January 7th- Lebkuchen

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Just some of the 119 lebkuchen that I ended up baking

Honey. It’s a substance that is pretty magical from a pretty magical insect: the bee. We spread it on our toast, stir it into porridge, or slap some in a stir fry. Yet honey has been in almost continual use since the ancient Egyptians, who recognised its power as a natural sweetener. Romans, Greeks and Egyptians all used honey to sweeten food, especially using it to make cakes: honey cakes.

In the 1200s, a group of monks in central Germany used honey for the first time to create what we now know as the lebkuchen. This type of cake might have been new, but it was a far more ancient idea these monks they were depending on. Since then, lebkuchen have been baked, year on year, using rich spices and plenty of honey to provide that special Christmas concoction of sweet and spicy, breaking with a classically hard crunch.

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January 6th- Birmingham Library

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Birmingham Central Library, mid demolition.

I’m a final year student, and I’m currently mid-way through writing a 6000 word essay on whether one can assign moral weight to a random collective. This writing process certainly requires a certain amount of brain power, and typically the best places for the little grey cells, as a Belgian detective might refer to them, are in a university library.

If you are living in the West Midlands, you are well blessed for university libraries to visit. The largest one near where my parents live in Dudley is the University of Birmingham, which is filled with some beautiful premium desk space to work in. However, there are an additional three libraries sitting in the centre of the city: the library of Aston University, the library of Birmingham City University, and the library of Birmingham.

I found myself working this afternoon on these 6000 words inside Birmingham library. It’s a new building, opened three and a half years ago and feels still like a beautiful new building, although it’s starting to show a few signs of wear and tear. I haven’t been through the city centre since the summer, however, and what shocked me was the view that looked back into the city centre.

That view was the fact there was a complete absence of the gargantuan, gigantic Birmingham Central Library. Completed in 1974, the library sat as a concrete hulk over one corner of Birmingham, moodily observing the passing city that moved beneath its feet like sea water moving beneath the giant cliffs of the sea. There was something in those scaling grey walls of concrete that felt eternally rooted on the side of Chamberlain Square.

I can remember, as a five year old, walking into the Central Library with my mum. I remember how large the building felt around me, the weight of the concrete that pressed in around my ears, the colourful delight of the children’s book area that waited for me a little further in. The library, for me, has always been part of the city and part of the city centre.

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The Library in its former brutalist glory

Now it is ripped out, soon to be replaced with a shopping centre covered with glass panelling. Which I’m sure will be an impressive piece of architecture in itself, yet it won’t have what Birmingham Central Library had: strong character. It won’t have the raw feeling of brutalist brick that met the eye as it soared above the town house. It won’t reflect the spirit of what Birmingham is: just another bland reflection of how the second city wants to turn more into London.

I’m not as upset as I may seem about the library being gone. But I think it is sad that Birmingham has thrown this piece of its history onto the garbage heap of history. It’s a little like trying to get your parents to leave you behind when you have to go to school, too worried of being seen with them at the school gates. The Birmingham accent may be funny and the city centre may have odd architecture, but that culture is worth celebrating and hanging onto. With this empty plot of land, we forget just about where we came from.

Fifth January: Wintery Walks

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Winter might be the most demanding of all the seasons in the year. Spring and summer ask little for our appreciation. They present us with streets filled with flowers and trees filled with blossom, with orchards stuffed with ripening apples and blue skies filled with warmth. They present us with long, warm evenings to while away outdoors and hot, hot afternoons to visit unclimbed hills and uncharted lands. Autumn, likewise, presents us with parks turned auburn and the weather having a certain, undefinable richness to it. Certainly, autumn’s beauty, although somewhat famous, does come with a cost, but a good thick knit autumnal scarf can often feel like a friend as opposed to an enemy.

Winter is no doubt beautiful itself, but it is demanding in that beauty. The frost covered fields and the shock of the blue sky comes at the cost of dark nights and cold, cold fingers. The sight of breath misting above your head or hearing the far off calls of rooks settling down for the night comes with the dull numbness in the toes that is the beginning of the circulation cutting off.

Yet the cold snaps we get now I welcome in as happily as I welcome in the blossoms of May because they come so infrequently. I far prefer to walk through frost bitten fields with boots that crunch the earth beneath them than trudge through the mild winter that we’ve been having recently. The cold doesn’t come without its own delights either: it offers the beautiful excuse to visit pubs to warm up after frosty walks, or light a cheery log fire, or curl up with some book in a cosy armchair and leave the outside to its own tactics.

Today, I went walking in north Worcestershire with my friend from college, Mary (who has featured in this blog before). The weather was wonderfully chilly, hovering just above the 2 degree mark. In this icy weather, the countryside takes on its own type of gentle life. The winter world is one deep in comfortable hibernation, not looking for any reason to be disturbed from its warm slumber. We saw ponds covered with thick frost that had coots running along the surface of them, their oddshaped feet keeping careful balance on top of this delicate world. We found stubbled fields, touched with the dying light of the sun. We found frost covered grass and frozen puddles and a stillness that seemed to permeate the air around us.

Our hands got chilly and our faces felt number and number, but it’s a satisfying kind of pain in the beautiful cold of the winter. The winter moon stared dully down on us as the sun began its slow descent towards the other side of the planet and we trudged into a comfortable pub. Midwinter is quite the wonderful season.

4th January- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Have you ever been to see a movie twice at a cinema? Perhaps you just loved it so much that you just had to leap back into the theatre and watch the whole thing all over again? Or that you’re a secret, hardcore fan and you had to see the film when it premiered and see it again with your friends? Or perhaps it’s a repeat of a film that you watched years ago- a replay of the Lord of the Rings movies? I’d never been to see a movie twice- until tonight.

See, I was with with my girlfriend in Aberystwyth when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (FBWFT. This isn’t the official acronym but boy, that entire title is a tiring thing to write) came out. She’s a huge Potterhead, and I’m a moderate Potterhead, and so we trooped off to see it along with what felt like the rest of Aber. On returning back home for the Christmas holidays, my mum and my sister wanted to go see it as well, and I decided to tag along.

Watching a movie for the second time is actually quite refreshing. As you know the plot from the first screening, you can keep your eyes out for all the little nuances that a director throws in as they go along. You can experience all the complex inter-relations between characters that you didn’t pick up the first time round and some of the jokes make a lot more sense. It made the film rise in my ratings: the first time round, FBWFT (let’s be honest with ourselves here, this acronym needs an acronym itself. Let’s go for FB. Sounds too much like Facebook, but it’ll have to work) got a three star review, but I’d give it a strong four stars now.

Here’s a strong warning: spoilers from this point on. You have been warned.

FB has a lot of moving elements and tries to use the plot as a vehicle for talking about topics that wouldn’t necessarily slot into the world of Newt Scamander. On the second viewing, the most obvious narrative were discussions about terrorism and its roots. It gives those who are fuelled by destructive, uncontrollable anger a sympathetic arena in which to have their story understood. That kind of arena has been missing within our dialogue on terror for a long time: we often reach for basic understandings of black and white in the face of immeasurable pain and hate, and the shades of grey either fade away into the background or stand out as bold colour.

That kind of reaction is understandable, but FB offers a fresher way to tackle the problem of terror: through careful, gentle dialogue which Newt uses. From finding a middle ground and a point of shared identity, anger can subside and fresher perspectives can be found to pilot new courses through difficult conversations.

Yet FB also shows how difficult that kind of conversation can be to have and how that type of understanding can be hard to fish about for within ourselves. Far easier for us to continue with blame. FB asks us to step out from behind that comfort and into the harsh reality of co-existence.

Also the CGI is bloody fantastic and the niffler is the cutest thing. And Eddie Redmayne is an absolutely fab actor and should be knighted/ awarded the Nobel Peace Prize/ be awarded another high accolade faster than you can say bowtruckle.

January 3rd: Tolkien, the world of Faerie and the Tempest

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Tolkien reading at his desk, pipe in mouth.

On this day in 1892 in the heart of what is is now modern day South Africa, J.R.R. Tolkien was born. Over the course of his life, he famously created an entire universe and the characters that have run through them which command a gigantic following around the world. On intoning his name, it seems impossible to not be swept into the world of elves and mountain eagles, of Nazgul and Balrogs, of hobbits and of dwarves.

But this isn’t a blog about Lord of the Rings, although that might feature. This is a post about Tolkien’s day job as a professor of English at Oxford University. Moreover, this is a post about a lecture that Tolkien gave on one fine day in 1939 on fairy stories.

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January 2nd- West Malvern Walks

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Once, or so my late grandfather told me, there was man who built walls on the side of the Malvern Hills. He’d once been a plumber, as well as having a natural sense of humour, which he poured into his bricklaying by placing taps in the middle of the walls. The wall he built has three taps, slightly scratched with age, between the rough stone. When I was young, it seemed as if the wall with taps were the same age as the hills. It still feels like it now.

My grandparents used to live in West Malvern, on the side of the Malvern Hills, in a big house that had views out toward Wales. Just around the corner from them was the wall with the taps stuck into it. Our grandfather would take my sister, cousin and me out walking and we’d try and find the taps, standing in front of them to hide them from where he was looking. It was the routine part of the walk up the hill that marked the beginning of an adventure into the unknown wilds that lay for us at the top.

This morning, we started off walking at the taps in the wall. There was this malicious rumour that existed some time ago that the taps were due to be taken out, but thankfully no-one wants to deny us that type of fun. This morning the hill was flooded in walkers, wrapped up in thick down jackets and cosy knitted hats with delightful pom-poms. As we pulled up away from the taps and began to scale up the true height of the hill, the beauty of walking on a cold winter’s morning became so apparent.

The grass blades were covered with thick frost that made a crunching noise like a horse munching on a apple and the clear cloudless blue skies lent to views of far off hills, framed by elderly pine trees still covered in green needles. We climbed up to Worcestershire Beacon, which is the highest hill on the Malvern Ridge and in Worcestershire, meaning that there is something of a stunning view from the top. The temperature at the top was just above freezing, and with the windchill added in it was probably below that, but the views to the far off mountains of Wales were well worth it.

I’ve always liked the Malverns. They have the majestic commanding views to so many other counties in the heart of England, but also as they have the small, small details like the taps lying in the wall. There are other hills which are far higher, have a far more challenging climb or have a far more glorious view, but the Malverns are peppered with something more than that for me. Memories of being a young boy with blonde hair, out with my grandfather on his early morning walk, standing in front of a tap in the wall as he strolled past before running up the gravely path on the hill towards the sun.

January First: The Divisive Game of Monopoly

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My family is rather terrible at celebrating New Year.

Our family is excellent at celebrating Christmas. Christmas is an extravaganzaic explosion of colour and light and food and family and busy-ness. Everyone wheels through the season, smells of spice and citrus erupt from the kitchen and the house, like so many during the festive season, takes on a warm glow.

This warm glow, however, can only go on for so long, and by New Years Eve everyone is feeling so burnt out that there is hardly the energy to sing one verse of Auld Lang Syne. No really. We didn’t even hum it. 2017 popped into existence and was very much un-noticed in our house. Poor 2017.

Today, however, we’ve travelled down the motorway to the town of Malvern, Worcestershire, where my grandmother lives. None of the family really were in a particular New Years mood, but Nana’s salmon en croute (salmon in pastry- a kind of fish pie I’m far happier with) really got us in the new year spirit. Dinner was cleared away, the plates stacked carefully in the dishwasher, the forks plonked into the cutlery rack. It was at this point that someone suggested playing Monopoly.

Nana’s Monopoly set ages from 2005. It is one of the most modern pieces of board game history that I think I know of. The banking is done without cash, but using fake debit cards which you plonk into a machine and transfer a few million pounds on. It’s tremendous fun to use, especially if you’re the banker. My dad, Nana and myself decided that we’d have a quick game to while away the evening.

My family and flatmates will testify that I am terrible at losing at Monopoly. There is a gradual evolution to my Monopoly game. The opening minutes are spent being wildly, wildly optimistic that this game will be the one that I win. I’m careless with my cash, throw my money about, buy properties that I don’t need and act with reckless abandon.

About ten minutes in, the first seeds of doubt begin to germinate in my mind that this might not be the game that I’m finally able to win it. This happened tonight as my dad built houses on his properties and I started to realise that I couldn’t do the same my end. The little green plastic blocks sat happily on his little squares, mocking my lack of money. Still, I think. These are the early days. I have plans. It’ll all be okay.

So we move to the third stage: delusional realism. I’m delusional in believing that victory is just out of my hands; I’m realistic in really knowing that I’m doomed to lose. It’s at this point I begin to get a little sour. Everyone begins to share a joke on my expense as I turn over the first mortgage card to have to pay for rent, the grumpy look on my face starts to get very long indeed.

After this, my moods can really go anywhere. Thankfully, tonight, I saw that the whole thing was a game and, thankfully, didn’t spin out of control. Other times however, I fling into the foulest of moods. I inwardly curse all the others on the table around me. I scheme, creating plans for global domination and scheme on how I can prove them all wrong by starting a multi-billion pound business empire that stretches from the tundras of Canada to the deserts of Australia.

Then the game finishes, everyone goes off and makes a cup of tea, and I feel griped up inside for about two minutes and then find a box of chocolates that no-one’s attending, or something similar. My mood lifts and I become far friendlier to be around.

That is the horribly divisive game of Monopoly then. Inevitably, all board games end up with someone losing, but Monopoly is famous for being the creator of foul moods. I think it’s because when your fate is sealed, your fate really is sealed. When things begin to go downhill for you and you have to start mortgaging properties, there’s no action you can take, no move you can have that can turn it round. You’re just locked into the dismal, dismal reality of losing.b

Or maybe I just am bad at Monopoly. I think the answer is probably that.

Happy New Year!

Resuming Transmission

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I’ve wanted to blog since I was fourteen. To begin with, I started a blog called a Labour Schoolboy writes. I wanted to be a journalist, and write about politics, and thought that’d be cool. But that petered out. I got a bit older, wanted to do some different stuff, started another political blog, wrote some more about politics. And that petered out. Then I started, while at sixth form college, the Fable of Bede. That was fun for a while, but petered out. Then I tried to start a fourth blog about marketing to prepare me for the big world of work. And that petered out. 

I guess they all fizzled out as I had no big picture on what they could be like. Building a blog can be hard, lonely writing which can feel more like you’re shouting across the ocean expecting some kind of reply than something that is actually meaningful. Often I start out filled with great ideas for blog posts, only to find that two months later I feel I’m chained to writing something that no-one is reading. And that’s just a little bit dismal.

When I started the Fable of Bede though, it felt like a genuinely creative event in my life. Looking back over the posts which I wrote at the age of 18, they have a sense of creative direction which I’ve not had before or since. I’ve spent a longer period of time hoping to be a writer, perhaps since the age of 4 or 5, than I have wanting to be a blogger. I’ve tried writing novels, plays, poems, short stories- I tried to write the sixth Harry Potter book at the age of seven as I couldn’t wait for JK to write it herself and thought she needed some help from an experienced young writer such as myself- yet what was probably my best writing experience ever was the first few months of writing the Fable of Bede. 

I’m 21 now, about to finish my degree, and life is going great. I’ve got a wonderful girlfriend, great friends, an excellent family and a beautiful flat to live in. My degree is really interesting, I’m at the heart of Sheffield surrounded by interesting things and I’m running way more than I ever have done in my life. Yet I feel that in my day to day life, I’m passively appreciating these things and not doing anything that embraces them in an active, creative way.

I want the Fable of Bede to be a place for me to expand a creative and honest writing style. That might be a bit hard and perhaps hard to read, but I’m excited for it to have that continual impetus of daily blogging. I’ll keep writing until it feels like it’s just not working out for me, but until that time, I hope that I can write and create something interesting daily.

So, I’m re-booting the Fable of Bede for a second season after the flop of the first series. Stick around- there’s daily episodes published 8am GMT every morning. Check in frequently or check in once every seven and a half years. But, hopefully, you enjoy it. I hope I will anyway.

Places to visit- Eyam, Derbyshire

To get there- buses from Sheffield.

Time- 45 minutes.

There’s a spooky atmosphere in the village of Eyam. When the bubonic plague arrived there in 1665, the people decided to quarantine themselves within village and not allow the disease to infect the rest of Derbyshire. Around three quarters of the population died from the plague, but no other settlement in the county caught the plague. Nevertheless, if you do visit the village, you can’t help having the sense of visiting a tomb.

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On that cheery start to the post, my girlfriend, her family and I all went to Eyam a few weeks ago on my birthday. We went to the stately home of Eyam Hall and Craft Centre (£7.40 for an adult; free if you have National Trust Membership). The residence, built after the plague had ran its destructive course through the village, is in a grand state and is a quaint image of domesticated Derbyshire life in the late 17th century. The staff, as may be expected from National Trust volunteers, were friendly and full of interesting information about the house and the history surrounding it. The craft centre is filled with interesting shops (like a cheese shop!) and the house has a good set of gardens to stroll around in. A handsome house.

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Once you have explored the house, you may wish to make your way to the 14th Century church (free) just down the road. The church, which has a stone cross within it from the 8th Century, would have been the heart of the village at the time of the plague, and a lot of the history and the story of the plague’s horrors can be found here. It’s possible to still see the names of those the plague killed in the graveyard, and to learn more about the plague there. It’s also a pretty church, with several medieval wall paintings, which are rare sights.

If all this talk of death and plague makes you feel thirsty or hungry, why not go to the Eyam Tea Rooms in the centre of the village? My mother and I (a long time ago) went here and I remember that the ginger beer I had was delicious. With a pot of Yorkshire Tea only costing £1.70, there is every good reason to go along whilst in the village.

Perhaps you feel like a bit of stretch after your time inside the village. You are, after all, in the Peak District, which is well known for  its fine walking and glorious views. Take a map if you want to be adventurous. Or, if you want a short path that affords you views, try this walk out for size. Or, if you still wish to find out more about the village, visit Eyam Museum (£2.50 for an adult) which has all the history upon the tragic tale of the Plague. They’re just up the road from Eyam Hall, and well worth a visit (although, the museum is shut between November and March, so please make sure you’ve got the right time of year!)

Should you wish to have something strong to drink after all that history, may I suggest the Miners’ Arms? Built 30 years before the Plague swept through the village, it’s called the Miners’ Arms as that is where local miners would meet to chat and drink ale. If you need to wet your throat after a day out, then retreat to this quintessentially cosy, English pub.

Finally, if you’re thinking of staying overnight in Eyam, there are a few possibilities. Eyam Tea Rooms (£65-75/night) and the Miner’s Arms (£45 for a single; £70 for a double) both offer rooms. YHA Eyam,(£29 off at Booking.com)a short walk out of the village, offers good and friendly accommodation.

If you are in the area, I thoroughly recommend Eyam. It’s a particularly tragic yet inspirational story of the people who would sacrifice themselves for the greater good. It’s a very beautiful part of the world, and one that is not too expensive. There is nothing more satisfying than going to a quaint English village.

TWIP- Revision, revision and revision

This week has seen a lot of revision. With an exam last Wednesday, and another coming on Friday, there’s a lot of notes to make and revision cards to write out.  This hasn’t meant a completely dull life- just a boring one. This was my week in pictures:

Sunday- Nicola, who is learning to drive, took Tom, her sister, her mother and I to the Peak District
Sunday- Nicola, who is learning to drive, took Tom, her sister, her mother and I to the Peak District. Sorry I cut you out the photo Jo!
Monday- revision I'm afraid. We were treated with a double rainbow though (although you can't see the second one)
Monday- revision I’m afraid. We were treated with a double rainbow though (although you can’t see the second one)
Tuesday- again, more revision. It was a full moon and a beautiful night over Sheffield
Tuesday- again, more revision. It was a full moon and a beautiful night over Sheffield
Wednesday- cider after the exam. It was a beautifully cool drink.
Wednesday- cider after the exam. It was a beautifully cool drink.
Thursday- more work. I bought a yellow Lamy Safari pen, which has been rather enjoyable.
Thursday- more work. I bought a yellow Lamy Safari pen, which has been rather enjoyable.
Friday- a beautiful sunset. To be honest, we have a lot of beautiful sunsets now.
Friday- a beautiful sunset. To be honest, we have a lot of beautiful sunsets now.
Saturday- more work. Really sorry, I'm trying to make something that is tedious somewhat arty.
Saturday- more work. Really sorry, I’m trying to make something that is tedious somewhat arty.