Tuesday, 11 March 2014

BBC Magazine article: "Which should come first - cheese or pudding?"... a considered response...!

Every so often, the Beeb tends to publish somewhat thought-provoking and even contentious articles, designed to incite debate. At least, that's their stated intent. This time however, I'm not at all sure if their tongues were either well inside their cheeks, or intent on setting others tongues (mostly those belonging to members of the middle and upper class) wagging vociferously.

In a formal and traditional middle and upper class setting, when someone says that something is Just Not Done, attention should be immediately be paid in full to what it is that they're talking about. Now, someone saying that something "Just isn't Cricket, Old Boy", is saying that something isn't fair, or has been deliberately improperly performed - not adhering to the rules of the game, so to speak.

But "Not Done"? Wow. This is the sort of comment that results in cups of tea being spilled. They see transgressions of established tradition as being the cornerstone of the Fall Of Empire, or some similar level of horror. You get the idea: Indignation unbounded by reason.

And in this case, it's all about the format of the formal dinner setting...

Here's the thing. It seems that a certain food writer, who appears on the face of things to be something of a progressive in these things, and who appeared on a BBC 2 programme last night, has said something so shocking, so subversive, that society as a whole could be set on the verge, nay the cusp, of complete and utter social disarray...

So, what was the comment that set right-minded civilisation on the edge of annihilation?

That the dessert course should be the last course in a formal dinner, not the cheese course.

"I'm sorry. She said WHAT?!"

For those who have never even heard of the formal dinner format, here's a couple of points to note. Formal gatherings of people of note - normally royalty, politicians, high society, and similar - have evolved over the centuries, and came to the peak of their development in the Victorian Era. They've pretty-much stayed in the same general format ever since; this format is known the world over, and despite regional variations, is fairly similar wherever you go, these days.

A formal dinner was the pinnacle of this high social one-upmanship "my brass thing's better than your brass thing" system, and while the reasons for the meals may have gone from childish faux Public School-like shoe-size mentality bragging, to more mature themes, the events themselves are no less special.

These days, a formal dinner is a structured meal, normally held to honour a distinguished guest, or to celebrate a special event, or what have you, where all the participants are on their best behaviour, and dressed to the nines in high formal wear.

So, if you've seen any period dramas on the television, such as "Upstairs Downstairs", or "Downton Abbey", or watched high society documentaries and such like, they've featured in those a fair bit, so you should have a fair idea of the format involved.

I've been to a few, mostly when I was a Territorial Army soldier, which were either the Company Annual Camp Dinner (not too formal, but where smart wear, such as a decent suit, is required), or the Regimental Christmas Dinner, where the appropriate formal uniform was generally required (somewhat appropriately, it's called "Mess Dress").

I've also been to a couple of civilian formal dinners over the years, most recently my Company's Annual Awards Dinner (where I rather proudly received my 10-years long service award. Good God. I've been on the buses for TEN YEARS?! Wow. Ahem. Moving back on topic again, now...).

The - ahem - HESH-tab-eh-lished format...

So, what goes into a formal dinner? Well, it depends on the length of the meal, or in how many courses - parts - the meal is to be served. The average number is five, but your meals may vary upon the event and the organiser(s) involved.

Here's a fairly typical five course format in the civilian mode, Regimental ones being ever-so-slightly more involved and formal (understatement) occasions...

  • Starter
    A small dish, to get the appetite moving. Normally a consommé (a clear, light soup), or maybe a pâté of some type on some form of crisp bread or toast.
  • Fish
    As it says: This is a small serving of fish, normally with a few appropriate vegetables.
  • Main
    This is (pun intended) the meat of the meal. Red or White meat, with the appropriate vegetables and sauces, if required.
  • Pudding
    The sweet, or dessert, course.
  • Cheese
    A selection of cheeses, served with water or dry biscuits. Coffee will normally be served at the same time, as well.
There are also conventions - accepted rules - on what kinds of wines to serve with certain courses - fowl and fish, for example, are almost always accompanied by white wine, with beef, gammon, and other red meats being accompanied by red wines.

Port, a fortified wine, is normally served after the cheese course in more formal dinner settings (there are clear, if slightly strange, traditional rules regarding how it is handled once at the table, the origins for these rules having being lost in the mists of time).

The rocking of the boat...

So when Mrs. Berry made her comment, traditionalists were aghast. The monocles of many of those dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists probably rocketed almost explosively out of their sockets at the speed of sound. Cups of tea were certainly spilled in utter shock and horror!

They think the idea of serving the cheese before the dessert - or "Pudding" - course, is akin to passing the Port to the right at a Regimental Dinner - One just Does Not Rock The Boat of tradition in that manner, in those social circles - it's Just Not Done (spot the capitals and italicisation there).

On a more practical note...

There's also, I suspect, a more reasoned cause for the dropped optical aids at work here. In traditional formal dinners, the cheese course is accompanied, as mentioned above, by the Port. It is at this time that various brief speeches and toasts are given to the assembled high muck-a-mucks. It is far easier - and eminently more practical - to pause chomping in a cheese course, than it is in a pudding course. Cheese is already cold - certain desserts - puddings - are not. All things considered, probably the last thing you want is for a properly cooked and delivered dessert to be ruined half-way-through devouring it, because you had to stand during, for example, the Loyal Toast. Cheeses are much more forgiving, in those circumstances, after all.

So, for my money, Pudding Before Cheese. Always.

And to hell with the Progressives!


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

I'm often asked...

"Why do you drive that prehistoric lump?"

They're referring to my ex-MoD (Army) Series 3 109" Land Rover (Military specification). It was built in 1983, and spent ten years with the Territorial Army, before being 'cast off', and eventually sent for disposal at auction. I'm it's fourth civilian owner.

Why do I own it?

  • It's a bit of history - I drove one when I was in the T.A. back in the 90's.
  • It may not be fast (even going downhill with a tail wind), but it's a fun thing to drive, being a go-almost-anywhere vehicle.
  • It's easy to find in car parks - it's camouflaged, not shiny, and therefore stands out... well, that and being a bit taller than you're average seventy-thousand quid footballers SUV plastic toy  
  • I use it for my Living History hobby, not just because it can carry all the I use over the course of a weekend at one of those events, but as part of the display stand as well;
  • It's because there's a fellowship of sorts between Land Rover owners, as we tend to wave to each other on the roads (it tends to be Series and Defenders who are this friendly, in the main, although Discovery and Freelander owners get the occasional look-in as well), go to specialist events (the much-attended Newbury "Sort Out", as it's known to many, comes immediately to mind), and run clubs for each other of many flavours (there are generic Landie clubs, Series Landie clubs, Ex-Military Landie clubs, Lightweight Landie clubs, and so on and so forth);
  • and oh yes, the insurance tends to be cheaper for older vehicles as well.

But most of all?

It's relatively cheap - and easy - to maintain yourself; you don't need a degree in computer engineering, or any overly expensive or complex tools, to perform routine maintenance on it. Just a willing pair of hands, a little knowledge (Haynes car maintenance manuals and other similar publications), and maybe the help of a willing friend or three every so often, and that's that - job done.

There's a saying in Land Rover owner circles: "The Job's NEVER done!" What do we mean? It's simple: Once you've cracked it, and got one maintenance task done, another rears it's sarcastic head, and beckons you forth to smack it on the head with a deadfall hammer. Or a breaker bar. Or both. Simultaneously (that's called two-fisted engineering, by the way).

So having owned this wagon for the best part of a year and a half now, what have I fixed, or had help with fixing?

  • Exhaust manifold replaced (cracked and then some).
  • Carburettor replaced (leaking float and gaskets).
  • Sump gasket replaced (leaking).
  • Rocker cover gasket replaced (leaking).
  • Oil changed.
  • Oil filter changed.
  • Replaced broken speedo cable.
  • Offside door top replaced (rusted to and then some).
  • Added cigarette lighter socket (to power my phone and other electrically powered accessories).
  • Replaced faulty indicator switch.
  • Replaced over-powered halogen headlights with more normal specification-compliant 7" sealed units, the halogens having created the problem with the indicator switch in the first place, by drawing too much power through it and causing the plastic frame of the switch assembly to warp as a by-product of the heat through the electric contacts of the headlight/beam switch (it's a weird lighting circuit path in a Landie).
  • Removed spare tyre from top of hard top roof, where it was bending the metal of the roof and rendering it somewhat less than waterproof at the joints.

The list of lesser problems and pending fixes goes on a fair bit, but the above are what I, or my mates and I, have dealt with thus far. And since no good deed ever goes unpunished, as soon as we fix one problem, as mentioned above, another crops up - the latest is a serious one: The water pump is about ready to fall over .

This last one is going to take at least a day to fix, as the radiator really has to come out first, before you can get to the water pump, which is behind the radiator fan, alternator, and associated gear at the front of the engine. And oh yeah, you have to completely drain all the coolant out first, which cannot be poured down a drain as it's toxic, so has to go to a specialist dump. Wonderful.

Remind me.

WHY do I drive this prehistoric lump?

Oh yeah.

Because it's fun.

I must be bloody mad!