Living in the Lap of LUXURY

Always associated with increased affluence, what people regard as luxury has varied down the ages.  What your multi-million pound earner regards as luxury purchases may be far cry from what you or I might regard as luxury; their new Aston Martin, or a property in Puerto Rico, might equate to our spa day and a special bottle of wine, but the concept is the same.  The more expendable income we have the more affordable luxury items become.

I didn’t regard our family as poor: my parents both worked, and they owned their own home; we ate nutritious food and went on family holidays, usually in the UK.  Chicken was initially regarded as a ‘special roast dinner’, and salmon was regarded as a luxury item, for special occasions only.  As time passed, these products became more common fare and eventually we regarded them as everyday foods.  Today these commodities are probably cheaper in real terms, than they were when I was young, but at what cost?

Today many things carry the ‘luxury’ tag: holidays, cars, confections, baked goods, even ready meals!  Luxury has become almost synonymous with a higher priced version of a standard product, which may have similar ingredients, and was probably produced at the same manufacturing plant.  I am not intending to write an expose of supermarket ready meals and their up market ranges, I’m sure there are plenty of examples already out there, I’m more interested in the concept of luxury itself; how what was a luxury product of yesteryear is an everyday product today.  In many respects luxury and premium brands are no more than a marketing concept, appealing to our snobbery and one-upmanship; that desire to be better than our neighbours, and have the latest and the best, and maybe it was always thus.

In the 17th century sugar was a luxury afforded only by the rich, a century later tea was the same.  It was only in the Victorian era with improved transportation, and industrialisation, that once expensive and difficult to obtain items became more commonly available and more affordable.  Ironically in many places, although the poor had largely monotonous diets, the inclusion of home-grown vegetables, and the rarity of butchered meat , meant that very often the richer classes, who ate lots of meat and not many vegetables, had a nutritionally poorer diet than those with considerably less wealth.

Today that inverse relationship is even more perversely evident with the richer western societies consuming vast quantities of meat, refined foods and sugar, and suffering from type two diabetes,  obesity, heart disease and cancer in epidemic proportions.  We may have plenty of luxury chocolates, desserts and ice-cream, but our new found wealth is playing havoc with our nation’s health.

Many of the brands we associate with luxury, such as haute couture fashions in particular, are often made in poorer countries where people can work in dire conditions for meagre earnings, and the same can be said for many so called luxury products; the same sorry story of our luxury being someone else’s exploitation.  The history of the empire, indeed of ‘the West’ is littered with conquest, sublimation and acquisition at the expense of indigenous populations.  I’m not sure how far we’ve progressed.

At a time when population numbers are at an all time high, and we’re unsure about the sustainability of our present lifestyles, maybe we need to re-evaluate what we regard as  luxury.  If some of the nightmare scenarios actually come to pass, currency will lose its value, and food will again become the basis of exchange.  In a future with little oil, luxury vehicles will have no value, and many of the products we currently regard as desirable will become as useless as a chocolate poker.  You only have to go back to the rationing of the second world war to understand how people valued what had once been every day, but became scarce.  The black market in sugar, eggs, meat and stockings is well documented!

I’m thinking that perhaps a time is coming when everyone, not just transition towns, the green movement, and climate change proponents, will have to start changing the way they think about goods; where they come from and how we value them.

I was lying in the bath this afternoon, thinking about this blog article.  For me a nice hot bath has always been a luxury.  I am conscious of my water use and employ water saving devices, as well as reusing grey water.  I do not use car washes, I don’t run water when I clean my teeth.  Where I live, we are often without water due to issues with the pumping station, so it is something I’m acutely aware of.  In the UK water is not a big issue, but it is in other parts of the world, and it certainly could be in the future, so one day not too far away a bath may be a luxury for you too.  There are other things like meat which fall into this category – our appetite for animals flesh has increased astronomically over the last 20 years, but the production of meat on land that could grow food for people is not sustainable, and meat may one day again become a luxury commodity.

We are a nation of tea drinkers and barely spare a thought for how this reviving brew is made, or where it comes from.  We place little value on an item that was once stored in locked chests and fought over!  I genuinely appreciate my pot of fair-trade loose leaf afternoon Assam tea, and enjoy the ritual of it.  It doesn’t take too much effort to restore an appreciation for something that has become common and every day, but none the poorer for that, except perhaps in our perception of it.  I’m not sure who said ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ but there is certainly an element of truth in it.

In appreciating those things we do have which were once luxuries, in re-evaluating the cost to the planet of our current luxuries, and increasing desire for the acquisition of things, we might actually stumble upon something better and more meaningful.  The value in simple pleasures, in things that can’t be bought, and a true awareness of the wealth which we all have regardless of our economic status.

Rabbie..not just for Burns Night!

Burns Night is almost upon us again.  It falls mid week this year, and I celebrated at the weekend with bashed neeps and tatties, although minus the dram, as it was lunchtime!  Burns suppers are celebrated across the globe, and not just in Scotland.  The national bard is widely respected, but I’m  not sure how widely read is he is outside of his native land.  Let’s admit it, the Scots dialect which he elevates to poetry, can be a mite difficult to understand, but if you’re interested in history, poetry, social structure, and most importantly for me, language itself, then it’s worth getting to grips with.  Some of the best British writers wrote hundreds of years ago in language which is very strange to our modern ears, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, dismiss Shakespeare or Chaucer because they seem ‘difficult’.

If you don’t have a tame Scotsman (or woman) to hand it’s worth trying to find one! If you can’t, the BBC audio archive has his complete works available, read by some of Scotland’s biggest names. The poems are meant to be read, or sung, out loud, and a Scottish accent of whatever persuasion, certainly makes the lyrics flow.  Their meaning seems easier to grasp when they’re performed in the native tongue, but failing that there are plenty of on-line and published translations available.

Burns wrote over 600 songs and poems that we know of, and it’s worth having a browse at a few more than the ‘Ode to a Haggis’ and ‘A Red Red Rose’ with which we’re all familiar.  ‘To a Mouse’ is a great example of everyday poetry.  Burns, a ploughman by trade, would have disrupted many a field mouse from their home and this poignant poem is full of observation, humour and a prescient knowledge that we need to share the earth’s resources.  He was also a keen observer of the social order and the hypocrisies of the ‘kirk’, as well as being a drinker and womaniser, so it is little wonder that he had popular support.  His first collection of poems,  published when he was 27, made him famous across the country.

The Scots dialect in which he wrote is not a completely dead language, and many words creep into common usage, so it’s worth a delve out of interest, to see what words and phrases have survived.

Burns was not the only poet to write in Scots; Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote in Scots, and Robert Tannahill,  known as the ‘Weaver Poet’, is contemporaneous with  Robert  Burns, and there have been other makar’s throughout the centuries.  Not only dead people write in Scots!  John Mackintosh, a local chap, is a talented and thoughtful poet writing today in the Scots dialect.  He has produced two volumes of poetry and they’re certainly worth looking at.

Whether you’re Scottish, British, or from another corner of the English speaking world, I would urge you to take a new look at Rabbie Burns, and some of the other poets writing in Scots; you may be surprised.

I Love Greg Wallace!

Well actually, he’s not really my type, but I do love  his greedy antics on BBC’s MasterChef programme!

I’ve never been much of a follower of ‘serial TV’ partly because I’m rarely sat on the couch week after week on the same night, but also because I am easily bored and  irritated by TV Shenanigans.  As a general rule, I dislike the new breed of cheap production reality TV. However, I   think MasterChef is genuinely different, and I would like to examine why I think this.

For a start the show, in varying formats, has been around for many years, with a variety of presenters.  Resurrected in 2006, I believe, as MasterChef goes large, it raised itself in the consciousness of a new audience, but it wasn’t really until the forerunner of the current show in 2008 that viewer numbers started to pick up and rise  to the meteoric 5 million of today’s show.

There are now 3 variants of the show: MasterChef the professionals, Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef amateurs, the original show.  I have to confess that I  watch all 3!  The celebrity show is my least favourite, mostly because I have never been into the cult of celebrity, but also because I have rarely heard of the  people who enter, and feel they do it to revive flagging careers rather than for any real love of, or talent with, cooking.  There are exceptions and  I felt Phil Vickery  was a worthy celebrity winner (or perhaps I just have more of a penchant for sportsmen than  other  ‘celebrities’!)

MasterChef has clearly launched itself as a brand, and all the machinations of marketing and pimping that brings with it.  There are TV clones in 25 countries as well as various live shows throughout the UK.  This is one of our successful UK exports, and perhaps I don’t need to be too  purist about it.  Most people will watch it because it’s nail-biting and riveting, rather than because they want to enter the competition of quit their jobs to become a chef, it is entertainment after all, but the reality is that there has been a surge of interest and new blood, in a profession that has to date not had the best of reputations.  When I was at college training, courses were invariably undersubscribed.

Ash Mair, the winner of the last MasterChef The professionals competition may be 34, but the other finalists were under 25, and it is refreshing to see new young blood entering the bastions of stuffy haute cuisine.  It was also refreshing to see someone like Ash, who cooks true to his influences and passions, winning out.

As a previous entrant -of the old style competition- and a trained chef, I have more than a passing interest in the show, but it is I believe, the journey of the contestants that draws people who have no particular interest in the foodie world; that transformation from ordinary cook to inspired talent; the building up of culinary confidence and self belief, along with the experience itself; the reality that with hard work and effort, dreams can come true.  I think this is the crux of the matter for me.  The show doesn’t support fools and shirkers, it doesn’t offer fantastic prizes for doing daft things, or pots of money for exhibiting knowledge, or having a bit of luck, it is based on good old fashioned hard work and enthusiasm, and I think this shines through in most of the competitors, professional and amateur alike.

The hosts and judges are inspired choices for this new format  show.  I think it’s important to have a non-cook like Greg on board.  Mr Wallace know his veg, and his puddings of course, but he also know what he likes, and what he’d be prepared to eat out, and is not afraid to say so.  John Torode, as a restaurateur and chef, has direct experience of fine dining, but offers a fair critique of any honest grub.  Flavour can still win the day.  Michel Roux Junior is a consummate professional, but demonstrates genuine interest in and concern for his fledgling protégés.

I have eaten ‘posh nosh’ at some first class restaurants, including a couple with Michelin stars, and it’s interesting to see the behind scenes thought and work that goes into some of the creations.   I genuinely believe that most of us don’t want fancy food that has been deliberated over, most of the time, but  I don’t think it does any harm to raise the bar, to educate the punter and the professional that there is more to dining out than steak and chips.  In the UK we have suffered for too long with a reputation for some of the poorest, and most expensive food in Europe, indeed the world, and it is not a record to be proud of.  It is still eminently possible to go out to eat and pay a reasonable amount of money for something that you could turn out at home, actually in a lot of cases, something far below the standard of what you can produce at home!  As someone who eats mostly vegetarian I am regularly disappointed at the lack of imagination, and fresh ingredients, employed  in making vegetable dishes.  Seeing our aspiring chefs cooking Japanese, Thai, Indian, Mauritian, and an eclectic range of vegetarian food is both interesting and encouraging, and for me personally quite motivating too.

Not everyone who gets to the finals of MasterChef will go on to be a successful chef, but it is interesting to note that out of the seven amateur winners, all  but one is working in the food industry in some capacity, some in their own restaurants.  The runners-up appear to be similarly successful, and all 3 finalists from 2010 and 2011 are working in food.

Most of us I suspect,  would not want to spend 12 to 16 hour days in hot kitchens being shouted at by head chefs, under pressure to perform and produce near-perfect results time after time.  You have to be a certain type of person to want to do that for a living.   We can all aspire to be better cooks, to try new things and be bothered about how something looks as well as how it tastes.  Who was it who said ‘you eat first with your eyes’?

I think MasterChef appeals to a range of people – those who like to cook for sure, but also those who like to eat, who enjoy food, and revel in the colours and flavours of something well made.  It will also I feel sure appeal to those sadistic souls who enjoy seeing people suffer, put through their paces in the most gruelling of challenges.  Let’s face it, competing in MasterChef is no stroll down chef row!

We have our favourite competitors, and we follow them, we ‘put money’ on the person we think should win, and we’re elated or disappointed, respectively, when they do/don’t.  The programme has a reality, a passion and drama to it that is missing from a lot of programming, reality or otherwise, and for this reason I think it tugs at something elemental in us.  It has proved life-changing for many of the contestants, and it genuinely shows us what we believe, but are rarely brave enough to follow, that if you have a dream and you’re prepared to devote yourself to that dream, then it can become a reality.  MasterChef is definitely the stuff that dreams are made of, and that’s rare today, never mind for a TV show!

Photo Credit BBC Worldwide

We do not accept spammers or weirdos here!

I know; I shouldn’t rise to the bait;  I shouldn’t respond to spammers and nitwits, serial commenters, abusive people, and all those who have nothing better to do with their time than post inane comments, links to money making schemes, optimisation sites, writers websites, sex websites or anything else that I’m not interested in and will NEVER look at!  I should ignore them, and bin the comments without a second thought.  I do bin the comments of course, they are time-wasting trash and deserve to be permanently and forever deleted, but I can’t help wondering who does this sort of thing and why.  Is it some ‘robot code’ searching for key words, or a real person trawling the net, fishing for suckers?  I don’t know, and I shouldn’t care.  I have already wasted more time, energy, and grey matter on the subject, than the combined thought of every person who has tried to comment on my blog.  I know this, but still I wonder!

May be there are people desperate for cash, or worse, communication; may be they are addicted to what they do; may be they really don’t have anything better to do with their time.  How sad.

There!  I’ve thought it. I’ve said it.  I will give it no more consideration!

For all you sad, sorry, poor and lonely people out there, feel free to try and post your comments: they will never be read.  They will never be approved for publication.  They will ALWAYS be deleted.  Understand the meaning of futility and do something constructive rather than wasting your efforts in this futile attempt to entice me.

Please don’t waste your time – or mine!

Anyone with anything real to say, please feel free to comment!



New Year New You

OK so it’s a cliche.  Fine me.  I am re-posting an article I wrote last year for an on-line publication.  I have re-read it, and some of it’s a bit cheesy, but essentially I still agree with myself!  I’m not sure if this is encouraging or not.  I think the original premise was a bit of  a rant about all the people who sell books and ‘plans’ at this time of year, knowing that many people will be looking to change something about themselves or their lives.  May be I was just jealous.  The net result was a lack of guilt-ridden new year’s resolutions and an article about taking control back for who you are and who you want to be.  Here goes…

A quick scan of on-line bookstores will indicate the sheer volume and variety of multi-media propositions for changing lives.  Particularly numerous at the start of a new year, books on dieting, changing habits, lifestyles, and even personality, proliferate, seducing people into believing that a simple purchase can change a life.  This time of year is a great time to wipe the slate clean and make some changes for the better, but the sheer volume of tools available can be overwhelming, so it is often better to gain a clear focus on the objective, and work out some practical steps to achieving it, before turning to others for assistance.

Lifestyle gurus, nutritionist and diet planners would love people to buy their books.  Most of them won’t be too bothered if the books  are then stacked on the shelf unread, or whether their advice for a new year makeover is followed.  They have their sale, regardless of the outcome.  However, people end up disillusioned: still 5 pounds heavier from Christmas feasting and no further forward on their life plan.

Books that claim to be able to change lives are not inherently bad.  A lot of books contain good advice, sound dietary principles and practical suggestions for improving shape, weight, finances, health, job, or any of the other myriad of things people want to change about themselves and their lives.  The problem with these books is that they are not personal.  They don’t know what motivates one person from another;  what people’s quirks and idiosyncrasies are, their  hopes and dreams, fears and frailties.  You are the only person who knows what you need and what will motivate you to get it.

Feeling fed up with life, often translates into being fed up with something about yourself.  This is not often a message people want to hear.  A book which promises the answers is a much more attractive proposition.  Ultimately, however, it is individuals who need to make the changes – no one else can do it.  Gurus, guides and authors are helping hands; conceding responsibility for making lifestyle changes to these people will end in disappointment.  Take courage and be encouraged by the message that you have the power!

People need some space and time to find out what they want.  It might be a short term goal, like shedding a few pounds, or it might be a longer term objective like being self-employed, or moving to another country.  The beauty of taking the time to discover a personal vision and developing enough self-belief and confidence to believe in it, is that once you do , you are half way to achieving it!

Most people will have come across SMART objectives at some point, be it in  annual reviews or project plans.  The mnemonic ,which stands for, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time limited or Trackable objectives.  However jaded they might seem in a work context, in personal applications they can be a powerful tool for change.  It’s not a mantra, ideology, fad, or yet another quick fix, but a  template for goal setting which works.  Apply them to personal goals for an effective formula.  There are a number of on-line courses and websites which can help you to formulate SMART objectives if you are unfamiliar with the concept.

Vague dreams  about ‘doing something different’ or ‘being a bit slimmer’ will never amount to much more than frustration.  However, deciding to run a B&B in the country within a 2 year time frame could be enough to inspire and challenge you into taking some real steps of commitment towards the project. Similarly, joining a slimming programme for three months and pledging to lose a pound or 2 a week will result in genuine results within that time frame.

And that’s a good thing.  People know in their own hearts that they have things  they want to achieve; they know that no one can give up smoking on their behalf, or get them a new job or find them a life partner.  When people start to be real with themselves, and realistic with their dreams, they know it’s up to them, and that they have the power to do it.  Books and DVD’s and life coaches,  all have their place, but will never replace self-belief, vision, personal dreams, and individual contribution.  Planning to succeed is what leads to the success that people crave.

This year there will me no ‘new’ me.  I PLAN to take up a few new hobbies, and I will succeed in doing so.  If you have changes you want to make and things you want to do, plan for it, and then just do it.