Sunday, February 24, 2013

Winter survival, expert edition

"Ex" as in "has-been", "spurt" as in "drip under pressure." (Popular RAF enlisted man's saying, circa 1980. Generally used to refer to any pointy-headed officer or boffin, or oneself, in deprecation.)

The weather has been steadily improving, by Maine standards. Although it's snowing steadily out there right now, and we may get another four inches, at least it isn't four feet.

And the temperature is a whole 27 degrees F, which is a lot better than -10 or -15 degrees F.

One or two days have been warm and sunny and in the high 30s or low 40s.

The days are getting longer, and there's this distinct feeling of being well "over the hump" and sliding down the easy side of winter's mountain.

Even so, it's best not to be suckered in. One of the things I teach is a general upper-level class on climate, and I well know that we can get one, two and occasionally three-feet snowstorms in Maine right through April.

Here's the one we got in 2011, a foot or more. But that was the only one I could find in the Great Farm Diary.

In any case, it behooves one to have a few activities and distractions, lest cabin fever take over.

For her part, Aimee has been cleaning. Not spring cleaning, I guess, but mid- or late-winter cleaning. I've noticed a distinct uptick in the besoming index. She's brushed out corners and mopped floors. The bathroom has been scrubbed and re-scrubbed. There's even been a little light dusting, an activity we often neglect. (With two dogs, two cats and a wood stove, this is a major family failure.)

I've done my bit, cleaning out under the sink when we had the plumbing leak, and getting a few cobwebs with the feather duster.

I've also been more than normally diligent about smoke alarms. I watch the local news on the TV most evenings, and there's been a heck of a lot of fires in these parts.

Here's one that occurred in Unity last week. This old Victorian was split into a small number of rental units, and one of our students and her mum lost their home and everything they had. They have a place to stay, but still, that's pretty horrible.

I'm well aware of the death trap nature of old wooden houses when it comes to fire. The Womerlippi farmhouse has been properly retrofitted, with fire-retardant insulation in the walls, lots of smoke alarms, a carbon monoxide alarm, and a proper new chimney for the wood-burning stove, but I still check the smoke alarm batteries fairly frequently in winter.

On a brighter note, here are some winter activities that made me happy. The first is, I made clotted cream.

Most Americans have never tasted this British specialty. Worse, yet, if they are like Aimee, they turn their nose up at the very name. After all, who wants to eat anything that has clotted? We may need to rename the dish.

But clotted cream is one of the British foods I miss a good deal, along with proper fish and chips, a decent Indian take-away, and a good pint of fresh real bitter ale. Whenever I go home, these are the things I usually try to get a little of.


Clotted cream, it turns out, can be made on a wood stove. In Britain, it would most likely be an Aga that would be used, but here in the States we have the usual black cast iron stoves, and these, apparently, will do just fine if they're not too hot. 

I'll let you know how it works out.

I also made trifle. This is another British specialty that Aimee turns her nose up at, but she'll happily partake of tiramisu, which is really an Italian trifle and made much the same way with sponge cake, booze, custard and cream.

In my case I made fresh egg custard and yellow Victoria sponge cake, and used cheap cognac and a little Vermouth, for want of sherry. It turned out well.

When sister Carol and I were little, mum made trifle every Saturday, as well as chocolate cake,and we had both for Saturday tea, usually after cheese on toast. When I explained this to Aimee she was quite shocked. 

"You mean to say, you had dessert every weekday and two on Saturday?"

Well, urm, yes, I suppose if you put it that way...."

(But we also grew up in a candy store, a high-end sweet shop. So we had access to lots of sweet stuff, on top of the two dessert Saturdays. No wonder we're both a little plumper than we should be.)

My final and perhaps best line of defense against the winter blues this year has been books. In particular I've been reading about, and trying to come to terms with, the history of the British Empire. By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, in the early 1970s, much of the old Empire had been liquidated. The void, of course, was filled with the informal American commercial empire and the old Soviet empire, the latter now also thankfully defunct.

But then we had the Falklands War, whose 30th anniversary was last year. I was in the service during the Falklands War, and experienced the full flood of emotions that every other Brit did at the time. And guys I knew served on Navy ships like HMS Sheffield, named for my home town, and at the RAF base on Ascension Island.

I think this was perhaps the moment at which I began to realize that Britain had once had an Empire, a very large one, and that this fact explained a lot of what went on in the world, from Irish nationalism to Rugby Internationals.

The left-leaning school curriculum during the 1960s and 1970s in the so-called People's Republic of South Yorkshire hadn't really covered this history very much, and so when I began to encounter a little lingering anti-British hostility in the US, I felt at something of a disadvantage.

It's been helpful to read up on the Empire. This began a couple of decades ago, after a particularly bruising brush with a University of Montana Professor of Irish History. Now I realize a) what an utter idiot the man was (he used to tell stories of poor starving Irishwomen who had to peel potatoes with their fingernails), b) the British Empire was probably a better deal for it's inhabitants than the alternatives, ie, Russian/Soviet empires, the French, German and Belgian, and even perhaps most recently the burgeoning American Empire, and finally c) as working class Brits, our family was fairly well oppressed by the British Empire system too, grandma Lettie having been, essentially, an indentured servant, grandad Arthur having been a household gardener and cannon fodder during WWI to boot.

This doesn't mean to say that the cruel Empire didn't do horrible things to lots of people.

Just that it also did them to my people too.

(Except that I've mostly gotten over it, and I don't hold long-dead people and policies responsible for my own failures.)

What anti-British feeling in the US there once was seems to be dying out in any case, to be replaced by a kind of commercial merger of the two celebrity cultures, perhaps fed by the large scale military merger that has been ongoing since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan jointly reset the button on the Special relationship. Serious news-consuming Americans listen to the BBC on the radio, while Americans of all classes, races, and ethnic extraction seem to love watching Downtown Abbey on PBS.

Even Top Gear has an American following, to eternal British shame.

Now, if anything, the British and our dregs of Empire such as Ascension and Diego Garcia have become minor partners in the new American Empire, including the ownership of a few shares in the prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, as well as options on the drone strikes. I worry that these atrocities will linger in the minds of others of the world's peoples as long as, say, the executions after the Easter Rising, or the Amritsar massacre that David Cameron just apologized for. We're going to need a better, more trusting relationship with the rest of the world, particularly if it comes to the crunch with China.

So American excuses for anti-British hostility have more or less evaporated, haven't they, now that Americans are just as complicit imperialists? While the history of the British Empire informs the outcome of American imperial policy.

And Jeremy Clarkson is just as much of a twit on American TV as he is on British.

But I doubt any of this will mean I'll be able to talk Aimee into trying either trifle or clotted cream.

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