Tuesday, 12 January 2010

'You're going to pay for bringing kittens in here'

Boudicca has decided that we owe her. Big time. And she has now decided just how she is going to collect.

We will play with her. With her fish-on-a-stick toy. And we will do so far more often than ever before.

Boudicca came to us five years ago last November – the fifth, to be precise. It was a Saturday and she was utterly unconcerned by fireworks going off. She didn't even seem particularly worried by cars passing as I walked home with her in a basket.

She was a tiny ball of fluff with a lot of attitude: only six weeks old – although we didn't realise quite how young she was at the time.

We already had two cats at the time – Mack and Trickie. Mack had been with us for around 13 years. His sister, Mabel (yes, they were named after the Broadway show) had died suddenly a few years earlier and, convinced that he was lonely, we'd adopted Trickie from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, within a couple of months of Mabel's death.

Trick was a soppy thing of around 10. She'd lived with an old man until his death, when his son took her to live with his family. But she didn't get on with the children or the dogs and they'd had to make the decision to take her for rehoming. She'd been at Battersea for almost five weeks – close to a record – and as we walked between the 'kitty cabins', she leapt up and drooled over the top of the door in a desperate attempt to get our attention.

She passed the 'cat test' (to check whether cats get on with other felines), although I strongly suspect that she deliberately faked it as part of her plan to escape from Stalug Luft Battersea. That, and her obvious instant affection for The Other Half did the trick, and Trickie came home with us, even though we'd set out with the intention of getting a much younger cat.

Mack was appalled. He threw hissing fits – but never anything more – retired to the bedroom to sulk for days and went through a stage of what the books call 'inappropriate urinating'. This was one pissed-off cat being pissy.

We had followed the Battersea advice on introducing a new cat to a household: shut them in one room for a a couple days while they get used to that. Trick loved the kitchen, while Mack resented not being able to go in there.

He got over it and they learnt to rub along. And then, just over two years later, I was in my local pub just as the landlady had agreed to take a kitten from one of her regulars. There were further kittens left in the litter. I told The Other Half later – we'd always felt a bit cheated with Mack and Mabel, since the colleague who gave them to us kept them until they were 12 weeks old (even though we'd booked them well before they were born). We never really felt that we'd had that tiny kittenhood experience. This seemed like a good opportunity.

We sat down, discussed whether we could cope with three cats in our flat and also whether we could cope financially. We concluded that we could – and I got in touch with the kittens' owner to say we'd take one.

We actually took Boudi on approval – not that there was ever much risk of us changing our minds. She leapt out of the basket and straight into a bookcase, hiding behind a few books, emitting little kitten hisses when either of us tried to coax her out. Some hours later, I managed to encourage her a bit, using a finger dipped in cat food.

Over the coming days, she gradually came further and further out of hiding. On the second afternoon, she was creeping around the corner of the sofa, when she spotted Trickie, sitting nonchalantly in the basket, which we'd left out in case our newcomer wanted to use it as a sort of den while she got used to the place. She sped towards the basket – possibly thinking it was her mother – and then ground to a halt just in front of it, spitting and hissing, before running away.

To say that Trick wasn't impressed would be an understatement. It set the tenor for their relationship. Trickie, despite being full grown, was constantly irritated by the bouncing kitten that would leap up in front her doing the 'look at how big I am' pose. With Mack, she was an a bit of awe, as though he were a worshipped big brother – and he never seemed remotely bothered by her arrival.

In the meantime, Trickie would land on The Other Half's should, wrap herself around him and complain that she was being made to spend time with cats. I'm convinced that she was telling him that she wasn't really one of them – but a small person in a fur coat.

So that was Boudi's introduction to the household. And one has a certain sense of karma that after teasing Trick, she's finding herself bemused by miniature furballs. Loki simply cannot resist following her: earlier today she went to sit in a window. So Loki followed – clearly convinced that it would be A Good Thing to join her. Much hissing and growling, plus a clump or two, followed. He's also intrigued by her tail too.

Otto doesn't seem as determined to wind her up – but when she's decided to clump him, he falls into classic cat submission position – and then gives a little hiss back. It's like telling her that she's not really scary – and he's going to get bigger and bigger as the days go by.

So, we are starting to pay. Her choice of payment is being made clear by greatly increased attempts to open the draw containing her favourite toy. And then sitting and staring long and hard at whichever of her servants is around at the time.

The Queen B is working hard to reassert her authority.

Friday, 8 January 2010

A case of 'enlightened self-interest'

It's not clear that having kittens is supposed to produce any philosophical reflection.

But in the last couple of days, my mind has drifted to Jeremy Bentham and his comments on the rights of animals.

    The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.

    The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why human beings should be adandoned with redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may be one day recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.

    What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the facility to reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.

    But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? But Can they suffer?

    Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

The central point here is that we do not grant a concept of human rights on the basis of certain abilities – primarily, the ability to think, so why do we exclude animals from any idea of rights on the basis of a lack of sentience, for instance? It's not logical.

Otto and Loki were 10 weeks old just two days ago. It's extraordinary to think of that incredibly short timespan (from a human perspective at least) when you see just how much of their world they already understand and know how to deal with. And how they're learning every day.

Loki, for instance, already knows how to open doors. He's too small and light to do it yet, but he knows the basic idea and jumps up to try.

One of his predecessors, Mack, could do it most adroitly. If we had guests staying overnight, we'd warn them to put a stack of big books against the door if they didn't want a feline visitor in the night. New guests would generally laugh in the way that you do when you're trying to humour overly-indulgent parents who are raving about the fantastic abilities of their child. So then they'd go in the spare room and shut the door.

We took to standing nearby to watch what unfolded. Mack had a deep belief that internal doors in the house should be open. All the time. So he'd saunter up to this offense to his sensibilities, stand against it, reach up and pull down the leaver handle while pushing. It was always most gratifying to watch people's reactions to this.

I've also seen him do things like sit in front of the old stereo – a mass of knobs and buttons and sliding things – and move them around. Now I doubt if he was actually trying to correct the balance for Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, but he'd seen that such things could be moved – he'd seen and understood what door handles were for – and he could do the same. On other occasions, he'd quite deliberately plop his paw down on the button on the telephone that would finish a call.

So never mind Bentham's dogs and horses: the same applies to cats – even kittens are way more developed intellectually than infants, so if we say that a new-born baby has human rights, it isn't on the basis of an ability to reason.

And then there's emotion: more than once it's been asked as to whether animals have emotions. I'm not sure that I've ever known such an absurd question. It could only ever be asked by someone who hasn't actually lived with a non-human animal.

A week or so ago I described how, when I was in my youth at home, our new family dog (who'd have been just over one at the time) went into a corner, ears back, as we were getting Christmas presents – only to go utterly potty when she got something at the end. Now I know anthropomorphism is a danger, but it's not rocket science to interpret that as emotional responses.

And right now Boudicca is going through a range of emotions over having the kittens in the house: fascination and downright irritation are but two that are blindingly obviously. We're having to make especially sure that she doesn't feel ignored.

Of course, it gets a bit complex – and cats make it even more so. If you say that cats have rights, on the basis of Bentham's analysis, then what about their food? Cats are obligate omnivores: they need meat. Humans – and dogs – are omnivores: they can get by healthily enough with no meat in their diet (although I always feel sorry for the vegetarian bloodhound in Shirley Valentine).

It would be one thing for me to say: 'oh, I think animals have rights – and I won't eat meat'. But it's downright wrong to try to make an obligate carnivore abide by such a moral position. But to accept nature and allow them to eat meat, also means that you accept at least the possibility of suffering by the animals that constitute their food.

Back in the 1980s, I was a vegetarian. There – that's an admission over and done with.

It started as a financial thing – I had little money – but I stuck with it after finding that I seemed to have more energy.

My vegetarianism lasted for close to a decade, but died a death one day in east London when, on the way to work one morning, the smell of a bacon butty being served in a deli bar was just too much.

It was still a long time before I learned to really love meat. But then, it was a long time before I really learned to love food in general. What has subsequently developed is an appreciation that the meat that is worth eating is the meat that has come from animals that have been treated in the best way possible; that have not been crammed into factory sheds or fed on the boiled down remains of other animals that they, as vegetarians, would never naturally consume.

Chicken is a perfect case in point. The battery farmed birds that you can buy for little more than pennies in supermarkets are pretty dreadful in terms of flavour. It's no wonder that cookery books and shows are full of dishes that make the use of loads of spices and sauces with such meat almost obligatory. They've little or no flavour otherwise. And dieting means that most people want breast meat rather than anything else – even though it has less flavour yet. If I'm buying only portions of a chicken, then I'll get the thighs – they're tastier and far cheaper, since they're so much less in demand.

Bacon is another case worth noting. The pigs that are reared in appallingly inhumane conditions in mass factories produce pretty dire meat. As an example, I could nip around the corner to a little shop and buy a pack of six slices of factory bacon for around £1.99. But when it hits the pan, white gunk will start to spew out (water that has been pumped into the flesh to make it seem better), it'll shrink to half its size and the rind will never crisp up. I'd rather pay double, less often, and get far more for my money. And the pig will have got a far better deal out of it too.

Of course it doesn't come cheap. Which is rather where the Mediterranean approach of eating meat – but not every day – comes in.

So I think it's still perfectly possible to believe in a concept such as animal rights – and be a meat eater. The key is how we treat our food animals (and the animals we use for leather etc). And after all, most of them wouldn't even exist at all were it not for our food needs.

And the better we look after them – the better life we give them – the better the steak on our plate at the end of that life.

And taste isn't the only issue: BSE – or 'mad cow disease' as it became popularly known – was the result of farmers feeding cattle (vegetarians) with the boiled down remains of other animals (although at a reduced temperature, to cut costs – which was the prime cause of the disease spreading in the first place). And it's no coincidence that swine flu broke out in humans right next to one of those whopping big pig factories.

So I'm going to quote Babylon 5 again to conclude: let's apply G'Kar's philosophy to this – let's make it a case of "enlightened self-interest".

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Putting Christmas back in the box

"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

Bill Shakespeare couldn't have come up with something that sounded more like a challenge to those making new year resolutions – and from the way some people seem to go about the whole resolution thing, you'd think that denial was the only way to be good (whatever that is).

People brag at length about what they're doing – and so often it involves giving things up and trying to turn themselves into some sort of nun or monk, often complete with the self-flagellatory joys of a new gym regime.

It could simply be a dress rehearsal for Lent – which doesn't follow too far behind.

Gyms are boring and denial of pleasure is not good for the soul. Well, certainly not my soul.

But perhaps that's partly because I didn't go wildly over the top with food and drink over the holiday in the first place? If pleasure in something like food is a part of your everyday life, then it seems likely that you feel less need to go a bit bonkers when society gives your particular permission.

The quote at the top is from Twelfth Night – and today is twelfth night. So the halls were undecked earlier and Christmas was packed away for another 11 and a bit months.

That's not to say that I don't do resolutions at all, but it's more likely to be a series of internal memos to myself to – for instance, keep reading or remember to take my cod liver oil tablets every day. Which reminds me ...

But you could tell well before the 1 January itself that the denial movement was in full swing, with a profusion of adverts on the TV for diets, including some downright crackpot ones, How do Kellogs get away with advertising their boxes of cardboard as a calorie reduction diet so often? Now, having a bowl of Special K for lunch as well as breakfast will help you get into those jeans that make you feel fab. Later in the year, it'll enable you to get into your sexy, red swimsuit.

Presumably they need to keep reminding viewers of this wonder diet because, with such a drastic calorie reduction (and let's not mention the limits on actual decent nutrition), they'll lose weight – and then pack it back on and possibly a bit more for good measure (ensuring they need to do it again, and thereby helping maintain or boost sales of the product in question).

A colleague has bemoaning seeing a programme about diets, where it showed that the sandwich she'd had for lunch from Pret a Manger was full of calories. The women – it's all women, for a wonder – on the TV show in question were trying to diet to 1,200 kcals per day. That's about the amount needed to maintain the body weight of an elderly, bed-ridden woman, and thus, for healthy, active, younger women, pretty much guaranteed to end in long-term weight gain rather than sustained and sustainable loss.

Two years ago, another colleague put herself on a 500 kcals per day diet – yes, she lost a load. But she put it back in no time at all. And all this in an environment with a large percentage of female staff – women who are educated and literate, politically as well as in other ways; and not an environment that is overwhelmed by bitchy behaviour. Yet still the denial thing kicks in.

Well, not for me. Life is far too short to play such a drastic game – and anyway, it's a con: as I've found in recent years, sustainable weight loss is only possible slowly. Very slowly. And for me at least, developing a real pleasure in my food has made an enormous difference on that score too. So I'm sticking with the pleasure – on principle.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A long twilight struggle

I've often wonder if J Michael Straczynski would forgive me. Tonight I decided that he would.

There are great moments in many TV series – and there are certainly great moments in a great TV show like Babylon 5. One of these moments – actually, more than one, but bear with me – comes in episode 20 of season two, The Long Twilight Struggle.

In it, after being humiliated by the defeat of his people by the Centauri, Narn ambassador to Babylon 5 G'Kar is forced to ask for sanctuary on the station. That granted, Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari attempts to have him turned away from the council, But G'Kar has a speech to make before he leaves:

"No dictator, no invader can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand. The Centauri learned this lesson once ... we will teach it to them again. Though it take a thousand years ... we will be free!"

I cannot remember how many times I've heard it. But watching the episode again tonight, I was close to tears. It is magnificent drama. Not just during this speech of G'Kar's, but also as Londo watches from a Centauri ship as the Narn homeworld is bombarded with weapons of mass destruction. His face tells us a thousand things.

It is a gut-wrenching, heart-rending episode.

But it means something extra for me.

Twelve years ago this year – this coming February, to be precise – my editor of the time was suspended and then sacked. The grounds were invented: a dossier that was a complete joke. But as it happened, in a Buggins's turn sort of way, I happened to be the mother of chapel at the time. That's the term we use in journalism (and other parts of the print) for a shop steward, in remembrance of the days when trade unions were still illegal in the UK, and non-conformist churches provided sanctuary for us to meet.

There I was, suddenly faced with a member – my boss, as it happened – who was being sacked for no reason other than an unholy combination of politics and nepotism.

Well, we as a chapel (the shop) decided that the Rubicon had been crossed. And we acted.

I'm not going to occupy you with the ins and outs of what happened. Suffice it to say that we won and that John got his job back.

But in the process of what happened, I found myself giving speeches to various gatherings. And inspired by G'Kar's speech, I took his words and changed them enough to make them work for us. I spent the entire strike in a B5 baseball cap too. There's even YouTube footage from a major national news provider of our picket line, and me interviewed, with that cap screwed down hard on my head.

There is an extent to which I look back with a modicum of disbelief as to how much B5 meant to me at the time. But however naff it sounds, at a time when I had to make massive decisions about what side of a row I stood on, it gave me an inspiration I'll never forget.

And tonight, as I watched The Long Twilight Struggle again, perhaps my tears were not just for G'Kar and the Narn, but also for what I ... no: for what we achieved, almost 12 years ago. And I really don't think JMS would be offended.

Monday, 4 January 2010

TV serves for a bit of Christmas slobbery

One of the joys of the Christmas holiday, which drew to an end yesterday, was spending hours slumped comfortably in front of the telly.

It's not actually something that I do much of, preferring to read or even spend time playing Age of Mythology on the Mac, where my Norse warriors and their gods get to bash up Greeks and Egyptians and their lightweight deities.

But with the kittens demanding a lot of quality cuddle time, it was easy to sit and gape at the goggle box.

Featuring high on the must-watch list were the final Dr Who episodes with David Tennant in the title role. Oh, I got a bit blubby at the end – although it has to be pointed out that writer Russell T Davies really did milk it, since it was his farewell to the series too.

I was not allowed to watch Dr Who as a child: I've never quite worked out why not, although all sci-fi was on my mother's banned list. It was probably as much because didn't personally like it as anything, although she was also an inveterate snob when it came to television: ITV was there to be avoided as much as possible, including its children's programmes, such as Magpie.

It was only when we got cable some years ago and one of the 'gold' channels started re-showing old Dr Who episodes that I started to watch and enjoy it. By the time RTD brought the Doctor back to our screens, I was ready to watch, with at least some knowledge of what had gone before. I enjoyed the Christopher Ecclestone ones, but Tennant was the best – he's even now overtaken the blissfully barking Tom Baker as my favourite Doctor.

And I also step beyond the accepted attitudes in that Donna Noble has been my favourite assistant – and I'm not a fan of Catherine Tate. We shall see what comes next.

But on a sci-fi theme, cable channel FX has been re-running Babylon 5. I have the entire five series on DVD, but have only watched a few favourite episodes in recent years. It used to be a passion of mine, but I've sometimes wondered whether the changes in me over the last decade would have changed that.

Wonderfully, watching it sequentially again – but with the knowledge of what the entire story arc is about – it's clear that it really is still a superb series. As season two progressed, G'Kar and Londo in particular started developing into such wonderful characters, with almost classical qualities and depths to them.

TV sci-fi seems to be a peculiar ghetto, where some very fine 'character' actors find their only encounter with stardom and fame. It was very much for the case for Andreas Katsulus, who played G'Kar (and who sadly died almost two years ago). He'd worked with seminal theatre director and innovator Peter Brook for years, yet in film, nobody really seemed to know how to utilise his talents. Being of Greek descent, he spent part of his film career playing general 'swarthy' types, plus the one-armed man in the film version of The Fugitive, before J Michael Straczynski cast him in B5, where his theatre training and wonderful voice helped him create a wonderful character.

The show was special at the time for having a single core story, told over five seasons – an arc. It remains good because the characterisation was good – and because the plot is dense and interesting and full of some really classic themes.

One of the other televisual treats of the holiday was a veritable flood of Poirot, with David Suchet showing how it should be played. No, it's not intellectually challenging TV, but it is good entertainment.

There was also a showing for the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express. I hadn't seen it for years, but with a trip on the train itself booked for March, a viewing was essential. I'd forgotten – or perhaps I'd never really realised – how dismal it is.

It's all well and good spending loads on a stellar cast – and it is – but it looked as though the only direction from Sidney Lumet had been for everyone to aim way OTT, and then add a bit more for good measure. Albert Finney was dire as Poirot – all shouting and crass mannerisms. And Finney – like many of the others here – is a good actor. But heaven alone knows how he came to be Oscar nominated for this performance – even the woefully miscast Peter Ustinov was better as the little detective.

I switched off in disappointment. At least there was Suchet to make up for such a let down.

But that, together with some sport, was about it – even if it constituted a TV binge by my standards. And now, in the new year, it's time to get back to some reading.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Those ever-so-dangerous photographers

It was a glorious day again in London: clear blue skies and bright sunshine. As such, I decided that the time was ripe to take my new lens for a workout.

And given that it's such a specific lens – an aspherical ultra-wide angle – I thought that the best way to put it through its paces would be to go back to one of my favourite photographic haunts and see how it coped with some of my favourite architectural subjects. In other words, the City of London, with particular visits to the 'Gherkin' and Lloyd's.

I haven't done much photography in London for a while. There are a number of reasons, but the behaviour of the police toward photographers has been in the back of my mind. An increasing number of photographers – amateur and professional – have been stopped in recent months by over-zealous police who don't actually understand the law that they frequently claim to be using – Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 – and who don't seem capable of using anything approaching common sense.

Last month, a photographer, standing on a public pavement, was harrassed by police for taking photographs of a Christopher Wren church. Another photographer was approached because he was snapping away at St Paul's Cathedral.

And it gets 'better'. Another case recently came to light, which saw an artist, painting near City of London airport, twice stopped because "no one paints factories", as he was told by one clearly very well educated copper. The artist, Liam O'Farrell, mentioned LS Lowry. But this didn't appear to go down too well.

Truly terrifying stuff.

Police are, it seems, convinced that people taking photographs of landmarks that have been pictured millions of times already are doing so for the purposes of terrorism – or that terrorists will get some sort of information from these new pictures that they can't already find on Flickr and God alone knows how many other picture hosting sites and from who knows how many other sources.

Photographing the 'Gherkin' can get you stopped too – well, obviously there are no pictures available already of that iconic building for al-Qaida to check out what it looks like, so they need someone to take some. And then they send in TV crews from a major national broadcaster, so they have to be stopped too.

I have no particular desire to find myself confronted by braindead idiots in uniform who seem incapable of understanding that a camera is not a bomb – or even of understanding and inwardly digesting the instructions of their own senior officers, who seem to be getting just the teeniest bit embarrassed by all this idiocy, so this was the first time I've headed that way in a while.

I had no problem with the police today – you do wonder if they 'think' that they can stop every single individual who carries a camera. In one of the biggest cities in the world. Full of tourists as well as residents. Yet on the radio this afternoon I even caught word of a story about some suggestion that everyone taking pictures in London should have a permit. How the hell would that work with over 30m tourists visiting the city every year? Will mobile phones – most of which now have cameras in them as standard – be included? Did anyone even consider switching their brain on before coming up with such patent nonsense?

Then, of course, there are the little tin-pot dictators who race out from 'their' buildings to tell you that you can't photograph there because the owner doesn't like it. Durr ... when you build a bloody big, horizon-altering structure, expect it to get photographed. When you build a monstrosity of a shopping centre (the external sort that someone can wander around, outside) expect it to be pictured. Or perhaps such things are simply excuses for inadequates in uniform to get a power kick?

I was photographing at Broadgate Tower this afternoon – the exterior concourse flows straight onto the pavement; other people were wandering around too – when a jobsworth got up from his desk inside the main tower and headed for the door just as I set up a shot. I turned and sauntered away, having already got a couple of decent pictures and in no mood for some sort of a scene.

Anyway – nothing else untoward occurred. But it's ludicrous that people actually stop doing something as perfectly innocent as photography because of something like this. And it's ludicrous that, when I go out with a camera, I feel the need to be aware of my rights and of what the police are and are not allowed to ask or order me to do, because some of them cannot be trusted to know.

Was the piece of legislation in question deliberately intended to attack civil liberties? Or was it just the sloppy actions of a government that panics in the face of terrorism and then does some of the terrorists' work for them? Looking at the current government, I'm not sure.

But it is absurd – and deeply worrying in terms of its ramifications – when taking a photograph evolves into feeling like some sort of political act of defiance.

* I'm a photographer, not a terrorist is a campaign that has been set up to defend photographers and campaign against the current attitude and behaviour of some within the police force.

Friday, 1 January 2010

If this was a race, it would be a good start

It's been a beautiful start to the new year in London – bright blue skies and sunshine, and a crisp cold to invigorate.

I feel particularly relaxed – and that's helped by a celebratory dinner being well under way. I've got individual ramekins of potatoes boulangère in the oven – layers of thinly sliced potato and onion, seasoned with chopped flat leaf parsley, salt and pepper, with chicken stock poured to almost the rim, dotted with butter and covered with foil. The foil will come off in a short while and they'll get a further 30 minutes uncovered.

Shortly before that process is concluded, I'll pan fry rump steaks with crushed peppercorns pressed into the meat. Those will then be flambéd in brandy before cream is added to finish the sauce. I only set fire to a dish for the first time just over a year ago – terrified of fire since childhood, it was a big thing to do so. I wouldn't say I'm now casual about it – I still get the pan lid ready, shut the kitchen door and feel the adrenalin rise – but it's not out of my skill store now.

The steaks won't be cooked for long – two minutes a side. I won't buy cheap meat if I can help it – I'd rather have meat less often – and although I've increasingly become a real meat lover in recent years, I concomitantly see the meat, and how it was produced, with respect.

I want something really easy for the side, so that'll be tenderstem broccoli. Also in a short while, I'll open a bottle of Grenache to let it breathe. And there's just enough Banyuls to serve as an aperitif.

And for dessert, there's are crème brûlées chilling in the fridge, waiting just for a sprinkling of brown sugar and the caress of the blowtorch to caramelise it.

It's a perfect meal to start 2010.

I have made a few resolutions – but none of them involve food. Mostly, I use resolutions each year as private reminders of certain things that I need to be a little more disciplined about. So every year, for instance, I promise to read more. It's not so much a question of reading "more", though, but of making that pledge to myself to keep up my reading.

And talking of reading, I finished Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice the other day, for the ...

Well, I can't remember how many times I've read it. The first time was at school, where it was one of our set texts for 'O' level. I loved it then and have loved it ever since. And yet, like all really great books, there's something fresh that strikes you each time you pick it up again.

In this case, it was really noticing the inadequacies of Mr Bennet – effectively an absent father – and not just his wife.

But it also amazes me how many people seem to believe that Austen only wrote 19th century rom-coms – she hasn't, in that sense, been well served by dramatisations, which don't tend to show up the satire as clearly as the romantic elements of the plots. But the satire here is very clear on the page, and Austen's targets ranged from the obvious human flaws suggested by the title to class snobbery and on to the obsession of some females with fashion and men.

But she was also a sharp observer on questions such as the situation of women (of her own class). Here, for instance, Elizabeth's close friend Charlotte Lucas marries Mr Collins for no other reason than security. Elizabeth is shocked, but it's quite clear that Austen herself understood that such pragmatism was the only hope for many of her sex.

The humour is not soft: it has a bite that is delicious to this day.

On conclusion, I ordered Emma, which I've never read, and Persausion, which I haven't read since it was a text during my 'A' level studies.

And continuing the Victorian buzz, I've started Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers.

I have trouble with Dickens. I remember seeing a number of the books dramatised on TV – Sunday afternoon serials to be watched while eating tea in front of the telly: a rare treat. The plots are wonderful – but when you pick up the books, there's all the 'padding': all that exposition of social matters that Dickens penned. Okay, so it's not just padding – although it certainly helped, given that his stories were initially serialised in print – but an integral part of his work. But they seem to get in the way and I end up putting the book aside, frustrated.

Pickwick Papers, I decided, might be a little different. And thus far, I'm finding it really very funny.

After that, I think that Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (effectively a 19th century novel, even though first published in 1901) is due a re-read, while I need to finally conquer Anthony Trollope's The Warden and Barchester Towers, which have been sitting on the shelf for years. And I've got a copy of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford too; I've only read her Mary Barton previously.

Whatever happens in the coming 364 days, I feel as though I've got the start of the new year sorted in culinary and literary terms!