Flash Says…

This year I’ve resolved to see lots of live music, so on a whim I booked myself into the annual fan party of my favourite BBC 6Music DJ, Tom Robinson. He would be performing his 1978 Power In The Darkness album in its entirety.

I’d forgive you for not being familiar with the music. Tom has had three hits: 2-4-6-8 Motorway (which I fondly remember my dad singing to me, along with Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick), War Baby, and Glad to Be Gay. All of them good, but none of them within the last 30 years. It is the latter song which really chimed with me when it was sung live.

I played the album in the car en route to the gig, as a reminder for me and a quick education for my husband. It led to an interesting discussion about when cultural references will date music – inspired by the song Grey Cortina. My view is that the style of music will often date the song more than the reference – look at Fat Bottomed Girls / Bicycle Race for example – but in any event, this chat kept us occupied until we arrived at the venue.

The audience seemed to be full of old punks – men in their 60s with short bleached hair, wearing denims and union flag clothing – in fact I would have assumed they were politically far-right and felt threatened by their presence, sitting on show at the front in a wheelchair, were it not for the reason that we were all there to come together over this protest album. That taught me a lesson in not judging on appearance. Watching these men dance, badly but unselfconsciously, made me realise the importance of being confident in who you are and not worrying about other people’s perception.

In fact, that was the key message I took home. Glad To Be Gay is something of an anthem, the gist of which is a sarcastic disbelief that people could be attacked for their sexuality, especially by British police who are the “best in the world”, held together with a sing-along chorus that unites everyone.

As I listened, the words hit home. References to being “beaten unconscious and left in the dark” made me recall a family friend, a soft-spoken, gentle and kind man, who once turned up at our house with his face having been brutally bruised. My parents told me he was walking through the park when nasty people hurt him. I was too young to understand about sexuality, and I was given the simple explanation that there are some bad people out there… but now I think I understand what happened. And I am appalled.

By the time I attended secondary school, I knew I was bisexual. I had an expensive private education where nobody dared to do anything other than demonstrate heterosexuality. Girls were expected to obsess over a favourite from the rugby team. Boys even had wanking competitions in their dormitories. But I knew I was different – exchanging love poetry with one girl, and signing up to try croquet because a friend’s cute sister would be there in a short sports skirt. These were never things you could discuss openly, but of course it happened. Nobody could be honest about who they were, unless they were 100% straight, joining in the macho games of daring “fingerfucks” in the back of the minibus on school trips, chalking off their conquests for everyone to see. Pity the poor girls who were proud to have been abused in this manner, and thought they were somehow cool.

Fast forward through school and university… A few weeks into my first proper job, I made a visit home. Inevitably I was asked whether I was seeing anyone at present? My reply – that I’d just had a wonderful weekend with a really lovely girl – was welcome until I said the word “girl”. Suddenly it was made clear that we would never speak of this again, and such conversations were not welcome. I’m sorry? I happened to sleep with a girl – a gorgeous, fun, sensitive girl, for what it’s worth – and because of her gender the topic is infra dig? Suddenly I felt choked, and not allowed to be “me”. Yet this can only be a small version of what my gay and lesbian friends experienced. It felt that being gay was good enough for my friends (of whom many happen to be LGBT*) but somehow it was not good enough for me. Things may have moved on since Tom penned his anthem, but it seems that some people still feel threatened by the concept.

In some ways, I can see a parallel between sexuality and disability. Not because of everyday discrimination and judgement – although that does happen – but because “normal” people often make the assumption that we (disabled people) will surround ourselves with people who have a difference which attracts attention and then decide “I must have what they’ve got”. Or even worse, “I want what they’ve got” – some inadvertent sort of Munchausen’s Syndrome. Even medics often tell us to distance yourself from other people with disabilities so as not to be drawn in to that world, as if it will be unhealthy – but when you feel alienated or are lying awake in the small hours, with pain or conflicted thoughts, the only relief can be friendship from someone who understands exactly how you are feeling. It doesn’t work like the bigots assume – perhaps something will chime with you and make you realise “yes, this is how I am!” but if it’s not what you already carry within yourself, it won’t happen. People who can share experiences, sympathy and solidarity are good for us, not leading us astray! And that applies whether you are disabled, gay, trans* – or in any other social group. It is an insult for people to assume we can be “turned”.

Coming back to the gig: as I described, it was full of all sorts of people, though most appeared to be older men with denim, tattoos or union flag clothing. The kind of people who would intimidate me in any other situation. But I had misjudged them. Here we were, all fans of Tom Robinson’s music, chanting along in solidarity: “Sing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way, hey! Sing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way.” Everyone joined in – my husband, children, everyone in sight. There was a shared feeling of understanding, and support – and it felt good. Finally I felt I belonged, and that as a group we could take a step forward.

I am glad to be gay. Are you?


Commodore, Golden Labradoodle puppy, aged 12 weeksYour cute little puppy nips? To some extent, that’s par for the course. But you need to know how to train them out of this habit before they become a big strong dog and it turns into a major issue. Having been through the process with my labradoodle puppy Commodore, who seems to explore and express everything with his mouth, I have suggestions on what to try, and when to step it up.

Up front, a disclaimer: I’m not a dog behaviouralist, and the only qualification I have is experience with dogs in my family from a young age (theirs and mine). None of my suggestions are harmful to your dog, but if you feel the situation is out of control or going too far, do consult your vet or a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers or the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. If there is any snarling (showing teeth), aggressive growling or nasty snapping please do not hesitate to seek professional help.

I always recommend taking your dog to puppy socialisation and training classes as soon as their vaccinations are complete, too – a less formal situation where you and the dog can learn together.

Preliminaries – distinguishing between nipping and mouthing

First off, you should be aware of the difference between mouthing and nipping. It’s natural for puppies to mouth, it means exploring their environment with their tongues, lips and teeth, and in this way you might be gently chewed – along with anything else they find! Particularly until and through the teething period, you can expect this behaviour. (Puppies lose their “milk” teeth from around the age of three months, and should have all their adult teeth by around eight months. Not every owner knows this, and then they worry when their puppy spits out teeth!)

The key thing to note is whether the puppy is pulling their punches. That is, are they biting as hard as they can? If so, I would seek expert help sooner rather than later. But if they are gently mouthing / chewing at some times, but nipping at others, and particularly if when they nip they still don’t bite as hard as they could, then they can be taught where and when each behaviour is inappropriate.

Mouthing, but gently
To ease mouthing, I would recommend that you teach the command “gently”. The way I do this is by offering a treat in my hand, and saying “gently” – if the dog pulls towards it keenly I close my hand to cover the treat, saying “ah-ah!” This is repeated until the dog takes the treat slowly and softly in its lips, when I say “Good dog GENTLY!” and produce another treat from my other hand or a pocket which is given quickly and freely as a reward. Similarly if the dog takes a treat very gently at another time – whether or not you asked it to – I again say “Good boy GENTLY!” with lots of praise. Once the dog has got the concept (and will only take the treat carefully and softly on the gently command) then you can begin to use the word in other contexts. So when my dog is mouthing, if he chews my hand a little roughly I can say “gently…” and if they back off, they get praise – if they carry on chewing hard, say “ah-ah!” and carefully but firmly take my hand away, putting it behind my back so they can’t resume chewing. Anyway, that’s something that I recommend establishing from as early an age as possible.

While mouthing should reduce with age, my Commodore is now 8 months old and still does it from time to time – one of his tricks when I have been away from him for a few hours is to sit with me, take my hand in his mouth, and gently hold it to stop me from leaving. Of course I can walk away if I want to, but he likes to quietly make the point that he wants me to be with him for a while. It’s cute, and harmless (as he is very gentle), so we allow it. But nipping would be out of the question.

Nipping – solving the problem

Tip 1: Watch for patterns of behaviour – anticipate the nipping before it starts
Some books say that puppies nip to try and establish their dominance. While you shouldn’t let him get away with this behaviour, I find that sometimes there are other causes. For example, with my puppy Commodore, nipping would happen when he was over tired, and couldn’t express himself. It would be like a toddler who needed a nap! He was frustrated, it seemed to be “I want something but I don’t know what!” In fact, when he stopped playing nicely and started nipping, we knew he needed a break. We would put him in his crate and say “time out” and within seconds he would be asleep… ready to be our lovely little puppy again when he woke up. So, my first tip is to watch for patterns of behaviour. Some dogs go a little bit crazy when they are working up to having a poo! Keep a diary if you need to, because there is often a reason that you can intercept and work with. Ideally in time you’ll be able to anticipate a nipping bout, and feed him, take him outdoors, or pop him in bed for a nap before he gets wound up – whatever is relevant to the cause.

Tip 2: Say “Ow!” – teach him that he is too rough
You need to let your puppy know when he is hurting you. In the litter he will have used his mouth to play with his siblings, and his mum will have used a nip to put him in his place if necessary. He doesn’t know that your skin is more breakable than his furry playmates! Those sharp puppy needle-teeth can easily draw blood, so the first thing to do is make clear when he has pushed his luck too far. When he nips, immediately say “ow!” in a high pitched voice, drop any toys you are playing with, stop moving or interacting, and avoid his eye contact. Ideally, your puppy will give you a confused look of “oh, something is wrong, what happened there?” and will grow to learn that his biting is not acceptable, and playtime ends. You can resume play a few seconds later, when he’s got the message – count to five or ten and then carry on – but say “ow” and stop every single time he nips, even if it was accidental in play. Commodore quickly learnt where the boundary lay, even though he liked to push it when he was little – he has always been a bit rougher with my husband than me, whether he was being good or overstepping the mark. This shows that he can control his behaviour.

Tip 3: Divert him – teach him what he IS allowed to bite
Puppy is excited, playing, and getting a bit nippy? When you see his mouth coming, stuff a toy in it! Don’t let him go so far as biting you, have some big soft toys or a rubber safe-stick ready and if he looks like he wants to get stuck in, put them between you and him. Once he is chewing on the toy, say “good boy with your Kong” or whichever words you choose. He might look a bit surprised at first, but when puppy learns that he gets praise for chewing his toy, and that you will play with him while he does it, he will hopefully find it more satisfying than nipping more generally.

Tip 4: Walk away
One thing that upsets a puppy is being denied attention. So if you’ve tried the first few tips for a couple of weeks but there has been no let up, it’s time to step up a gear. Instead of merely stopping play for a few seconds, completely blank your dog. I would get up, leave the room, and turn to face the wall in the hallway. Of course puppy will follow you out, they want you to engage with them! By facing the wall they are unable to make eye contact, they cannot get your attention, and they are effectively punished for the behaviour. Make this quite a long time out, perhaps start with 30 seconds or a minute. If puppy bites your behind to try and get you to interact while you are ignoring them, you will have to go into another room (such as the bathroom) and close the door. If your dog frets or whines, this means the tactic is working, and being denied your attention is having an impact. Don’t give in!

Do not try to move or manhandle the dog when using this technique – you want to remove interaction instantly when nipped, so it has to be you who leaves, not the other way around.

Tip 5: Don’t give attention for biting – no drama.
It’s quite common that we inadvertently reward bad behaviour, by ignoring puppy when he is being quiet or well behaved, but turning to shout at him or interrupt him when he is naughty or barking. That’s natural to some extent, even though you may try to avoid it. However, it really came home to me when I saw Commodore nipping my husband. He’d shout, or stand up, or some other action which to a dog can seem quite dramatic.

Look, I know it hurts to be nipped by those needle-teeth. It’s hard not to shriek, or to want to push the puppy away or even to just run out of the room. But this attention is feeding the puppy – he is learning “if I bite, I get a reaction!” So resolve to stay as calm as you can – if you get wound up simply leave the puppy (if he is in a safe place – or put him in his crate without speaking), walk away and chill out. My rule is simple: No drama, ever. Stay calm and set the mood. Puppy will be safe while you take a breather.

If you think your puppy is nipping for the drama and excitement that results, or that they are doing it when over stimulated and are unable to settle themselves to come out of that frenzy, then there are exercises that you can work on in order to teach them to learn how to calm down. However, this may need the advice of a dog behaviouralist.

Tip 6: Watch your hands!
Another lesson learnt from observation – watch what your hands are doing. It’s most likely them which your puppy is nipping, or at least drawn to. If he goes to bite you, carefully but firmly remove your hands from him – behind your back, or sit on them. Many people pull their hands away and try to lift them out of the dog’s reach. To the puppy, you are teasing it by moving the target – what a fun game! So don’t wave, don’t flap, just remove your hands from the situation as best you can, until the dog is calm again. Also, if the dog is wound up (whether nipping in play or frustration) do not touch them. Sometimes Commodore will start to settle down, but going to stroke him just brings hands back into play again, and being touched when he is excited can be too stimulating. By all means speak calmly to the dog, but avoid direct eye contact and only touch it once you are sure it has relaxed and the moment has completely passed.

Of course, sometimes you need to use your hands, for example if you need to put your puppy in his crate to chill out, or to remove him from the room. In that case, if he is going through a phase of nipping, I suggest you regularly clip a house line to his collar (letting it trail around behind him, although make sure to check on him so he doesn’t get caught on anything). That way when you need to move him, you can pick up the line to lead him away, without having to put your hands on his body or near his mouth. Again, look out for behaviour patterns – Commodore used to be good in the morning, but by afternoon I’d be glad of the house line, so it would be clipped on at lunchtime as a matter of course. In fact, he seemed to know it went on because he was naughty. Once, he brought me the house line just before he started misbehaving – perhaps he knew he couldn’t help himself on that day!

Tip 7: Teach other means of expression
For some puppies nipping can be as a result of frustration – no other way to express how they feel or what they want. So, teach them other methods. Train your dog to give a paw on command – later on, you can tell them “use your paw” when they are playing with a puzzle, or in other situations. It stops them from instinctively using their mouths to try and manipulate everything in their environment. (If you are worried that they will then paw incessantly for attention, teach and reward “paw off” as well.)

Another command which is useful to teach is “show me” (for example “what do you want? Show me”). My last dog would bark, and then I’d encourage him to show me what he was after. It could be more food, being let outside, or an out of reach toy. You don’t have to give them what they are after, but do reward for the successful “show” so it isn’t futile for them – make sure they get what they are after when it is safe and reasonable to do so. I taught “show me” by osmosis – my dog would naturally lead me to what it wanted, and then cottoned on to what I was asking in order to do it with purpose on command.

You can also train your dog to “bring me a toy” so if they look a bit bored and like they might be tempted to nip this is a way to engage them and interact before they get to that stage. Bringing you a toy for a tug or chew game is much better than being tugged or chewed on yourself!

Tip 8: Teach “stop biting”
Since Commodore was around six months old, I told him “stop biting”. I have to spit the words out separately in order to get his attention, if he is particularly excited. He now understands, and at the age of eight months I have now progressed this to “sit. Listen” (waiting until I have his attention) “Stop – Biting. IF you keep BITING you will go OUTSIDE in the HALL.” It only took a few iterations of this – with nipping being punished by being put in the hall, told “Bad dog, NO BITING”, and left alone for a short time – before he got the idea. Generally now he will back down when told “stop biting”, and if he is so stimulated that he can’t calm down, a short time out in the hall is good for both of us in any case.

Tip 9: Be persistent and consistent
I would suggest you try each stage for at least a week at a time, and ensure every member of your household is consistent. Take it in turns to step back and watch each other to see what happens in a biting situation – I found this an enlightening way to learn, and understand what my dog was seeing.

If you still aren’t making any headway, or are unhappy about your dog’s nipping, please see a professional. There is absolutely no shame in needing help – I’ve consulted a trainer about various different issues in the past and I’m sure I will again in the future.

However, as your puppy learns what is acceptable, and grows older and more sensible, hopefully nipping will become a thing of the past.

Let me know you get on, or if you have any other tips to share, in the comments below.

Commodore, aged 12 weeks, asleep.

Food is one of my long-standing passions. But while I might know what I enjoy eating, I find that most meals I want to make have already been documented online, or are beyond my capability, as a “spoonie” (disabled person with limited energy). However, using a slow cooker means I can make quite a lot of satisfying food with relative ease, and I’d encourage anyone to do so.

I’ve taken the time to hone five recipes (adapted over time from a selection of different versions), and present them here for your convenience. If you’ve never used a slow cooker before, do have the confidence to give these a try! And please let me know how you get on with them.

I’m vegetarian, although these recipes happen to be vegan (or very easily converted). However my meat-eating partner and neighbour are always delighted to tuck in as these dishes are full of flavour and texture.

Where I’ve called for stock or bouillon, I use 250ml boiling water to 2 teaspoons vegan lo-salt bouillon powder. Butter can be substituted with Pure vegan spread. Where I say “diced” I intend pieces no larger than 1cm2, and “chopped” means roughly an inch square – but you can adjust for your own preference, of course.

Some slow cooker info: I use a 3.5 litre Cookworks cooker which cost just £12. This size provides a generous meal for two, and then three or four lunch-sized portions to freeze for later. So these recipes would probably feed a family of four for dinner, particularly if served with rice or bread. Also, I tend to prepare the meal in the afternoon, then cook on high for 3-4 hours. If you prefer to prep earlier in the day, an hour on high is roughly equal to two or three hours on low. However my experience has been that once things are done in a slow cooker, they don’t go over if you leave them a bit longer – even courgette held its texture! If you set any of these recipes going in the morning and leave it all day, please let me know how you got on.

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Perfect Veggie Chilli

Ease of preparation: Couldn’t be easier! Just chuck everything into the pot!
Spoonie notes: You need to be able to open tins and chop firm vegetables.
Freezes: Very well.

This veggie chilli is a crowd pleaser. It can be served on rice, potatoes, in a wrap – and accompanied by cheese, soured cream, or a crisp green salad. It is fairly mild (just a little comforting chilli warmth) because the first time I tried it, I ended up swapping out the liquid with cool passata while my eyes were streaming… I’d suggest you try it my way to begin with, and if you then want it hotter, wait until an hour before serving (when the vegetables are cooked and a sauce has formed) and add extra chilli to taste at that point.

1 courgette, diced
1 large leek, chopped into small pieces
2 carrots, in ribbons (use a peeler – or you can grate, but ribbons give a better texture)
1 parsnip, diced
2 cans chopped tomato
2 cans beans (rinsed) – I usually use one can black eye beans, one can kidney beans
125ml water
½ – 1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ – 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
½ teaspoon chilli powder
A generous shake of paprika

Just put everything into the pot! I recommend the firmer veggies at the bottom, as they will get the heat soonest, then the contents of the cans, then the seasoning.

To begin with, everything will be firm and fairly raw – that’s normal. Come back an hour or two before the end and give it a good stir to mix everything together before leaving it to finish cooking.

Cook on high for 3½ hours.

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Vegetable Korma

Ease of preparation: Requires a food processor. Fairly easy though – you just make the paste in the food processor, then chuck it in the cooker with everything else.
Spoonie notes: You need to open the can of coconut, and grate ginger by hand. The korma paste, once made, can be a skin irritant.
Freezes: Very well, although the cauliflower loses a little texture when re-heated.

This korma is delicious and impressive. I like to serve it with fragrant rice.

Make sure to use full-fat coconut milk (whichever you can get with the highest fat content – brand doesn’t matter) as it isn’t so flavoursome and unctuous if you use a reduced fat version. Also, note that while it is very tempting to dip your finger into the delicious korma paste, it will be very hot, and will irritate your skin and probably your throat too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Stage 1 – Korma paste.
Mix the following in a food processor:
40g raw cashews
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
4 inches of fresh ginger, grated
1 chilli pepper (deseeded and roughly chopped)
½ bunch fresh coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon garam marsala
2 tablespoons tomato puree
3 tablespoons dessicated coconut
Small pinch of salt
Water – for consistency (add once the rest is blended, until you have a good paste)

Stage 2 – The base.
In your cooker, mix together:
All the korma paste
250ml stock
1 can full-fat coconut milk

Stage 3 – The whole thing.
To the base in the cooker, add:
2 leeks (diced)
3 medium potatoes (diced)
2 carrots (diced)
2 tomatoes (diced, and ideally de-seeded and skinned)
4 cloves garlic (chopped fine)
½ head cauliflower (in small florets or chunks)

Cook on high for 3½ hours.

Then add:
80g peas (blanched frozen peas are fine)
40g raw cashews (in halves)

Cook for another ½ hour on high – you can serve once the cashews have softened.

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Vegetable Bourguignon

I love the flavour of boeuf bourguignon, but don’t eat meat. So here’s a vegan version. The vegetables I’ve used work well for me, but you can vary them with the veg of your choice. Just make sure they are in fairly solid chunks and will hold their shape. If you want to use mushroom I would suggest quarters of portabello, added 15 minutes before serving. (I am one of those awkward vegetarians who doesn’t much care for mushroom, but at least chunks of the larger varieties have flavour and won’t go slimy.) I’ve left the quantities vague; I use “about so-many” – whatever looks right in the pot.

This is one of those simple but delicious dishes where you can’t help drinking the dregs from the bowl… or sopping it up with some good chunky bread. Alternatively you can make a simple herb dumpling and add them to the pot 30 minutes before serving.

Ease of preparation: Simple, although you do need to brown the veg in a pan first.
Spoonie notes: You need to chop firm veg, and fry them in a pan.
Freezes: Haven’t tried it. I would imagine it freezes fairly well because the vegetables I use would cope well with re-heating, but there is a high liquid content to this dish so you might want to be careful if using other vegetables such as mushrooms.

Stage 1 – The vegetables.
New potatoes

All the vegetables should be chopped into large chunks (e.g. halve a baby new potato, leave shallots whole, cut carrots into chunks along their length). Blanch the shallots, then fry all the veg together in a pan (in a little butter or Pure) until they are starting to brown and soften.

Stage 2 – The sauce.
1 small can tomato puree
250ml water
500ml bouillon
400ml red wine (I usually use a £5 Côtes du Rhône)
Lots of fresh thyme
5 bay leaves
A bulb of garlic, finely chopped (yes, a bulb! If you really don’t like garlic then ease up on it.)

Dissolve the tomato puree into the water so there are no lumps of puree. Then add this to the pot, along with the bouillon, wine, herbs and garlic. Stir the sauce to mix.

Stage 3 – The whole thing.
Once the veg have started to soften and lightly brown, add them to the sauce in the pot.

Cook for 3 hours on high.

When serving, don’t forget to put the bay leaves aside – I would leave them in the pot as long as possible, but don’t serve them.

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Butternut Squash and Carrot Stew with Cobbler

This soft, comforting stew is sweet and tasty. The cobbler isn’t vegan but you could adapt it by leaving out the cheese, or just make a herb dumpling instead.

My top tip is to eat the stew cold the next day with a generous dash of balsamic vinegar.

Ease of preparation: Simple. The cobbler might sound fiddly to people who don’t usually bake, but it’s dead easy when you give it a try.
Spoonie notes: You need to open a can, and start the stew cooking in a pan, which means transferring quite a large quantity into the pot. Also, butternut squash is very hard to cut! You can buy packets of prepared chopped squash (fresh or frozen) and I would recommend that if you have any difficulty with your hands or wrists. The cobbler requires making “breadcrumbs” which takes a couple of minutes of wrist action, but you can always leave it out and just make the stew.
Freezes: Frankly, I wouldn’t – the stew is soft and comforting but I suspect it would turn mushy on re-heating. However, to refrigerate it for a few days keep the cobbler dough separate, then bake individual servings on a baking tray or in the pot as required.

Stage 1 – The stew.
1 large onion, chopped
500g butternut squash, chopped
500g carrot, diced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
250ml stock
1 teaspoon caster sugar
3 sprigs rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary (I put them in a piece of knotted muslin, to get the flavour without having solid rosemary pieces throughout the dish)

Brown the onion in a large pan (I use a dash of olive oil). Add the other ingredients. Bring to the boil. Transfer to the slow cooker and then cook on high for 3 hours.

Stage 2 – The cobbler (optional).
50g butter or Pure vegan spread
150g self raising flour
A pinch of salt
(rub these three things together to make “breadcrumbs”)
75g crumbled stilton or feta
2 sprigs or 1 teaspoon rosemary, chopped very finely
Water for consistency
(add the cheese and herbs to the “breadcrumbs”, then stir in enough water to make a firm dough)

Pat out the dough into a shape somewhat smaller than your cooker’s diameter. Cut it into triangle segments. Then place them on top of the stew (with gaps between each piece) after the stew is cooked, and continue to cook the whole dish for another 30 minutes until the cobbler is puffy.

Serve and enjoy!

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Root & Fruit Tagine

Again, I’ve turned to root vegetables to make this dish. However, you could use any that you prefer. In future I’m going to try theming it to give the dish more of an identity, so for example you might have sweet potato and apricot as the main ingredients with just small quantities of other items. Let your imagination run away – why not try olives, or chestnuts? You can vary the dried fruit too, of course.

But to get you started, here is my tried and tested recipe.

Ease of cooking: Very simple – add things to the pot, cook, add the rest, done.
Spoonie notes: You’ll need to open a can, and chop firm vegetables.
Freezing: Haven’t tried it – but I think the fruit would lose its texture on re-heating.

500g carrot (chopped)
500g parsnips (chopped)
500g turnip or potato (chopped)
2 leeks (chopped)
12 dried apricots (in small pieces)
8 prunes (in small pieces)
1 can of chick peas (rinsed)
Stock – enough to cover the vegetables with an inch of liquid
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
A pinch of salt
Large bunch fresh parsley (finely chopped)
Large bunch fresh coriander (finely chopped)

Add everything except the dried fruit and fresh herbs to the pot. Cook on high for 3 hours.

Then add the dried fruit, parsley and coriander, and cook for another 15 minutes before serving.

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While these are a few dishes to get you started, a slow cooker can also be used to make savoury rice (you could then freeze portions to eat with the chilli or korma), or a dessert dish such as chocolate rice pudding, or stewed rhubarb. There are so many opportunities!

Please let me know if you try any of these recipes, and if you adapt them, what changes you made and how they worked for you!

As a keen and regular gig-goer, I’ve seen a range of artists at all stages in their career – from their first gig at a local social club, to world famous stadium-fillers. However, I think there are some dos and don’ts that all musicians would benefit from remembering, so I present:

A gig-goer’s top ten requests:

1. Tell us who you are.
Ideally, tell us when you come on stage, remind us about halfway through, and remind us again at the end who you’ve “been”. Ok, if you’re the headline act at a gig on their own tour, chances are that you won’t need to remind us, but if you’re anyone else – a support act, or ANYONE at a festival – please do. Apart from anything else, if I’ve enjoyed your music, I want to know who I should be looking out for on twitter and soundcloud.

A good example: at a recent Leisure Society gig, there were two support acts. The first, Alessi’s Ark, didn’t announce themselves at all (I only knew their name because my husband got his phone out and went online). The second act, Paper Aeroplanes, told us who they were at the start, middle and end – and that was great, because I thoroughly enjoyed their music and wanted to look them up as soon as I got home.

2. Don’t change instruments between every single song.
Ah, this is another one for Alessi’s Ark. The flow and the mood was completely spoilt by Alessi leaving the front of the stage, swapping guitars, then telling the sound man “can you turn on the acoustic lead please?” all the time. I understand that you think some songs sound better on one instrument, others on another. Perhaps one is tuned down a semitone, or there’s some other reason for wanting to use it. The thing is, I didn’t care about the tone of the instrument, I cared about the gist of the song. Save specific instruments for recordings – just get out there, get some momentum going, and blow us away.

(I’d have some sympathy for bands that perform several songs on one guitar, then swap for the rest of the set. Especially if they have a roadie (or a mate) ready to help them exchange as quickly as possible, and some good patter to kill the time while they plug in and, if necessary, check tuning. But don’t waste your performance time – and ours – by traipsing to collect a different instrument every 3 minutes. It really kills the mood.)

3. Give us something to remember you by – a momento.
Perhaps that’s a free CD or USB stick, perhaps it’s a flyer with a link to a free download. I’ve seen all of these at gigs (or even handed out in the queue beforehand) and appreciated them all. Well, except for the bloke who stepped on my hand to steal my freebie CD at a Pitchshifter gig. But that was hardly the band’s fault.

4. Know where your marks are, where the lights will be, and work within that area.
It is really frustrating when someone steps out of the light – or steps off the stage altogether. Yes, it might bring you closer to the front row of your fans, but unless you’ve got an on-the-ball lighting engineer, and you’re being followed by a cameraman whose feed is being projected to a screen on stage, you’ve now alienated the thousands of people NOT in the front row. Scroobius Pip, Wembley Arena, April 2012 – I’m talking to you.

5. Spontaniety? Plan it.
Another note for Scroobius Pip. If you are going to be “spontaneous” – whether genuinely spur of the moment, or something you actually planned – think it through. Yes, I know that is the antithesis of spontaneity. But let’s be fair, Scroob – when you left the stage and didn’t know how to get back on, the situation went from amusing to a shambles very quickly. Poor Dan le Sac had to keep the beats going, not knowing how long before you’d join him again, or whether you’d got lost.

At the same gig, Beans On Toast announced that he’d always wanted to crowdsurf, and asked the audience to ferry him. The moment was only slightly lost while he emptied his pockets first, then made arrangements for a friend to rescue his phone from the stage before he departed…

6. Know what the hell you’re singing.
Sounds obvious, right? Now, I understand that sometimes in the heat of the moment, words are forgotten or the wrong note is struck. And some gigs are deliberately intended to try out new songs. That’s all fine. But again I’m reminded of Beans On Toast, who began a song he’d “just written that morning”… and after a couple of shaky restarts, stopped after the chorus because that was all he had. The song was unfinished! Sure, bring new music to test out on the audience, but make sure you’ve completed it first. And ideally you should know how it goes. We want you to sell it to us!

7. Talk to us – but don’t bore us.
I enjoy a bit of interaction between the artist and the audience. Whether I’ve never heard of you, or I’m a die-hard fan, I like to hear “this song is special to us because…” or “I wrote this song about…” so long as it adds something or gives me a feeling of empathy for the writer. It gets a bit wearing if you get on your soapbox or drone on for too long, though (naming no Pete Townshends) – just introduce the song, give us a reason to connect with it, then get on with letting us appreciate the music.

If the situation can handle it, a little humour can be fun too. I saw Tom Williams & The Boat at an Olympics themed festival, and was cackling as every song was “written with Jessica Ennis” or “inspired by Tom Daley”. It took a reference to Claire Balding before the drunk Brazilians next to me started to question whether Tom was serious! And this showed me that beneath the sombre lyrics, Tom has a playful side.

8. If you’re not going to have an encore, tell us.
I might have been waiting for the final song to swig the last of my beer, put my camera down, and stand up and boogie. (Or perhaps I would like to escape before the hoards trample me…) So if you’re about to play your last song, please announce it. The vibe of the finale is usually fantastic, and it’s a shame to spoil that with crowds expectantly calling for an encore, holding something in reserve, only to find the house lights come up. We want to say thank you and goodnight to you in style!

9. Have a good, clearly defined, camera policy.
Obviously the policy itself will depend on the situation. For some bands (like Nine Inch Nails) it’s great that they liaise with venues so we can be admitted with whatever kit we like, as long as we don’t use tripods or obstruct anyone else’s view. The fan-made DVDs (check out “This one is on us”) are fantastic, and really authentic reminders of amazing live shows. Other bands might be playing a more intimate gig and not mind snaps but just don’t want flash going off in their faces, nor being confronted with DSLRs. Whatever the situation, please think about it, and then convey it to the venues and the fans, so that the audience know what they are permitted to do and can decide whether to add to their enjoyment in this way, or leave their camera at home.

(It goes without saying that if you’re in the audience, don’t be a dick and block someone else’s view. Ever.)

10. Don’t be late!
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the support act or the main attraction, please don’t be late to start or finish. If you’re the support, and your slot starts late, that’s unfortunate. But the majority of the audience aren’t here to see you, and nobody will appreciate being made to wait for the main act. If you ARE the main act, that doesn’t give you the right to act like a queen. Did you see the outcry when Justin Bieber was 90 minutes late onstage? The thing is, I’m sure you’ll play your full set anyway (even if you’re at a festival that incurs fines from the council for overrunning) – you’ve planned and rehearsed it, everyone’s there for you, so why not?

Well, some of us have trains to catch, or work in the morning… Live music is a passion, but unfortunately for most people it’s a hobby and not everyone can afford to stay late. Those who can? You’ll find them by the stage door, let them in afterwards for a chat and an autograph if you want. But for everyone who has to get back to reality, PLEASE run to time!

I realise some of these points may be controversial, but others are just common sense, yet bands often ignore them. What else should artists be aware of?

A week or so ago, I went to hear a musical icon – and my favourite DJ – talk to a group of students from Goldsmiths’ College. Tom Robinson (he of 2-4-6-8 Motorway fame, also Glad To Be Gay and War Baby) explained how there was no better time to make music. His talk was scintillating and took us from when our grandparents first discovered music, on through his 30 years in music, and to the present day.

One of his messages was that if you are going to write music, you need to do two things; lower your standards, and raise your standards. By this, Tom meant that you should make sure you churn out lots of completed songs – get into the habit of finishing them (even if you feel, half way through, that it is rubbish) as skills come with practise. Every nth piece of work will be worth hearing, but you need to go through producing the others in order to get to the good one, and be ready to make it.

In terms of raising your standards, it is so easy to make music at home and/or on a budget that our ears are swamped. Don’t push everything you write – wait for that one amazing track (as Tom put it, an OMFG song) and then that is the time to promote yourself.

It was a fascinating talk which touched on many other points, and I was privileged to grab a word with Tom afterwards (he shares my views on making cover versions – they should add something new – but also opened my eyes to how a good cover could be used to win over an unfamiliar audience in a live set).

His words also got me thinking. Any skill needs practise. This is evidenced by the way that I am (re)learning French on my phone via the DuoLingo app – if I leave it for a few days, my scores have slowly ebbed backwards, forcing me to recap. And similarly, I haven’t been writing articles nearly as much as I intended.

Back in June, my life changed. I adopted a wonderful, super-intelligent, labradoodle puppy called Commodore. I thought that I would spend a few weeks getting him housetrained and sorted out with basic commands, then he would lie next to me during the day while I typed away… just as my greyhound used to do. Ah – no such luck. For the first few weeks I resembled my friends with new babies – puppy cradled in one arm (holding a toy or treat for him in front if his face) while I tried to write or type with my free hand. A few weeks later and this tiny puppy was a hulking dog that can easily take over a three seater sofa. Yet he still needs my attention. “Hey mum, I’ve DONE that, what’s next?” He’s so quick. I’m teaching him loads of skills, in the hope that he can become some kind of assistance dog, or at least save my energy by opening and shutting doors by himself! Thus I spend my day training him, or walking him, or playing with him, or grooming his gorgeous but significant poodly coat, or just holding a bone for him to chew while I check email with my other hand. I get a few hours at my desk every week if I’m lucky – before, it was a few hours every day. So that’s why what used to be a weekly – oh ok, fortnightly – blog has become one that is rarely updated.

I was also guilty of the problem which Tom highlighted. As with my songwriting, I’d been saying to myself “That isn’t of a high enough standard, so I will bin it, or start it again when I have more time and inspiration.” The result? Nothing was produced.

Tom’s words hit home. So now I intend to blog whenever I get the chance. I already have a few dozen subjects drafted, but many of them went out of date before I got around to giving them life. Lesson learned.

So, future articles might not get quite the attention to detail that I would like to give them, nor the multiple careful reviews before I hit the button to publish – but… my blog is back!

Thank you, Tom. If the standard is lower than before, at least it is better than never writing at all. I shall hold out for the nth article to be a success.

It’s a bank holiday weekend. What are you doing – perhaps some DIY or pottering around the garden? Well, if you’re disabled, chances are you won’t be able to shop at a B&Q because their dedicated blue badge parking bays are used to store stock from Spring to Autumn. And the company aren’t willing to change.

I’m physically disabled. I need to park as close to my destination as possible, and I need a wide parking bay with hatching either side, so I can open my doors fully in order to get in and out – if I use a regular bay and someone parks alongside me, I can’t get back into my car. Luckily, the number and sizes of these bays are specified by the Department for Transport (DfT), so I can rely on them being present when I need to shop. The specifications are detailed on their website (although this PDF is dated 1995, the DfT confirmed to me in June 2013 that this is still their current guidance). So it’s straightforward – a shopping area should provide dedicated, wide parking spaces for every disabled member of staff, plus 6% of all bays if there are under 200 spaces in total, or 4 bays plus an additional 4% if there are more than 200 spaces.

When a store doesn’t provide those bays, or if they are provided but not enforced, it’s easy to campaign, quoting the DfT’s guidance. But what happens when disabled parking bays are present, but it’s the store themself who abuses them?

B&Q is a repeat offender. Take my local store, Leyton Mills in East London. I won’t bore you with the numbers, but you can see the location of disabled bays – marked with blue splodges – on this trading estate. Whether you only count the parking bays in the B&Q area, or the entire trading estate, I’ve totted them up and the numbers are such that obstructing just a few bays will mean that the DfT minimums are not met. Every dedicated wide bay is important for me and the many disabled people who want to shop there.

Image from Google Maps – click for detail

Back in 2009 I raised the issue of the disabled bays having been turned into a garden centre:

The management didn’t seem to care – I spoke to them three times and then followed up with a letter, but nothing changed – so I contacted the local police team who patrol the trading estate. A lovely PC gave me the management company’s address but also confided that he’d already had words with B&Q on this topic and it was a source of frustration. The PC spoke to store management again and this time they removed plants from three bays, and promised to free up another two over the weekend (theoretically leaving just one disabled bay full of stock, and eleven available for parking).

Well, B&Q did indeed remove plants from some of the disabled parking bays… however, they replaced them with a gazebo containing a woman selling trampolines!

If it wasn’t so frustrating and ridiculous, I’d laugh. All I want is somewhere to park.

The problem is ongoing, every year the same. In May 2013 the disabled bays looked like this:

…yes, it’s another garden centre! I should point out that there are plenty of normal parking spaces that could be used instead of the dedicated wide ones, if they are unable to fit all their stock in the store. But not only do the disabled bays get used for plants, but they are spread out to provide space for people to browse around them! So it’s not just an emergency holding area, but a deliberate abuse of the space.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here are some examples from other stores…

Claire Brewer spotted this in Lea Bridge Road:

And my own image of the same store (I was unable to park there at all, and staff looked at me blankly when I called them over and asked them to clear a disabled bay for me) – click on the image to see more detail:

Su Smith visited Aylesbury, where they were displaying compost in the car park:

And Dr John Bullas saw this stack of trolleys at a Southampton store:

This problem has also been in the news, for example last October Harrow Times reported on B&Q’s Stanmore store: Anger at DIY store blocking disabled bays with stock. And I’ve heard reports of similar issues at B&Q stores across the UK. Clearly the company don’t care about the needs of their disabled customers. I won’t give you the full spiel about the business case for providing access, but suffice to say that 1 in 7 adults in the UK are disabled, with an annual spending power of around £80 billion. It’s clear that B&Q are not just frustrating and insulting disabled people, but are also turning away a lot of potential income.

So what do B&Q have to say?

Their website has an “Ethics FAQ”, which states:

“Q. What services do you provide for disabled customers?
A. All car parks have designated disabled parking bays, near the main store entrance.”

It would be nice if, having created these parking bays, B&Q would keep them free for the customers who need them.

This summer I tackled B&Q via twitter, hoping that the publicity would make them think twice. They responded to my photos of Leyton Mills, and asked their manager to move stock out of the bays. This was done in many cases, but several of the hatched areas (needed for disabled people to open their doors fully or to pull their wheelchairs alongside their car) remained blocked with stock. A quick poll of my disabled friends on twitter indicated that in order to be useful, the bay needs to have clear hatching on both sides of the bay. And indeed this clear hatching is specified in the DfT guidance. If stores are still blocking hatching they are still obstructing the bays.

Also, B&Q may have cleared some of the spaces in Leyton Mills. Stores in other locations remain just as bad. They might have responded to my tweets in fear of bad publicity but they haven’t made any kind of change to their general attitude or policy. In fact when I visited Leyton Mills this week I found another bay blocked by a sign inviting me to come and shop over the Bank Holiday weekend. This infuriated me enough to finally blog about it.

So it seems that B&Q just don’t care. Summer may be nearly over, and perhaps once colder weather comes and the bedding plants are sold out for another year, the demand for disabled bays (from both customers and the stores) will diminish.

But we know it will happen again.

Name and shame your local offenders, and perhaps head office will do something about it. If not, perhaps it’s time the issue was raised with the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

As their advert says – “B&Q: What could you do?

Storm Thorgerson is one of the artists I admire most highly. He is known for creating amazing cover art on albums, particularly those of Pink Floyd, but he worked with a very wide range of musicians. When I heard of his death in April, I was struck by the strength of my sadness and sense of loss – given that this is not someone I ever worked with, and that I am just a “fan”.

I wanted to say something to mark the occasion, but the words didn’t come to me. Then this evening I received an email newsletter from Storm Studios. Normally written by Storm himself, this time it came from his friends and colleagues. They described how they laid him to rest this week, “in sight of Karl Marx and his friend Douglas Adams”.

I instantly wrote an email in response, which I will share here by way of an acknowledgement of his loss. It is probably not the best tribute that I’ve ever written, but it was spontaneous and genuine.

To all at Storm Studios:

Thank you so much for this beautiful email.

I was everso sad to hear of Storm’s death.

I admired his work for many years – before I knew who had created these stunning and moving images on the covers of my favourite albums, many of which I’d borrowed from my dad’s record collection as a teenager.

In recent years, “Taken By Storm” was on my Amazon wishlist until a relative kindly bought it for me.

In 2011, I saw that Storm was speaking at the British Music Experience, and on a whim snapped up tickets. I am not desparately well myself but was determined to attend. Storm’s character was instantly clear, such an intelligent man, highly entertaining but also very perceptive. I was delighted to win a set of his postcards on the night, and for him to sign my copy of his book. Both remain treasured possessions.

It’s funny how much of an impact he made. From hearing Storm speak, I knew I would have liked to chat with him and get to know him, although I’m sure he could have been a taskmaster at times! I am also a huge music fan and his images were revolutionary, speaking to me through difficult teenage years right up to the current day. It was awesome to hear how he set up the photographs rather than merely creating something in Photoshop… my favourite has to be the Division Bell artwork, where both the music and Storm’s images spoke to me.

So I found myself shocked and surprisingly upset when I read of Storm’s death. I didn’t know he had cancer, although it was clear at the BME talk that he wasn’t perfectly well; I was frustrated to find someone in the disabled toilet when I needed to use it, only to see that it was the man himself. I was tonguetied, but in any case it’s not kind to bother someone when they just want to answer a call of nature! I think I muttered something to his female assistant about how excited I was to be there and how I loved his work; something anyone could have said, but I did mean it.

I am so very sorry for your loss; Storm made a huge impression upon me, when I am only a fan who didn’t actually know him at all. Your newsletter was moving and sad, but appropriate, and it was lovely to receive such a personal note from people who knew Storm so well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with his followers.

I wish you all the best in continuing with Storm Studios. And I will be looking out for The Gathering Storm later in the year. Storm was one of a kind.

Flash Says – a regular blog by Flash Bristow

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