Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Summer Soup Interlude

Dear readers,

apologies for the lull in posting - there are some changes happening, and there's no way of telling whether they are going to go a David Bowie or Judas Priest direction at this stage.

But while I've been running around like a headless chick, I found comfort in the ladle of a brilliant, family run, local soupery, somewhat cheekily named Naked Soup. The jury is still out on the amusement factor of this name. But be that as it may, I find that, when summer consists of a maximum temperature that would count as winter in other parts of the world, soup is reliable, spoonable tummy joy.

Summer and Soup in Glasgow
Photo: kalico 10 on Flickr

So, today, when I paid a visit to the abovementioned establishment, I mentioned to the young, handsome lad behind the till just how yumsome the soup of my choice was. And hey, presto, here's the recipe. (Of course, if you are in town, please check out the cafe! Their coffee is on par with the soup, served with a corner of caramel slice.)

Lentil-Sweet Potato-Coconut Soup
(serves about a third of customers at lunchtime - adjust to smaller portions as necessary)

Add water to 3 sweet potatoes, 2 large onions (both in chunks), 100g stock cubes and 1.6kg red lentils. Boil untill the lentils are soft.. Add 1 tin of coconut milk, season, blend, and enjoy the goodness!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Here's One I'm Preparing Right Now

A quick post while I'm anticipating the arrival of six hungry dinner guests (and the accompanying logistical problems that arise from living in a rental flat clearly not designed for entertaining the masses): a recipe which allows even those of us who have not been raptured to partake in heavenly experiences.

I discovered this recipe while sharing a flat with a young gardener at Hardwick Hall - a young gardener with a brilliant cookbook collection which turned me as green with envy as his thumb. There it was: stripey, colourful, and so full of brilliant, exciting and mouthwatering recipes that I a) didn't even mind that there weren't many pictures in there (a no-no when it comes to cookbooks otherwise - I want to see what I'm going to make, even if it is a cold, hairsprayed version of the real thing), and b) almost missed an appointment because I kept on saying "I'll just read one more recipe and then I'll go".
Photo from sarahraven.com

The book in question is Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook. Month by month, it lists fresh produce and a multitude of recipes for each. And not your bog standard recipes, either, as you will soon see. Aforementioned gardener made me promise to put all the words back into the book before I leave. I nicked a few on a notepad. Apologies. Here's what's chilling in the freezer compartment of my fridge right now, waiting to be spooned onto plates with fresh strawberries.

Basil Ice Cream (adapted from Sarah Raven)
Take one bunch of fresh basil, chop it roughly and then mix together with 250g caster sugar. Add 150g mascarpone and stir for a while to get rid of the sugar crystals and infuse everything with the basil aroma. Add the juice of one lemon as you go along. Finally, add ca. 600g of full fat natural yoghurt.

Put into a freezer friendly container, the container then into the freezer, and give a good stir with a fork (breaking up any solid masses that might build up) every couple of hours. If your freezer is too cold, do something about it. It's best made the late morning of your dinner party, for perfect consistency. Raven warns that this ice cream doesn't keep for long. I'd say, rather, it doesn't last long. Mmmh. Serve with fresh strawberries.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Imagining Voices

Me me me meeee! Yes, indeed, I have started taking voice lessons. For the spoken word (not singing), the vehicle of my strange thoughts in the absence of pen, paper and keyboard. When I mentioned this exciting little piece of news to a colleague she quipped: "I never thought you had a speech impediment!" I swiftly and somewhat filled her in on the difference between speech therapy and voice lessons, growing more and more conscious of my glottis and its motions as I went along. It's a bit like learning a new type of dance at this stage: at some point I will start stumbling for no reason whatsoever... and hopefully, at some stage, the fruit of my croaks will improve my everyday delivery of delightful tidbits of wisdom as well as smoothen my presentation of conference papers.
His Master's Voice Print by Michael Sowa
Available at an Amazon near you (whence this image originates)

But back to the issue of voices and control over the same: in my initial session I already learned a lot about physiology, the connection between breath, speech organs, brain and 'what-I-sound-like', and about the inadvertent sneaking of emotion into every aspect of voice production. It's this very connection between emotion and voice which creates forensic linguists' daily bread when they analyse the voices in distress calls and or nuisance callers. It's fascinating stuff. And too intricate to be repeated here, right now, when I should really be opening the windows, do a bit of a tai chi exercise and then shout "Baaaaahhhhhh!" at the blustery windy world out there.

One point bears mentioning, though, since I noticed a connection of my interest in the voice to my own daily keep, writing history. I don't know if everyone does this, but I often wonder what type of voice my historical protagonists had. Bess of Hardwick seems to come in at a comfortable alto, while her husband George evokes a thin yet raspy baritone. And wouldn't it be weird if John Dee had a lispy falsetto? In many cases we will never know - lucky is the historian who finds a contemporary commentary on a historical person's voice!
John Dee, image (as so often on this blog) sourced from Wikipedia

But I think I can be a little more confident about the impact of all of the abovementioneds' voices: Bess, George and Johnny were all charismatic, influential personalities, as witnessed by their careers, their fans and even their enemies. There was no one, it seems, who did not have a connection and an impression of their personalities upon meeting them. They made themselves heard, which must have reinforced their confidence, their style of writing and their overall impact, even now, when all that remains is an impression of their tone in their written words.

I had not previously appreciated the connections between voice, confidence, physical composure and personality, and can't wait to find out more. And even if (ok, I'll admit it) I cannot draw any strong conclusions about the voices of historical characters - I suspect this is just as it is tricky (and often dodgy) as is the search for someone's character traits in his or her handwriting - it'll be even more fun now to orchestrate historical conversations in my mind.

To finish, a little recipe (this, too, no rocket science and probably seen in many incarnations elsewhere - but indulge me in thinking I invented it) for a beverage that promotes wonderful voiceness (and here I speak from experience, in a beautiful, melodious contralto) ((who sniggered there?)):

Grate some fresh ginger into a mug and top with boiling hot water. Let steep for several minutes. Add a spritz of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some honey and a sprig of mint. Sip slowly while reciting alchemical poetry.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Now You See It - Now You Don't

The British Public are a curious beast when it comes to elections. Sometimes the unpredictability, or rather the ability to pick, en masse, an option which shoves 'common' sense into a sad, lonely position, makes me want to flap my ears in the sad rhythm of Tanita Tikaram's Twist in my Sobriety. Yes, it is that bad.
Photo from reasonandmadness.co.uk

I am, of course, talking about the TV show we call So You Think You Can Dance, where Brazilian hip hop dancer Rithy, who is just plain brilliant, landed in the bottom four and had to dance a solo to stay in the competition not once, but two weeks in a row. The public's phone-in vote was not strong enough to keep her safe. I watched in disbelief: had the other viewers not seen what I see? And while I was relieved that Rithy and her also-very-talented partner Shane made it through the dance-offs (twice), three themes kept bubbling up in my flabbergasted brain. And all of them link voting and dance to alchemy (because that's the way this brain works).
Poster available from Paper Scissor Stone

1. Perception & Preferences
Had the other viewers seen the same show I did? Their eyes certainly did (allowing for minor fuzz which their friendly optician could fix in a spec), but their minds did not. Viewers may like a dancer for any reason, but more often than not the reason will be something 'special'. What stands out to the individual viewer relies much on his or her background and preferences. So, while the technical ability, effortlessness and talent of Rithy might seem very obvious to me, others might pick up on something completely different, like hair styles, costumes, the perceived attractiveness or the regional origin of a dancer. What they like and what I like is therefore completely different, and may even change over time: a viewer who becomes more educated about dance may concentrate on different aspects in the next season. And needless to say that our grandparents, who grew up dancing with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in the background, would make a completely different story out of the contest.

This 'now you see it-now you don't' effect also shows itself in the history of alchemy. A relatively young field in the history of science, the history of alchemy has left its bibliographic conception behind, went through an infancy of considering alchemy an inferior, esoteric predecessor of chemistry, and is now half-way out of an adolescence which connected it with social and intellectual history as well as truly interdisciplinary approaches (including archaeology and chemistry, not only for the reconstruction of historical experiments). Its future looks bright, partly thanks to its openness to diversity and eagerness to communicate with other disciplines. We now see different ways of approaching alchemical writings, concepts, language, experiments and material culture which the founding fathers of the discipline did not spot. And I am certainly looking forward to changing my mind about those in the next few decades.
A fire and water-damaged manuscript
check out this blog for a technical discussion of manuscript rescue and preservation!

2. We'll Always Have...
Like anyone who is really good at something, Rithy seems, I'll say it again, effortless. That makes her prone to being taken for granted. Those who phoned in to vote for other dancers probably thought that she would not need their support, or rather, that others needed it more than she did. In that sense, her repeated (wail!) landing in the bottom four is not a surprise. The very assumption that she will always be there may send her home.

It is here that I recall, with more wailing, the flood which damaged many unique and irreplaceable manuscripts in Prague in 2002. Among them were alchemical manuscripts - and I need barely hint at the significance of the court of Rudolph II of Prague to tell you how lamentable this loss is. Apart from being stored in what I can only assume were inadequate surroundings, the majority of manuscripts in the archives had not been microfilmed or preserved in other formats, either. The assumption that they would always be there contributed to their loss. To read more about the attempts at recovery of what the Prague flood had not swallowed whole, check out the Guardian article. And if you find any way to support archives operating on a shoe string (be it through donations, adoption of a manuscript or volunteering), please go ahead. While you can.
Not quite the type of alchemical scholarship I'm after...
Marie-Louise von Franz, Alchemy, on Amazon

3. The Meh of the Common Man
I'll say it again, Rithy is really good (I refuse to use the word 'awesome', which is not only an ugly word but also pretty much meaningless). But it is for this reason that she is getting as little attention as, say, those who do well at school. Perhaps (though I certainly hope not!) she will eventually find herself whizzed out of the way by those who need help, receive attention and therefore support and lessons that would further anyone. Their best will still be worse than her unaided best, but will be more appreciated: everyone likes a struggler who overcomes obstacles. Why else would reality TV glorify extreme slimmers and ignore those who have a perfectly normal figure? (I can hear a general 'meh' in my ears as I type this).

Some themes in the history of alchemy, science, or even generally in scholarship are similarly meh-ed at. No one picks a good, solid topic just for the sake of it any more, perhaps in the hope that a 'sexy' topic will get more attention when the researcher applies for the all-important fellowship or lectureship of his bill-paying, life-beyond-mere-survival-living, young and hopeful dreams. And it is a world of survival out there. Some acquire big scholarly elbows, others become professional box tickers on the skills sheet, yet others hope to impress with more degrees, another conference and, certainly, a list of publications longer than their longest article. Does it work? I'll tell you when I get there. I have a suspicion, though, that there is no patent recipe for lectureships or happiness. (I find myself flogging a dead self-help manual here). And I openly admit that I picked the history of alchemy as my poison, sorry, passion because there are just so many interesting, special, unusual things to research!

Meanwhile, though, there really are topics no one wants to poke with a stick, much less pick up and run with: the general overviews, the obvious questions and the topics which seem just too unspectacular or unfashionable to receive attention. The unwritten studies are those I often try to find in secondary literature, for hours, thinking and then screaming "Can you believe no one has written about this?" followed by "Goodness, where will I find that basic, vital information?". They will always be there for someone to do, I suppose. But tell you what: give me a lectureship, and I'll do them.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Mad Men & Scientists

What's in a soap? Would a certain award winning American television series created by Matthew Weiner smell as sweet by any other name? What is this thing called Mad Men and have we analysed the cr*p out of it yet? Cynicism aside, as a child of the '70s, born far, far away from Madison Avenue geographically and culturally, I cannot be but fascinated/ shocked/ absorbed by Mad Men. Even now that I have looked beyond the style and the music, pondered the historical period and the fact that my parents' generation came of age in the same, strange, post-war mixture of excitement about and terror of tomorrow - even now this series continues to put its spell on me.
Christina Hendricks in Mad Men
Image from ephemerist

A note to an ex-colleague: I forgive you. In 2008, during tea break, you rolled your eyes at me when I asked "What's Madman?" to catch up with the general flurry of a conversation that was going on all around me. I forgive the eye rolling. I still resent having to go and google it later that day because you didn't answer verbally...

If you, reader, are still in the mollycoddled cave of escapist antitellyism, as I was a few years ago, you will have heard about the series by now if you read the papers, or anything, really. And you, too, may have been amazed to hear that the lifestyle Don Draper and his colleagues follow is not the slightest bit snazzed up: no, like many of the ad campaigns shown in the series, the life is for real (4real? Excuse me, I haven't quite caught up with the times yet). A book by one of the original ad men of Madison Avenue, Jerry della Femina, goes into much detail about the booze, the fags and the, er, ladies. (Read his German interview with the paper Die Zeit or the Guardian article if you're interested, but not so keen as to buy the book).

Doris Day in Lover Come Back (1961)
Image via Daily Mail

But memory is a funny creature, wriggling imperceptibly like a kitten to squeeze events and their meaning into every nook and cranny of the imagination and make them fit. If only we knew what the '60s ad machinery looked like from a closer perspective, say, the '60s... I had hankered after an alternative perspective for, oh, probably days when I came across Lover Come Back, a comedy starring Rock Hudson (woo hoo!) and Doris Day, first shown on a big screen near you in 1961. The plot is as simple as it is (I would soon discover) annoying: Rock Hudson's Jerry Webster is an ad man who lives the life (yes, indeed) we know from Mad Men: smokes, drinks, kissies and more. On his way to work on a rainy NYC day he splashes Doris Day's Carol Templeton, and out-of-work computer operator [note: the movie is worth seeing for its technicolor take on ginormous machines and the girls who work them]. Jerry sends one of his minions to apologise, mix-ups happen, and in an annoyingly "that's what we all wanted" sort of way, eventually, boy gets girl (and girl gets idiot). Twee fun for the whole family, perhaps. But read on.

Image from Wikipedia

Just like Mad Men, Lover Come Back caught my brain more than I had anticipated, thanks to the figure of a scientist hired by Jerry to develop a product; any product, in fact, that will go with an ad campaign he already created (without a product at hand) to impress a busty blonde. Its name is "VIP", and the nobel prize winning scientist is hired to create something fabulous that will go by this name. Incidentally, the '60s social perception of scientists is not far off the stereotypical media image we all have etched into our brains from countless photos and movies: white lab coats, glass vessels with colourful, steaming liquids, explosions, and of course the mad scientist himself: unkempt, uncouth, uncanny. Eventually he comes up with a mint which intoxicates three times faster than alcohol. Both Carol and Jerry try it and end up in bed together, waking up to a surprising morning - and (luckily?) married the previous night, as the certificate on the bedside table tells us viewers as we stare in disbelief. Marriage annulled and drunken love birds separated by many miles, Carol finds she is pregnant. When Jerry finally finds out she is mid-labour, and they both agree it's the best thing to get married again. Happy end? I won't drink to that.

Mad chemists in Lover Come Back
Image from dustedoff.wordpress.com

As the short closing credits crawled across the screen (of course, the movie was made when opening credits carried all vital information and reading speeds were not what they are today, or perhaps when people really bothered readint who actually made the film) I was, nevertheless, at peace with myself and the movie: just like scientists do not work chaotically amidst colourful bangs and stinks, and just like modern day ad agencies do not create genius out of cancer-inducing orgies, no woman would be happy to get the boy who splashes her, undermines her professional career, thinks he can buy her, knocks her up in drunken stupor, and marries her just because she is carrying his child. Phew. Or is it? Please don't say anything now. I think I'll go back to watching the comparatively cheerful version of the advertising industry, circa half a century ago, that is Mad Men...

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Pictures Of An Exhibition

Unsealed - The Letters of Bess of Hardwick is now open to the public at Hardwick Hall.
Join the crowds to learn more about Bess...
...and other faces familiar and unfamiliar.

And while you're at it, let me know what you think!

I'm still recovering from the birthing process, but will be back with more news this weekend. Thanks for indulging my exhibitionista side for these past few months!

Yours faithfully,

Yours Truly

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Blog Thickens

The exhibition is nearly upon us, and since exhibitions are all about experiences, excellence and excitement, this post will appeal to some senses usually neglected by ye olde blogging game.


Stop
This exhibition is on the letters of Bess of Hardwick, a formidable dynast of the 16th century whose life experiences will make anyone's brain boggle. Or, to put it into the words of the official blurb:



Dukes and spies; queens and servants; friends and lovers – all of the Elizabethan world populates the letters of Bess of Hardwick. Bess herself wrote hundreds of letters throughout her life: they were her lifeline to her travelling children and husbands, to the court at London, and to news from the world at large. And when she moved to Hardwick Hall in the final years of her life, the old countess received current news and gossip into her house through her correspondence.

Unsealed presents the world of Bess of Hardwick’s letters to the public for the first time. This exhibition lets Bess and her correspondents tell their stories in their own words. See her life, her loves, intrigue and passions unfold – visit Unsealed at Hardwick Hall.

Unsealed – The Letters of Bess of Hardwick. Coming to Hardwick Hall in April 2011.
Look




Listen
You, dear readers, are the first to have a listen to the podcasts for this exhibition. Go to www.bessofhardwick.org/listen and listen your dear little hearts out:


Unsealed: The Podcasts

1          The Many Faces of Bess of Hardwick (5:32)
2          Who’s Who in Bess’s Address Book (6:33)
3          Details on Lifestyle (3:55)
4          Stories from Bess’s Bedchamber (6:42)
5          A Peek into Bess’s Parcels (5:13)


Bonus podcast: Unsealed: A Look Behind the Scenes (11:53)

To be enjoyed with ale and mince pies. See you soon at Hardwick Hall!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Bending Old Corners

Sunshine after a cold, wet Autumnering (or whatever the long, gloomy season is called). A new, exciting discovery. A half-forgotten memory (complete with smells, butterflies and an automatically recreated smile). Many good things can happen out of the blue. Often, these revelations come in little bursts when you do not really expect them; sometimes they do not present themselves at all, for months on end. But this past week, a switch flipped and a multitude of wondrous, frantic, curious, dizzyingly bizarre things happened.

The theme of the past few days is hard to describe without sounding cheesy (as much as I like cheese, particularly from Mellis) or yawnworthy. Let's just say that people who have lived a long life and the exercise of thinking about life as a little old lady cheered me up no end. And if that sounds odd, some of the following may explain things a little.
Image from Critikat.com

Mid-August Lunch
I love my local FOPP (record/DVD shop): there's nothing like walking along the shelves and picking up a DVD you would never have stumbled across while browsing online. FOPP was once at danger of being closed altogether -the fate that its saviour, HMV, is now suffering on the big scale and book chains like Borders (not around in the UK any more) and Waterstones (gone soon if we don't do anything) know all too well. Save your local shoppery - even if it's a quid more than online. Please?

The film that caught my rheumy, post-work eye on the way home (ingredients for a delicious dinner on my back, brain in need of entertainment, preferably food-related) was Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto (2008)): an Italian low-budget affair starring no less than four ladies in their 90s! The story (based on the film maker's life) is too simple to be summarised here - it might put you off. Let's just say that a man, his mother and three elderly ladies are spending two days together in slightly unusual circumstances: five strong personalities who are skeptical about each other, but soon find common ground in their zest for the good things in life. And how could they not? Rome, wine, food (lots of pasta), summer, and a feast day conspire to set the atmosphere.

The most wonderful aspect are the four elderly ladies: they are full of life and authentic spirit - none of them is a professional actress, and much of the script is improvised. In the Special Features they talk about how the unexpected invitation to make the movie was a gift to these advanced years of their lives. A gift, indeed. To be enjoyed with a glass of wine and a large portion of baked pasta (the star of the film).
Recipes (and this image) can be found at the Living Room Theaters' blog


End-of-March Surprise
An almost obsessive fan of Frasier, I have a funny fascination with The Radio - not the thing that has little men and women inside them who read out the news, but rather the technology and the practicalities of producing radio shows. Before this week, I had never seen a radio studio from the inside, when a rather unlikely incarnation of fate knocked on my door: desperation.

The desperation was on the part of the radio producer who needed an expert for a light-hearted chat show on BBC Radio Scotland. Since term just ended and everyone's flown out of the nest, someone suggested me as the next likely candidate - never mind that the show segment theme ('The therapeutic value of keeping a diary') is only very vaguely related to, er, alchemy... The angle into the theme was the question whether blogging kills the diary (like video killed the radio star, I suppose), and what ho, I am a blogger. Overall, the opportunity was too curious to pass up, and so I went.

Although I'd been warned I was surprised to find the show host veer from the script after just a few seconds. His questions went down a path which did not need me, an expert (who sniggered?), to tread down it. But when I'd prepared my bit the day before, I'd noticed the connections between diaries and letters (something I do know a little bit about now, mid-exhibition preparation). So, for good measure, I threw that into the discussion and found that the idea was received with enthusiasm, especially when I mentioned an elderly friend's letters.
Image from edwud.com: Ed O'Keeffe Photography

Was it worth spending 11 of my 15 minutes of fame? In many ways it was: I saw the gorgeous building and a studio from the inside (those microphones brought out the dork in me); I mentioned to squeeze in some history; and I was reminded of how good it is to have friends of different generations. And on that note, I'll now sit down now with pen and paper, and write a long letter.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Room for Thought

...that'd be the kitchen. And this post is The Antidote to Information Overload - your invitation to trot into the kitchen (away from screen, news and noise) to whip up something delicious. I just found this recipe for Apple Dutch Baby Pancakes which, for some reason, seems seasonal and the kind of inspiration that makes you want to put on a pinny and whisk a whisk around - with an image like this, who needs a recipe to get going?
Image from eat make read

(The recipe does look good, though).

Talking about fabulous food and yummy pictures - Dorie Greenspan takes things to yet another level in her tantalising, New York-Parisian blog - her latest images, she informs us, were "taken by David Prince. Brett Kurzweil did the food styling and Robyn Glaser did the prop styling". Well, given that she writes for the Wall Street Journal, publishes books and generally leads a life that makes me turn as green as a fresh artichoke, this professional attention to detail does not come as a surprise.

Surprises of the pleasant, mouthwatering kind aplenty are assembled in her blog, though. So, once you have your Apple Dutch Baby Pancake ready, and a cup of coffee with it, I suggest you trot to http://www.doriegreenspan.com/ and check it out.

So much goodness. It might as well be spring.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Sneak Peeks & Treats

Exhibition preparations continue...                                 ...and here's your first sneak peek...

                                            ssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!                     (There will also be
podcasts!)
...and you will get your hands on more information in the next 5 weeks.
Portrait photos courtesy of Dr Nigel Wright, not to be reproduced without permission;
all the abovespotted portraits live at Hardwick Hall
and may be viewed in all their splendour during its opening hours.

Suffice to say: Unsealed - The Letters of Bess of Hardwick opens at Hardwick Hall on 8 April. Featuring the ladies and gentlemen above, life sized!



* * * * *


On a different note: Lent is waiting to pounce upon us next week. This time rather late in the calendar year, it does not carry the additional sting of February and all its greyness, but still: who is not in need of some cheering up these days? So, without further ado, here are a few treats which will make you stand on your hind legs and clap in rapture.

Leek and Lemon Soup
(courtesy of The Kitchn)
  • 2 large leeks
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 lemons, juiced and zested (not necessarily in that order)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1/4 cup white wine 
Sliced leeks and crushed garlic hit hot melted butter to be softened up for about 10 minutes. Add all the other ingredients and simmer until everything's nice and juicy (the recipe says an hour - I'd reckon 30 minutes would also do, but don't take my word). Puree, then season to your very own personal taste and gobble down with some crusty bread and white wine on the side.

Guanaja
No, this is not a typo - think chocolate and far-away islands (sweet escapes - what more could a girl want just before Lent snatches away all illicit pleasures?) and read more about it over at One Peppercorn.
Image from iainmcintosh.co.uk
Corduroy Mansions
The latest (I lose track, but I hadn't seen this before so let's say it is the latest and newest) series in Alexander McCall Smith's oeuvre is the perfect bedtime/teatime/oh God please beam me to a tropical island now-time reading: Corduroy Mansions brings stories from a London we'd all move to in a snip. And don't tell me it does not exist like that. I'm not listening. I'm reading.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Big Sleep & Silent Reader

Maybe it's something in the stars, maybe it's the month of February, but everyone seems to be stretched to the limits (just one more email/ task/ emotionally needy vampire friend and *snap*). I am afraid I am no exception at times. Of course, it is at those times that the phone rings, an important email comes in or there's a knock on the door. Reliable, mysterious, rubbish. And there's not even anyone to blame: the tension really is just an accumulation of unfortunate circumstances paired with one planet or other finding itself in the wrong house.

There are several techniques to avoid unpleasant encounters of any ordinal number's kind. Sleeping, a good diet, more sleeping, exercise, sleep... I'm drifting. But most of the time the situation is not completely in our control, and no manner of Olympic sleeping will clear the inbox or magic up an exhibition. Let's be frank, mid-frenzy, pressure, isolation due to being glued to one's office chair and the instinct to flap one's arms madly until everything goes away all blend into each other, even if you hope it's all going to be right eventually. What is a girl/ boy /woman /man /lady /lord /nerd (circle as appropriate) to do?
Not everyone can stay as cheerful under pressure
as Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940)
Image from Wikipedia

On a faux (you'll see) non-sequitur, allow me to muse on the solitary writer for a minute. In days before electronic communication (including the telephone), letters were the most immediate form of communication when visiting was out of the question. (I've been thinking about this a lot while preparing my exhibition, glued to my office chair, flapping my arms wildly, see above - the exhibition is on early modern letters, more anon = in a different post closer to the opening). Picture the scene: you are a Renaissance woman/man, write a letter and, no, you don't affix a stamp and put it into a funny red/ blue/ yellow (circle as appropriate) pillar/ contraption/ box-with-a-flap (ditto) - we are talking pre-Royal Mail/ USPS/ Deutsche Post (ok, circling the dead horse now). Instead you hand it to someone who has offered to carry the letter to its destination. If you're

  • lucky it's one of your family or a trusted servant
  • semi-lucky, a professional letter bearer who will also carry half a gift horse to the recipient, and is known to be reliable
  • unlucky, someone who appears shifty but hey ho, you're desperate and have sealed the letter, written in cipher, extra carefully
Miraculously, most of the time, your letter got to its destination, and an answer was soon on its way, sometimes even returned by the same bearer (who is chatting up the recipient's maid while waiting for the former to write a reply). Point: instant gratification. You might have been a lone letter writer, but the writing and receiving of letters made connections which warmed the heart and its cockles.

Nowadays, awash with emails, many don't have a choice but to let emails go unanswered, promises un-followed-up, gift-horses unacknowledged. And life has probably taught us all the lesson that this silence is, more often than not, an unintentional and unfortunate effect of the general overwhelm. The same (ok, slightly different) rationale applies to blogs: comment forms don't always work, who has the time to log in anyway, and blogs are not really meant to be interactive. But in both cases, any reaction or reply, however brief, does warm the heart!

Yet I am keenly aware that some recipients consider thank-you emails unnecessary bulk and thank-yous a waste of time. It is a tricky situation for both parties, but two events (of several years and several hours ago respectively) made me realise how much I appreciate the extra step.
Scene from The Big Sleep (1946)
Image from IMDb.com

1. Many moons ago, while blogging for a former employer, I was wondering why there were very few comments coming in even on controversial posts (you see, I was trying to provoke to elicit a reaction - the only one I ever got was censorship, but hey ho, I was desperate). One post asked readers to get in touch with the lone blogger and comment on the absence of comments. And voila, three types of comments materialised: the common-sensical (no time); the nice (sorry, and we really are enjoying the blog); and the elaborate. This final one explained on a grander scale that most blog readers read many blogs, consume them, and take away what they liked in a private sort of manner, mulling it over in brains of their own. At the time, though, I appreciated the feedback, and blogging became easier in the knowledge that there was a silent crowd of appreciative readers, most of whom needed to sleep more.

(On a proper non-sequitur, I still haven't read any Raymond Chandler, nor watched The Big Sleep. And anticipating your silent reaction this very moment, let me say: I KNOW!!)

2. Last week, I was pottering along, alone, writing while putting myself into the shoes of the average exhibition goer, when a student popped his head into my office. First thought: He must have a question. Second thought: Not. Now! Third thought: Students, eh? Silent crowds that only pipe up when they have a problem. But life made my cynical, isolated old self beam with joy within seconds that very second: in fact, the student popped in to let me know how much he enjoyed my lectures. Nothing more and on his way. How nice!

The moral of it all? A little thumb-up (to someone who is otherwise a solitary figure writing for imaginary friends or giving without receiving) can help make a rainy, cold, occasionally stressful February feel like spring is just around the corner. If this post inspires you, I'm glad - if not, no harm done. And I vow to return with more mysterious, more alchemical and less twee posts very soon...

Monday, 14 February 2011

Recycling Again - The Valentine's Edition

Reader (because, as someone quipped on last week's Just a Minute, I assume there is one), I am head over elbows in work, preparing an exhibition while the head is spinning and the elbows need greasing. But it is Valentine's Day, and as much as I mock those who buy into the consumerist pan-loverian rituals (farmed roses, cheap chocolates and high expectations) and applaud those who use the day as an excuse to do something really nice for their partners (not that that should be restricted to mid-Feb, but why not then, too) - as much as I do not agree with my mother's theory that I'm going to spend the rest of my life with the first man I spot on the morning of the 14th of February (after all, a taste in plumbers scented with bacon butty aroma, drinking (the cheek!) builder's tea and having personal hygiene problems is an acquired one)... ok, now I've lost the plot.

Just to say: whoever you are, wherever you are, this is for you. A recycled bit of work done at the Chemical Heritage Foundation three years ago, explaining love and chemistry in a slightly unusual and highly scientific way. To be enjoyed with fairtrade roses and Zotter chocolate. Enjoy!
(note the PG warning at the top of the page - for the very delicate among you-
and the credits, including those for the fabulous picture above!)

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Using It Up

The other day, I almost choked on my mid-morning digestive biccie-cum-coffee, and only managed to hold back a wail of frustration because I did not want to cause a scene - a scene that would be playing in similar form around the country another 999 times (or thereabouts). But I bet the 999 other people who received the very same email that had so unpretentiously, with a little plink, popped up on my screen also had an urge to stamp a foot or two, tear hairs and punch someone. That plink was the sound of failure. And that email was a rejection letter from an application to the BBC, to be exact to the AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers scheme. Although I knew that this was not a personal rejection (rather, I had become the victim of difficult and efficient decision making, and there is no way of telling why someone else's writ appealed more than mine), I found, still find, and insist: 'snot fair!

Well, I am one of many academics who go through the constant strain of researching, teaching, simultaneously applying for funds for more of the above, and receive rejection letters on a regular basis. It's a good day if they spell your name right... I have also been on the other side of the table, in committees, and learned that in many instances, really good applications really do have that certain something. Sifting through the pile of applications may take some time, but decisions are often rather easier than expected. And those candidates who were chosen because they looked good on paper, against that little voice of intuition that found them, without knowing exactly why, just plain funny, were, upon personal inspection, well - just plain funny, really. That's funny-strange, not funny-hilarious. (This did not apply to the New Generation Thinkers, I suppose: picking 60 out of more than 1,000 candidates cannot be a cake walk; it sounds more like a stream of coffee and paracetamol and a healthy look beyond all distracting funnity).

I am currently heating up more irons in the fire of my intellectual... ... oh no, reader, I'm plain exhausted and cannot follow through with even a simple metaphor. Exhaustion probably also accounts for the weird dinners I've had lately. Weird-nice, not weird-weird, that is! Upon the current daily mix of teaching, applying for grants and organising an exhibition, I was often lost in thought (and in Glaswegian rain) on my way home and made do with what I found in the fridge. In the spirit of using things up I had a lot of vegetable omelettes which were actually quite delectable.

On a semi-sequitur: I find cooking for oneself does not furnish one with leftovers, and hence deprives me of enjoying the art of using up the same. If I want bubble and squeak, I have to make myself cook extra potatoes - and more often than not I have seconds which make those extras vanish in an act of alchemical gluttony. Nevertheless I seem to have inherited my parents' streak of The Fear Of Letting Things Go To Waste - not only in food-related matters.

And in this spirit, I present the little review I wrote for the abovementioned application, in the hope that it may delight in some way or other.
Image from guardian.co.uk

Review of ‘High Society’ –
Exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, London (11 Nov 2010-24 Feb 2011)

As I enter “High Society”, the exhibition on drugs and drug culture at the Wellcome Collection, my head starts spinning – from the large, looming case full of drug paraphernalia to the object notes, stencilled onto the wall opposite, and back again. I see betel nuts and mate spoons, snuff boxes in the shape of ladies’ boots and pragmatic injection kits, objects from more than two millennia and from all over the world. And coffee, served freely in the café just a few steps away, is included among these objects. The mission of this exhibition is to document the history of drugs, their definitions and risks, and the constantly changing concepts of blame and responsibility. Right here, at the entrance, I am reminded that my gut reaction to drugs is a result of my cultural background and education. I proceed towards the core of the exhibition with the intention to succumb to its many colourful, bewildering and fascinating facets.

It is not coincidental that both medicines and illicit substances are known as ‘drugs’ in the English language: deriving from the word ‘dry’, ‘drug’ became a medieval shorthand for dry medicines made from plants. The line between medicines and illicit substances has always been thin. Little did the eleventh-century scribe of the Bury St Edmunds herbal know that the beautiful plants in his manuscript would cause significant harm just a few centuries later. Nearby engravings of opium farming sit uneasily beside references to the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars, which took place only shortly after Alexander von Humboldt had explored Latin America; Sigmund Freud had proposed an understanding of the human mind through psychoanalysis; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had put his drug-enhanced creativity to eternal rest. The nineteenth century was a mind-altering period on many levels.

Famous minds who defined our culture feature throughout the exhibition: in a section on ‘self-experimentation’, Humphry Davy’s writings on nitrous oxide are closely followed by first prints of Alice in Wonderland and a wonderful 1955 documentary on Dr Humphrey Osmond’s mescaline experiment. But there are also unfamiliar faces, in photos of Venezuelan and Mexican rites illustrating a section on ‘collective intoxication’; or in contemporary artist Tracey Moffat’s series of nostalgic, disturbing photos of Victorian women’s laudanum experiences. Installations designed to induce a state of altered perception through a flurry of lights and flashes add the visitor to this list of personalities in drug history – a cue for the cautionary tales told in temperance movements and inspiration behind the exhibition’s section on ‘Sin, Crime, Vice and Disease’.

As I leave the Wellcome building, once more foregoing the smell of coffee and cakes (which feature prominently in “High Society”-related events), I applaud the curators for an approach to a difficult topic which induces a sense of wonder, and a curiosity not about drugs, but about their meaning in different contexts. The overall effect of “High Society” is neither sobering, nor unduly alarming. It is stimulating. And that is perhaps the most appropriate effect a well-executed exhibition on drugs can have.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Burnt To A Creme

Life has a way of sneaking desserts onto your plate, doesn't it? I, for one, have come across creme brulee* and its relatives time and again. My first proper exposure to it was at a friend's house in Heidelberg, where a small group of dancer-cooks (dancing cooks, even) used to get together monthly (or thereabouts) to share in culinary excesses. Many a time, creme brulee was served up after midnight, as a sweet finale to a sumptuous dinner, only to be followed by a bitter-sweet coffee and heartfelt good-bye-until-soons. Unsurprisingly this friend and I gasped in rapture when we first saw Amelie - that iconic scene in the opening sequence, when Amelie cracks the caramel atop her creme brulee with a spoon!

A few years later, while at Cambridge, I heard that iconic story that gives Trinity College an upper hand (at least in my greedy, sweet-toothed view) over St John's College: so what the latter is allowed to serve swan (a privilege otherwise reserved to the Royal Family)! Trinity, I heard, was the birth place of 'Cambridge Burnt Cream', the dessert now commonly known by its French name of the same meaning (minus the 'Cambridge', of course). A seventeenth-century cook at Trinity College, the story goes, tried to prepare a sweet cream dessert for a formal hall (=evening dinner, whose setting is, unfortunately, known to the world now as a Harry Potter-style feast - but don't let's go there); and failed to succeed when he put too little sugar into the eggy cream mixture. A resourceful person unwilling to let good ingredients go to waste (or to be beaten with the head chef's wooden spoon), he put the remaining sugar on top, and grilled it to create a caramel crust. This new dessert was spoon-lickingly yummy, and soon became a staple of the college's dinners.
Formal hall at St John's College, Cambridge
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

A story Hollywood should pounce upon:

In a world... where swans are for dinner... a sous chef from the slums of Cambridge... a man suffering from recipe illiteracy... overcomes all obstacles... and creates... heaven in a ramekin.
Cream - the dessert story. In a cinema near you. Soon.

Recently, the original recipe of 'Burnt Cream' has indeed enjoyed some celebrity attention: Prince Charles, who is an alumnus of Trinity College, is producing a commercial version in his Duchy Originals range. Read the full story in the Cambridge News! And this is where the story could end, happily ever after. Except...

Warning: If you are of a sensitive nature, you may want to skip this next section and go straight to the recipes at the end of this post!

Except: At a closer look, the wonderful story of burnt cream is a bit dodgy. First of all, there are several stories about how exactly it was created. Wikipedia claims (a bit clumsily), and backed by the authority of cookbook authority Elizabeth David, that
"a version of crème brûlée (known locally as 'Trinity Cream' or 'Cambridge burnt cream') was introduced at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1879 with the college arms 'impressed on top of the cream with a branding iron'. The story goes that the recipe was from an Aberdeenshire country house and was offered by an undergraduate to the college cook, who turned it down; but that when the student became a Fellow, he managed to convince the cook."
Secondly, Trinity College declares this story to be humbug on its website, declaring the story to be a nineteenth-century myth.

Thirdly, there's the issue of the French, the creme and the national pride. Something I will not contemplate here, because...

...finally, I found a much more intriguing recipe among the collections of a German celebrity chef, Alfons Schuhbeck. The German answer to Nigella he may not be (he's 61 years old, not exactly eye candy, and cooks for real - without shortcuts or an abundance of antics; mon dieu - the man has a Bavarian accent!), but his recipe makes me want to break out my ramekins! Judge for yourself. I've listed two recipes below. In any event, I hope this gets your spoons cracking! Let me know which way your spoon is inclined (or indeed, if you have a favourite way to burn cream of your own).
Alfons Schuhbeck
Photo courtesy of RP

* I apologise for not inserting any accents into this post. If I spent time importing those little accents into the script provided by the blogging software, I'd be drooling all over the keyboard...
_ _ _ _ _

Cambridge Burnt Cream
(recipe paraphrased from the Guardian which, in turn, nicked it from Rebecca Seal's Cook: A year in the kitchen with Britain's favourite chefs)

350ml double cream
150ml milk
1 whole nutmeg
6 egg yolks
100g caster sugar, plus extra for the topping

Preheat oven to 120C. Pour milk and cream with the crushed-into-pieces nutmeg, cover in cling film and bring to simmer on a low heat. Place aside and allow to infuse.

In a bowl, mix yolks and sugar, whisking madly, then add the infused milk and remove the nutmeg, sieving the mixture. Pour everything into a large ovenproof dish (holding ca. 600ml), so that it is filled to the top. Place into a water-filled oven tray serving as a water bath with 2cm water all around.

Bake for 30-45 minutes until set. Allow to cool. Sprinkle on sugar and do the creme brulee thing. Enjoy!

_ _ _ _ _

Alfons Schuhbeck's creme brulee
(German recipe on his website)

180ml cream
180ml whole milk
1/2 vanilla pod
1 sprig rosemary
40g sugar + more for the caramel top
4 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 150C. Boil cream, milk, half the sugar, vanilla and rosemary and leave to stand for 15 minutes. Then whisk together egg yolks and the remaining sugar, without frothing (the bubbles would make a yucky creme brulee bubble-texture), and slowly add the cream mixture, removing rosemary and vanilla by sieving the whole mixture.

Pour into ramekins (ca. 100 ml each), set into oven dish for water bath, adding just enough water so the bottom third of the ramekins is covered. Bake for 40-50 minutes, checking consistency frequently. Leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours, better even over night. Then sprinkle with sugar and do the caramel thing, which I'm too lazy to reiterate since we've all seen it done so many times. Voila.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Timeless

Greetings, patient awaiter of this very belated blog post. This very moment, as you are reading this, I am preparing my teaching for February, spending much time staring at possibly inappropriate images of zodiac men (like the one below), reading astrological charts from the fifteenth century and transcribing instructions for blood-letting. As you do on a slow Sunday afternoon.
From Wellcome MS 8004
thanks to their fabulous digital online edition

My preparations are speeding ahead at an unusually urgent pace, fuelled by a recent conversation that got my blood racing - rather appropriately in the context of zodiac men, those diagrams indicating veins and their connections to the stars which help determine advantageous times for letting blood. Mine would've been positively spurting out of my body in the Sign of the Phone. You see, the other day a friend I've known for more than a decade called me. She is a journalist, widely travelled and fluent in several languages. This friend and I have some synchronicity going: we call each other, more often than not, at exactly the point where we both need some comfort, a fresh burst of energy or just someone to tell us that everything's going to be all right, and it always works. Used to work, I should say. This time she managed to make my skin crawl when I mentioned a recent success of mine in my pet discipline of the history of science, to be exact an official acknowledgement of my expertise in the history of alchemy. She exclaimed: "Fancy that! There you are, pottering along on a crusty old subject with no relevance to the modern world whatsoever, and you're considered on par with proper scientists!"

Now some of you may agree - why should history of alchemy be relevant to, well, anything? And why should I be looking forward to teaching students of the history of English about medical manuscripts? The answer to the first question could go on forever, but I am keen to get back to my teacher-like plotting and scheming activities. Suffice to say that an understanding of how those who experimented before us thought about matter, about the world and its workings, and the meaning of it all, should give us a healthy impression of uncertainty and passion, the two main movers and shakers of intelligent man. Uncertainty about 'how things really are', and indeed whether there is a fixed inventory of facts that may be discovered for total wisdom and knowledge, keeps things interesting for modern scientists, philosophers, and ponderers alike. The passion to investigate, no matter how long it takes or where it may lead, gets them off their mental and physical butts and into studies, labs and other places of uncovery. For me, the idea that this is a process that keeps going, in waves and spirals, forever, is fascinating and comforting. There are always more 'eureka' moments to be had.

The reasons why I like teaching palaeography (that is, reading old handwriting), manuscripts and old forms of English based on medical manuscripts are also many: firstly, medical manuscripts can be really pretty, contain intriguing images, some of them gory, and hence draw in the eye of even the most reluctant student to the image, and the brain of the same student to the subject at hand. Secondly, the medical context gives a human element to it all: in the fifteenth century, sick people consulted doctors who treated them to the best of their knowledge. Doctor and patient shared some sense of how the human body works (and what to do when it doesn't), and how it fits into God's creation. It all made good sense. Today, we still do the same thing. And although different cultures have different understandings of the body, illness and cures, it is the body itself, and the urgency that drives a patient to seek advice, that is a constant among the many variables which constitute 'medicine' in different times and places. The recognition of this familiar element, and the wonder of (even an initial rejection of) strange methods and cures, gets everyone's brains going. Students will want to read those bits of text around the zodiac man.  And they will have that eureka moment when they realise that, within the late medieval system of medicine and astrology, it all makes as much sense as, say, Prozac does today. One day I'll get my journalist friend on board, too, and take her on this time travel device called history - with a twist.

On that note, this blogging doctor is busy. Go eat your greens, and don't miss your next appointment!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Detecting Alchemy

'Twas a peculiar Christmas this year, treeless and improvised, but thanks to fraternal company quite enjoyable. Then a mysterious illness struck yours truly: a finger swollen to triple its size, an infection or virus, or maybe an allergy? In any event, I snoozed through New Year's eve, spent New Year's day in hospital and, well, 'twas all very peculiar. But now, during my convalescence from whatever-that-was, and using my newly deflated finger to press the 's's and 'w's ever so gingerly, it all comes together. Indeed, one question, an old chestnutty favourite of mine, has permeated this holiday season: what, and why? (Ok, technically, that's two questions, but you will soon see why they are really conjoined twins.)

History and storytelling, apart from their obvious etymological connections, have at least one thing in common, in that they phrase and package, arrange and alter (often unwittingly) information, and knock it into a shape that makes sense to an audience, be it amateur armchair sleuths or academics. They identify a 'what', manufacture a coherent 'why', and present it all in a more or less straightforward fashion. Incidentally, if your academic writing mimics the plot of a mystery novel (it takes 63 pages of lead-up to produce one resounding, simple, 'duh'-inducing answer), you know you've been raised in a German academic institution. Kidding. Maybe.
Behold the fraternally bestowed Christmas goodie!
Image from Amazon.co.uk

Anyway, to take one example that has distracted me so entertainingly while I was half adaze with antibiotics, consider Lord Peter Wimsey, the 1972 BBC series. I distinctly remember seeing similar scenes in school programmes (our form of media entertainment beyond the overhead projector): ESL resources from the '70s, packaged in twee, twilled Englishness, complete with silver tea pots and butlers. Even back in my school days I wondered, was England really like that? A school exchange with a posh private school for privileged boys (which, to be honest, scared the be-jeezes out of me, as they say these days) gave a clear answer: yes and no. Funnily enough, those things I could not imagine anyone having, doing, wearing or eating all materialised (think Laura Ashley-style curtains, horse races, dressing gowns and cold cuts for 'tea'). But some supposedly quintessentially English items introduced in these programmes were nowhere to be found in this London suburb I visited; they had all but vanished into obscurity, or perhaps never existed, who knows?
Hugh Fraser as Hastings, David Suchet as Poirot, busy sleuthing
Image from IMDB

Beyond cultural stereotypes, mysteries-made-film like the abovementioned Wimsey, or indeed Poirot, even CSI sell 'sleuthness', the only way to detect and solve, and far from the everyday experiences of those who figure out whodunnit down the road. Much more than the novels they are based on, these TV adaptations sell a style, an atmosphere which we recognise and like so much. Tweeds. Afternoon teas. That sort of thing. But beware of confusing the speed of CSI's DNA analyses with actual forensic lab work. And honestly, no detective, or indeed any other person, will exclaim "I say!" when making a discovery. And yet, the traits we educated mystery viewers recognise in TV detectives do bear some relation to what it is their real-life models do for a living. Perhaps filmed mysteries are like those plastic presentation dishes in Japanese restaurants. You'd never want to bite into one of the latter, nor live in Poirot's world, but looking at either is, oh, so tasty. To learn about the nitty and even the gritty of real forensic science, detection, and the horror of real-life crimes, you'd have to see the sites, smell the smells and look at millions of insignificant dust specks through microscopes in police stations, forensic labs and at crime scenes. Personally, I find that reading the newspaper, walking the streets of Philadelphia on an early Saturday (post-clubbing-night) morning and trying to find my house keys is enough of an impression to put me off an internship at the Met forever.

But for me as an alchemy scholar and person who cooks, the implications of spruced-up stories about certain professions go one-and-a-half steps further. The half step is the realisation that dinner parties have changed in the past few years. What with cooking shows and utterly self-conscious, self-fashioning TV chefs, it seems impossible to talk about food, cook a meal or entertain guests without absorbing some of this attitude. What are you - an adjective-abusing, dangerously luscious Nigella-in-the-making or a **** Gordon Ramsey, a homely '70s Delia or a hands-on eccentric, Julia Child-style? Do you call your desserts 'beau'iful' or adopt a Swedish Chef approach, in defiance of the dictum of modern chefness? By the way, Junior Masterchef, a cooking competition for ca. 10-year-olds who talk about their 'passion for food', the fact that they've been cooking 'from a very early age, about 2 or 3' and their hopes that appearing on Junior Masterchef will be 'good for my CV' (your CV? You're 10 years old!) makes me queasy. But that's just an aside.

Back to cooking: I have lost the sense of what it is that professional chefs actually do, and why everyone wants to be one. Cooking fifty of the same dishes day in, day out, in the heat, on one's feet all day cannot possibly be much fun. More to the point, what it is like to be a chef I'd only know if I were to work in a professional kitchen. The same goes for alchemy, and this is where I take the full step from mystery to alchemy (as promised above). I truly don't know how much self-consciousness went into the fashioning of an alchemist. The recipes that survive in manuscripts are either mere reminders to the proficient alchemist, stripped to the bones, or elaborate presentations of metaphorically dressed narratives. The images drawn, mostly by Dutch painters decades or even centuries after the heyday of alchemy, present alchemists as the non-alchemical public wanted to see them, recognise them and draw comfort from this familiarity. None of the historical evidence provides a full picture. So, what is a historian to do? And why?
The Alchemist (detail; 17th century, school of David Teniers II)

One answer, and in my humble opinion a rather smashing one, has been proposed by Professor Pamela Smith: observe, handle, do, smell... learning about practices by observing, or even practising, them. Because it gives an understanding of a craft and skill that goes beyond intellectual appreciation and further than the written words surviving today. Pamela has applied this theory to her work on ceramics (see her wonderful The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution) and given me and others the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the worlds of metal casting and silver smithing (in an observing capacity, of course). And all of a sudden, while watching silver smiths at work, using skills that have been handed on for many generations and using their hands and bodies, their timing and senses in a way purely motivated by what works best for their craft, far away from cameras and public audiences, a lot of information, knowledge and the puzzle that is the history of alchemy fell into place in my head. Of course, that was just the beginning (and moreover, this was five years ago). Here's hoping there's more of this to come in my future.

And with this, a note with (I am sure) a moral (somewhere), I wish all my readers a happy, curious and eye-opening new year. May it sparkle in its own way.