Archive for June, 2009

Lobster with broad beans

Posted in Food with tags , , , , , , on June 30, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Half Hour Meals

As the broad beans tend to end up being quite well-cooked in this dish it’s perfectly acceptable to use frozen; in fact, frozen ones often yield better results.

1 lobster weighing about 600-700g
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
a good pinch of saffron
350-400ml fish stock
600-700g podded weight of broad beans
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and plunge the lobster into the water. If you are concerned about the humane treatment of the lobster, you should place the live lobster in the freezer for an hour before putting it into the boiling water. This is considered the least cruel way of dispatching the lobster. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool a little. Gently cook the onion and garlic in 3 tbsp of the olive oil for 2-3 minutes, then add the saffron, stock and broad beans and simmer for 2-3 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the head from the lobster and give the claws a crack with the back of a heavy knife. Cut the body into 4 or 5 pieces through the shell into rounds.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large frying pan that will fit in the oven, season the pieces of lobster tail and quickly sauté them on both sides for a minute or so until they have a golden colour. Add the head and pour in the broad bean mixture. Cover and cook in the oven for about 15 minutes.

The liquid should have more or less evaporated and formed a sauce coating the beans; if not, place it on the stove on a medium heat and cook for a further couple of minutes. Serve immediately.

Classic FM

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


This is from a recent edition of Private Eye. This sums up so perfectly the reasons I can’t stand Classic FM, (apart from the predictable choice of repertoire, adverts, and patronising presenters of course), that I thought it worth reproducing in full:

The formula of screaming ignorance, kitsch and smug self-satisfaction that is Classic FM isn’t new. But it’s intensified since BBC Radio 3 won Station of the Year in last month’s Sony awards. The CFM bosses weren’t happy at all; and so to divert attention they increased sharply the volume of their hymns of self-love.

To select one absurdity among many, they’re advertising a new, double CD with the title “Made Famous by Classic FM”. And what are the pieces CFM has made famous? Well, there’s The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, who of course owed his career to CFM. There’s Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which did get briefly a bit of exposure on some film or other, but it was a long time ago. Then there’s the Clarinet Concerto by an unknown called, er, Mozart (but only the second movement: Wolfgang will have to wait for CFM to make the rest of his effort famous). And Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest – what’s a royal investiture, after all, without a Classic FM soundtrack?

As if this guff weren’t bad enough, the CFM website (which incidentally commends the theme from Star Wars as a wedding anthem) also catalogues the Classic FM empire. There, music lovers will be interested to learn that the station has its own orchestras: the LSO, the Philharmonia, the RLPO (“CFM’s Orchestra in the North West”) and the Royal Scottish National (“CFM’s Orchestra in Scotland”). It also has its own opera company, apparently, Welsh National Opera, and a music college. Very impressive – and great news for hard-pressed taxpayers who were under the illusion it was they who propped up these institutions.

The bad news for Classic FM is that several legally-minded music lovers, not amused by the station’s absurd claims, are considering a test case under trade descriptions legislation. If it goes ahead, it will be interesting to see what evidence CFM produces to verify its ownership of the LSO and its gift of celebrity to Mozart. Even if the case is thrown out as frivolous, the sight of CFM in court won’t be wasted on its many friends at Broadcasting House.

We as a nation are not exactly popular anyway in many (sorry, most) parts of the world. And I bet our continental neighbours are now laughing their heads off at this attempt by CFM to demonstrate our so called musical enlightenment. What this sham station can’t see is, that what is routine and standard fare for them is somehow a highbrow excursion for us, a lacking we are blind and deaf to. A bit like the little kid that lectures grown-ups from the benefit of his greater knowledge. And so they laugh.

I don’t like Classic FM and I agree that it’s not aimed at me. What a shame though that one of the best presenters of music on radio, Natalie Wheen, fell out with BBC Radio 3 and is now only on Classic FM. I would just add, for the benefit of those who never listen to it, that much of Classic FM is no worse than BBC Radio 3’s more populist output.

BBC Expenses

Posted in BBC Radio 3, News with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


The BBC published on its website five years’ worth of line-by-line expenses for its executive board members after a series of freedom of information requests. The data offers an extraordinarily detailed snapshot of the inner workings of the BBC.

Expenses claims made by Mark Thompson, BBC Director General and 12 other former and present members of the BBC executive board over the past five years, totalling £363,963.83, were released as the corporation responded to calls for it to be more open and accountable.

By far the biggest claimer of overnight accommodation was BBC Radio 3 Controller Roger Wright, at £6,152.24, and he’s No. 2 overall with £16,489.38. Maybe he enjoys expensive food and staying overnight.

Did anyone hear Mark Thompson on BBC Radio 4’s Today? It struck me as an extremely poor piece of self-congratulatory double-speak on the part of the BBC. The gist of it was the interviewer challenging Thompson on his claiming for congestion charges.

Thompson explained that he claimed only for the official car that drove him to meetings and official functions (this including 23p for parking). When he drove his own family in his own car, he paid the congestion charge himself.

The interviewer continued to badger Thompson on the point, causing Thompson to justify himself by comparisons with standard (private sector) industry practice.

To me Thompson’s claims seemed entirely reasonable, supportable, and well within what any right-thinking person would expect him to claim. There was no controversy, and no need to badger him on the point, or even raise the point to begin with. Businessman claims expenses for costs incurred in business travel! Shock! Horror! Call the BBC to investigate!

Now maybe I’m just being cynical, but the interview smacked of the BBC being ostentatiously “fair” by grilling the boss over something that was actually completely unnecessary to investigate. And more than that, it was deliberately designed to allow him to highlight to listeners how fair and reasonable he is.

The BBC expenses issue is a mere sideshow compared to the more pressing questions such as why the BBC needs such a vast management structure – in the 1970s I’m sure there were relatively few “executives” and there was much more emphasis on producers and programme-makers. There certainly weren’t nonsensical departments such as BBC Vision. Linked to that are other questions such as why those “executives” and managers need to be paid such enormous salaries. Why should public sector salaries be compared with those in the commercial market and not, for instance, with other public sector salaries such as the salary of a Government minister which is many times less than that of the Director General of the BBC?

There is also the question of why the licence fee is so inequitable, why someone on jobseeker’s allowance pays more than Mark Thompson himself for the same TV licence. Needless to say, you will not get any sensible response to any of these questions from a BBC spokesman, or the BBC Trust who are supposed to safeguard the interests of licence fee payers.

Beetroot and sorrel salad with yoghurt and nigella seeds

Posted in Food with tags , , , , , , on June 27, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Half Hour Meals

Beetroots are a great accompaniment for barbecues and buffets during the summer, and they also lend themselves to being gently spiced, or in this case herbed and spiced.

If you shop at farmers’ markets, you will come across lots of varieties of beetroots these days as farmers are reviving the old coloured varieties. Try to buy them with the leaves, as you can blanch the leaves as I’ve done here, then toss them in with the beets. I made this dish with yellow beets, although you could use a mixture of yellows and reds, or just reds if you prefer.

700-800g young yellow beetroots, with their leaves
a handful of small silver sorrel or sorrel leaves
3-4 tbsp of thick Greek yoghurt
1 tsp nigella (onion) seeds
4-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove the leaves from the beetroot and give them a good wash. Cook the beets in their skins in boiling salted water for about an hour or until tender. Cook the leaves in fresh boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes until just tender, then drain. Once the beetroots are cool enough to handle, peel them by rubbing the skin off with your fingers, then cut them into quarters, depending on their size. Mix with the leaves.

Toss the beetroots and leaves with the vinegar and olive oil and season well. Arrange in a bowl and scatter or mix in the sorrel leaves. Then spoon the yoghurt on top, scattered with the nigella seeds.


Brown Bread: Michael Jackson

Posted in Music, Obituaries with tags , on June 26, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Last night, when BBC1 announced there was going to be a special news bulletin between Question Time and This Week, I wondered what on earth had happened:

War with Iran?
Assassination of Gordon Brown?
Tsunami in SE Asia causing death and destruction?
North Korea launching a nuclear attack on South Korea?

Something much more important – the death of a pop star.

A tribute to Michael Jackson on BBC Radio 4 this morning by Jonathan Margolis, his speechwriter, said he was “up there with Mozart and Beethoven”.

There is no doubt (after his formative years with the Jackson Five) that between the ages of about 20 and 35 Michael Jackson was a pop music phenomenon – though personally I always preferred Prince. Most pop stars like most sportsmen have a shelf life of about fifteen years, between the ages of 20 and 35, but after that age one is no longer young enough or fit enough or modern enough. Jackson became a freak. I found Michael Jackson’s music as a solo artist rather peculiar. It doesn’t seem to belong to any recognised category of popular music.

When I heard the news late last night and the headline: 70s pop star, with regrettable interest in children anxious to make a come-back, rolled across my screen, I was underwhelmed. Oh dear, I thought, Gary Glitter is no more.

I remember that at the height of Jackson’s fame, I actually bought a copy of his CD Bad to hear for myself what all the fuss was about. I listened to the first track, yawned and put it away, never to open the CD case again.

Will it now become a collector’s item?

R.I.P. Michael Jackson 1958-2009

This Modern Music

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


The changes in serious musical composition from 1911 to, say, the late 1960s were quite monumental. The journey from, say, Stravinsky to Boulez and Stockhausen took us to brave new wonderful worlds. I feel in the last 30 years we have been given some interesting pieces but sadly nothing really new and shocking. I think we may be a period of decline.

Recently I have being playing recordings of the Stravinsky ballets and the Bartók orchestral works, amongst others. What exciting worlds of music these are; and yet they are from a bygone age and there is nothing today to touch their invention.

I’ve often felt that since Gruppen and Pli Selon Pli the emphasis has changed away from advancement to re-exploration. Quotation, back-reference, parody and austerity have opened the spectrum.

I remember Michael Berkeley saying a while ago that there’s never been a more exciting time to be a composer. It’s a little like ladies’ fashion. There’s not so much distinction between new and old-fashioned now. You could even begin a new piece with a scale of C major and few would mutter “how dated” as they would 40-50 years ago.

I don’t think we’re really in a “modern” era any more, maybe a post-modern era.

The main problem with “modern” music is that the vast majority of people have no interest in listening to it. There is no point intellectualizing it or telling people a certain piece or composer it better because you think it is less derivative, or contains more of the composer’s personality, or that it is “saying something new” or deriding another composer for “having nothing to say”.

Composers of “modern” (or for that matter any other kind of) music ultimately can only be composing to please themselves. Anything else is a bonus which the composer may welcome but has no right to expect.

Flats, Harps & Sharps

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


The key of B is occasionally written as C flat, so I presume that it is technically possible for the key of E to be written as F flat? If this is the case, I can’t think of a piece of music written in the key of F flat.

Am I correct (yes I know I am) in thinking that it suits harpists (sometimes) to play in keys like C flat?

I also understand that Havergal Brian would write in E sharp rather than F.

So far as Brian was concerned, it is (I presume) that writing with all those sharps and double sharps gave a somewhat more exotic flavour than the mundane single flat (B flat) of F major. Equally, moving sharp feels to the composer as if he is turning the screw, whereas going flat does the opposite. None of this can of course be heard by the listener.

Part of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen uses F flat major, which one commentator has called “a bitter enharmonic parody” of the earlier manifestations of E major in the piece.

But I must admit I wouldn’t have noticed.

In the case of the harpists it is to do with the neutral, up and down position of the seven pedals.

A modern concert harp when “glissandoed” will play a diatonic scale of C flat major when all seven pedals are in the up position. This is why harpists always use a C flat tuning fork to begin their tuning routine. Each pedal has three positions (up, middle and down) respectively raising the pitch of the strings it controls by one semitone. Each pedal is dedicated to altering one of the notes of the scale, hence the C-pedal will affect all the C-strings, the D-pedal all the D-strings, etc. Thus when all 7 pedals are put into their middle position the harp will play a scale of C major, and when in their fully down position, they will play C sharp major. By fiddling around with the pedals (which you will notice harpists do all the time, like some demented organist) they can set their harp to play any sort of scale. It needs quite a brain to do it, but if you look at an orchestral harp part it does have instructions about what to do.

Well, it’s easy, really. Most of the harpists I know are extremely serious.

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