Chinese menus, books, Harvey Wall-bangers and our lost sense of adventure

Chinese menus, books, Harvey Wall-bangers and our lost sense of adventure

When I was growing up, Chinese food was considered really rather exotic and adventurous but these days, most people consider it almost a mainstream part of their diet. The small market town I grew up in had a single Chinese restaurant and it was an exciting occasion to go and eat there. Looking back, it was fairly westernised, but to the kid I was then it was utterly unfamiliar and a little bit scary. Now that same town has countless Chinese takeaways and many other food emporiums offering a vast range of food. Where I live now there are many, with long lists of dishes. One of our locals was surprised and delighted when I ordered a dish that they said hardly anyone ever ordered. I’d seen it, thought, hey I’ve never tried that and decided to order it. When I was a student in Liverpool I ate at various places in China Town, where authentic dishes were served, and attempted to try something new each time.

A few years ago, I saw a TV programme(it had the lads from Top Gear in so, perhaps not a terribly serious effort) that suggested that there are two kinds of people in the world: risk takers and consolidators. The acid test as I recall was whether you loved or loathed roller-coasters. Now I loathe them, which in theory makes me a consolidator, yet when confronted with choice between repeating an experience I enjoyed or trying something totally unknown, the chances are I will opt for the unknown one.

When I met up with my friend Andrew Meek, last October, in York, we spent a very agreeable few hours in The Evil Eye cocktail bar, and my husband, Andrew and I worked our way through a number of cocktails. I’ve tried a good number of them in my time; got hopelessly drunk on the utterly deceptive Harvey Wall-Banger and pina coladas. The bar has a booklet of all the cocktails it does, and the list is organised by various criteria, and colour coded for ease of exploration. We went through and picked ones we’d never heard of before but which appealed. The barman started grinning when we rolled up to the bar, because it turned out we were ordering things that people seldom did. The vast majority ordered what they’d already tried. My problem was twofold: expense and the fact that after a few, my legs and my head appeared to have become disconnected.

I’ve never been conservative when it comes to food and drink; I will try more or less anything (not snails, though. We used to have a Giant African land-snail as a pet and frankly, it would feel wrong) and have enjoyed a good 85% of what I have tried. Of the other 15%, I’d guess 10% evoked a meh response, 4% a dislike and 1% the sudden urge to vomit profusely and scrub my mouth out. I dislike shellfish and offal  but virtually everything else, I will eat without protest. But when I travel with school groups, I am constantly amazed by the sheer number of school kids who refuse to even try what is on their plates. If it doesn’t look exactly like something they’ve eaten before, forks go down and nothing gets touched. Some can be coaxed to try before they reject the food, and of those some find that they like it. I’m sad to say that those who refuse to try at all are a fairly large group.

In my teaching job too, I find that there are groups who come back each year and insist on precisely the same excursions, the same everything and get very upset if for some reason it’s not possible to do it. I hear of people who go every single year to the precise same holiday destination and do the same things. I understand when this is because the place is so special and you always love it, but it worries me slightly when people don’t entertain the idea of once in a while trying something different.

When it comes to food or drink ordering something unfamiliar may result in an unpalatable meal and a waste of money, but is that such a terrible thing every so often? A holiday somewhere unknown is a bigger risk, because it might be a step down from the places you love and know, yet it might bring another fabulous destination to your experiences.

And then there’s books. I’ve spent a few hours recently reading reviews of books. Not often books I have read or intend to read, but a fairly random selection of books by many authors, both indie and traditional, even some real classics. And I noticed something interesting. There are people who preface a 4 or 5* review with the words, “This is not the sort of book I’d usually choose to read but…” and then go on to explain why they turned out to enjoy it. There are also people giving 1 and 2* reviews saying the same thing, and then saying they didn’t like it (or thought it was a terrible book) because it wasn’t what they’d usually choose to read, or because it turned out differently from how they thought it should. I’ve had some laugh out loud moments reading these. One 2 star review of an action adventure fantasy complained bitterly that there wasn’t enough sex in the book and went on at some length explaining how they’d been left high and dry by the premise that the hero was a dominant type but was actually a sub, and the heroine a dominatrix and how disappointed the reader was that the writer never wrote these S&M sex scenes she felt the novel needed to contain!! Other higher starred reviews of the same book mentioned how they felt there was slightly too much sex…..

I’ve begun to wonder if we choose books based entirely on them bearing a more than passing resemblance to books we’ve already read and enjoyed, and then feel cheated when they turn out not to be. At Christmas I was gifted with two classic books I am reading now, but which have no blurb or back matter to guide the reader into any expectations of what the books are about. It’s quite a disconcerting feeling because often I am used to knowing beforehand what the book is about and now I am having to work it out myself. I’ve got lazy. I’ve got used to expecting a book to follow certain templates and patterns and it’s not doing me any good. I need to simply focus on the narrative, not my expectations of the narrative. 

When I turned forty, I made a decision to stop saying no to things that scared me, and apart from driving which still has me paralysed, I’ve mostly managed to do this. I’ve had a try-it-and-see mentality most of my life and I consider it has opened me to a host of experiences I’d otherwise have missed out on. But many don’t. Many don’t want to try anything different. When it comes to reading, especially in this time of incredibly cheap books (e-books for the price of a newspaper or less) it’s astonishing how few people are willing to take a chance on an unknown author and stick rigorously to their tried and tested genres and authors. Yes, I know money is tight and time too is a precious commodity, but why not once a month or so try something new, either a book or a cocktail or a dish or anything?

Step a little beyond the comfort zone; there may be dragons, but you know what? Where there are dragons, there’s also treasure, sure as eggs are eggs, my precious.    

Baker Street Blues- a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes


Baker Street Blues- a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and to Sherlock Holmes


I confess. I’d never been to Baker Street in all my long years as a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I’d travelled along it in a bus, or in a taxi but never set foot there until this Sunday.

As I stood on the escalator coming up from the Tube, a tune began in my head. It was almost involuntary and a bit of a surprise to me. Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street is a total classic and has bitter-sweet significance to me, which is a story I shall keep secret for the moment. As I reached the station exit, the soaring guitar was being overtaken by the saxophone solo and as I stepped finally onto Baker Street, the lyrics began….

Winding your way down Baker Street, Light in your head and dead on your feet…”

Pretty much summed up how I was feeling. I’d had a thirteen and a half hour working day the day before and had the same that day, though in effect I was free to do what I felt like, while remaining on call. Tiredness notwithstanding, a massive grin spread across my face, the first spontaneous smile I have had for a long while, or so it feels. I joined the queue at the museum and continued to grin for the next hour.

 Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous creation of the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but its easy to forget that Doyle was responsible for another fabulous creation too, Professor Challenger, the hero of the novel The Lost World, that has been made into many films since. Sir Arthur was a medical doctor, graduating from Edinburgh, and had a questing mind that took him to many places that were unusual for a man of his class. He did a tour as a ships’ doctor on a voyage to the West African coast, which probably opened the mind of the young Arthur greatly. His lack of success as a medical doctor gave him time to write; he had written as a medical student and his long hours waiting for patients when he first set up practise in Southsea gave rise to the first appearance of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. Later, set up as an ophthalmologist and recorded he had not a single patient! In total, Doyle wrote four Holmes novels and 56 short stories. Many have been made into films and TV shows, and writers have produced endless tributes and pastiches to the great detective.

Visiting the Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker Street was for me akin to a tongue-in-cheek pilgrimage as I fell in love with the great detective when I was nine years old. I passed on this love to my daughter who had the stories read to her as bedtime stories. What makes me love him so?

 It’s hard to explain but there was such hope for me in the discovery of a truly clever hero to look up to and aspire to be like. Holmes is thought to be based on Professor Joseph Bell, Doyle’s old university professor, and the fact that while the man himself is fictional, there was a real person behind the stories, gave me a lot of hope that somewhere intelligence is valued above other attributes.

Holmes is a perennial favourite for film and TV and a recent BBC mini series Sherlock relaunched the iconic Holmes to a new public, updating the tales to be set in the present day with huge success. I can only hope that the next series is as excellent as the previous one.

Anyway, if you are not already a fan of Holmes, then what are you waiting for? It’s elementary, my dears!


Here Be Dragons!

Here Be Dragons!


The beaten path is very wide,

Trodden smooth by countless feet,

Wearing it deeply into the land,

And cutting a track through time.

I was content for many years,

Happy to follow where others led.

Then one day the path ran out,

Ended abruptly with a sign,

Rimmed in red, that ran:

“Warning! Here be dragons!”

I stood some time alert,

Watching for flames and wings,

And yet none came in sight.

I waited on, still unsure

Until a single step I took,

Passed into blank uncharted lands.

And still the dragons didn’t fly,

Eager to devour my presumptuous soul.

A second step and then I found

My feet were on another path,

Thread-thin but strongly felt.

And then I knew beyond a doubt

What the warning sign had meant:

Beyond this point, you become

Those very dragons that we fear.