Notes from the Green Party MEP for East of England. Biographical reflections on life as an MEP. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...

Monday, 31 December 2007

Ecologically sound Christmas presents

The best one I received this year was two glass milk bottles to return to the milkman, presented without christmas wrapping but with an optional, re-used, biodegradable paper carrier bag.

I suppose a better present in this case would have been for the giver to sign up to have the milkman deliver regularly...

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Things that gladden one's heart!

Nice people in Norwich who turn off my bike lights (and don't steal them) so even when I accidentally leave them behind on the bike when I park it at the station, and I get back a week later, the batteries are not flat.
Hooray for generous kind people like that, whoever you are!

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

My guilty secrets

I confess...

This weekend we're flying to Naples for a wedding...

I can't even hail a taxi...

Overheard fleetingly on the way to the station last Monday, the middle of a conversation:

"And then she said 'why, I can't even hail a taxi!'". The speaker, on uttering this, was raising her hand above the shoulder, as in hailing taxis.

Now I don't know for sure what this conversation, of which I caught such a fleeting moment as I cycled past, was about. But it rang a sort of bell.

Why have so many people got rheumatic aches and pains in their arms this Autumn? And pains in their backs? I know of at least four with a similar rheumatic inflammation in the shoulder and arm that makes it hard to move the arm or lift anything. I feel sure that the person telling her interlocutor this story from her front door was reporting another case of the same illness. I've had it since the end of September.

Is it a virus going round Cambridge at the moment? Or is it a reaction to some kind of pollution? Or is it the effect of the vitamin deficiency we're all suffering following a summer with no sunshine? Or what is it? Does anyone else know of any cases? Are there any cases that are not women?

Thursday, 8 November 2007

How to make your own semi-skimmed milk 3

Method 3

  1. Don't shake your milk bottle. Carefully remove the foil top.
  2. Stand the milk bottle on the kitchen surface.
  3. Place a stool next to the surface and stand a jug on the stool. The top of the jug should be lower than the bottom of the milk bottle.
  4. Take a length of flexible thin plastic tubing and plunge one end of it down to the bottom of the milk bottle.
  5. Suck on the other end of the tubing until the milk is drawn up into the tube. Cover the end of the tube and lower it into the jug.
  6. Milk will flow through the siphon from the bottom of the milk bottle into the jug.
  7. Stop the siphon before it starts trying to take the cream (it'll probably get bunged up then anyway).
This way you get skimmed milk in the jug and a small quantity of top-of-the-milk cream in the bottle...

Friday, 2 November 2007

English Apples

Conversation with boy (apparently white, native) at the Liverpool Street Station greengrocers' stall on Tuesday:

I to boy: "Have you any English apples?"

Boy to me: "English apples? There's no such thing."

I to boy (puzzled): "No, I mean have you any ENGLISH apples?"

Boy to me: "There's various kinds of apples: Golden delicious, Braeburn, [something]-Reds. We don't have 'english apples'".

I to boy, in some desperation: "No I don't want any of those, I wanted some English ones."

Boy (puzzled) to man who runs stall: "What are English apples?"

Man to boy: "Means coxes. There's none left."

I to boy and man: "Oh". Walks away, wondering whether he means that England has run out of coxes, or that the stall had temporarily sold out for the day.

This stall was about an hour's distance from Kent, which was once an orchard as I recall, the "garden of England". The Golden Delicious were probably from France. The Braeburns probably six months old and from New Zealand. The Granny Smiths probably six months old and from S. Africa.

But this conversation is so sad, in so many ways, that you wonder whether there's any hope left. There was, in fact, no British produce on the stall at all, as far as I could see.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

How to make your own semi-skimmed milk: method 2

Here's another method of making your own semi-skimmed milk, easily done if you're making something with hot milk.

Pour the milk into a milk pan and warm it over the heat. When it's hot, pour it off gently in such a way that it leaves the skin behind in the pan.

The rich creamy residue can be given to the cat, or washed away with the washing up water (though that's a tragic waste of resources, when there are hungry people who would be glad of it...). I believe that's how they make clotted cream so I suppose you could collect it and make a home made version of clotted cream that way.

NB you can't use precisely this method for microwave hot drinks and sauces, but you can do something similar by skimming the skin off afterwards from the finished product.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

How to make your own semi-skimmed milk

If it's true that the semi-skimmed milk from the milkman is still homogenised (see discussion here) then the answer seems to be to buy natural full cream milk from the milkie and, if you prefer something skinnier for putting in your tea, make it yourself.

Here's one way (how my parents used to do it). You take the foil cap off the bottle without upending it or shaking it. You pour off the first inch or so, which is largely the cream, into a small cream jug, and leave the semi-skimmed milk in the bottle. You may need to use a teaspoon vel. sim. to scrape the cream out of the top of the bottle if it's well stuck.

Then you serve the creamy bit with porridge, or in your coffee, or with fruit salad or give it to the cat. The milk in the bottle is relatively low fat and can be used for whatever you want the low fat sort for.

This is technologically simple and requires no specialist equipment. If you don't have a small cream jug you can use an espresso cup or even an old fish-paste jar.

The disadvantage is that it's a bit inaccurate. Because of the rules of physics, some of the thinner stuff creeps out as you pour off the cream, so the creamy bit can turn out to be a little disappointing when you pour it on your porridge. What looked like a decent jug of cream turns out to be a thin layer of cream on a thick layer of watery milk. But there's not much problem with the thin stuff left in the bottle.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

English Apples

Today I bought an Early Windsor apple, as well as some more Worcester Pearmains, on Norwich market. On Cambridge Farmers' market on Sunday they were offering Worcester Pearmains and Tydeman's Early Worcesters, but I think the Worcester Pearmains are the ones to have.
I'm adding a link to a lovely site with pictures of lots of different varieties of English apples, here...

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Natural Refrigeration

For our holiday in Greece this year we spent some idyllic days at a place called Sangarada, on the Pelion peninsular. Sangarada is actually a collection of four villages suspended below the road on a steep hillside several thousand feet above the sea. Wonderful springs of water gush out of the side of the hill and tumble down the steep gullies, which are wooded with dense deciduous woodland and criss crossed by ancient paved paths.
Our village was called Agia Paraskevi, after its church. Beside the Church was the Plateia, and in the Plateia was a Plane Tree. Not just any plane tree. A plane tree like this:

The trunk of this tree is wide enough that you could stand ten or eleven people in front of it, across the diameter. The tree is thought to be the oldest in Europe, possibly 1500 years old. In this picture you can see someone standing in the fork of the tree...

and in this picture you can one of the branches, propped up by a stone pillar...

On the last day we were there it was rather more chilly than other days, because there had been a thunder storm in the night. We came back after a walk and went to sit at the café under the Plane tree by the church, for a drink. It soon became apparent that the place under the tree was not just cool and shady, it was like a fridge.
Well, of course it would be like a fridge, because what a tree does is fetch water up from underground and evaporate it through its leaves. And that's how a fridge works, because in order to get the water to evaporate it takes heat from the area below which is then cooled in the process. In this case, no doubt, a good deal of extra water was being evaporated —all the water that was still lying in drops on the leaves and branches after the storm. But it made us realise that sitting under a tree is cool on a hot day, not just because it's shady, but because it's actually doing some additional refrigeration work.

Since the invention of electric refrigerators I think we've rather forgotten about the effectiveness of natural refrigeration. It's not clear to me that we need to run our fridges at all most of the year. A cupboard in a shady place outside the back door, covered with a wet cloth, would be at least as good if not better.

And you know those pictures of people carrying their lunch in a red spotted handkerchief tied to a stick carried over the shoulder? (Pigling Bland has the lunch in a spotted handkerchief but I can't find a picture of the stick anywhere....). Well, the secret is that you make the cloth damp, and it keeps your lunch moist and also chilled. And you carry it hung from a stick so it doesn't make your hands cold and wet, and it gets maximum evaporation. Clever, no? I recommend it. There's no good need for a cool box...

Saturday, 8 September 2007

English apples

This week's great joy is the arrival of Worcesters!

Great bargains in charity shops

Today I bought
  1. A bundle of dark green towels (a face cloth, two hand towels and a bath towel), still tied up in a tartan ribbon and with the label attached, pure cotton, made in Turkey, very nice.
  2. A black silk shirt for Robin, originally Marks and Spencers
  3. A rather special woollen shirt traditionally made in Tequile, for myself.
Tequile is an island in the Lake Titicaca, where life is still splendidly traditional. The men do the spinning and the weaving. The shirt was brand new, still with its original paper label which informs me that the price was $45 (I paid £4.99) and that it was imported from Tequile by Dreamweaver Imports, California.
Well, I'm a little puzzled by the history of this before it reached me.
It's probably too tickly for a shirt (unless I'm going in for penitential hair shirts) but it will make a nice sweater.

Great bargains in charity shops

Introducing a new occasional series about the joys of shopping for recycled goods.... Do add your own stories in the comments section

Beetroot in citrus sauce

A long time since I provided a beetroot recipe, so here's another one we used to do rather frequently in the 1980s.

about 2 lbs beetroot (no tops required)
water to cover
1 1/2 tbsp cornflour
1 lemon, rind and juice
1 orange, rind and juice
2 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 oz butter

NB items 1 to 4 of the method should be done a bit in advance, or you can reheat beetroot that is already boiled and ready from another day.
  1. Scrub the beets carefully (we want to use some of the cooking water, so we don't want dirt in it).
  2. Put them in a pan and cover them with cold water. Bring to the boil and boil for about 45 minutes to an hour until tender.
  3. Drain off the liquid into a jug (we need about half a pint of this: the rest can go).
  4. Allow the beetroot to cool a bit, then peel them and slice them thinly.
  5. Mix the cornflour to a smooth paste in a jug, with a little of the cooled beetroot stock.
  6. Add further stock to make the sauce up to half a pint.
  7. Add the lemon rind and juice and orange rind and juice to the jug and mix well. Turn it into a large pan and heat gently over a low heat, stirring all the time until it thickens.
  8. Add the salt, sugar and ground cloves to the sauce.
  9. Add the butter and beat it in well with a wooden spoon.
  10. Heat the sauce to piping hot. Then add the beetroot and continue over the heat until the beetroot is thoroughly hot through.
  11. Serve hot as a vegetable accompaniment to strong dark meat or other winter meals, and with red wine. It goes well with Christmas dinner or on Boxing Day.

Things useful for bringing up children without a car

Living in the city!

One important thing for the car-free family is to live in town, near a station and on a bus route, preferably a bus route that takes you to the station if it's not walking distance.

We've always lived on the wrong side of the city for the station. I suspect this isn't accidental, because the prices get higher and the quality of the housing goes down the nearer you are to the station.

The explanation of the poor quality of the housing is presumably because the station was a dirty smelly smoky place in the nineteenth century, and the only dwellings that grew up there were for the railway workers. I can think of some exceptions in the grand roads near Cambridge station, but over the railway bridge on Mill Road illustrates the phenomenon I have in mind.

The explanation of the high prices now is the London commuters, I presume.

So walking distance will probably need to be sacrificed if you aren't yourself one of those well-heeled London commuters. And that's not such a terrible sacrifice, because after all, you can easily afford to take a taxi to the station whenever there's too much luggage for cycling.

Many people think it's nice for the children to grow up in the country. But actually this is just putting a noose round your neck which will eventually strangle both you and the children, certainly by the time they become teenagers. What a child needs is a locality with lots of local friends, who play in the street or at each others' houses, and the freedom to come and go from School and from each others' houses without needing to have Mum come to fetch them. Unfortunately with today's small families, it's hard to find a neighbourhood with a sufficient concentration of children of the same age, but it's much more likely in a family neighbourhood in the city than anywhere else.

And one shouldn't be seduced by the thought that the house prices are cheaper in the country where there are no bus routes. Because (as I said before) the financial cost of running a car is far greater than you would suppose, besides the very considerable cost in happiness as a result of the lack of freedom and independence that it causes in your life and that of all the family.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

My guilty secrets

I've just used something like 500 kg of CO2 as a passenger on an aeroplane to Athens and back. Oops.
Just back from a trip that combined professional work and a holiday, in Greece. The travel was organised by a travel agent in Greece. You sort of think that when the place is four hours away by air, you need to fly because the train travel would be too long and complicated. But I think that's not really true. We were put to shame by one of the participants on the course we were teaching on (a summer school for classics teachers) who had travelled out by train.
Well, at least we managed the work and the holiday on just one set of return flights. But still, none would be better than one.
Now I've discovered the most wonderful web site which tells you how to get to anywhere without using a flight, and how to book trains and ferries instead. It's at The man in seat 61 (I'll add the link to my list of links on this blog).
Perhaps I should think again about my trip to Toronto in the autumn?

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Strawberries from the USA

One of the things that really annoys me is when people buy out-of-season or imported things, at a time when the English equivalent is right there in front of them. We're just going into the English Apple season which is the time when this problem most annoys me.
But right now it's strawberries. There I was in Tesco (stupid hateful shop) gazing at an array of Strawberry punnets in front of me, looking lovely and grown in Worcestershire. Excellent. Right next to them were more trays, also of equally red strawberries, apparently identical until you looked closely; but they came from the USA.
Along comes this Dad and his small daughter and looks at the US strawberries.
"Ooh these look nice and big"
"Mmm lovely. Aren't they huge! Let's have these."
And they pick up a box of American imports and continue.

Now there are several things wrong with this whole mentality, including, of course, the false idea that large strawberries are nice. (They're not. The more water they contain the more insipid the flavour).

But what puzzles me is why there should be any strawberries from America in the shop at all. Why should the public be expected to read the tiny print to see whether the produce is local. Given that strawberries are produced here and in abundance, isn't it reasonable for the shopper to assume that the seasonal produce is from Britain.

I think it's time we got some legislation that removed overseas imports altogether at times when local seasonal products are on the shelf. We shouldn't need to have labels that say it's local. It should just be local or not there at all.

Thursday, 26 July 2007


Now I've discovered another alternative to wellingtons. They're called Overboots and they're flexible rubber socks that you put over your shoes. When you aren't wearing them they are a lot less awkward to carry than wellingtons. And you can go to a party in your party shoes: just peel off the overboots when you get there!

My father used to have something similar called goloshes, but they were just shoes, so they didn't protect the legs and trousers; and they weren't flat pack like these ones.

These amazing useful things can be bought in Hawkshead shops, and are currently reduced to £1 a pair. How good is that?

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Carbon offsetting again

I spent last weekend at the Joint Session (a major UK philosophical conference with about 250 delegates). It was hosted at a rather unpleasant campus which seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to the surface of the moon—or particularly the moon as it would look if covered in a maze of rectangular concrete buildings—, on the edge of Bristol, currently known as UWE, though in days gone by it was called Bristol Poly. It's not a place I am keen to see again in my lifetime. As a colleague pointed out, if they'd done the abbreviation properly the University of the West of England would be known as University of the WOE.

We weren't originally supposed to be at the University of WOE, but at the real University of Bristol, which might have been better aesthetically, and certainly would have landed us in a more desirable urban environment (as it was, the only things within walking distance were Hewlett Packard's works and, I gather, some examples of the edge of the city retail park with its B&Q and so on). But thanks to Bristol University and its building programme, the conference had been relocated at rather short notice.

But the point of this post is not the place we were in, but the process of getting there. This is what they said on the conference information:

Directions to the UWE Frenchay Campus are available at Note that the nearest train station is Bristol Parkway rather than Bristol Temple Meads.

The Philosophy Department at the University of Bristol operates a carbon off-set scheme. Any delegates wishing to minimize the environmental impact of their conference travel are requested to contact Finn Spicer:

Now when unpacked as a guide to how to get to Bristol this seems to me to say the following:

We assume that you will typically be coming by car. You'll need directions for how to get there which can be found on the web site mentioned. Some people prefer to come by train, but we don't specially recommend that. Bristol Parkway is nearer than Bristol Temple Meads, but it's not really very near and not really very convenient. We don't see much difference in environmental impact between coming by car and coming by train, and since we now run a carbon offsetting scheme, there's really no need to use the train or to worry at all about the impact of driving, as long as you're prepared to pay a few pence for someone else to do the tiresome bit of being green on your behalf, so you might as well drive, use the free parking on campus and just send us a bit of money to salve your conscience (if you have any: we're proud that we do have a conscience as you can see).
Now it seems to me that what they should have said is the following:
Although there is free parking on campus, we strongly urge you to consider travelling by train rather than by car. Bristol Parkway, with high speed trains from London, Didcot and South Wales, is only a five minute bus ride from campus and there are plenty of taxis to be had. Train travel accounts for far fewer carbon emissions than road travel, and your train journey will assist the Bristol University Philosophy Department's attempt to become carbon neutral in all its activities. Contributions to the carbon offsetting scheme can be made by contacting ... but such contributions should not be regarded as a substitute for a low carbon lifestyle.
I hope one would say something like that even if train travel were quite a lot more difficult than it was in this case.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Hooray for wellington boots!

This week I bought a wonderful pair of wellies. They're pistachio green with pink trimmings and pink and blue spots. Just right for the summer.
I've decided to wear them all the time.
One huge advantage is that it makes it practical to ride my bike while wearing pale or white trousers, even on a bike with no chain guard, and even in wet conditions.
This is a major improvement to the quality of life. When I get a chance I will add a photo.

Air conditioning on trains

Does anyone else share my abhorrence for trains which have sealed windows and air conditioning?
There are two main problems in my experience.
One is that if the heating/air conditioning goes wrong there is nothing whatever anyone can do about it. One of the trains on the Norwich line had a faulty heating system in the winter which was blowing out extra cold air on some of the really cold days, so that you were chilled to the bone even sitting in an insulated ski-jacket.
Now we have the problem of "summer". The train companies seem to think that we want the train kept at exactly the same temperature whether it is winter or summer, and so (quite unnecessarily) they cool the train down on a nice warm day, so it's like getting into a fridge. What they don't seem to realise is that in the winter you get on in your thick socks and shoes, woolly sweater and long-sleeved shirt. Then you want the temperature set to the sort of level at which it's comfortable to read, without having to peel off all your warm clothes.
In the summer, by contrast, you arrive lightly clad, with sandals and short sleeves. On a warm day you probably don't even have a jumper or jacket with you. Three minutes into the journey on this refrigerated train you are perishing cold. You ask the "conductor" (meaning the guard) whether he can make it a bit warmer, but the answer of course is "no". There are no controls. The thing is just set at a certain temperature, presumably the same temperature winter and summer.
What a waste of energy! Most of the time we wouldn't need to be air conditioned: the outside air would be perfectly fine. And even if we do have air conditioning, it doesn't need to be working like a fridge to make us into blocks of ice. It could be set five degrees warmer, and we'd all be just fine. 21º in the winter and 25º in the summer would seem a sensible system to work on, to minimise energy and maximise comfort.
But best of all, let the human beings have control instead of the machines. Because, after all, we're the ones who have feelings...

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

What does it mean to be green?

At the moment it seems to mean getting cold and wet just about every day in June.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007


Last weekend I was lucky enough to be in a place in Wales which is at least five miles from any busy road, and between it and the nearest road is a mass of rolling hills. On Sunday morning at 7.30 I went out to hear what the world would be like without cars (there aren't many places in Britain where it is possible to listen to the natural world unpolluted).

It was impressive. There was an incredible racket going on. No human noises or engine noises were audible (though a low hum was present, perhaps from inside my head?).

There was a lot of birdsong, including identifiably blackbirds, wood pigeons and various other noisy participants. A cock was crowing loudly, from what I think must be the village, probably at least a mile away. Sheep were calling to their lambs and the lambs were replying, or vice versa. Wind was rustling the leaves of the trees.

However, despite all that incessant noise, it was a kind of silence. Lovely.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Homogenised milk

All that stuff about milk and calcium in the earlier posts was really leading up to a discussion of homogenised milk.

The reason for wondering about that was a letter in the Spring issue (229) of the Soil Association magazine called Living Earth. Sally and Keith Hall from Carmarthenshire had written to say "We became concerned about homogenisation after reading an article in Living Earth 219 and have since avoided homogenised milk. This has proved difficult, as suppliers do not state on their bottles that their milk is homogenised..."

This struck a chord with me because I too understood that homogenised milk had been shown to be bad for the health, because the process of homogenisation involves breaking the fat down into very small particles, which then pass directly through the gut into the blood stream and are to blame for filling the arteries with fatty deposits (whereas the cream from normal whole milk that has not been homogenised does not seep through the gut).

But besides the fat getting into the bloodstream instead of being digested properly and absorbed as nutrients the body can use, there's another problem with homogenised milk. Here's an explanation of what happens from a New Zealand website :
According to Dr Oster, with Dr Donald Ross of Fairfield University and Dr John Zikakis of the University of Delaware, homogenising allows the enzyme xanthine oxidase (XO) to pass intact into the blood stream. There it attacks the plasmologen tissue of the artery walls and parts of the heart muscle. This causes lesions that the body tries to heal by laying down a protective layer of cholesterol. The end result is scar tissue and calcified plaques with a build-up of cholesterol and other fatty deposits. We call these arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis. According to these experts, dietary cholesterol is not the main cause of heart attacks; it is homogenised milk.
The problem is that the enzyme is one which is designed to break down various kinds of food product, particularly prurines found in meat. If it gets into the blood stream it starts breaking down the artery walls as if they were meat in the stomach. Here's what they say:

Xanthine oxidase has a very specific function in our bodies. It breaks down purine compounds into uric acid, which is a waste product. The liver of several animals, including humans, contains Xanthine oxidase specifically for this purpose.

However, as Dr Oster said, "When foreign XO, such as that from cow's milk, enters the bloodstream it causes havoc by attacking specific targets within the artery walls." The "specific target" which Dr Oster refers to, as mentioned earlier, is the plasmologen tissue making up the artery cell walls. Plasmologen is vital as it holds together the cell membranes within the artery walls. Any damage from foreign Xanthine oxidase causes lesions to the artery walls. The body, in its efforts to protect and repair them, immediately responds by "patching" the damage with calcified plaque. In the later stages of arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis, arteries lose their elasticity as additional calcium is deposited. Calcification of the arteries can contribute to high blood pressure which is actually not a disease by itself, merely a symptom. It has been found in some samples that plasmologen was missing in artery wall lesions and plaques. The mystery was solved when researchers found XO in the plaques. The two substances cannot co-exist.
So it seems that they've got fairly good evidence that deaths from heart disease and damaged arteries goes up exactly in line with whether the milk we drink is homogenised. So why are we getting so much homogenised milk now? Because (a) the supermarkets prefer it because it has a longer shelf life, and (b) people seem to like it because they've become used to not seeing the cream on the top of the bottle. But what you don't see may be worse than what you do see. In fact, there seems to be good reason to think there's absolutely nothing wrong with a good bit of natural raw milk with the cream on, but once it's been interfered with it is deadly.

What are they doing allowing the organic suppliers to use homogenisation, then? This is what the Soil Association said in reply to the letter from Sally and Keith Hall:

"Concern about homogenisation began in the 1970s with the theory that the process forced fat globules through the stomach lining into the bloodstream where they released xanthine oxidase (XO) thought to be linked to heart disease. However, new studies have found that XO appears at high levels in colostrum (the antibody-rich first milk produced immediately before and after giving birth) and is actually part of its immune boosting armoury. Whilst homogenisation is not believed to be harmful..."

Now this is a non-sequitur. In fact, the Editor of Living Earth seems to concede that homogenisation results in fat passing undigested into the blood stream, and also to the presence of XO in the bloodstream as a direct effect of homogenised milk.

BUT, says she, that's okay because for a day or two when we are newborn babies nature produces a very wonderful stuff called Colostrum for us, and that has this XO stuff in it, whereby we get our mothers' antibodies.

Hooray for XO, we are supposed to say?

But this is completely bizarre surely. Because we are not drinking colostrum, we are drinking cows milk. And we are not getting healthy from it, we are getting ill. And the reason we are getting ill is because the fat is leaking onto our artieries.

So just because for two days after birth we thrive on something that feeds XO into the bloodstream, it does not follow that this is good for us at age 2 or 12 or 22 or 32 or 62. Especially if, as we know, the rates of death from heart disease in Finland (where they drink homogenised milk) are three times as high as in Sweden where they drink unspoilt milk.

So here's another reason to have the milk delivered by the milkman, because thankfully, the milkman still brings the proper stuff with the cream at the top (not if it's semi-skimmed of course because to get semi-skimmed they have to remove the cream and then put it back in artificially). But the normal silver top bottles still come all creamy on top, so you have to upend them before you open them, and sometimes even scoop it out with a spoon before the milk will pour at all.

There are some interesting myths about fat and heart disease dispelled here.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Cycling and energy

There's a long running dispute in our household as to whether it uses more energy to cycle fast than to cycle more slowly.

I don't mean does it take more energy for the same amount of time. Obviously cycling faster is harder work, and uses more energy in a short time.

The question is this: if you need to go from here to the Sidgwick site, and you could go gently at, say, 10 miles an hour, or very energetically at about 15 miles an hour, you'd get there quicker by the latter method, but would you have burnt up all your weetabix more effectively?

Well here's the answer. Suppose the Sidgwick site is 2 miles away. Going at 10 miles an hour it will take you 12 minutes. Going at 15 miles an hour it will take you 8 minutes.

If you weigh 10 stone (which I don't, but never mind: we're trying to compare the results for the same person, not different people), riding at 10 miles an hour uses about 381 calories an hour, so you'll use 76.2 calories in 12 minutes.

The same 10 stone individual riding at 15 miles an hour uses about 636 calories an hour. So you'll use 84.8 calories in 8 minutes.

A serving of two weetabix with milk provides 190 calories, so by riding to the Sidgwick site you'll have used less than half your calories either way. But the difference between riding fast and riding slowly is 8.6 calories, which is about 1/10th of a weetabix. So if you are going to ride energetically, you'll need to eat a bit more breakfast if you're not to get hungry before elevenses (but on the other hand you gain an extra 4 minutes in which to go to the Buttery and get a coffee and a doughnut to keep you going).

Monday, 28 May 2007

What does it mean to be green?

It means that on Bank Holiday Monday you have a choice of either staying at home by the fire all day, or putting on your wellies, waterproof trousers, kagoule, sou'wester and gloves.

I chose the former today.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Shopping Bags

You'll remember the fuss about a month ago, relating to the cotton bags that were promoted by Sainsbury's to try to persuade people not to use plastic bags. The fuss was about the fact that the bags were made using cheap labour in China, were not organic cotton, nor fairtrade, and had been shipped across the world to the UK. I've kind of had it in mind to say something about it for some time.

Besides the issue of whether it's really very green to buy a bag that was shipped across the world, I can't see that it's at all helpful to promote the feeling that we must always have the latest fashion image. Of course I can see perfectly well why Sainsbury's wanted to capture the news headlines, and boost its green credentials (it's all part of the marketing business, and that's always in direct conflict with green initiatives, because the idea of marketing is to get people to buy things they don't need and pay more than is necessary for them). But really we ought to get rid of this whole idea of "having things" in order to be seen to be fashionable (or to be seen to be "green").

How about a fashion for not having things?

That's what would be truly green (as long as it wasn't achieved by throwing away perfectly good things we already have).

Here are some of the bags that we use for shopping. The first is my favourite brown suede bag. I've had it for, maybe, ten years, and I could do with putting in a new thong to tie it up with because the current one is a bit tatty in places, but otherwise it's got many years of service left in it. I bought it second hand in a charity shop, but it evidently originally came from Warehouse, though it doesn't say where it was made.

The second picture shows two leather duffel bags hanging on the cloakroom door. There's a history to these bags. About 25 years ago I went to the craft market in All Saints Garden on Trinity Street and was much taken with a stall where the man was selling his hand-made leather duffel bags and other leather goods. I bought the blue duffel bag on that occasion and gave it to the professor (well, he wasn't a professor then) for his birthday. But he was not at all pleased because the bag was much too small for any useful quantity of shopping. So the next week I went back to the stall and asked the man to make a larger bag, a really large one for doing lots of shopping. The wonderful red duffel bag is what he came up with. I hope the man who made them is able to see this post, because he should be proud of the fact that these lovely handmade local products have been used ever since and are still going strong. In particular the red one is used several times a week for the most strenuous tasks that would quickly break the back of any plastic bag: 25 lbs of potatoes, 8 bottles of wine, 15 lbs of marmalade oranges, gardening equipment and all sorts. Being leather it is indestructible and always protects its contents from the rain and the knocks. And the leather thongs that serve as the carrying strap and the closure never get dirty: they just get polished with use. This really is a bag for life, though you'll perhaps be able to see in the picture the scuff marks that reflect its 25 years of service.
In the third picture is a little cotton bag that came free with a set of table cloth and napkins about ten years ago. I added this picture because this is a bag that folds up so small that it's neater than a plastic bag, as well as stronger, so if you need to take an extra bag besides the leather shopping bag, or take a shopping bag in your briefcase to work so as to do the shopping on the way home, this one is very handy. And it's washable too, so although it doesn't stay clean and grease free, the way the leather ones do, it's easy to restore it to its original condition.

And fourth there's the shopping basket. I used to use this a fair bit when we walked to the local shop to buy loose eggs in Oxford, but I don't really find it very helpful now since we don't have a grocer's shop in walking distance. But it does have an advantage for keeping things flat and not pressing on each other: good for taking a tin of baked goods to a cake sale and so on.

So here's my green tip for the day: don't go out and buy a gimmicky new bag. Find a well loved and well used one and use it again and again and again and again. Let's make it fashionable to have an old well worn bag, the older and more venerable the better!

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Links from Ted Hutchinson

Here are clicakable links to the resources Ted Hutchinson mentioned in his comment: The World's Healthiest food Calcium .
With regards Vitamin D readers should be aware that 80% of our vitamin d comes from the action of sunlight on our skin.
Dietary sources of Vitamin d3 are not good and so it's not surprising that 90% of UK residents have insufficient status in the Winter and 60% remain insufficient through the Summer.

See this research Hypovitaminosis D in British adults at age 45 y:

Our bodies work best with between 3000 and 5000iu daily see Human serum 25-hydroxycholecalciferol response to extended oral dosing with cholecalciferol
The Vitamin D Council have lots more information about Vitamin D3 including on their links page links to cheap sources of Vitamin D3 at an effective strength (not sold in the UK) and at a very good price for sufficient to last one person 2 yrs.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Calcium and vitamin D (further thoughts)

Richard pointed out (in an e-mail) that I had claimed that there were no very good vegetable sources of calcium, and that the only serious alternative to milk was the fish where you eat the bones and all. What I said there had been based on rather popular and inexact reports on the internet, so I promised to check out some facts.

Here (from Denise Mortimore The Complete Illustrated Guide to Vitamins and Minerals) are some figures for quantities of dietary calcium in mg/100g (this is just a selection from a longer list of course, but the top ones are the important ones):

Kelp 1,093
Cheddar cheese 750
Sesame seeds 700
Sardines with bones 550
Dried figs 280
almonds 234
watercress 220
plain yogurt 200
pilchards 105
whole milk 103
cabbage 57
brown rice 32

So what I said was not quite accurate. Kelp is a very good source (but you would probably have to go out of your way to get that in even quite small quantities on a daily or weekly basis. It's not part of an ordinary popular diet available in schools and homes, in the way the milk, cheese and sardines are). Sesame seeds are also a good source, but again not so regular in our local produce. My concern is that one ought to be able to get adequate nutrients from a non-fussy seasonal diet based on local produce. And in that respect, the normal way of securing a calcium intake in this part of the world, where traditional meadow pasture is available, is from dairy products.

As regards vitamin D, in mcg/100g

Cod liver oil 212.5
Herring and kipper 22.4
canned salmon 12.5
eggs 1.6
butter 0.8
liver 0.8
cheddar cheese 0.3
whole milk 0.03
and a trace in dark green leafy vegetables.

Looking at this list, you might think that the butter, milk and cheese was a rather less effective way to get this vital nutrient than the herring and the cod liver oil. But the fact is that a good spread of butter on your bread twice or three times a day and some creamy milk on your breakfast cereal is likely to ensure that you have that smidgeon of a regular daily intake that is needed to add to the glimmer of sunshine that catches the edges of your ear lobes and (on a warm day) the backs of your hands on your way to work. Of course if you have a kipper or a boiled egg for breakfast every day, this will be quite helpful too, and might make up for the fact that we're giving up foreign holidays in sunny places because of the carbon emissions. Instead we can make up for it by going on a brave English holiday, with plenty of walks in the hills to get above the clouds, and staying somewhere where they serve The Traditional English Breakfast.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Norwich and the local election results

I think I should have said something about the spectacular results in the local elections in Norwich, because they didn't feature as prominently in news bulletins as they probably should have done.

In the recent city council elections in May the Green party gained an extra seat, going up from 9 seats to 10. In itself this is not an enormous difference since Norwich already had more Green party councillors than any other city in the UK.

However what's significant about it is that the Greens have 10 seats, the Liberal Democrats have 11 and Labour have 15 (the Conservatives are in fourth place with 3). So although Labour have a majority, it's not very large, and the Liberal Democrats are only just holding onto the second place.

And how near to not holding onto it they are! Their candidate won in Thorpe Hamlet by one vote. The Greens came second, losing that seat by one vote (Jeremy Hooke 953, James Conway 952, after four recounts).

Now, if the Greens had got that seat instead of the Liberal Democrats, the result would have been that the Greens had 11 and the Liberal Democrats had 10, and the Green Party would have been the second largest party.

Now that makes it looks as if it might actually matter whether you bother to vote in a local election...

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Milk cartons

On my way to Norwich this week I picked up a tatty copy of the Eastern Daily Press in the train. On about page three was an exciting article headed "pilot for greener pinta packaging". I immediately assumed it was talking about glass milk bottles but no. "First came the traditional glass milk bottle, then the plastic alternative – and now a Lowestoft supermarket has launched the ‘Green bottle.’"

That's how the article opened. Anyone would think, reading these words, that the traditional glass milk bottle no longer existed. And that the move from glass to plastic to the new sort was progress towards a greener alternative.

Alas no. This is yet another attempt by the supermarkets to climb onto a fake green wagon and persuade us that shopping at the supermarket is some kind of positive contribution to eco-friendly ways of doing things. This time the idea is that there is a cardboard outer bottle, which can be sent to cardboard recycling, and some kind of unspecified (plastic? presumably so) inner bag which evidently can't be recycled, but "is quickly biodegradable".


So you have to pull it apart and put part of it in the recycling box (or, for Cambridge presumably, the compost bin) and part of it in the landfill rubbish. Well, I'm sceptical how much of that will happen.

Part of this report makes sense: "With more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic bottles currently going to landfill each year – the equivalent of 260 jumbo jets ... "

Well, exactly. None of that need happen if people have their milk delivered in glass bottles that are re-used.

But some of it just doesn't make sense: “Designer Martin Myerscough said ‘It's always bothered me that consumers have had to buy milk in plastic bottles that are difficult to recycle.’”

But consumers in Britain don't have to buy milk in plastic bottles. If supermarkets didn't sell milk, no one would buy it in plastic bottles.

In my ideal Greener Britain, all local councils would subsidise the delivery of milk in re-usable glass bottles to people's doorsteps, so that it was the preferred way to get your milk, and they would allow only independent corner shops to sell milk over the counter. No milk available in supermarkets at all, and nothing in plastic bottles. That would cut 260 jumbo jets out of our landfill sites at a stroke. Just like that. And there'd be no cardboard to collect for recycling either. So the council would save money and the milk would be cleaner and greener. And people could have other groceries delivered, bread, milk, eggs, juice, yogurt, probiotic drinks and all the other things the milkman brings. And they wouldn't need to drive to the supermarket. And the Milkies would make a decent living, and they'd have enough families on their round to make their journey less wasteful. And the corner shops would be part of the community. And all would be well.

Monday, 14 May 2007

What does it mean to be green?

It means taking the children to the station by bike.

Here's a picture I took at Cambridge station one evening in the early spring. I don't know who the family was, but hurrah for such families!

Saturday, 12 May 2007

And another one about milk

I realise, after reading some more technical stuff, that what I wrote about the nutritional value of milk yesterday is a little bit misleading. We ought to distinguish more clearly between the importance of vitamin D and the importance of calcium. And, of course, both of these are distinct from the nutritional value of milk in terms of energy and protein (which was part of my point yesterday). So let's talk about vitamin D and calcium now.

Vitamin D is vital for the regulation of calcium. It not only supplies calcium to our bones when it can (so it's vital for growing bones), but it causes us to remove calcium from our bones if there is not enough calcium in the diet for our normal day to day needs. That's why you get osteoporosis or osteomalacia in adult life, if there isn't enough calcium in the diet.

As you'll see from the links I gave yesterday, they've discovered (and are discovering) that vitamin D and the hormones it generates are also important for a whole lot of other things in adult life, including prevention of colon cancer, autoimmune diseases, regulation of cholesterol and various other things.

As well as vitamin D you need the calcium so that the Vitamin D can do its job, keeping the right amount of calcium in your blood stream, and not taking it out of your bones to do so.

Where does milk come in then? Well it's not just a good source of protein and energy (as I mentioned yesterday, vital for diets in places where you can't grow strong grain rich in protein) but it's also a very good source of calcium. So in order to avoid serious bone problems, people need to be consuming a good deal of milk. There are no very good vegetable sources of calcium. The only alternative to milk is the kind of fish where you eat the bones, such as sardines and whitebait. The nutritional authorities suggest that for an adult you need this much every day: one glass of milk (200 mls), one small pot of yogurt, and a 40 gram portion of hard cheese. Anything less than that and you're at risk of calcium deficiency.

The other contribution is in respect of the vitamin D. The best sources of vitamin D are either sunbathing, or neat cod liver oil. If we work indoors and cover ourselves up with lots of clothes we tend to get not enough exposure to the sun (especially during the winter, when the days are too short and the sun barely gets above the horizon, let alone into the city streets). One way of getting more vitamin D, besides cod liver oil, is from the fats in milk products. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, and there tends to be some vitamin D in the milk and the butter from cows and goats and other grazing animals, because the cows stand out in the sunshine all day (well if there is some sunshine they get some of it). This means that even if we work indoors and wear lots of clothes in the winter, we can secure a bit of vitamin D from the milk we drink and the butter, cheese and whole-milk yogurt we eat, because the cow has been getting a better chance to make vitamin D and pass it on in the milk. The milk is creamier in the summer and has more vitamin D then, but even in the winter we can get some from a good glass of creamy milk or a decent spread of butter.

Of course, if you use semi-skimmed milk you'll cut out most of the valuable fat soluble nutrients, including the vitamin D, and all of it if you drink skimmed milk. That's one of the reasons why it's vital that children have full cream milk all through the time when their bones are growing, but actually, given how hard it is to get vitamin D if you're not working outdoors all year. I'd say it's not just children who should be on the look out for damage caused by lack of vitamin D. We may be building up problems in the form of cancer, bad cholesterol management and bone disease, for our old age, even middle age. The myth that semi-skimmed milk is better for you than whole milk needs to be challenged. It's only better for you if you need to avoid fats for some reason, but not if your diet is deficient in all the things it's likely to be deficient in, given the refined and processed foods raised on poor quality soil that most people are eating most of the time in Britain.

Despite a lot of misleading propaganda against dairy products, being put out by Vegan organisations, it isn't actually true that dairy products increase cholesterol problems. Most of the instructions about reducing animal fats in the diet ignore the evidence that dairy fats don't actually seem to be implicated (hard hydrogenated fats may be bad, and so may the kind of fat that comes in meat products and oily chips, but even this is not really securely proven). In fact if you think about why the results are not clear on any of these issues, and think about the fact that they're still only just discovering how the "essential fatty acids" and agents like vitamin D control our metabolism, you'll see that the chances are that when you cut out the dairy products, and especially the fats in dairy products, you cut out the very vitamins and hormones that the body needs in order to regulate its handling of fats and cholesterol. It's long been known that the capacity to manage cholesterol is related to hormones. It's time to stop blaming the fats in the diet and start working out why a healthy body with good hormones turns into an unhealthy one that starts depositing fat in its arteries. The answer to that may be in the diet, but it's going to be in the effect the diet has on the hormones, not in the simple issue of how much animal fat is provided in the daily diet. It's perfectly possible that we need to eat dairy products precisely in order to avoid problems with metabolising fats... For instance dairy products contain monounsaturates (these are kinds of fat that occur in olive oil, and some studies seem to think they help to lower cholesterol in the blood: personally I suspect that most of these studies are still jumping to conclusions by looking at correlations and drawing false conclusions about what the explanatory factors are, but there we are).

is a site which explains the enormous extent of the contribution to adequate nutrition in our society made by milk products.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Milk again

Richard sent me a comment but I'm refusing to publish it because it contains a link to a ghastly piece of rubbishy propaganda by a pseudo-scientist. I'm not sure how that site relates to a revolting piece of pseudo-scientific anti-milk propaganda on a flyer from a Vegan Society, that came with a magazine we received recently—about which I had to write and complain to the relevant organisation that had accepted this piece of nonsense for circulation as paid advertising no doubt (I forget whether it was the Soil Association magazine it came with, or the Friends of the Earth, but one of those). But the web site Richard had been reading is clearly peddling the same bad arguments.

The thinking goes like this (spot the flaws):

  1. Not all human beings have the enzymes to digest unprocessed milk.
  2. In fact in some races and cultures milk is not drunk in its raw state.
  3. This means that for those races milk is not a good food. It makes them ill.
  4. Ergo, milk is not a good or natural food for human beings.
  5. Therefore all of us should stop using it as a source of nourishment.

There's another bit of the argument which appeals to "nature", and I'll have more to say about that later, because it's another very bad argument, but this one should be kept separate from the one given above.

As any rational being can see, the fact that some people don't have the enzymes to digest lactose does not mean that lactose is damaging to those who do have the necessary digestive juices. On the contrary, if you do have them, milk is a source of nourishment.

Also, it is well known that the races that do generally have the ability to digest milk are the ones who live in places where milk is a crucial part of the diet. For instance in northern climes and in areas of mountain pasture, you cannot grow high protein cereal crops. Humans can't digest grass but cows can. Cows are grazed on the grass and they produce a high energy and high protein yield, namely milk, that enables human beings to survive in those parts of the world, and to secure an adequate intake of vitamin D, calcium and protein. This is essential not just to growing children but to adults and elderly people, to prevent rickets and osteoporosis as well as general malnutrition. So it's not surprising that the lactose enzymes were a survival factor in those populations who live in such climates and in places where pasture is the only way to secure a viable diet. This means it's not just normal but vital for people in this part of the world to use milk and milk products as a staple part of a healthy diet from local resources.

Here is a picture of a child with rickets. Go to the location by clicking on the image and there's information there about how rickets is connected to lack of milk in people in northern climes and people with dark skins or those who can't digest milk. It was to prevent this happening that free codliver oil and free school milk was introduced with the welfare state in this country. It's made rickets a thing of the past, but if people start campaigning against drinking milk on specious grounds such as the above we'll have a very sad and unhealthy nation again. Does Richard take cod liver oil? I doubt it. Take care, old thing! Brittle bone disease on its way...

is some more information about the discovery of the importance of vitamin D, and other things you might not know that it helps with.

Saturday, 5 May 2007


This is what our doorstep looks like in the morning.

In Norwich one day a week my doorstep looks like this.

Five minutes after fetching the milk in from the doorstep this is what my glass of milk on the breakfast table looks like.

From the cow to my breakfast, maybe 24 hours? Now that's what I call cold fresh milk. (I suppose it would be even better if I could go and fetch it warm from the cow).

I was thinking of taking a photo of one of my neighbour's doorsteps, with the blue recycling box piled high with plastic milk bottles: bottles which have doubtless been fetched from the supermarket by car, and will now be carried empty to some distribution place and sent back to China or somewhere for turning into more plastic things we don't want, before being shipped back here again.

Now this seems to me to be just mad. We could all have our milk delivered daily in clean glass bottles, clean milk with no contamination from the chemicals they use in plastics which leech into the contents of the containers. Of course the known ones of these (phthalates, which have been shown to cause hormone disruption, and are implicated in breast cancer etc) are now controlled and not permitted in most food packaging, but do you know what else they're putting in the plastic? When did you last think about how milk from plastic bottles always tastes of plastic? I guess people get used to it, and cease to find it disgusting.

But it seems to me highly likely that these kinds of pollution may have quite a lot to do with the increasing incidence of intolerance to milk. And asthma, and eczema. Why is it that so many children today can't drink milk? When I was young every child drank a third of a pint of milk every day at break time, from a glass bottle with a paper straw (no phthalates, no plastic chemicals) and they were healthy and happy.

No one had a milk intolerance. Is that a co-incidence?

Things calculated to annoy a cyclist

As tiger mentioned in a comment on my last post on this theme, one very irritating thing is when you arrive back at your bicycle and find that someone has used the bike basket as a litter bin.

Here is one particularly unpleasant example, found in my bike basket on my return to Norwich last Tuesday. Usually Norwich station is a rather civilised place.

Now what do you suppose the person thought I would do when I found their chips in my basket? Did they think I would go and find a litter bin to put them in? Because if they couldn't themselves find a litter bin, how was I going to do so? And having all the luggage that I needed to put in my basket, I was not in a position to go anywhere to deposit the rubbish. So what can I do except tip it out onto the ground. Do they somehow feel that they avoid the responsibility for leaving litter by transferring it to my conscience instead?

This is, as I say, relatively rare in Norwich (it was a weekly experience at Liverpool Lime Street), but they seem to have installed a flashy new bus shelter on the station forecourt in Norwich, with no litter bins in sight. This seems to me to be ill-advised if you want a tidy and smart environment.

Monday, 30 April 2007

Hooray the cows are here!

For the first time since before the Foot and Mouth year, cattle on the common behind our house (not just on Midsummer Common but on our bit)!

This is good news not just because they are beautiful, and make nice noises, but because it means the council will not have to mow with a machine (and the nettles and brambles will be better controlled than with one mowing per year which is what we have been getting).
They were extremely frisky when they first appeared and galloped back and forth trying to discover what was what (somewhat to the amusement and concern of the students in Barnwell Hostel, into whose windows the cows—well, rather steers—were peering). But now they seem to have settled down happily in a shady patch of cow parsley....

Friday, 27 April 2007

Things calculated to annoy a cyclist

Cycle racks positioned in such a way that you can't access the further ones when the nearer ones are filled up.

This has the effect that you can't use the further ones, even if you get there first, because you won't be able to get in in order to get out later.

Example, new racks by the front lawn at UEA.

My guilty secrets

This week I bought kumquats from Israel. They were reduced for quick sale, but still it remains true that they were from Israel.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Things useful for bringing up children without a car

Last time we got as far as carrying a small baby in a sling or in a trailer. Next we need a baby seat for the bicycle.

The first is a rear fitting seat, suitable for a child from about 6 months. It has a harness and a high back to support the child, so once the baby can sit up by itself it will be fairly comfortable in here.
My children used to fall asleep in the seat on the back of the bike sometimes. That's a bit awkward, because they tend to loll out sideways. I used to cycle with one hand behind me trying to hold baby in place. Not ideal, but no one ever came to any harm....

Then you can also add a front fitting seat. These have become more elaborate than they used to be and sometimes include a windscreen. When I had one twenty years ago it was a tiny black saddle with two metal supports, which slotted into a bracket fitted on the cross bar, or the upper of the two angled bars on a women's frame. Then there was a little bracket the provided a foot rest for the child, fitted on the lower bar.

I don't at all like the look of the plastic monstrosity in this picture.

Here is something more like the one I knew (though now they seem to come with a strap to strap the child to the seat: now that was never necessary in days gone by and surely still isn't).

I see there is a weight limit given for these seats. Well I went on carrying our children on them for many years. I had one on the back and one on the front. I went on carrying both children like this until one fateful day when I stopped at a junction to turn right out of Charles Street onto the Iffley Road, and the whole bicycle started to tip over because it was so top heavy. As soon as the structure had started to tilt it was too heavy for me to hold it up, so all I could do was lower it gently to the ground and take the children off. So then we had to walk home and that was the end of cycling with two children one on the front and one on the back.
I don't remember exactly how old they were. Perhaps 5 and 3. Quite a lot beyond the weight limit they recommend now, for sure.

One might also want helmets for the children. Ours were pink expanded polystyrene, and looked like a blob of ice cream. Now that doesn't sound very green does it?

Sunday, 22 April 2007


Yesterday I discovered that you're supposed to eat your first English asparagus on St George's day. We had ours yesterday, but that probably reflects the reality of global warming, as I overheard the market stall man saying to another customer.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Recent railway adventures

Here is how I went to Switzerland for a conference last weekend.

  1. First I rode my bicycle to Cambridge Station.
  2. Then I took a First Capital Connect train from Cambridge to King's Cross.
  3. Then I took two underground trains to get from Kings Cross to Waterloo.
  1. Then I took the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord.
  2. Then I walked from Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est. Gare de l'Est is currently under reconstruction, but there was a waiting room.
  3. Then I boarded the night train heading for Zurich and Chur. The coach I was booked on didn't exist but they had reassigned me to an alternative one. It was, as requested, an all women couchette compartment.
  4. Next morning at 0450 I got off the train in Basle and crossed the border into Switzerland.
  5. At 5 a.m. the coffee shops opened so I had some breakfast.
  6. Then I caught a train to Luzern.
  7. At Luzern I was met by a representative of mine hosts and driven by road to Vitznau. This was a disappointment as I had hoped to complete the journey by way of the paddle steamer across the lake (but I think my hosts didn't appreciate that one might prefer to use the public transport method. Certainly I would have needed to wait perhaps an hour or two for the first boat I suspect).
On the way back I did the same thing in reverse. Total number of legs to the journey there and back, eighteen. Total journey time about 15 hours each way. But because most of it was at night, I actually got two complete extra days at my destination and lost very little usable time.

I suspect that a journey by air would have taken about 7 hours each way and cost about half as much. My original plan had been to cross the channel by sea rather than by Eurostar but by the time I came to book the travel agent claimed (somewhat implausibly, I thought) that there were no trains from Paris to Calais with available seats on the day I wanted to return. Next time I will make an effort to get it right. I don't much like the way the Eurostar tries to pretend it is an airline, creating just the very ambience one is trying to escape.

Eurostar (they tell me) is "ten times less polluting than flying". I suppose that means it emits about 10% as much CO2. They're trying to save further on the per passenger CO2 footprint now: well they could start by letting us wait in a normal building or on the platform instead of a horrible cramped air conditioned "departure lounge" with no windows and no natural light and most of the space taken up with silly airport shops and duty free outlets.

Yuk. Just let us travel in good old railway style: that would appeal much more to those of us who want to break free of the consumer society.

Pantzaria Salata

Here at last is the best beetroot recipe ever. This dish we learnt to love at the British School in Athens.

I have saved it till now because it belongs to the season when bunched beetroot are on the market, fresh with their green tops included. This time has now come, thanks to global warming.

There is a tale to the effect that it was to get beetroot with their tops on, for the purpose of this wonderful dish, that the Osborne family moved back to Cambridge. But amazingly, last time I was in Oxford I saw a bunch of beetroot on Oxford market. Wonders will never cease.

Pantzaria salata (or "Beetroots done the Greek way").

1 bunch of beetroot, small and young with the tops green and fresh
olive oil (lots) and a little vinegar if desired

Cut off the leaves, leaving about an inch of the stem on the beets. The leaves will be treated as chard (much like spinach).

Wash the leaves and the roots. Put the roots in a large pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Boil them until they are tender (about an hour at the most).

Meanwhile, put the clean wet leaves into a pan just big enough to hold them. Don't add any water (the water on the leaves will be sufficient). Wilt them over a low to medium heat with the lid on. After about 15 minutes or so they will be tender and cooked, including the long red stems.

Drain the leaves in a colander, and then using two sharp knives running in opposite directions like scissors, cut through the cooked chard, including the stems, so that it is well cut into small parts, with the pieces of the stem no more than about half an inch long.

When the roots have finished cooking, drain them and rub off the peel (if they are done the peel will come away easily). Cut off the top where the stub of the stalks is and the trailing root at the tail and cut them into slices. Arrange the slices on the centre of a platter. Spread the chopped chard round them.

Drizzle as much Greek virgin olive oil as you dare over both the roots and tops until they shine with a lovely gloss. If you like, add a very small amount of vinegar (or lemon juice) and a grating of nutmeg over the top.

Serve lukewarm or cold.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Mending things

It's been a bad fortnight for throwing things away.

I decided to scrap my old washing machine at Norwich, after something broke free and it danced around the kitchen so wildly that, before I could get to it, it had shattered the catch on the door and broken itself open. Fortunately I got there shortly before it had a chance to throw out what remained of its water all over the floor. It was an old machine inherited when I bought the house and I had no instructions for it. I reckoned it wasn't even worth inviting a man to come and see to it, since I knew he would charge £40 for saying "Ooh no, that's fifteen years old. They don't do parts for that any more."

So I went to the Norwich Co-op department store and selected a new one, attending of course to the issues of economy of energy and water consumption (though nothing seemed as good on that front as the excellent one we have in Cambridge, bought some years ago in Oxford). The story of trying to get the delivery men to remove the old one from under the stairs, and put the new one in, is not right relevant to this post, and would take some time to narrate. One day perhaps.

While I had the men taking the old washing machine away, I managed to persuade them to take the ex-hoover, at an additional cost of £5. The hoover was a wedding present in 1979, an amazing piece of equipment with a sunshine yellow plastic case (into which you inserted paper disposable dust bags). It had been lovingly maintained for 25 years with a number of visits to Electric Aids on St Clements in Oxford. However, when it blew up with a loud bang and a rather unpleasant burning smell last November I reckoned it had probably deceased completely. I called in at the repair shop on the Dereham Road to ask about the possibility of repair, but when I said it was over 25 years old they were not enthusiastic, and eventually I succumbed to buying a reconditioned Dyson from them instead. It has to be said that the Dyson is more effective, though it had the unpleasant habit of giving out a disgusting smell of unwashed dog until I took it apart and washed out its parts. I assume its previous owners lived in some smelly squalor.

Anyway, the beloved old hoover has now gone. I also contemplated getting them to take away the chest freezer that I am trying to dispose of. But since that still works I shall try Freecycle or a housing charity instead if I can find some time when I can be in for people to collect it.

Then there was my dearly beloved powerbook computer which has had its hard disk die rather young. This partly explains the long silence from posting on my Blogs, since much time and effort has been put into the task of recovering from a computer crisis with the help of good friends with the right kind of equipment and know-how. The computer will not go to the bin but will (I hope) be revived by a transplant of a hard disk rather recently installed in an older and less powerful iBook belonging to Elizabeth, so we should end up with the 12 inch powerbook running again and serving as a useful family laptop for a variety of purposes including emergencies.

So perhaps this is a story not just about throwing away and getting new, but also about reconditioning and mending. The latest achievement on that front is the mending of the kitchen stool (a simple device with a set of steps that folds out of it — you know the sort). We've had it for perhaps 20 years. It hasn't had any cover on its seat for most of those years (as far as I can recall it once had a PVC cover with some plastic foam underneath. I can't even remember what colour it was. The cover split and had to be removed rather early in its career. Currently it just has a good hard piece of thick ply-wood, which is becoming increasingly smooth and polished with age and wear). However the real problem was its tootsies, the little black plastic caps on the bottom of its steel legs. One of those split perhaps about ten years ago. For many years it was kept attached to the leg with blue tack (you put blue tack in the tootsie and then stand the foot of the stool in it and it clings hard enough not to fall off when you lift it). But of late the blue tack had become hard and dirty and no longer served its purpose, so the tootsie fell off every time you lifted the stool to move it elsewhere. I suppose we could have replaced the blue tack. But in a fit of enthusiasm I went to the Hardware store (Mackays on East Road) to look for some new tootsies a month or two ago.

Well, all I could find there was the rubber ends for walking sticks. These have a proper name but I can't remember what it is now. So I bought four of these (because one would not be enough since they were rather different in thickness from the existing plastic tootsies). The man advised that I should have metal washers to put inside to prevent the metal legs of the stool from cutting through the rubber. I was a bit shocked to find the washers cost 58p each, and I realised only afterwards that I would have done better to put a coin in each: that would have cost only a penny each. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I took these rubber tips and steel washers home and they sat around for about three weeks until the Professor devised some way to cut off the remaining tight-fitting tootsies and fit the new ones. Now we have a splendid stool with four nice soft rubber feet. I guess it will probably last another 25 years. Perhaps more.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Fabric conditioner

Acting on a tip from a friend recently I've just checked on the web about the use of vinegar in place of fabric conditioner. It seems to be a widely recognised truth that you can put distilled white vinegar in the fabric conditioner drawer and it will make your towels, nappies etc soft, and without damaging their absorbency (which is what happens with commercial fabric conditioners).
I would try it now but I only have the brown sort of vinegar. I suspect it wouldn't matter if I used the brown sort.
Mind you, I've never been able to work out why anyone thinks it's necessary to have fabric conditioner at all. I think one reason is if you wear artificial fibres, which collect dirt and static electricity (or rather collect static electricity and dirt, the latter being partly due to the former). Certainly supposedly woolly sweaters that have a proportion of acrylic or nylon get dirty very much more quickly than real wool ones. But generally we don't use man made fibres, at least not if we can help it.
Another reason is perhaps that cotton towels come out a bit hard if they aren't hung in the garden to dry. But we generally do hang them out in the wind. And anyway a vigorous scrub with a rasping bath towel never did anyone any harm.
So we've never used fabric conditioner and don't intend to start now. And to judge by this site fabric conditioners are extremely poisonous and may be responsible for a lot of allergy and illness, indeed probably cancer too. So vinegar or nothing seems to be the wisest choice.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Paper handkerchiefs

I apologise for the long silence which was due to being ill (the flu) and then being so behind with my work (and so weak after being ill) that I haven't had any time left for time-wasting activities like the Blogs.

It seemed appropriate after being ill to make some remarks on illness. This time it's about how to blow your nose in an environmentally friendly way.

At Norwich I used to have a box of 3-ply man size tissues (that is, paper handkerchiefs, Kleenex in american speak) which had been on my bathroom shelf for some years. In the Autumn I loaned out my cottage to a couple we know from Church (this was part of an auction of promises to raise money for the new organ, and I offered a weekend break in Norwich).

When I returned, the cottage had been well cared for, all was in order, except for one thing: the tissue box was empty. Now that's interesting, because I'd had it from before I moved to Norwich, maybe three years. I don't remember it being very near to empty. It made me wonder whether other people use such things rather more than I do.

It's not that I don't ever have a runny nose. Of course I do, and I had a terrible one last week, one of those that runs like a tap. The Professor also has an allergy of some sort which means that he sometimes has a runny nose for days at a time. But we don't use former trees to mop our noses, for the most part.

Here is a list of four kinds of things I use for runny noses:

1. Elegant ladies' handkerchiefs in pure cotton. These are small and usually embroidered or trimmed with lace. I use these for everyday use and for going to a weepy movie. They fit in a pocket without causing any ugly distortion.

2. Larger hankies, man size. These are useful for the after-a-cold period, when there's quite a lot of catarrh and a small hankie would be quickly used up. One dozen pure cotton white hankies costs £5 on Norwich market.

3. Bits of old sheet. These are the best thing for a seriously runny cold when you're in bed at home. The sheet needs to have been made of pure cotton (brushed cotton is especially soft and comforting) and should have worn thin and ripped. The result is unbelievably soft and absorbent. You tear off a piece the size you need (very large if the cold is seriously streaming) and when it's a bit damp you can either throw it away or put it aside to be washed and used again (the edges fray but that really doesn't matter). These cost nothing of course, and the laundry is normally just a minor addition to the usual load of white washing.

4. Muslin nappies. An excellent use for the nappies so little used by newborn babies. They are soft and extremely absorbent (you'd probably get through a whole box of tissues before one muslin nappy is too wet to use). The professor (who has some kind of rhinitis allergy) generally carries several muslin nappies in his briefcase in case of an attack of the runny nose—on a bad day he gets through two or three. In fact the muslins our girls had when they were newborn have all now worn out and become disreputable, so a new pack had to be purchased recently. 20 muslin squares cost £22.99 from Mothercare.

Here's a list of the advantages of using these real cotton products over the disposable wood fibre products that they call "handkerchiefs" or "tissues".

1) the cotton ones are much more absorbent than woodchips

2) they cause less soreness than woodchips,

3) they're always there even if you're too ill to go to the shops

4) they don't end up in the landfill (or, if eventually you throw away the rags, they were going to waste anyway and have had a useful recycled life first).

5) BEST OF ALL they don't deposit a white fuzz all over everything in the washing machine if you accidentally leave one in your pocket!

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Misleading quotes for rail tickets on the internet

Yesterday after choir Tricia happened to remark on the fact that she'd been on the internet to find out the cost of going to Norwich at half term for a day with young Lizzie, for a shopping spree. On the internet the lowest price quoted was something like £30:00 (Cambridge to Norwich return) and they almost decided against going, or scrapping the train and going by car.

But in a fit of extravagance they decided to go anyway, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the tickets cost £13:00 total for both of them (in fact I suspect that ticket included the price of the bus to the city centre in Norwich as well as the train journey, though they probably didn't know that).

I've just checked The to see what they quote for an imaginary day-return journey tomorrow on that route, and they think it will cost £17:40 for a "saver return" for one adult, £22:30 for a "standard open return", or two single tickets (which for some reason it advises "might be cheaper") at a minimum of £14:10 each way (i.e. £28:20 for the round trip).

This is absurd because the ticket you actually want to buy is an Anglia Day Ranger which will take you not just to Norwich and back but to Sheringham or Yarmouth or anywhere else you want to go in East Anglia, as many journeys as you like in a day, and it costs £10:00.

Today I had a similar experience. I asked The to quote for my day-return journey, Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds. It offered a "standard day return" at £10:80 or two singles at a minimum of £7:50 each (again advising in its stupid way that "two singles might be cheaper"). When I got to the station I was served without hesitation with a "Cheap Day Return" ticket costing £7:90. A "Cheap Day Return" (which is an off-peak day ticket) is, after all, what I would have expected to be looking for.

Now what exactly is the problem here? There seem to be several hypotheses that spring to mind.

In the case of the Norwich trip it seems that the computer is perhaps programmed to give only ticket prices that are to the specific destination, and in this case the cheapest ticket is (unusually) not the return ticket to Norwich but the day ranger ticket for the whole of East Anglia, which is extraordinarily good value.

In the case of the Bury St Edmunds trip it seems that the computer is unaware of the Cheap Day ticket. Why might this be? One option is that the key factor is that the ticket I bought was to "Bury St Edmunds BUS". The crucial thing is that "BUS". The ticket includes the bus fares in the town you're going to. It's not a ticket to Bury St Edmunds station, it's a ticket to the city and is valid on the buses. I've encountered this before (it's the same if you go from Norwich to Yarmouth: you have to buy a ticket to Yarmouth BUS, because that's cheaper than a ticket to Yarmouth.)

If you go to the station you speak to a human person behind the window, and he knows that a ticket with the bus included is cheaper, and that's what you will want. He doesn't even ask (because who would want to buy a ticket without the bus if it costs more?). If you ask the computer the computer quotes you the price without the bus, because you didn't ask it for the bus (and why should you? It doesn't offer you that option).

That's the difference between a machine and a human being. That's why it will never be possible to make artificial intelligence.

As for why the ticket without the bus costs more—that remains a mystery (but it is the privilege of humans, unlike machines, to decide to do things in an irrational way if they so choose).

Thursday, 8 March 2007

The cost of a car

Today someone on Radio Norfolk estimated that the cost of running a car (which she'd just decided to give up) was £3,000 a year. This was for an old, nothing special, second hand car in which depreciation is not too dramatic.

I rather suspect it must actually be a lot more than that.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Cycling with babies and toddlers in tow

Further to my last post, about what you do with baby when you've left your bike and trailer (or bike with child seat) at a cycle park. Good news for parents in Cambridge is the Park Street Cycle Park pushchair scheme, where you can leave your bike for free and borrow a pushchair instead, to go round town.

I have a sort of feeling my children would have refused to get into a strange pushchair. But perhaps if one had been doing it from their babyhood, it would be perfectly routine and no reluctance would be encountered.

More details here and here.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

What does it mean to be green?

It means feeling a certain smug satisfaction, nay glee, at the 'misfortune' of the poor motorists who filled up with "go-slow" fuel at various supermarket service stations in the UK this week... Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Things useful for the task of bringing up children without a car

Besides a pram, we used to find a baby sling useful.

Before the baby can sit up there's no way of carrying it on a bicycle, but you can strap it to your body and ride a bicycle with the baby held firmly to your front. The sling needs to be one that holds the baby's wobbly head in position, and won't drop baby out as you whizz round corners.

I think nowadays people sometimes use one of those trailers that goes behind a bicycle and maybe you can put the baby to lie down in it, or put a car-seat type baby carrier in it.

I think it's debatable whether that's safer than a baby sling. I'm not sure I'd terribly want to cycle on the road with baby in a trailer down there behind, where the cars can't see.

The flag at the back rather suggests that the parent is not entirely confident that the cars won't just drive over it.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007


Results of anti-soya chocolate investigations shows the following ranking.

First prize to Traidcraft Organic Swiss Made Chocolate. The Cappuccino variety is heavenly, despite containing some vegetable oils. Other varieties sampled so far are also delicious: the milk chocolate version has nothing but wholesome ingredients.

These chocolate bars contain no emulsifier at all.

Runners up:
Plamil Organics, non-dairy and gluten free. Contains sunflower lecithin.
Peter Rabbit Organics. Seems to be designed for children, but is sadly dairy free and made with fructose not sucrose. Contains sunflower lecithin.

Flavour not wonderful in either case, doubtless due to the lack of the yummy bits like sugar and milk.

Also ran:
Tesco value chocolate, contains lecithin from Rapeseed. The flavour is fine, but I don't really approve of rape plantations, or of Tesco.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Heating 5

I've been doing some experiments with my electricity consumption in Norwich. For two weeks (one cold and one mild) I kept the heater in the living room on all the time instead of on a time switch. I used 266 units of electricity in the cold week and 198 in the mild week. Last week, which was mild, I had it on the time switch. I used 119 units.

This suggests that it is more economical to have it on only some of the time. HOWEVER this doesn't take any account of my gas consumption (the more I use the gas fire, the more the electric heater will switch off). So I really ought to read my gas meter as well.

How complicated.

What this is all leading to is my wondering whether the best solution to being a bit greener about my energy would be to install a wind turbine, rahter than have some gas central heating. Because basically it takes quite a lot of energy to heat the place, and whether that's electricity or gas it is using precious resources and giving off greenhouse gases unless I can find a way to secure some renewable energy to feed it. I've got a pile of logs in the garden, but the gas fire occupies the place where I'd burn logs so that's not an option right now.