Growing my own chillis

I’d been meaning to grow chillis from seed, but never got around to it. In the past I’ve been terrible at keeping plants and they always died. Some people have green fingers, I have black fingers. When my friend Rosanna offered seeds from her successful homegrown chilli plants, I had no excuses and said I’d take some.

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The tiny seeds (so crunchy) arrived wrapped in clingfilm. Looking at them it seemed amazing that anything would every grow from them.

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Rosanna sent me instructions via Facebook. The first few stages seemed simple enough:

  1. Take a chilli seed, plant it in shallow compost (about one to two inches deep – a takeaway container, an old margarine tub or yoghurt pot is ideal), at a depth of about a quarter of an inch.
  2. You don’t need any special sort of compost – anything will do.
  3. Plant one per yogurt pot or 2-3 per takeaway container. Plant twice as many as you think you’ll need: not all seeds will germinate.
  4. Water well so the soil is damp but not sopping wet. Cover the container with clingfilm and leave somewhere warm in semi-shade (i.e. out of direct sunlight) for a week or two until they sprout. Depending on the time of year this will take between one and four weeks.

I went out to buy compost and plant-pots. It turns out, you can get a lot of cheap gardening things from the pound shop, whose range is endorsed by gardening celebrity Charlie Dimmock. I put twenty seeds out, which is apparently a lot, then waited to see what would happen.

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Only one chilli plant has actually emerged from the soil since I planted them three weeks ago. The others have been sent to the airing cupboard to see if that encourages them to start sprouting. Even though my success rate so far is a mere 5%, that first plant feels like a victory.

Another lost Brighton bookshop

In May 2010 I wrote a post about the Lost Bookshops of Brighton. Visiting Brighton’s bookshops in the 1990s was one of the things that made me fall in love with this town. Over the last 20 years, most of the country’s second hand bookshops have closed, caught between Amazon and a surge in charity shops (who avoid many of the overheads of second-hand bookshops). I miss hunting for second hand books, something I used to spend whole afternoons doing.

Another Brighton bookshop is about to be lost. PS Brighton is covered in 50% discount posters, a ‘To Let’ sign hanging above it. This was an excellent source for cult novels, rock biographies and art books. It’s going to be replaced by another coffee shop.

 

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The day after taking the photograph above, I walked down Trafalgar Street. The shop at the corner of Over Street, most recently a bike shop is being refitted. A ghost-sign has emerged from one of the shop’s former incarnations as the Trafalgar Bookshop. I can no longer remember the specific layout of this place, only that it was one of the places I enjoyed hunting.

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The North Downs Way on the Installment Plan

Back in December I walked the Downs Link with Kaylee. That route was a little dull – being an old railway line, it was flat, straight and screened by trees on both sides. The most exciting part was the start, St. Martha’s church near Guildford. After seeing that stunning landscape, which was part of the North Downs Way, I knew I had to do that trail.

I finally began in January, setting out with Katharine and Romi. It was frosty but not too cold, and the winter light was incredible. Our pace was fairly slow as we kept stopping to take photographs – although none of us snapped the woman we met carrying a scythe. She was actually charming, despite being armed.

Towards the end of the second day we had one of the best moments I’ve ever had on a walk. We emerged from a wooded trail onto a hillside common which was full of families with dogs, taking advantage of the good weather. Everyone seemed in a great mood. What a lovely way to spend a winter’s day!

 

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The Fate of the British Curry House

I’m currently halfway through Bee Wilson’s excellent book, First Bite, which is about how we learn to eat, mixing historical research with personal stories. I was delighted when the Guardian published her article Who Killed the Great British Curry House.

The piece covers some of the same issues raised in the Vindaloo Stories show about the decline in curry house customers and skilled staff. These problems are now so severe that two or three curry houses are closing each week. Wilson quotes the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association warning that “as many as a third of Britain’s curry houses – around 4,000 in total – will close over the next couple of years.”

Staffing has been a problem for some time, with restaurant owner’s children leaving the business and immigration restrictions preventing trained chefs from overseas working in the UK. Initiatives such as the curry colleges have failed to have any impact. These ongoing problems have been made worse by the post-referendum economy, which is causing both rents and prices to rise. Wilson describes one owner who is making a loss on many meals, but nervous of putting the price up. For many people, curry is a cheap evening out. One chef, Kobir Ahmed, explains how “there were Cambridge curry houses that had not put up their prices in 20 years because they were scared of losing customers”.

Maybe the curry house is just not needed in the today’s Britain in the same way as it used to be. As Wilson points out, there are far more options for eating out than there were. I also think the curry house is suffering from a change in British socialising. More liberal  licensing laws mean that pubs are open later, so there is less drive to the post-pub curry. More pubs are now offering decent food too – indeed, Wetherspoon’s, with its Thursday Curry Club, is the country’s biggest curry chain.

For me, one of the great things about Indian restaurants in Britain is that you can find them everywhere. I’ve been hiking around the country with friends recently and, wherever we go, we can find a curry restaurant. Some have been dire (Stanford-Le-hope, I’m looking at you) others have been amazing. I love the little ways each one stands out from the British curry-house template.

One of my favourite moments in the article was when Wilson described “the soul food of the UK, the bowl of warmth that people turn to when sniffy, sloshed or merely peckish” Curry is a vital part of modern British food, and it’s sad to see it in decline.

PS – Another excellent article from Bee Wilson is It’s time to address the dirty underbelly of “clean eating”.

The Vindaloo Stories Performance

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Last week, on Wednesday 11th, I did the first performance of a show based on Vindaloo Stories. It was lots of fun to put on with a large audience turning out.

Promoting an event in January was hard work, but it was fun. I was interviewed by Melita at Radio Reverb  the night before, and Wednesday started early so that I could appear on Radio Sussex’s breakfast show.

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This was the first time I’ve done a show or event by myself, so I was delighted that it came out so well. Lots of people helped with it – Emily taught me about press releases; David Bramwell, Rosy Carrick and Rachel Blackman gave great feedback; Kaylee did a great job on the tech; and Robin was there on the night for reassurance. Ema at the Marlborough was also a great help throughout.

There should be recordings coming from the radio interviews. In the meantime there was a review posted by the Latest magazine. I also did an interview with Viva Brighton for this show and an upcoming talk on folklore at the Wellesbourne Society. Now to start looking at future venues for the show.

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Vindaloo Stories, Brighton, January 11th

I’ve been working on a spoken-word version of Vindaloo Stories, which will be performed for the first time at Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre on January 11th. Tickets are now for sale online and cost £7 + fees.

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This is an expanded version of my Wilderness Festival Talk. I’m referring to it as a spoken-word history as I want to include more personal stories than I could in the earlier version.

The event will look at the history of the vindaloo, why curry houses have similar menus, tourism in India, spicy foods, my own travel misadventures and more. There are also local connections between Brighton and curry’s history, since Sake Dean Mahomed, inventor of the Indian Restaurant, is buried in St. Nicholas’s Church.

The Odditorium Book

On October 6th, the Odditorium book will be released, and includes sections written by Dr Bramwell, Jo Keeling, John Higgs, Sarah Angliss and others.

The book’s full title is The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world. It contains various biographies of lesser-known people who changed the world in some way, large or small:

Learn about Reginald Bray (1879-1939), a Victorian accountant who sent over 30,000 singular objects through the mail, including himself; Cyril Hoskin (1910-1981), a Cornish plumber who reinvented himself as a Tibetan lama and went on to sell over a million books; and Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), a journalist who battled a tirade of prejudice to pursue an aquatic-based theory of human evolution, which is today being championed by David Attenborough.

I’ve written two pieces for the book. The first is on Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an Antarctic explorer who wrote The Worst Journey in the World; and Harry Bensley, an adventurer who claimed to have walked around the world disguised by a knight’s helmet.

It’s so exciting to see the book finally coming to print, having been involved since the early pitching sessions, sending in lists of people I thought should be included (I was sad Nek Chand didn’t make it). There are some fascinating figures – I’m most excited about reading John Higgs writing about Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and I think there’s also a chapter on Bob Flanagan.

The book is available for pre-order from Amazon; and if you’re in Brighton there is a launch event on October 14th.

The Odditorium Book Launch

I’m very excited as next month I have a book launch – or to be more accurate, a two-chapter’s launch. I’ve written a couple of entries for The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world, which comes out next month. It’s a book I imagine I’d buy if I wasn’t getting a contributor’s copy. It features biographies of various people from the well-known, like Wilhelm Reich, to the neglected, like Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

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The book was compiled by David Bramwell and Jo Keeling. My chapters are on the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and mysterious walker, Harry Bensley.

The launch night is  October 14th at Brighton’s One Church, and features talks from Dr Bramwell, John Higgs and Emma Kilbey. There will also be a cocktail bar. And copies of the book for sale. You must come!

Chalk Ghosts at Fort Process

I’m frantically packing for walking the South Downs Way and almost forgot to mention that I am giving the Chalk Ghosts talk again at Fort Process. This should be particularly interesting, as I’ll have spent the week before tramping across the downs.

Sussex is haunted by stories. Sometimes it seems that folklore is confined to books, but it’s still out there. Looking at Sussex myths, ghosts and chalk, this talk will show how our world is just as strange as it has ever been. There are ghosts all around us. James Burt looks Sussex legends over the years, drawing links between them, and asking why these stories have changed over the years.

I’ve been doing lots of new research for this including on angels and food in visitations. I will also finally see Dr Bramwell’s talk on Ghost Villages. I’m also looking forward to seeing Sarah Angliss, Kemper Norton, Gagarin and Scrying Ylem. I’ll also get to watch Matthew Clayton’s talk, which I missed at Wilderness.

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A weekend at Wilderness

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I spent last weekend at Wilderness Festival, where I was speaking at the Odditorium Tent. It was a fun time, with lots of friends and great weather. But I fear I’m not as good at festivals as I used to be.

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If you told 18-year old me, fresh from his first Glastonbury, that he’d still going to festivals at 40 he’d be pleased. He’d be less impressed that I was asleep through the first night. We were kept up all night on Thursday, including by a group singing Toto’s Africa near our tent. The next night, I fell asleep at 7pm and managed to sleep through till 5am.

(I’d like to think that the people singing Toto were in the middle of a reunion, having the best time of their summer, and will be talking about that night for years. In which case, it would make up for the lack of sleep)

(I did wake for a bit and head down to festival around 10pm on the Friday. I couldn’t find any of the others and there was no way I was going to catch up with the drunks around me. I passed a man who was pissing as he walked. I decided to head back to bed and sleep through).

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I was up at dawn the next day, and went to read by the river. A few people were still partying and very sweetly came over to check I was having a good time. Fish skipped out of the water.

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I was also drinking for the first time since the start of the 2016, which was fun. The cocktails from Artbar were perfect. I didn’t have any hangovers.

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It was a weekend of bumping into people and losing people. I visited the posh £3 toilets. They seemed expensive but, like the i360, worth trying to say that you have.

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The Saturday Spectacle included amazing high-wire skills. My favourite bit was when someone did a headstand on the wire and a man behind us was unimpressed: “I could do that”

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We kept bumping into the fawn in the picture above. Every time we saw him, he gave us a friendly ‘hello!’.

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I didn’t see any bands, but I did see a lot of talks. It was a good weekend.