godson insists that the best thing for worm cleansing is to sing the offending tune aloud. This could be remarkably inconvenient especially at a funeral. Even during a business meeting, singing it could be a teeny problem.

Mr President, why are you not doing more about the crisis in Iraq?’

‘Because I’m happy; clap along if you feel like a room without a roof…’

Or on a Royal note…

‘Your Majesty, what would you like to do with the corgi sleeping on your foot?’

‘Shake it off, Shake it off …’

The problem is that these worms are particularly catching, like a virus.  Now that I’ve mentioned the above songs, you are probably stuck with them now; ear-wormed up. Sorry… but if you try and rid yourself of it by singing it aloud then- kaboom- a whole office of people will be infected. Save the environment – keep your mouth shut. Unless you are an aural anarchist; in which case, Hey! go forth and spread chaos…nana nana, nana nana…

There should be some sort of a vaccination available to prevent it happening, although would you need a 1-Direction vaccination, an Earth, Wind and Fire one, a Barbie song one etc? Unless they invent a worm batch vaccination, you could end up looking like you’ve just lost a fight with a porcupine.

It’s worse when you can remember the tune and not the words, so end up humming disjointed little bits and scraps; although on the bright side, my voice is so awful, this disjointed musical lego is an improvement. Makes no end of difference if you can’t actually tell what I’m singing.

My mind is now being plagued with Ernie, who Drove the Fastest Milk Cart in the West. Wish I could just shake it off.

Alison Gardiner 2015

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Romcom Season

For those of you with a sporting bent, this doesn’t mean that it’s the season to go out and shoot Romcoms unless you mean in the cinematic sense. It’s just that Christmas/New Year is when I have the time to sit down and watch romantic comedies. The attraction is obvious for a movie lightweight like me. Generally no-one gets killed, nothing else truly dreadful happens and the best thing in the world for heart health is to laugh. The main problem is that some of the laughter is centred on the massive plot holes. It almost becomes a game to spot them, although not a very difficult game. Some other genres tend to cover the holes better, but as Romcoms are not of serious intent (lucky coincidence that they have the suffix -com), I mentally shrug my shoulders and move on – except I couldn’t during one I watched recently that centred on time shifts. It seemed that sometimes the hero could go back in time and only be around for a little while and at other times he’d have to live forwards from where he’d landed up. Seemed more hole than plot. It would have made marginally more sense if there’d been some sort of device that the hero could have used to choose one option: a) live on or b) whizz forwards, but no such widget was inserted when it was put in the can. Fun though, for a skate across the top of reality (or was it? Must go back in time and check).

I think the movie industry is missing out on many other genres that, by adding either rom- or -com, could be wonderfully lightened up. Romdoc could cover documentaries in which romance lightens up the fact-finding missions: ‘We’ll be setting off down the Zambesi later, my dear, so don’t forget your lipstick, ballgown and high heels’. Alternatively, the title could cover hospital-based romances, but that’s been done as Romdoc-or-any-other-remotely-hospital-related-personnel-finding-romance; not snappy but acts as tag line and opening paragraph. Romchef could be a lot more spicy than watching people chop onions: ‘I will make you an oyster soufflé before we smooch behind my Kenwood Chef Z72 with astonishing speed and huge attachment (dough making; but you’ve got to get the right ingredients to get the rise).’

Newscom might be a lot more entertaining than the current very gloomy offerings, although would take some skill to make the yawning watchers appreciate the lighter side of an earthquake.

It must be brilliant making romcoms especially as many of them are set in stunning locations. I imagine actors and actresses are busy fighting for the parts, tearing each other’s hair out in tufts before puckering up and rôling on. I’m sure the world needs more funny films, as life can sometimes seem very serious. Currently we have a student from Korea living with us; real name Sang Hyum Um; in England he’s called Ron. It could be fun to write fun films based in Korea called Roncoms.

However, having watched several romcoms back-to-back, I begin to feel the need for something a bit grittier so I’ll dig out Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Romantically challenged, comedically challenged, but with a plot less like Swiss cheese than some; though a few holes sneak in. Perfect for a movie lightweight, until I’ve studied enough facts about Korea to write my own Roncom – or Sang Hyum Umcom.

Alison Gardiner 2015

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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 18 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A Cracker of a Christmas

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks and now someone has told me that it’s Christmas in only 10 days time. I really think I should have been given more warning of this so that I could get Panic Mode cranked up to its full splendour. Or maybe Panic Mode is more spectacular when there’s less time to feed it. Perhaps next Christmas no one should tell me until the very last minute then see what happens: Christmas lunch would be chocolate on toast and everyone would get money with a bow on it. This could work fabulously as a system.

I learned a new fact today. Apparently the millihelen is used to measure beauty. If Helen of Troy’s face launched 1000 ships, 1 millihelen is the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. A whole new vocabulary opens up. Before I party tonight, I’ll spend time Helening myself up. I can imagine the children will launch into the scoring system. ‘32.4 millihelens tonight, Mum, but some of that’s the new dress.’ Or ‘Slept badly did you, mother? -16 today.’

I was interviewed on Friday by the lovely Katie (999; one hair was out of place) from Liz Lean PR Agency. PR Agency to a doctor doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as to the rest of the world, but luckily she had come to examine my mind, not nether regions. One of the things she wanted to chat about was how I managed to keep all the plates spinning: business, kids, writing. Easy answer: synergy; kids help with the writing and work in the business. (No, not sin energy; that’s an entirely different subject.) Although sometimes I feel a bit like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland; running flat out to stand still.

What I failed to tell her was that my mind operates like soup, a morass of all sorts of bits of stuff swirling around. Thankfully for the inside of my skull, it’s not boiling, despite bubbling; body temperature to be precise. Stuff floats to the surface, then I skim it off and deal with it or think yeah right, like I need to do that. Flotsum off.

When I’m writing, it seems as if there’s one of those electric whizzy things in the gloop, stirrings up more quickly, so some very interesting results rise to the surface. Although I have control of my mind most the time, the soup-swirl-ideas effect is pretty much out of my control. Caffeine whizzes it faster, cooking or laundry slows it. A game of Monopoly seizes it for a month.

This week saw the sending out of Christmas cards. It’s something I love doing as it brings to mind all friends that you hardly ever see. We always write a Christmas letter although we stick to having fun with it rather than shoving in much news; more of a Christmas Non-Newsletter (CNN).

My youngest son has been helping me wrap presents. I should have the wisdom to leave him wrapping only square things but foolishly, I didn’t. We now have a pile of bizarrely shaped secret things which look like wrapped hedgehogs, mini-Christmas trees, shovels, representations of the solar system; usual stuff. Thought I’d left t-shirts and mugs. My error.

This year I seem to be relatively well-organised owing to digs in the ribs from various people, including best friend, husband and children. I’m now black and blue from the waist up, but successful. I just need to put the mince pie for Santa and saucer of milk for the reindeer by the chimney. Though if somebody could explain to me why a reindeer needs to accompany Santa down the chimney, I’d love to know. Drawn by the scent of milk is my guess.

By the time I post again, the great Christmas hoopla will be over and we’ll all be looking forward to the New Year rara. Since I completely love all of this, one could assume that the aftermath would be almost mentally post-apocalyptic, but January looks rather good fun from this distance, so I decline being sad. I shall remain my current state of being like a room without a roof. Also smiling adds at least 50 millihelens. That makes me 34 today after my bad night.

Enjoy the festive season, everyone.

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The Serpent has Landed

In my head that’s a great concept. The serpent in question is an enormous beast; I imagine it dropping from the sky, slithery and shiny, landing in a neat coil like an Indian snake charmer’s lunch ticket. The answer to where it came from is either fresh air or the inside of my head, although the two could be the same thing according to my children, who believe that gas fills the space between my ears.

The landing in question is printed copies of my book The Serpent of Eridor. The book production process is thus a little like Zeus producing Minerva but luckily with keyboard applied to skull, rather than an axe.


The books have only  just arrived, so I’m running around like a cat with two tails and springs for paws. Having them in my hand is a bit of sensuous experience; I’m loving the smell and feel of them and regularly hug one up to me. I’ve not got quite as far as bathing in them yet, but watch this space. You’ll be the first to know.

Having an incomplete grasp of physics (or is it mechanics, or architecture, or engineering?) I wasn’t entirely sure what a stack of 250 books would look like: half a room or a small neat stack? It turns out that 250 takes up most of a pallet: one metre square and some upness, but with wood to spare at the edges. Presumably the reason they sent them flat on a pallet is to avoid side-tip induced squishing or crumpledness; but the average doorway is not a metre and a half wide…

Serendipitous then that I’d had them sent to work which has vast doorways, perfect for getting moribund bodies, wheelchairs or large flat pieces of wood through. Normally as things come through the hospital doors they undergo radical positive transformation: from got problems to safe now. The energy flow reversed with my delivery; it went from long awaited treasure into fire hazard in seconds.

The urgent, delicate operation of scissors and rippage commenced, scything into the bowels of the parcel, thrusting aside yards of voluminous plastic, revealing stacklettes of 18 books each; almost as cute as delivering kittens (clearly in this case by caesarean)(so maybe not quite as  terrifically cute). This made me overwhelmingly happy, mainly that the health and safety mavens would no longer come and arrest me or poke a hole in my fun (which they would do carefully, leaving no bruises nor sharp edges.)

Earlier in my quest to get my books published, I had decided to set up my own publishing company, but have not done it yet. I’d love to claim credit for setting up my publisher Matador, but that could be considered to be marginally untruthful because it is… well… untrue. Completely, entirely, totally, utterly, wholly untrue (there is a reason that list is alphabetical; I just love thesauruses) (thesauri). Although if you check the thesaurus for the word thesaurus you get a list of stuff that is not at all the same, like phrase book. Certain poetic irony.

The tricky bit about setting up a company turns out to be choosing a name. We rejected dull stuff like Hawthorne Books or Westminster Print, preferring something fun like Flying Folios, Purple Aardvark or Tomestone. Thinking that we’d need to create an accompanying logo, we avoided names like Big End Publishing or an ironic Bottom of the Market. Ali’s Pub would be easy enough to logo up, using the picture of a hostelry or a glass of wine… which has got me thinking…if only I had something to drink to. A recently terrestrialised serpent? Perfect!

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Taking the Plunge: Literally…or Scooby Dwiving

I’ve just been to the SCBWI annual conference in Winchester. For some reason this is pronounced Scooby not Scbwy (no, not the town, which is pronounced Winchester for all you newly confused Americans, although I do grant that a lot of English pronunciation is a bit random. Have a go at Featherstonehaw or Cholmondeley. Sorry, you’re wrong. Fanshaw and Chummly. No, I agree there’s no logic). At the beginning, since I occasionally get letters muddled up, I felt it was Scweeby, but that sounds like the annoying noise that’s made when you clean windows. Sally Gardner, one of our key speakers, objected to the use of the word like but now I’ve gone and put it in my first paragraph… sigh…sorry, Sally, but be keen on the annoying noise somehow doesn’t have the same ring. Also, getting a lot of having a weakness fors on Facebook might be a little odd. May I keep this one like? No? Then war.

Like the format was a series of like talks and workshops sprinkled with like enormous amounts of coffee, cake and lunch, which was like great for the blood sugar, but like not so much for the avoirdupois (which surely translates as to have some peas…) sorry- can’t keep this up; don’t like it. You win, Sally.

The Saturday night party was very jolly. So much so, I woke up on Sunday morning regretting that I’d been quite as sociable the night before. It would have been more efficient to have regretted it in advance, thus getting my remorse out of the way when I was feeling stronger. On the Sunday morning I was robust-challenged. However, anti-grade regret doesn’t work, as if you’re really efficient about it, it stops you drinking anything at all which then negates the need for having felt sorry in the first place. It would be a shame to have indulged needlessly in all of that negative emotion, so I’m stuck with post-party remorse; in mourning the next morning.

Nick Butterworth was our keynote illustrator speaker although that does seem counterintuitive. You’d think he would have drawn what he wanted to express, perhaps as a montage. Although slower, it would have been brilliant to watch him pour the contents of his brain onto a series of whiteboards. He did resort to drawing a couple of times and, in about 12 strokes of a pen, produced a wonderfully cute crocodile with a mournful expression. This should be technically impossible; even real crocodiles don’t have facial expressions unless you count shades of malice. In 1200 strokes of a pencil, swiftly followed by 1188 strokes of an eraser, I would possibly be able to bang out a passable stick man without expression, or an amoeba, equally expression free. It astonishes me that people have things going in through their eyes or rattling around their brain which then emerge, complete and comprehensible, via the hand. I seem to have been born without this neuronal pathway, which is presumably a form of picture blindness, not unlike dyslexia. Dyspixia might suggest I had difficulties relating to fairies but dysgraphia suggest I’m hopeless at maths. Dysdrawia might have to do.

Cathy Cassidy told a truly inspiring story, which means we all took a deep breath as she started to talk. A very modest person, she tried to pass off her stratospheric success as being a stroke of fate disguised as pushy neighbour. So convincing was she in this argument that after her talk there was a queue of people waiting, not only to have a copy of her book signed but also to ask for this neighbour’s address so they could move in next door. She spoke about not having a parallel week timewise, but was clearly lying about this as she answers all e-mails and letters, also posts on Twitter and Facebook herself, meanwhile judging her very well supported writing competitions… and writing. The talk gave me an idea for a story which concerns a struggling writer who has to live with PTSD after attending a conference and finding that superstar writers are human, but gifted with an extra 10 hours per day. The story has a happy ending, as the author builds a raft of her unsold books, sails to Switzerland and creates stories so short they count as tweets. I’m suspicious that there is a slight plot problem here. Answers on a postcard please…

Sally Gardner told her own amazing story about her early struggles with dyslexia. She pointed out that anybody who can spell dyslexia doesn’t have it. She illustrated her talk with photographs of a cat in a hat and a representation of the way a dyslexic would see the words cat in a hat. I can sympathise 100% with her predicament, although am only able to empathise about 5%. I also occasionally get stuck with words, such as on one occasion sitting in front of blank screen unable to spell any. Eny didn’t quite seem to cut it and neither did eni. Starting with the wrong letter, I couldn’t even look it up in the dictionary. I should have stopped wrestling with the concept at that point, stuck with whichever (or witchever) and chosen Eni as the name of a character in one of my books.

The volunteers had clearly been trained by Santa’s elves, running the conference smoothly, competently and cheerfully. This only deepened my depression, as by now I’d seen my inadequacies in drawing, social media, writing success and now all these happy, worthy people were adding to it. My gloom was swiftly broken by the fantastic atmosphere of positivity, which is more efficient in effect than Prozac although rather more difficult to bottle. If they could have, as a perfume it would be Eau’d to Joy.

So I will start next week raring to go, tweeting hourly, plotting intensely, reading voraciously and volunteering for anything I can think of. So, was the time spent away worth it? Definitely. New plot idea: writer has life changing event; only in my current mood it will be file changing.

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