Tag Archives: Jack Beck

The Green Green Grass of Home – – –

In Jack’s weekly guest post he continues to complain – whit’s he like?

One of the things I’ve never really got used to living here, is the rate that everything suddenly starts growing once the temperature rises and the summer thunderstorms hit. I mean grass, weeds and things that might or might not be weeds. One of our regular customers paused to admire some mint that’s taking over part of the front yard and asked if she could volunteer her daughters to ‘tidy up’. Please, please I said!

Between running the bookstore, an annual tour of Scotland, an annual Celtic festival, a weekly radio show and trying to keep on top of the upkeep of a 1903 building, there’s little time left for gardening.

The irony, of course, is that even if we had the time and inclination, we are actually completely useless gardeners. We grow tomato plants from seed and then plant them out where they quickly die – same with most other things – potatoes, peas, brussel sprouts, peppers – – -. We rarely even keep house-plants going for any time.

Meanwhile that pesky grass needs mowing, and the weeds need whacking – assuming I don’t expire trying to get the mower and weed-whacker started!

But wait! “What light through yonder window breaks – – – -”

So yes – Sunshine is good and so is the lack of snow, not to mention longer days and tee-shirt temperatures. I’ll fly into Edinburgh this Monday morning and will be reminded of that quite forcibly I suspect! So I can’t complain can I?

“Sumer is icumen in – – – -“

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The Monday Book falls on a Wednesday this Week

 

We apologize for the irregular blogs of late and are trying to get back on track! Here’s Jack’s review of 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall-Smith

 

I’m a huge fan of McCall-Smith, ever since I began devouring his No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. But he has a number of others that deserve attention, including Corduroy Gardens and the Scotland Street one.

 

I should explain right away that I lived most of my life within 30 minutes’ drive of the center of Edinburgh, where this series is set, so I’m very familiar with Scotland Street and the surrounding Georgian part of the city. McCall-Smith captures not only the geography beautifully, but its character through the residents, from the rugby following upper middle class to the quirky academics, the hard working cafe owner and the inimitable and much put-upon child of a demanding liberal-minded mother.

 

This series started as a serial in one of Scotland’s national newspapers and quickly built a devoted following. So much so that McCall-Smith was persuaded (by them) to turn it into a real book and then to publish two more follow-ups.

 

The one I’ve just finished re-reading is the second book (although I have read them all), and I was once again captivated by his ability to get right inside the mind of his characters – not just their surface characteristics, what they say and do, but what lies behind them; the professional or cultural world they inhabit. This might seem like a recipe for boredom, but he is such a wonderful observer of human nature and has such a way with words that it never is. Of course he lives in the Edinburgh Georgian ‘new town’ of which he writes and in many ways is just setting down what he lives and experiences every day.

 

Finally – just like in the Corduroy Gardens series this one has a dog as one of its main characters and I absolutely love how (in both cases) McCall Smith relates to his readers the world from the dog’s point of view. Anyone who has ever been owned by a dog will get it!

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Jack was Up Late Last Night: everything you wanted to know about Scottish politics but were afraid to ask….

In honor of the election held in the United Kingdom yesterday, Jack brings you this historic guest post…..

Scotland-independenceThere was an election yesterday in the UK (The United Kingdom – not the University of Kentucky) and many of our American friends have been asking me about it.

Although some eight parties ran, the UK parliamentary voting system pretty much ensures that elections are a ‘two horse race’. Either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party gets a majority; think Republicans and Democrats. All the seats are up for grabs; it’s as if we vote for all the state governors and the president at the same time, for a term of five years.

Scotland has 59 seats out of about 650 and historically most have gone to the Labour Party. In the early hours of this morning, however, everything changed. The Scottish National Party went from 6 seats to 56, while the Labour and Conservative parties ended up with one each, along with one for the small Liberal Democrat Party. Poor lonely souls; ♪ three is the loneliest number. ♪

Now remember, the United Kingdom is three small countries (Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland) joined at the hip to one big country: England. And England/Wales voted Conservative; if you think Scotland has it bad, Wales is actually counted as part of England even though it’s a separate country. Don’t ask; it’s confusing to those who live there too.

That forces two distinct and diametrically opposed political cultures to try and work together, the right wing Conservatives in England with most of the power plus the ability to always out-vote the Scottish members, while Scotland’s left-leaning SNP have little power at all–except the ability to call for a vote on Scottish Independence.

It’s obvious to everyone where a relationship that fraught that will lead…..

 

Last September there was a narrowly-defeated vote on Independence for Scotland. Pundits claim, and word of mouth also suggests, that the biggest reason for Scottish voters deciding to stay in the UK was a last minute promise by the party with the most Scottish seats then (Labour) of much more power for the Scottish Parliament. Which they pretty much ignored after Scotland voted to stay.

Yesterday, Scottish voters held Labour accountable for that; one pundit called it an “electoral firing squad.” So the result of yesterday’s election will, in my opinion and that of many political commentators, inevitably lead to another vote on Independence within five years. This makes me happy. And while I’ve never been a gambler, I’d put money on it passing this time!

 

 

 

 

 

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Cooking the Books

 

Jack’s weekly guest post continues the Indian theme and re-visits the problem of which books he puts in the store

 

Regular readers probably know, by now, that I’m a devotee of Indian food – curries, papadums, somosas and badjhies (we don’t need no stinking badjhies, as Bogart’s Mexican adversary famously said in ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’).

 

So when Wendy produced my five Indian cookbooks yesterday and asked me innocently if it was time for them to go into the shop I was momentarily flummoxed. Should they? They have been my pride and joy for years!

 

But had I ever actually used them in a practical way? Had I propped them open and followed their every word?

 

Well, actually, no! What I had done is gathered a lot of experience over many years and ended up making two or three regular things.

 

1) Fry finely chopped onions in vegetable oil until just browned; push them aside and fry three tablespoons of Mike Ward’s famous curry powder mix in the same oil; dump in a jar of plain tomato pasta sauce and all the vegetables (peppers, golden raisins and mushrooms, usually); add a similar amount of plain yoghurt bit by bit; simmer for a few hours.

 

2) Exactly the same as 1) except miss out Mike’s FCP and add three tablespoons of Patak’s hot curry paste at the end.

 

I also sometimes do a prawn/shrimp or chicken tikka. Make up a mix of onion, yoghurt and tandoori spice mix and marinade the shrimp or chicken overnight in the fridge. Next day remove the shrimp or chicken and clean most of the marinade off. Grill until crisp, then serve with the heated marinade on the side.

 

I shouldn’t forget Wendy’s home-made chutney made from our own fruit and vegetables – but that’s her closely guarded personal recipe!

 

I’m delighted to say that our local supermarket now carries a very good selection of Indian spices, sauces, papadums and naan breads, so it’s now easier to come up with the goods.

 

The five books? You’ll find them in the cook-books section, proudly displayed together.

 

(But I did enjoy reading them and imagining all the dishes – every one of them!).

 

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What, Me Worry?

Dont-Worry1Jack’s weekly guest post

Like Eeyore, I’m a born worrier and always have been.

But I’ve been pondering that lately, and trying hard to be much more relaxed about things.

Of course what triggered this latest bout was the atrocious weather we’ve been experiencing, coupled with a bad moment from last year. Around this time last year I was stupid enough to leave the well pump switched on at our cabin (Wendy’s writing getaway out in the TN woods) with no background heat in the place. Result – a $700 bill for repairs after a burst water pipe.

This year I reckoned the power bill for background heat would be worth it to avoid another burst and I switched off the pump. But we haven’t been there since before Christmas and in February we had temperatures down to minus 15 Fahrenheit . So one of my dark clouds began to hover as I constructed horrible scenarios in my head….

Last Saturday we dropped in at the cabin on the way home from the Rose Glen Literary Festival in Sevierville, where Wendy was the keynote address. I didn’t want to do it, so convinced as I that it would be exactly as I’d imagined. But Wendy was a bit… adamant that we face the situation.

The road up to the cabin area was covered in hard packed snow and the last 1/4 mile is up a steep hill. We negotiated that with me becoming increasingly Eeyorish all the way. Wendy’s eyes rolled back in her head as I described faucets that would run without water, gushing pipes in the house’s foundation…

And when we got there, everything was fine. EVERY THING WAS FINE!! I couldn’t believe it!!!

Back when I was Head of Department in a Scottish college I often used to lie awake at night worrying about something that was likely to happen next day, only to find it had completely evaporated by the time I got there. Conversely, I’d sail in without a care in the world and something totally unexpected would wallop me. It’s never what you’d expect that catches you, is it? I’m sure you can all relate to this.

And I must admit, with two weeks of snow shutting down the entire county, followed by floods tonight as the snow begins to melt, and freezing rain predicted to make the roads a mess tomorrow, well, even in the midst of it all, the roof is still over our heads, and we’ve adopted out five of ten foster cats. Which we did NOT expect in this weather.

A fellow business in town did not fare so well. A variety store called Judy’s Hodge Podge has been condemned after a crack appeared in the building. It’s the end of an era, as Judy was the grande dame of local businesses. Her building had an antique Coca-cola mural on it.

And here we sit, warm and cozy, with Kelley’s good soups flowing around us and people still popping in to buy books an adopt cats. Perhaps, rather than counting cares, I should count blessings.

Or, as Alfred E. Neumann famously used to say “What, me worry?”

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It’SNOW Fair

Jack’s weekly guest post examines bookstore weather issues –

snow_day_008You would think that, coming from Scotland, I’d be used to wintry weather, but actually I lived in the lowlands, where the sub-zero temperatures made snow fairly rare. (One of the great ironies of winter weather isn’t it? In Scotland it’s too cold to snow!)

It was only when Wendy and I lived near St Andrews, by the sea and pretty high up, that we experienced the ‘February week long village cut-off’ and I thought I’d left even that behind when we moved to Appalachia.

But for the second year in a row we’re down near zero Fahrenheit and this time it’s been accompanied by a blizzard. Our front steps and path had to be dug clear on Tuesday morning and our cordon-bleu chef Kelley has been stuck in her house for three days, unable to get here to open The Second Story Cafe.

All this has put us into emergency mode; it’s days like this we’re glad we live as well as work here!

Yesterday we were able to offer free hot coffee and shortbread to hard-pressed town employees (or anyone else that had to be out and about) and we had a few takers (including a neighbor who very kindly cleared the snow of all the vehicles parked out front). Today I’ve prepared my signature veggie curry in case we have any desperate ‘lunchers’ willing to chance it.snow_day_004

For anyone who’s interested – onions, green and red peppers, carrots, mushrooms and golden raisins in a tomato sauce with Patak’s hot curry paste. Onions fried in olive oil, then everything else in and simmer for a couple of hours!

Among the other businesses close by is the local ABC store (Alcoholic Beverage Control – where you buy your liquor) and it’s been closed as well except for a brief spell yesterday afternoon – when it did a roaring trade. The rest of the time there were lots of disappointed folk – who probably headed to the supermarket for the strongest fortified wine they could find as an alternative.

But right now it’s snowing again – – –

I bought my whiskey Saturday, knowing what was coming. And judging by the brisk business we did Saturday before the blizzard started, a lot of smart people did the same with reading material. :]

Go by, mad snowstorm.DSCN1410

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The Monday Book – A YEAR IN THE MERDE by Stephen Clarke

Jack offers the Monday Book review this week!

I’m not sure which used book store we bought this in but I’m sure glad we did!

Stephen Clarke’s hero, Paul West, is an Englishman working on contract in Paris for a company planning to open a chain of tea-rooms in France. The interlingual puns and description of the absurd cultural clashes are hilarious.

I admit to being an enormous Francophile myself, having toured there many times with my old buddies in ‘Heritage’ and would cheerfully live there if necessary with no difficulty. But Paris is another thing – in many ways it is just like any other enormous city! So my preference would be the rural South.

The parts of Clarke’s book that depict him trying to speak French while his employers try to use English are hysterical, full of the verbal equivalent of slapstick.

Having said that, I once hitch-hiked from Scotland to Paris with a friend (back when hitch-hiking was still legal). We camped in the Bois de Boulogne and enjoyed breakfasts of paine chocolat and enormous bowls of coffee in sidewalk cafes.

Getting back to the book – I am a big fan of Peter Mayle and his series of books about an Englishman in France. Clarke takes things into another dimension and mixes corporate mischief, questionable morals, advice for tourists and a mischievous take on French chauvinism into a very worthy addition to the genre created by Mayle.I heartily recommend it to anyone who has visited, or is planning to visit Paris.

If I were a Parisian and read this book, I’d find it funny. If I were a Frenchman, I just might be insulted. This is a cheeky, irreverent look at a city people are used to treating with dignity; Clarke dances on thin ice and stops just short of blowing a rude gesture at the French.

I loved it. :]

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