Opening muse

In recent years I have cut my blogging teeth over at laidbackviews, though my regular readers will need no reminding that it has been somewhat stagnant of late, tired even, perhaps stale.  I have begun to examine reasons for that, and with enthusiasm on the rise once more decided that a fresh outlet is needed, and here we are, at LaidBackMuse.

I will continue some of the topics we have covered over the years, especially on the love of books and the continual quest for fine writing.  Food and drink too are essential parts of life.  That old recumbent bike still finds me lying back for occasional trundle round the lanes and I’ll let you know what  I come across, as I poke around the hedgerows or see what’s perching on the phone poles.

And we’ll cast an eye further afield, to the horizons and beyond, looking at what nature has in store, and what the landscape has to show.

One significant change on how that old site evolved is that these pages will remain free of political comment, even though these times get more interesting with each passing year.  We’ll leave the politics for other outlets.  Promise.

In short the aim is to refine, and to improve, expanding on familiar themes, but only some of them.





These Boots Are Made For…

… walking; and that’s just what they’ve done!

Two volumes for you this month, both on a walking theme, though very different.  I’ve been familiar with the work of both authors for some time, but in very different ways.

The Land Beyond is the second book from Leon McCarron, but the first I have read.  I have though watched a couple of the films he has made of previous treks, through the Empty Quarter, with Alistair Humphries, and then following the Karun from source to sea, with Tom Allen.  I await the final production of the latter pair’s trek in Patagonia.

Much of the journey through the Middle East is also familiar, having followed Leon’s postings on facebook as he Walked the Masar.  The book gives us the full trip, both sides of the wall, linking various attempts at mapping, signing and publicising long distance trails, as he takes us from Jerusalem to Sinai.

He does so in marvellous company, whether it’s a bit of couch-surfing, camping in the Negev with the Bedouin, or pitching his tent for a lone night under the stars.  He takes us to monasteries and monuments, to Petra, down wadis and up hills.  And all the time we read his rich Irish brogue, his understanding of peoples and his love of places.

It’s an entertaining tale from a man who grew up with sectarianism and flags, so he’s quite at home with much that comes his way as he wanders.  As well as looking for more of his films, I’ll be keeping an eye out for his written works, for Leon McCarron writes well, in addition to his documentaries.  Currently he’s posting some wonderful stuff from Kurdistan, and that too might make an interesting tale between the covers.

Another walker is Nick Hunt.  It’s a second book too for him with Where The Wild Winds Are.  Having read his first volume, as he walked in the footsteps of PLF, I was keen to dip in again, for his prose flows like the rivers Leon follows.

This time he’s on the trail of Europe’s named winds.  Did you know that England has one?  We start, and indeed finish, chasing The Helm as it howls across the Pennines, hiding behind dykes and in bothies.  On mainland Europe the trails are longer, as he takes us to Croatia, through the Alps, and down the Mistral.

Tiny parts of each are not unfamiliar to me, but it’s the unfamiliar that draws you in, as he heads off desperate to be blown away, intent on blowing the reader way.  These are interesting places, each in a very different way; and all the time we share his tale with interesting people, whether it is shepherds on the high hills, or farmers from ages past amongst the brass plates of Liechtenstein.

The next time I’m wandering in the woods, especially in these parts, psithurism will be the word on my lips.  Thanks for that one Nick Hunt, I’ll be listening for it.

These two authors, indeed these two books, have something else in common – both are listed for this year’s Stanfords Travel Writing Awards.  They’re in different categories, so you can vote for each.  And they’re in excellent  company this year, for Levison Wood’s there too, also walking; Kapka Kassabova’s Border provides stiff competition, as well as a few others that await my attention.  When over at Stanfords have a look at the Cookery Book category, which might just have you drooling.  And delighted to see Pachinko in the travel in fiction category.  Loads of ideas across the various awards, which might be dangerous, for me…

January means Chocolate

Bright sunshine; hard frost.  The house was quiet, cats curled up asleep.  The family would be back from their travails in the Northern Wastes later in the day – as always someone has to remain to tend to the livestock, to keep the economic wheels on the move, away from reverse – afore school starts on the morrow.  A treat for them, perhaps.

That was the theory, and if you’re well organised, working efficiently, it should be possible to get the Star Anise and Lemon Chocolate Mousse Cake through the oven whilst the bread you have already started rises slowly.  Maybe.

Being January there needs to be one eye on the calories, after all the festive excesses, so no guilt to this pleasure.  It’s an appealing recipe, a good use of some the many bars of quality chocolate that tempt your guilty pleasures every night, just part of those festive excesses.

Once out the oven, drizzled with lemon syrup, the heat gets cranked up, and the over-proved loaves shoved in for half an hour.  A walk beckons, under the rare sun, against the hardened frost.  By the time the bread is ready so too is the intrepid wanderer.  A route half in mind, cycled often, never walked.  Plans could change on the way.

But we go past the point of no return, chasing chaffies along the hedgerows, glancing elusively for sight of the buzzard squealing in protest as a pair of marauding, mobbing crows spoil the peace of the afternoon sun above the pine trees.  And on we go.

By the time we start to plod downhill, knowing only one brief but steep climb remains, the old bones are aching, aging hips, throbbing feet.  In the kitchen rests a feast of chocolate, and a sugar rush is desperately needed.  In we delve.  Which is why the photograph here is taken from Chetna Makan’s The Cardamom Trail, rather than The Kitchen Table, where destruction is evident.


The returning family will be greeted with most of a cake, and the drizzled syrup that has leaked through the tin, and run from the table to drip to the floor will have been wiped up, mostly.

Here’s what you need, for this scrumptious feast:

5 large eggs; 250g caster sugar; 125ml water; finely grated zest of a lemon; 1 tsp ground star anise; 300g plain dark chocolate (min 70%), roughly chopped; 50g milk chocolate, roughly chopped; 225g unsalted butter, diced.  And for the lemon drizzle – 175g natural sugar; 5tbsp water; 2 lemons, thinly sliced.

OK, so I lied about the calories; it is a diet disaster, but essential to keep the energy levels of any tax consultant at the right level through this vile month.  And it provides an instant hit after two and a half hours of winter walking, a revival whilst the bacon and French toast is under way.

Here’s the instructions:

Pre-heat oven to 160/gas 3; line a 23cm round cake tin.

For the mousse cake, whisk the eggs with 150g of the caster sugar, leaving the stand mixer running for seven minutes or so as you prepare the good stuff.

Heat the remaining caster sugar with the water over a low heat until the sugar has melted.  Add the lemon zest and the star anise – don’t even think about grinding a few star anise, get a jar of ground – mix well.  Next, add the chocolate, then the butter, and stir until melted.  Fold into the egg mixture, ensuring the batter doesn’t lose too much air.  Spoon into the prepared tin, then put the tin into a large roasting dish.

Transfer to the oven, carefully pouring boiling water into the roasting dish until it reaches half way up the cake tin.  Bake for 50-55mins until a crispy skin forms on the surface and a skewer comes out of the cake with a little mix left on it.

Half way through cooking start on the syrup.  Heat the sugar and water over a low heat until the sugar has melted.  Add the lemon slices and cook slowly for 15-20 mins.

With the cake still warm and in the tin, gently spoon the syrup over the surface, arranging the lemon slices on the top.  Leave to set at room temperature for a while.  You can enjoy the cake very gooey, or if you prefer, chill it for a few hours to set.

This is when you decide to exhaust yourself, walking the lanes, whilst the syrup turns the kitchen into something sticky that may linger for days.  But it’s worth every minute, every step, every calorie.  Go on, you know you want to.  Leave the Christmas cake for a day or two and indulge your inner chocolate gene.  It’s what January’s for, that and bloody tax returns…

Mint or Rosemary?

Yes it has to be lamb, but as we ready the taste buds for a season of over-indulgence, of excess, whilst we salve our conscience with a few tins for the foodbank, this recipe brings you lamb like you may never had drooled over before.

Firstly source your lamb, and a couple of the finest shanks from Harris Farm Meats is unlikely to be bettered.  Then go to town with it, and not a hint of mint, nor a sprig of rosemary to be found.

Here’s what you need:

6tbsp olive oil (or Scottish rapeseed); 5 tbsp. dried edible rose petals, finely ground; 1 heaped tsp turmeric; 3tsp ground cumin; 3 tsp cumin seeds; 1 tsp ground cinnamon; t tsp sea salt flakes; 3 fat garlic cloves, finely sliced; 2 tbsp. rosewater.

In a bowl mix all the oil with the spices, rose petals, salt, garlic and rosewater.  Cut a few slices into the lamb to allow the marinade to reach deep into the flesh.  Coat the meat generously.  Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge for at least an hour, or even overnight, allowing the flavours to permeate the meat.

You can over roast in a hot oven, or, as I prefer, slow cook for a couple of hours whilst you have a pan of basmati rice steaming very gently on a bed of oil, butter and salt.  

The full recipe, which comes from Sabrina Ghayour’s stunning Persiana, gives the option of a Herb & Chilli drizzle to add after cooking.  Her recipe is for chops, but I passed on the drizzle for the shanks.

The drizzle is very simple, combining 1 large red chilli, deseeded & finely chopped; 20 coriander leaves, picked and finely chopped; 2 tsp dried mint; juice of half a lime; 8 tbsp. olive (or local rapeseed) oil; sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  When taking the meat from the oven, drizzle and serve on a bed of rice.

For lamb fans it’s a belter, different perhaps from the usual fare.  And where Boy Urchin whines at the mere whiff of lamb give him a chicken burger and indulge yourself in more of this delicious meal without even a hint of guilt.  Sublime.

The Man on the Moon is Smiling…

We’re back in 1969, and there was a man on the moon.  At the same time two men gazed up from the moonscape that is the wilderness of Afghanistan.  These are the days before a series of invasions and untold warmongering wrought devastation to the area.

Peter Levi is our guide, and he had the most brilliant of company in that place, in those days.  For he travelled with Bruce Chatwin, into this world of ancient history and nomads; this world of Buddhist shrines and crumbling minarets.

For three months these two men roughed it, climbing to the high passes, sleeping where their heads rested.  They had company, including Bruce’s wife Elizabeth for a while, and many local guides and porters.

But the real company they sought was ancient.  From Alexander the Greek, through Persian dynasties, and in the company of golden orioles and donkeys, and so much more.

Levi even managed to write some poetry on the trip, for poems are his real forte.  But in The Light Garden of the Angel King he mastered the art of narrative prose.  The writing is sublime, and Chatwin is always on his shoulder, experienced of the region, knowlegeable of artefacts and nomadic tribes, words his own craft.

This is a book that has been on the shelf for several years, waiting on the moment.  It is a real gem and richly deserves a place over on The Bookshelf, as one of my favourite reads of the year, just before we close 2017’s list.  The test of time is but nought as we travel back to a land that has suffered for centuries, none more than the 21st.  The words will pass any test.  I might even dip into Levi’s poetry.

Winter Warmer

There’s a new concoction in the cauldron this week, and as it comes with the name Ottolenghi attached to it, and thus guaranteed to have the taste buds dancing, I thought I’d share it with you.

For Yotam Ottolenghi’s Chestnut, Fennel Seed and Caraway soup, here’s what you need:

6 garlic cloves, 4 whole with skin on, 2 peeled and crushed; 1 small butternut squash (ergo Aldi rather than Lidl), peeled, de-seeded and cut into 3cm chunks; 1 tbsp maple syrup; 60ml olive oil (as always I replace with Scottish rapeseed oil), plus a little extra for serving; 4 tsp caraway seeds, lightly toasted; 4 tsp fennel seeds, lightly toasted; salt; 2 onions, peeled and finely diced; 400g ready-cooked and peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped; 800 ml vegetable stock; 225ml vegetable oil.

It’s pretty straight-forward, tweaked  in a few places, and I see the soup fairy’s been on the prowl since it came off the hob.  Heat the oven to 200c/gas6.  Wrap the four unskinned garlic cloves tightly in foil and place in the corner of a large oven tray lined with baking paper.

Put the diced squash in a bowl and add the maple syrup, half the rapeseed oil, half the caraway seeds, half the fennel seeds and half a teaspoon of salt.  Mix to combine, then spread out the squash on the oven tray.  Roast for 30 mins, until soft and golden-brown, then remove and set aside.

Heat the remaining two tbsp. of rapeseed oil in a large pan.  I use my soup pot here, for reasons that will become obvious.  Add the onions, crushed garlic and another half tsp or so of salt (I’ve reduce from the recommended three quarters in each case), and fry for about seven minutes, stirring often, until the onions are soft and golden.  Add three-quarters of the chestnuts, leave to cook for three or four minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the stock.  Bring to a simmer, leave to bubble gently for three minutes before taking off the heat.

Heat all the vegetable oil in a small pan and, once hot, fry the remaining chestnuts and a teaspoon each of caraway and fennel seeds for four minutes, until the chestnuts rise to the surface.  Strain and transfer the nuts and seeds to a plate lined with a kitchen towel, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, set aside.

Add the squash to the soup pot of onions, chestnuts and stock, scraping in all the seeds and oil from the tray.  Unwrap the roast garlic and squeeze the cloves out of their skins directly into the pot.    Add in the remaining teaspoonful of both caraway and fennel seeds.  Get your wand blender out and get blitzing until it’s smooth.

Heat up the soup and serve, sprinkling the fried chestnuts and seeds, drizzle with oil and serve.  Don’t be shy in dipping in with some home-made bread.  Delicious.





From Schooldays to Dreams Fulfilled

‘Twas but a few weeks ago that I wandered through the wildcats at Kincraig, learned of the efforts of Scottish Wildcat Action.  And what do I find but wildcats and SWA in the opening chapter of John Lister-Kaye’s latest volume, The Dun Cow Rib.  That should be no surprise given that I know of JLK’s long-established Aigas Field Centre, and much of what took him there from the tragedy of the death of Gavin Maxwell and onwards.  For John Lister-Kaye has long featured on the reading list.  I will treasure the memories of his talk at the East Neuk Festival a few years ago, of browsing the travel section of the Cambo House library in the fine company of Gavin Francis (and he too must be due to serve up another fine volume soon).

The Dun Cow Rib marks a change from recent works though, more memoir than nature as I thought as I rummaged through young John’s schooldays.   Whilst life might have seemed easy, to the manor born, wandering corridors of stuffed and mounted trophies, discovering decades of death in the family’s Game Books, and a wilderness on the doorstep with freedom to explore.

But there were dark times too, packed off to boarding school at a very young age, his sister at a separate school, due to the frailty of his mother who pioneered much of the heart surgery we take for granted today, on the wrong side of the operating table.  The early school years were not easy; then there were a few terms at the village school, with alien creatures, travelling folks, and girls.  Prep school followed.

And then, at last, a settled period, and a school with a Natural History Society, and a boy discovers himself, his differences from others, his aims, and his talents.  Wildlife.  Nature.  And this volume will find a richly deserved space on the nature shelf, beside his others.

Schooldays end.  I’d really quite like to be a writer, in response to a query from his mother.  Follow your dreams.  Some years later the same answer was given to the same question.  Why aren’t you, the response from Gavin Maxwell.  Terry Nutkins it was who’d driven young JLK north in those heady days of the late 60s.

In time, after more surgery for mother, he made the break, gave it all up, and joined Maxwell, having spent time researching a proposed book venture for him and agreed to join the group on Eilean Ban for a wildlife project.  Maxwell died within days of his arrival, Teko, the last of the otters, just a couple of weeks later.  It was Lister-Kaye who carved the inscription on the memorial stone you’ll find on the island today.

The Dun Cow Rib is a terrific read, beautifully written, even if those days of Maxwell and his otters mean little to you.  Allow me to indulge you with a short passage, a fishing trip with his widowed father, on the loch at Aigas:

Over and over again his dry fly looped elegantly through the air to land well out on the glowing water.  The loch was as still as a mirror.  On gossamer wings and with long caudal filaments streaming out behind them, mayflies danced around us, touched the water with their dangling legs and lifted weightlessly off again, hovering tantalisingly over their own reflections.  Trout rose in barely audible swirls, mouthed lazily at the flies and vanished again.  ‘You’ve got too much competition,’ I teased.  He smiled, pulled on his pipe and cast again.  I was impressed.  Fifteen yards or more, the line peeled itself out and gently dropped his fly in almost perfect emulation of those around us.

Unknown to either of us, deep below, a fine 2lb brown trout saw that fly land.  it fired into action, torpedoing towards the surface just as my father wiggled the line to give it life.  High above the boat, emerging unseen from the gleaming white of the clouds, the burning binocular eyes of an osprey had also spotted that trout’s move.

It happened so fast and so unexpectedly that it made us both jump.  My father saw the trout curve to the fly; I glimpsed the shadow of the diving osprey.  Delta-winged, blue feet thrust forward, talons spread wide, it crashed into the loch right beside the boat.  Even as the trout saw the danger and swerved to dive, the osprey’s black talons plunged into its olivine back.  They crimped and held.  For four seconds that exquisitely handsome fish hawk decked in mocha and cream lay with its wings outstretched across the swirling surface.  its amber eyes boiled with fire for a dazzling moment of triumph before its long wings rose on folded elbows to scoop bucketsful of sunlight and heave clear of the water.

I don’t know why I’ve been fooling about in industry all my life, quoth his father.  I’d really like quite to be a writer, the words of the son decades before.  And I’ll need to complete the Lister-Kaye collection, though there’s only a couple to add.  A real master, even beside Maxwell.

The Name’s Fleming

Ian Fleming.  In 1959, 2 November to be precise (the day I became a grand two months old) he set off with a round-the-world ticket, first class of course, at the behest of The Sunday Times.  The ticket cost £803 19/2.  He drew a further £500 in travellers’ cheques, and off he went, after a few jabs from the doc.  Having read the articles that followed I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more funds may have been needed along the way.

The following spring saw him set off again, by road, the European leg.  By road means at the wheel of a Thunderbird, all 50 horse-power, seven litres of throbbing engine.

The series of articles written were brought together and published, in 1963, as Thrilling Cities.  He may have been a somewhat reluctant traveller, certainly a reticent reporter.  The Sunday Times wanted more of the exotic backgrounds with which Bond readers had become familiar, tempting Fleming with the prospect of collecting more material for his fictional hero.  Fleming though was conscious that he watched with the eye of a thriller writer, rather than a sightseer.  He may have been wary too of stepping into the world his elder brother Peter had mastered, in that golden age of travel and of writing, from the 1930s – as well as Peter Fleming, think Robert Byron, Ella Maillart, Richard Halliburton, to name but a few.  Masterful writers in fascinating times.

Thrilling Cities takes us to the world’s tempting spots, and it is difficult to shed Bond’s tuxedo as you visit the slot machines of Vegas, the roulette wheels and card tables, and even the pachinko.  Fitting it is that he ends his travels in Monte Carlo.

Along the way he dines with his ‘set’, Coward and Chaplin among them; contacts from his military days or sources for his writings, school chums and more.  It is a world that is alien to us now; the empire crumbling in those post-war years.  But he takes us to Hamburg, to the Lippizaners of Vienna, and much further.  The Far East, across the Pacific, across the States, Bond on his shoulder.

I first came across this book when Lucinda Hawksley included a few brief extracts in her wonderful The Writer Abroad, earlier this year.  A few brief lines, from a city that didn’t feature, a mere re-fuelling stop on the flight east, had me hooked.  That man can write narrative non-fiction, thought I, and a book quest began.  Still in print today says it all really, though I had to find the original, which I duly did and at a sensible price too.  If he hadn’t died so ridiculously young, ie younger than I am now, we might have had much more from Ian Fleming, more than the couple of Bonds and of course Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, published posthumously, following his death the year after Thrilling Cities appeared on the shelf.  But then he had lived hard, thrillingly so, shaken perhaps, but definitely not stirred.

It’s a good one, especially if you hanker for times gone by, people and places, and fine writing.





Bake; Off

It is that time of year again, school holidays, and that means I have an empty for a few days.  The house is quiet, Ophelia having departed.

It is also the time when we celebrate the last birthday of the year in the household, and it’s not mine.  So quandary of quandaries, having set a precedent last time round.  Do I take a day out my far too busy schedule, and head off to the northern wastes, with a cake?

Well, the cake bit’s done, so no excuses on that front.  Chocolate was the request.  I’ve found a new one.  From the wonderful Cardamom Trail, here’s Chetna Makan’s Chocolate & Coconut Cake.

Here’s what you need:

150g unsalted butter; 300g caster sugar; 2 large eggs; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 250g plain flour; 50g cocoa powder; pinch salt; 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda; 150ml buttermilk; 150ml boiling water; 25g creamed coconut.

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.  Grease & line 2 20cm baking tins.

Cream the butter and sugar, then add eggs one at a time.  Mix in the vanilla extract.  In a second bowl mix the dry ingredients together.  Add these to the egg mixture a couple of spoons at a time, followed by a little of the buttermilk.  Repeat until finished, mixing well.  I lazily used a stand mixture with paddle attachment throughout.

In a jug mix the measured boiling water with the creamed coconut.  Slowly add to the cake mix, whisking until well combined.

Pour the batter equally into the two cake times.  Bake for 30-35 mins until a skewer comes out clean.  Rest in the tins for 10 mins then turn them out and leave to cool.

Then the icing:

250g cream cheese; 50g unsalted butter; 50g dark chocolate, melted; 400g icing sugar, sifted; 2 tbsp. coconut cream; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 60g dessicated coconut.

Beat the cream cheese and softened butter until smooth.  Mix in the melted chocolate, then slowly add the icing sugar, a little at a time, alternating with additions of the coconut cream.  Add the vanilla extract and mix well.  If needed more icing sugar can bring it to a spreadable consistency.  Like the cake it’s a doddle keeping the mixer paddle turning throughout as you toss more in.

A layer on one sponge, then add the second on top, before smothering and smoothing as you choose.  Toasted coconut strips can be added for decoration, unless you’re adding birthday candles…

So, the cake’s done, there are presents from far and wide in the boot of the car.  Do I enjoy a day of quiet once the work’s done, perhaps a trundle round the lanes on the bike or more likely a long hard walk with the mower; or take to the road, cake and presents for the birthday boy.

Eight hours in one day mainly on the A9 is not for the faint-hearted, a younger man’s game.  But if you can’t get a hold of me on the morrow that’s where I might be, no radio, no phone signal for much of the trip.  Either that or lying down with an empty cake plate, and a gurgling belly…





Looking Back, Looking Forward

Fifty years ago it was, 2 November 1967 to be precise.  Back then I was but a boy, grey flannel shorts, legs stinging in the hail, the school cap de rigueur.  And it was a foul, wet day; but it changed our world.  The school I walked to then stands yet, a business centre now and more on that later.

I was privileged to attend a book launch recently, timed to mark that 50th anniversary.  On the platform were author James Mitchell, Fergus Ewing MSP and Christina McKelvie MSP.  Ewing was there to speak of his mother, for Mitchell’s book, Hamilton 1967, told her tale, and much more.  For Fergus is Winnie’s boy, and Winnie took Hamilton by storm back in 1967, changed Scotland in a heartbeat.  Mitchell gives us an engrossing read, a trip back in time, and a glimpse into the future.

The scene is set, the times as they then were.  In Hamilton the voters had given Labour a seat since the end of the war, the first one that is.  Such was Labour’s impact that one million people left Scotland’s shores in that time.  The big contest of the day was the one to select the Labour candidate, the man guaranteed a job.  Alex Wilson got the nod, a former miner from Forth.  The disappointed candidate was a certain John Smith, which begs the question of how his career may have developed if he had then fought a losing campaign.

Labour had taken a ba’ hair shy of half the vote right across Scotland in the year before.  Scotland was theirs.  Home Rule for them…  Winifred Ewing had the SNP nomination, in place long before the by-election was called.  She was a lawyer, in the wrong community, and she was young.  And female.

But Winnie ran a campaign, and Labour were invisible, expecting their rights.  The activists got the vote out and the HamAd had to run a second edition.  The Zambesi Hotel had never seen a night like it.  Ah the Zambesi Hotel.

This was the 1960s.  Mary Whitehouse was in Motherwell.  Harold Wilson was forced into devaluing the pound.  Ludovic Kennedy wanted a pact with the SNP.  And there was Ted Heath, the Unionists as they then were.  That was not the Unionists we know today, it harked to back to the days of Union across the water, with Ireland.  There was Ian Paisley too, at Hamilton Town Hall earlier that year.  He could have filled each of the 1,500 seats seven times over.  The HamAd reported the night as ‘all good-natured bigotry…’.  Larkhall was in the constituency.

The press barons then were not as we know them now.  The Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman stood accused of fanning the flames.  Can you believe that one today?  Magnus Magnusson was a supporter.  And Marks & Spencer opened in Hamilton that same year.  There was something stirring.

But the surge did not last, and Winnie lost the seat as the votes returned to Lanarkshire’s rightful home in 1970.  She won in Moray in ’74, holding that for a parliamentary term.  Later she became the only person, so far, to have been elected to Westminster, to Holyrood and to Brussels.  And of course she was there when the Scottish parliament reconvened, stealing Steel’s thunder with her opening address.

In that 1970 election the SNP lost in South Ayrshire, Labour taking it in the form of one Jim Sillars, author then of Don’t Butcher Scotland’s Future.  He seems to be going back to his youth, devoid of Margo’s guiding hand.  There’s another Hamilton connection, the late Margo, again young, vibrant and female.

There are many anecdotes in Mitchell’s book, many more told at the launch from those who could say I was there; and a great many more hinted at that could not be repeated in public.

Hamilton 1967, it changed our world, even if back then you may have been aware only of football teams winning trophies, the Accies not being at the foot of the Scottish leagues, and the hail stinging your bare legs.  Winnie Ewing was back in Hamilton, in 2011.  Her task then was to open the office of the recently elected constituency MSP, in that old school of mine, where Christina McKelvie now has her office, following in the footsteps.

It’s a great wee read, of lives and of times.  Politics don’t come into it.  Mind you we wouldn’t be where we are today, but for those events in Hamilton fifty years ago.

The Cake

So here it is, as promised.  I see that I first typed out this recipe, to pass on to others, way back in 2009.  Copying the article into wordpress doesn’t work too well with the formatting, but imagine below three columns set out, separated in this version by forward slashes.  In essence you work with three bowls – fruit, wet mix, and dry.  I’ve added subsequent tweaks in italics.

Tamasin Day Lewis – Country Christmas Cake

First List /Second List/ Third List

1.2kg mixed dried fruit /225g salted butter /340g plain flour
55g chopped candied peel /225g soft dark brown sugar /1tsp cinnamon
55g glace cherries, halved/ 4 organic eggs /1tsp ginger
85g pres ginger, chopped /1tsp pure vanilla extract /1tsp nutmeg
Zest & juice orange, lemon/ few drops almond essence /1tsp cloves
1tbsp bitter orange marmalade/ – / 1tsp mixed spice
1tbsp apricot jam/ – / 1tsp baking powder
225g stewed apple/ – / –

I usually add a few ounces of cranberries, and may be heavy on the cherries and ginger. Needs a 9inch cake tin, deep, heavy duty for my oven. For peel I use Sundora Candied Peel, rather than the little tubs of ready diced stuff.

Since then my fruit mix changes slightly every year.  Barberries are my current favourite addition, though I’ve added sour cherries this year for the first time.  I’ve also moved from preserved ginger to crystallised.

The fruit and spices for this cake need to sit and commune with the juice overnight before you actually make and bake (I give it up to a week, with a good dose of brandy), so plan accordingly.

The brandy back then was a Croatian plum, the cake being the ideal use for bottles that come home from travels.  More recently I’ve been using Framboise, a clear spirit from Luxembourg, though 2017 will be the last for that one.  Next year I may dabble with gin, perhaps a fresh and zesty Blackwoods, or one of the Rock Rose variants – which I may have to test extensively between now and then…

Mix all the ingredients on the first list in a large bowl. Turn them over thoroughly. Cover and leave overnight, preferably several nights, mixing daily.

Preheat oven to 170C/Gas 3 (this is real hit or miss cooking on a Rayburn). Gather the ingredients from the second list. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one by one and add the vanilla extract and almond essence.

Put the flour, spices and baking powder from the third list in a bowl and stir them together. Mix the fruit and flour mixture alternately into the creamed butter and sugar, a little at a time. Line a 20-23cm cake tin with three layers of greaseproof paper and a final layer of bakewell paper. Pour in the mixture and decorate with blanched almonds unless you intend to marzipan and ice.

I wrap the tin with a triple layer of greaseproof, on the outside, and a similar lid.  You need to ensure the lid overlaps, to prevent burning, the cake being in the oven for four hours.

Bake for 2 hours before turning down the heat to 150C/Gas 2 for a further 2 hours.

For my oven I reduce the heat after 1hr 45mins, and put on the extractor fan to cool the oven quicker.  I use a top baking sheet, which Aga/Rayburn users will be familiar with, and also reduce the level of the sheet when turning the temperature down, the cake itself being one rung up from the bottom of the oven.  Giving the tin a quarter turn every hour helps too.

Remove the cake from the oven, puncture it with a few holes with a skewer and pour in the booze – an extra tbsp or two won’t hurt. Leave the cake to cool in its tin.

Next day remove cake and peel off greaseproof etc. Wrap in fresh greaseproof and keep on airtight tin or firmly sealed with foil for at least a month. I’ll spare you the recipes for the marzipan and icing, given that I cheat and use ready to roll stuff.

Marzipan now made, to Tamasin’s recipe, but the icing is still ready-rolled for that perfect flat and smooth finish.