Friday, 21 December 2012


Technically, this isn't really a recipe at all, but as the end of the world is imminent let's not be picky.  

This is one I used to make all the time as a student once I'd accidentally discovered it by dropping a packet of sweets in my coffee.  It works best with the cheapest ingredients (always welcome) and is so simple anyone can make it.  All you need to go with it is a big chair and a very good book.  If there's still time.


Mug of coffee, preferably white, preferably instant under these circumstances.

One bag of Minstrels

1 teaspoon


1. Place a Minstrel on your teaspoon, and rest it in the bottom of your coffee.

2. Wait until the Minstrel begins to turn white and crack around the rim.  This will only take a minute or so (fortunately).

3. Eat quickly, making sure to stick your tongue right through the crispy shell.  The inside of the Minstrel will have melted, but the outside will be just brittle enough to have a slight crunch and a faint taste of coffee.  And possibly asteroid dust.

Thursday, 13 December 2012


Now this is a great recipe.  As the weeks have got colder and I've been even less keen than usual to venture outside, making soup has become my lunchtime mid-writing ritual.  The process itself is great for letting ideas settle, and it's always comforting to have a big bowl of soup while you're thinking.  This recipe is one I used to make all the time, and I'm glad I've rediscovered it in time for the snow.  Very cheap.  Very simple.  Enjoy.


50g butter
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
1 onion, chopped
2-3 leeks, washed and chopped
350-450g potatoes, chopped.  This is a very handy recipe for using up extra potatoes, but you can vary the amount according to preference.
900ml stock made with 7 teaspoons of Marigold Bouillon
Freshly ground black pepper to taste


1. Heat the butter in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan.  Add the garlic, onion and chopped leeks.  

2. Cook gently for 6-7 minutes, stirring from time to time to ensure that your vegetables don't stick.

3. Add the potatoes and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally.  I never bother to peel the potatoes for this soup as it adds both vitamins and texture, but if you prefer to, be my guest.

4. Add the stock and bring to the boil.  Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes.  Your vegetables should soften, but not go mushy.

5.  Remove from the heat and serve, sprinkling the top of the soup with black pepper.  Delicious!  Best served with Breadline Bread.

Thursday, 6 December 2012


Those who know me well will be aware that I suffer from a deep-rooted and near-pathological hatred of sausages.  Tragically, I am part of a family who loves them, so this meal was originally made (with much reluctance and grumbling) as a result of prolonged nagging.

As it turned out, it's a good job that I was pushed.  Sausages, I learned, are not Satan's choice of meat product after all but extremely easy to cook and delicious when baked in a vegetable casserole.  All in all, it's been a bit of an eye-opener.  Now I just need to work on the presentation...


2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
2-3 eating apples (I use Granny Smiths as they have a nice tang)
1 teaspoon mixed herbs or oregano (I vary this depending on what I have in the cupboard.  Both work well).
1 tablespoon tomato puree
400g tin peeled tomatoes, chopped (more flavour than a tin of chopped tomatoes).
400ml vegetable stock made with 2 teaspoons of Marigold Bouillon
6-8 pork or vegetarian sausages (I allow 2 per person)
salt and pepper to taste


1. Preheat the oven to 200C (400F/Gas Mk 6).  Heat the olive oil to a medium heat in a large, heavy bottomed pan and cook the sausages until browned (approx 5-8 minutes).

2. Remove the sausages from the pan and set aside.  Add the onions, carrot and sweet potato to the pan and cook over a medium heat for approximately 5 minutes, stirring to ensure even cooking.

3. Add the garlic and herbs and cook for another 5 or so minutes.  

4.  Peel your apples, remove the cores and chop into chunks of about 1-2 cm.

5.  Add the tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, apples and sausages.  Add the stock and bring to the boil, stirring.

6. Transfer to an ovenproof pan, cover with a lid and place in the oven for 25-30 minutes.  Check from 25 minutes onwards.  

7. While the casserole is cooking, make mashed potatoes and green beans.

8. Remove the casserole from the oven, and season with salt and pepper.  Serve with the beans and mash.  Surprisingly delicious!


One of the great things about this casserole is that any leftover sausage-free sauce can be reheated as chunky soup the next day.  

And, of course, any leftover ingredients will give you the bulk of what you need for Spicy Squash and Sweet Potato Soup. #allintheplanning

Thursday, 29 November 2012


Well, with ice on the inside of the van windows this morning I guess we can safely assume that winter has arrived. Fortunately, this is the season of cheap and cheering soup - not only great as a starter or light meal, but also useful for warming your hands round if you stick it in a mug.

This is one of my current favourites, terrific for using up the sweet potatoes and butternut squash that are so cheap in the shops at this time of year.  One batch takes about half an hour to make and should provide lunch for the whole week.  Unless you have friends, of course...


2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 thumbsize pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped finely
half a red chilli, chopped finely
2 onions, chopped
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into cubes
225g butternut squash, peeled and chopped into cubes
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 litre vegetable stock, made with 4 teaspoons Marigold bouillon
freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste
soured cream (optional)


1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan and add the onion.  Cook on a medium heat until the onion begins to turn transparent.

2. Add the chopped garlic, ginger and chilli.  Wash your hands thoroughly. You wouldn't want to make the mistake of putting your contact lenses in after chopping chilli now, would you? #voiceofexperience

3. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the sweet potatoes and butternut squash.  Cook for another couple of minutes.

4. Add the stock and sherry vinegar and bring to a simmer.

5. Cover the pan and simmer for approximately 15 minutes, checking regularly.  Your sweet potatoes and butternut squash should slide off a fork when pronged, but not be too mushy.

6. Puree the soup with a hand blender and add salt and pepper to taste.  A small dollop of soured cream adds a nice tang, if wanted.

7. Pour into mugs and serve.  Especially good with Breadline Bread.

Thursday, 22 November 2012


Nat is a friend of ours from way back, ever since Nichol and her husband Tsz used to blacksmith together.  She's a talented landscape gardener in her own right, but from our perspective as visitors who tend to appear unannounced we're just delighted that she can whip up a meal at short notice from just about anything.  

This is a pudding she baked for us a couple of years ago, and it's been a favourite ever since.    It's very quick, very easy, and for the most part is made from stuff that's likely to be lurking in your kitchen cupboard anyway.  

So here it is... Lazy Toffee Pear Cake a la Nat. And yes, we were playing Travel Cluedo after dinner last night...



3 pears
5 heaped soup spoons of plain flour
5 soup spoons of caster sugar (if you only have granulated I'm sure it won't kill you)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
3 soup spoons of milk
2 soup spoons of olive oil
1 egg


80g butter
100g caster sugar
1 egg
a few drops of almond or vanilla essence


1. Mix together all the cake ingredients except for the pears.  Beat well.

2. Pour into a small buttered flan dish or cake tin.  This will look like a ludicrously small amount of mixture.  Believe me, it will be fine.

3. Slice pears finely and place on top of mixture.  They should simply sit there rather than sinking.

4. Bake for approximately 20 minutes in a preheated oven at 160C.  The top of the cake should turn golden.

5. Towards the end of the cooking time, gently melt and mix the butter, sugar and almond / vanilla essence in a saucepan.  

6. Remove from the heat, allow to cool slightly, and mix in the egg.  The cooling is important, or you'll end up with sugary scrambled egg on top of your cake (not advised...)

7. Remove cake from oven, pour the topping over it, and return to the oven until the top starts to caramelise.  This should take 10-15 minutes.

8. Eat straight away, with or without ice cream...

Thursday, 15 November 2012


Chilli is an excellent way to use up leftover ingredients.  A basic recipe can be adapted to include lots of surplus vegetables, and as a general rule the more tomatoes you can stick in it the richer your sauce will be.  Every time I make this, it comes out differently depending on what else I have in the fridge.  As an added bonus, beef mince is often sold in bargain multi-packs so if you're buying it to make something else you'll already have spare mince available to make your chilli later.   It is genuinely a something out of nothing dinner - and very tasty to boot.


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon plain flour
1 teaspoon medium chilli powder
1 teaspoon oregano or mixed herbs
2 onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
500g lean beef mince
300ml beef stock (use 1 stock cube)
3 tablespoons tomato puree
tin of plum tomatoes, chopped (they have more flavour than tinned chopped tomatoes)
Freshly ground black pepper
tin of kidney beans (optional).  Don't add if you want to freeze the chilli though.  I often leave it out then add to the portions I'm serving up.  Add about 20-25 minutes from the end while the chilli is simmering.


200g pot of leftover salsa - this adds a fantastic richness to the chilli. Highly recommended!
250g cherry or pomodorino tomatoes (this is a great opportunity to use up your spare buy-one-get-one-free tomatoes from Tomato Prawn Curry).  Works well with the salsa too.
leftover peppers (any colour)
leftover carrots, diced finely
leftover mushrooms
leftover red chilli pepper, deseeded and chopped finely (avoid if you're not a fan of spicy food - this can give quite a kick)
Soured cream


1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan.  Add the onions and garlic (and chopped chilli if using).  Cook for 5 minutes until the onion begins to turn transparent.

2. Add the mince (and diced carrot if using) and cook until the meat is browned.  

3. Add the flour and stir gently.  Put in the tomato puree, stock, tinned tomatoes, chilli powder and oregano / mixed herbs.  This is also the time to add the salsa and punnet of tomatoes, if you have them.

4. Bring to the boil, stirring.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

5. Add any leftover peppers and mushrooms.  Cover and cook for 10 minutes, then season with  salt and freshly ground black pepper.

6.  Serve with rice and a dollop of soured cream.  This chilli freezes well, so you can store it in portion sizes and defrost to use as a topping for baked potatoes or pasta too.  It's also great in tacos...

Thursday, 8 November 2012


Well, Halloween may be over, but thanks to my overzealous bargain shopping I still have an awful lot of pumpkin left.  There is only so much Unexpectedly Terrifying Halloween Pumpkin Cake a girl can eat before people start to comment, so this week I diversified and made my all leftover pumpkin into soup. 

This is another very easy recipe, and you can vary the amount of pumpkin in it according to what you have.  A whole peeled 2kg pumpkin would be perfect, but I'd already eaten lots of mine in cake form, so my leftovers were considerably less generous (about half that).  The soup was still delicious though, and it smelled fantastic when cooking.


2 tablespoons olive oil 
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 small onions, peeled and chopped
Peeled and deseeded pumpkin, cut into chunks 
1 tablespoon light soft brown sugar
1 tablespoon mild curry powder or cumin
1.25 litres stock, made with 5 teaspoons Marigold Bouillon powder


1. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan over a medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic and cook gently until soft and turning transparent.
2. Add the peeled pumpkin chunks and reduce the heat.  Cover and cook for approximately 10 minutes.
3. Add the curry powder or cumin, the sugar, and half of the stock.
4. Cook for 40 minutes.
5. Add the rest of the stock and simmer.  When soup is bubbling gently, remove from the heat and blend until smooth.
6. Your pumpkin soup is ready to eat.  Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper to taste.  It's especially good served with freshly baked Breadline Bread.

Thursday, 1 November 2012


When I set out to bake the remnants of my Halloween decorations, I admit that I wasn't intending to create anything quite so... spine chilling.  Whether it was really the influence of the undead, or whether I'd simply been talking too much while I cooked and accidentally added a teaspoon of baking powder to my self-raising flour, we may never know.  But the cake was delicious regardless, although it provided rather more of a talking point than had originally been planned.

Pumpkin is a fantastic ingredient.  You can make soups, curries or cakes with it, and even the seeds - when roasted - make a wonderful snack. Given its versatility, it's surprising how few people know what to do with it, and many pumpkins simply get carved into Halloween lanterns then thrown in the bin.  It's a shame because, flavoured with the right spices, pumpkin is both healthy and delicious, and probably one of the cheapest foods around at this time of year.

Here, to use up your leftovers from last night, is Halloween Pumpkin Cake.


225g self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
225g sugar
225g pumpkin puree (this is easier to make than you think)
118ml olive oil
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons of water
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon all spice


1. Preheat the oven to 180C
2. Open your pumpkin, scoop out the seeds and stringy bits, and cut the remainder into chunks.
3. Place the chunks in a steamer over boiling water, and steam for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool and peel off the skin, pureeing the soft flesh with a hand blender.  A whole pumpkin will make far more puree than you need, so weigh as you go. 
3. Mix the pumpkin puree, olive oil, eggs, spices and water together.
4. Add the flour (preferably sifted), salt and sugar.  Mix gently to ensure there are no lumps.
5. Pour the mixture into a greased cake tin and pop in the oven on the middle shelf.
6. Your cake will take 50-60 minutes to bake, possibly less, so make sure to check it regularly after about 45.  It is ready when golden and risen, and a skewer or sharp knife comes out clean.


1. Don't throw out the seeds!  Separate from the stringy bits (which you can bin as I've yet to find a use for them) and soak them over night in salty water
2. Preheat the oven to 140C.
3. Drain the seeds and pat dry with a tea towel.  
4. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and half a teaspoon of salt.  Mix well.
5. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking tray lined with foil, and cook for approximately half an hour.  If you listen, you might hear them pop.
6. See?  Delicious.  And to think they were going to end up in the bin... ;-)

Thursday, 25 October 2012


This recipe started life in a Sainsburys recipe book.  It builds on the basics in your kitchen cupboard, and is a great one to pull out when cherry tomatoes are on a two-for-one offer.  Frozen prawns are sometimes on special deal too, so buy them up and stick them in the freezer for the happy day when the tomato special offers come around.     


2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
5g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 thumbsize pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 x 400g tin of peeled tomatoes
1 teaspoon of Marigold bouillon powder
1 pack of cherry or pomodorino tomatoes, halved (250g approx)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 x 300g pack cooked and peeled prawns, defrosted according to packet instructions
Freshly ground black pepper

Rice to serve


1. Melt the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan.  Add the garlic, onion, ginger and cumin.  Cover and cook on a medium heat for 10 minutes.

2. Run a sharp knife through your tinned tomatoes while still in the tin (for some reason they taste better than buying tinned chopped tomatoes), then add them and the halved cherry / pomodorino tomatoes to the onions.  

3.  Stir gently, and add the Marigold and sugar.  Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Remember to put on your rice.

4. Raise the heat until the mixture bubbles, then simmer for 10 minutes.  

5.  When your ten minutes are up, add the defrosted prawns to the tomato mixture.  Simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes until the prawns are cooked.

6.  Drain the rice, and serve as a bed for the curry.  The original recipe recommends adding creme fraiche or natural yogurt as a topping, and a sprinkling of fresh coriander, which is lovely.  But its equally nice without.  

Thursday, 18 October 2012

1... 2... 3... SOUP!

Known as 'Granny Soup' in our house (it's my mum's recipe), this has got to be the quickest and easiest soup recipe in the world.  Fortunately, it's also really tasty, and incredibly easy to remember. 

1 onion, 2 pints of stock, 3 carrots.  Simple.


1 large onion
2 pints (1 litre) of stock, made with 4 teaspoons Marigold Bouillon
3 large carrots

2 cloves of garlic (optional)
1 orange (optional)

1 tablespoon olive oil
black pepper to taste


1. Heat the olive oil over a medium heat in a heavy bottomed pan.  Add the onions and garlic (if using) and cook gently until slightly transparent.

2. Peel and dice your carrots, and add to the pan.

3. Cook the mixture for the length of time it takes to boil a kettle and make stock.  Add the freshly made stock to the vegetables.

4. Bring the soup to the boil, then simmer gently for about 15 minutes.  Your carrots should be softening, but not mushy.

5.  Puree your soup using a hand blender.  You shouldn't need to add salt as the Marigold stock is quite salty (unless, of course, you've been healthy and bought salt-free. In that case, add away...)

6. Your soup is ready.  If you want to add the juice of an orange, this is the time to do it - just before serving.

7. Ladle into bowls, sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and serve with Breadline Bread.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


Every year without fail, we head off for a week in the sun / sleet / driving rain to the west of Ireland to stay with some very good friends.

It is always a fantastic holiday – unpredictable phone reception, no telly, and lots and lots of food, wine and chocolate.  Over the last couple of years it has become something of a tradition that significant birthdays are marked poetically, and this year the unfortunate recipient was Mike.

Mike, for those of you who don’t know him, is extraordinary.  He runs a tiny rural Irish post office, and is possibly the most informed and interesting man we know.  He can talk about anything – politics, economics, the importance of cobnuts to the future of civilisation (oh yes) – and almost always he is proved to be right. 

He is also the man (I kid you not) who once delivered six child-sized white lab coats to the lodge when he observed the children’s alarming enthusiasm for making ‘potions’ in the back kitchen.  And he has a unique (and possibly patented) method of transporting apple pies, although we have yet to crack the exact process.  Rumour has it he uses them as cushions in the car…

So, here is Mike’s birthday poem.  I am, of course, far too polite to tell you how old he is.  And anyway, I wouldn’t want to risk breaching National Security.


(Omitting any Mention Whatsoever of Cob Nuts)

The world as viewed by CNN,
And RTE, and News at Ten,
Is mired in avarice and debt
Fuelled by political roulette.
Yet while the powerful conspire
To form a plan bound to backfire
A secret squad of thought-elite
(With velcroed sandals on their feet)
Are plotting an almighty coup
Between sales of Pantene shampoo.

Their leader – let’s just call him “Mike” –
A cover name, hard to dislike,
Has – for more years than I can count –
Considered that it’s paramount
To undermine corrupt regimes
Through covert use of custard creams.
His plan – both cunning and unique –
Employs a little known technique
Perfected over many years
And quite successful, it appears.

To casual viewers, every day,
In conscientious disarray
“Mike” turns up at a tiny “shop”
(You’ll soon see why he works non-stop).
His “job”, at least to outside eyes
Fooled by elaborate disguise,
Is postmaster, and with a smile
(This role has made him versatile)
He hands out pensions, giros, stamps,
Advice, baked beans, and bulbs for lamps.

Yet when the door swings gently closed
His sly façade – artfully posed –
Drops quickly and on dainty feet
He tiptoes to the luncheon meat
And reaches up between the tins
And yanks a lever down, and grins.
As, with a quiet grinding sound,
The till shoots open, and around
The legs of his postmaster’s chair
Appears a crack that wasn’t there.

A crack! Whatever can it be?
Well, pay attention and you’ll see
Behind the inoffensive desk
A sight that you may find grotesque.
For in the dust a small trapdoor
Has fallen open on the floor
And all at once in a display
Honed by years with the Royal Ballet
“Mike” nimbly leaps like a gazelle
Into a subterranean cell.

Down, down, he prances till the sound
Of village life’s completely drowned.
Along a corridor that twists
And turns until his brain consists
Of slightly sat-on apple pie
Emerging (it’s like GoldenEye)
Into a vast and sprawling lab
Where, round a giant marble slab,
White coated midgets scratch their heads
(Not genius - nits – that’s how it spreads).

These tiny profs, most under ten,
(Two girls and four small-statured men)
Spin round.  Behind them, test-tubes smoke
So thickly “Mike” can’t tell who spoke
For in a voice high-pitched and shrill
One scientist (let’s call her “Lil”)
Has called out, ‘Silence! Let “Mike” see,
What we’ve accomplished since our tea’.
The air clears, and upon the bench,
A sight to make world leaders clench
Their buttocks in a fit of dread
A simple loaf of sliced white bread.

“We’ve found that carving custard creams
With coded messages now seems
Too time consuming. We believe
If we are ever to achieve
True revolution word must spread.
What better medium than bread?”
She signals, and a small glass jar
Appears, and with a loud “Voila!”
She unveils Ireland’s fastest seller.
“It’s activated by Nutella”.

So next time, in the corner shop
When buying postage stamps eavesdrop
On conversations at the till
About lumbago or the chill
That’s fallen earlier this year,
Because the violet-rinsed old dear
In front of you may not be there
For denture cleaner or a pair
Of thick tan tights to warm her legs,
Or even half a dozen eggs.

Instead, once she has filled her bags
With decoy Battenburg and fags
That she will never, ever smoke
She might lean over to the bloke
Behind the counter and enquire
If circumstances might require
A pan-sliced white?  If he agrees,
Then rummages beside his knees,
Watch closely. Real-life elderly
Have margarine on bread for tea.

(c.) Susan Bain 2012

Thursday, 11 October 2012


These. Are. Phenomenal.

They started life as a double chocolate cookie recipe in The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, and over the last year I've tweaked them by using different flavours, different flours and different brands of dark chocolate.  This is the best combination I've found so far, and they are ridiculously good.  

Although my mantra is cheap and tasty, occasionally it's practically a job requirement for writers to buy three massive bars of chocolate and eat the whole lot.  It's something to do with the plotting process, I believe.  This merely offers a slightly more polite way of doing it.


50g unsalted butter
3 200g bars Bourneville chocolate
2 eggs
170g soft light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon orange extract (I use Sainsburys Valencian Orange, largely because it's in my cupboard but also because it works well here)
85g plain flour (gluten free flour can be used, but your biscuits won't be as gooey when they cool)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder


1. Preheat your oven to 170C (325F / Gas Mark 3).

2. Break one bar and one row of chocolate into a heatproof bowl and add the butter.  Heat over a saucepan of simmering water, taking care not to let the bowl and the water touch.   Stir until smooth and melted.

3. In a separate large bowl, add the orange extract to the brown sugar, and break in the eggs.  Mix firmly until well combined.

4. Chop another bar and row of chocolate into chunks (these will be your melty chocolate chips).  You should have about 2/3 of a large bar of Bourneville left. Dispose of it as you see fit, and depending on how well your word count's going.

5. Put flour, salt and baking powder into a separate bowl, sifting if you really feel the need.

6. Pour the melted chocolate mixture into the brown sugar and egg mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture and stir well.

8. Add the chocolate chips and mix gently until they are evenly spread throughout.

9. Put a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray and put 5 dollops of cookie mixture on the tray.  Be warned, this stuff spreads and your cookies will be enormous, so you don't want them too close together.

10. Bake for 10 minutes.  When they are ready, the surface will be shiny and cracked - don't leave them too long or the edges and base will burn (not good).

11.  Remove from the oven.  They will be very gooey, so slide the greaseproof paper off the baking tray and leave to cool while you bake the next batch.  You should have enough mixture for 11-12 HUGE biscuits.

12. If possible, eat when cool enough to lift, but warm enough to still be melted in the middle.  These are great cold, but even better freshly baked.


I've also made these in vanilla (replace 1/2 teaspoon orange extract with 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract) and mint (replace with 1 teaspoon of mint extract - for some reason the mint needs to be stronger).  A friend has suggested melting an After Eight over the top of the mint ones too when they come out of the oven, though I haven't tried it yet.  I will though...

Just as an aside, during a catastrophic shortage of table salt I used rock salt for one batch, and the results were terrific.  The crackle of salt crystal against chocolate is amazing, although not to everyone's taste.  Personally, I'd recommend it.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

HARRY V. BARRY - The Casual Vacancy

First, I must declare an interest. Many years ago, when I was a PhD student in Edinburgh, I used to spend much of my time writing in my favourite café.  It made great coffee, you could sit for hours undisturbed, but more importantly it was quiet – so quiet in fact that I was often the only person there.

Periodically, a girl of about my age would come in.  She’d sit at the other side of the café, her pushchair beside her, and she would write too.  We never spoke, we probably barely acknowledged each other, but in the years that followed I often wondered if, perhaps, this had been J.K. Rowling. 

Of course, it’s well known how her book turned out. Oddly, and for reasons I’ve yet to fathom, my thesis on D.H. Lawrence’s syntax has yet to land a multi-million pound film deal, but I’ve followed Rowling’s career since then with great interest.

As a young journalist working in politics I found her portrayal of the Ministry of Magic and Rita Skeeter an insightful take on two worlds I got to know well, and the big themes she tackled in Harry Potter were, for the most part, perceptively and intelligently explored (although, personally, I could have done without the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare).

So it was with some anticipation that I heard she was publishing again.  It takes great courage and self-belief to strike out in a new direction after such massive success, and she faced two unenviable problems.  Rowling’s loyal fans were likely to buy whatever she wrote regardless of their usual tastes – so there was the huge risk of reader disappointment and bad reviews.  But she also had a prose style highly suitable for a younger audience, and The Casual Vacancy was an adult book, with adult themes, for an adult market.

The book, as you’ll no doubt have seen, is enormous.  It spans 503 pages from start to finish and is divided into seven parts. That I read it in two days is testament to its readability, but that is not to say that it’s without its flaws.  Events in parts five and six left me wishing that the story was resolving in a different direction, party because I longed for a bit of light with the shade, partly because it seemed too relentlessly gritty – and I’m speaking here as someone who has worked with the homeless. 

That Rowling has tackled the topic of ‘the underclass’ is to her credit.  Many of the themes explored here are profoundly important, and many also appeared in Harry Potter.  Whereas in Potter they are drawn out into larger truths, here they are focussed inwards by the small minds within a small community. 

Some commentators have dubbed the book ‘Mugglemarch’, but this doesn’t ring true.  George Eliot’s Middlemarch revealed universal truths.  The truths in Rowling’s book are focussed small, however universal they may be.  Often, they are described with a sensitivity that is deeply moving, such as in this description of the ‘extravagantly obese’ Howard Mollison:

After his father had left, his mother had sat him at the head of the table, between herself and his grandmother, and been hurt if he did not take seconds. Steadily, he had grown to fill the space between the two women, as heavy at twelve as the father who had left them’. (p.348)

It is a beautiful depiction of Mollison’s physical and emotional evolution, but it is also Mollison-specific.  Even Fats, in his quest for ‘authenticity’ is focussed entirely on himself.  Perhaps this is Rowling’s aim, to reveal the small-mindedness of a small town, but to compare it to Eliot’s insights into the human condition is entirely wrong. 

Also wrong, interestingly, is any ‘shock horror’ factor in the book’s sexually explicit content, portrayal of drug addicted prostitution and use of bad language.  For me, the swearing in Harry Potter never sat comfortably.  It jarred in the overall narrative, and often seemed forced or crow-barred in.  Here, it sits seamlessly, a consistent and believable part of the fictional world. 

Contrary to what you may have read, the sexually explicit content is not the most shocking part of the book.  What is shocking is the frisson of recognition you may feel at some of the characters’ motivations.  While they are certainly an unsympathetic bunch largely devoid of much inner life, there are moments when you see yourself in their behaviour.  Here’s Miles mulling over Barry Fairbrother’s sudden death:

Even as they had discussed what they had been forced to witness, each trying to drive out vague feelings of fright and shock, feathery little ripples of excitement had tickled Miles’ insides at the thought of delivering the news to his father. He had intended to wait until seven, but fear that somebody else might beat him to it had propelled him to the telephone early’.  (p.7)

Recognise that depiction of small town gossip? I do.

The Casual Vacancy is a good book.  While it may not be in the same class as Middlemarch as a study of provincial life, it is immensely readable, something that – for many – Middlemarch is not.  That someone of Rowling’s profile is choosing to explore the themes seen here is very good news. 

Yes it could do with a further edit, yes there is a lack of development in the various motivations of ‘Barry Fairbrother’ post mortem, and yes, audience expectations are further confused by the choice of cover, which (to me) looks more suited to 1950s crime fiction.  But in an increasingly self-focussed 21st century society, perhaps Rowling has done us all a favour.   The Casual Vacancy doesn’t encourage us to escape into a fantasy world, nor does it draw out large-scale relevance from our day-to-day prejudices.  Its message, very clearly, is ‘Look at yourselves’. 

Thursday, 4 October 2012


This is a favourite in our household, quick, easy, delicious, and a great way for using up odds and ends. You can vary the ingredients too, depending on what's in your fridge veg-wise.  Baby corn is good, peppers, mange tout, mushrooms, leftover broccoli stalks (yes, seriously!), you name it.  Just make sure it doesn't have an overpowering flavour or a tendency to go soggy.


1-2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 onion
2 thumbsize pieces of fresh ginger (hint, I have a dainty thumb...)
2 teaspoons runny honey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Finely sliced broccoli stalks
1-2 chopped peppers (red and yellow for preference)
Sufficient chicken, quorn or tofu for those eating (between 2 and 4 chicken breasts or equivalent for 4 people.  Additional veg can stretch quantities).



1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Finely chop the garlic, onion and ginger and add to the pan.  Cook at a medium to high heat until soft.
2. Add the honey and soy sauce.
3. Chop and add the chicken / quorn / tofu.  If using chicken, wait until it is sealed before moving on to step 4.
4. Add vegetables and cook until meat / meat substitute cooked through and vegetables cooked but still crunchy.
5. Drop noodles into boiling water and cook according to packet instructions.
6. All done.  Cheap, easy, and you now have no leftover vegetables in the fridge!