31 January 2010

On swearing

I wanted to jot down a few unscientific observations on a linguistic area that I've been pondering for a while now: the differences I've observed in the use of swear words by citizens of the UK and by those of this part of Canada. I'm sure there are whole theses and many articles and other blog posts on the subject, but I've avoided reading about them so far.

I informally polled co-workers last week at the library (ranging in age from late teens to late 50s) to help me work out how they see some of these words. I also interrogated my children, as their language is actively being formed at school by listening to the usage of others. They also get corrected when they use words that their teachers or friends think are inappropriate; people don't tend to do that when you're a grown-up!

I'm breaking my discoveries down into three main types of swearing:

Regular swearing

Most of the swear-words in this section are used in both countries, although the teenager I spoke to said that she liked using the word 'bollocks', which she saw as a British swear word. Most of the usual swear words are the same, with the exception of 'pants' and 'bloody', which are much more specific to British, rather than Canadian English.*

Religious swearing

The first difference I noticed on moving here was the greater sensitivity to religious swearing. I didn't ask the women at the library about the use of the word 'God' (will have to do that next week!), but we did discuss 'damn' and 'Hell'. Neither of these last two words seems particularly taboo to me, but they are looked upon that way by my interviewees. I was fascinated to discover from my colleagues that 'Hell' is considered the worse word of the two. Which seems odd to me, as really it's just a place name. If I say "Bloody hell", then to me it's the 'bloody' bit that makes it more rude. It was interesting that the eldest of the women in the library managed to avoid saying 'Hell' even while we were discussing it, such was her aversion to the word. I guess teenagers here would not be given Paradise Lost to read, like we were.**

Swearing that isn't swearing

The day after my discussion with the library folk, I had a visit to the dentist's. There's a lovely hygienist there and we had a good chat while she was working on my teeth. Which isn't easy, as you know. One thing we talked about was the prevalence of fighting in hockey, which she described as 'stupid'.
"But I don't use that word to my son," she added.
This was a new one to me, but I asked my children about it and they confirmed that 'stupid' is another word that they are told not to use at school. My library informants told me that 'shut up' is also fairly taboo, which is interesting, given its recent change of use as an expression of incredulity in Valspeak. I'm now wondering how many other relatively inoffensive words I've been using turn out to be rude here.


I'm not someone who swears a lot.† Not in public anyway. But what I've come to realise over the last week or so is that I probably have been swearing (to other people's ears) without even knowing it. I'm sure my observations so far are only scratching the surface!

*'Bloody' may technically be a religious swear word, but I don't think that's common knowledge (and there seems to be some debate about whether it is or not).
**Well, only the first two books, if I'm honest.
†Except where tomato hornworms are concerned

29 January 2010

Making plans

While the weather is cold and the ground frozen solid it is good to be indoors, planning 2010's vegetable garden. This will be our third year of growing food in the barnyard, so I need to start thinking about crop rotation more carefully than I have done up to now. I made a similar plan for 2009's garden but the final planting locations ended up being very different from the ones I had put in the plan. In fact, with the exception of the first long bed, none of the plots ended up being used for the crops I had originally thought I would put into them. This does make me wonder if doing this year's plan is a waste of time, too.

The key problem is that the eight lower beds are generally waterlogged in the Spring and therefore stay colder for longer than the three sloping beds above them, meaning that the earlier crops have to go in the long beds. We have gradually been adding soil (and some sand) to the lower garden to build those beds up a bit. This year I'm aiming to put the potatoes in two of the lower beds, which will mean planting them later than I have done in the past. Last year it was the potatoes I sowed latest that did the best, so I'm hoping that this scheme will work. I suppose I can always plant some early potatoes in large pots in the greenhouse.

I haven't thought too much about what I'll be doing with the greenhouse this year. Probably much the same as last year, but rotating the crops in there as well. There are still some plants alive in there now. The kale are looking slightly droopy and haven't put on any growth in a while but they aren't dead yet:

The purple-sprouting broccoli look less happy, but we'll see if they come back as it gets warmer:

There are some (very late-sown) carrot seedlings clinging on to life too:

The Swiss chard has continued to grow and the chickens love it. Which is more than I can say for most of the humans. It's proved to be a useful source of green material for the birds when it has been too cold and snowy for them to go out into the orchard and eat the grass.

All of these things were experiments, as this is our first winter with the greenhouse fully in use and I wasn't at all sure what would survive and what wouldn't.

25 January 2010

Wood. Pecked.

Something has been busy on this half-dead poplar tree. I just discovered that many woodpeckers have feathered nostrils to filter out the sawdust they produce while they are hammering.* Also, the tongue of the Hairy Woodpecker is four times longer than its beak (the tongue rolls up like a tape measure).

*I was going to make an observation about nose-hair here, but decided that it would have been in poor taste.

23 January 2010


"Just the smell of it restores peace to the body and mind."

This was the startlingly profound verdict of my eleven-year-old as I cut her a slice of this gingerbread. If you're in need of some mental or corporeal peace and have 10 minutes to spare, I commend this recipe to you. It fills the house with superb aromas.

It's a slightly adapted version of the one in the 1986 Hamlyn New All Colour Cookbook. This was one of only two recipe books I owned when I was at university and it therefore holds a special place in my heart. Compared to the cookery books I've bought more recently, the text is quite bald and matter-of-fact, almost as though its anonymous authors had been ordered to suppress their personalities completely. There are no opinions about the dishes and the photographs are... well, the word 'workmanlike' suggests itself. Certainly the one of the gingerbread is not at all inspiring. Nevertheless, the method is quick and easy (my son did most of the work) and the resulting cake is just plain delicious: moistly spicy on the inside and tooth-stickingly chewy round the edges.


450g/1lb/3 cups plain/all purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon baking powder
175g/6oz/¾ cup butter
175g/6oz/½ cup molasses or black treacle
175g/6oz/½ cup golden syrup (I imagine corn syrup would work, too)
200g/7oz/1 cup soft brown sugar
1 large egg
300ml/½ pint milk

Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Mix the flour, baking powder and spices together in a large bowl. Melt the butter with the syrup, treacle and sugar and then stir into the flour along with the egg and milk. Beat well to get rid of most of the lumps (smallish lumps disappear on cooking). Line an 8-inch cake tin with baking parchment (my tin was 1½ inches deep - anything shallower would be too small) and pour in the mixture. Bake for around an hour and a half (in my convection oven it took an hour and 15 minutes). A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.

If you find you have any left, it keeps well in an airtight container.

22 January 2010


When it comes to guidelines for chicken accommodation, "one nest box per four hens" is a common recommendation. I've even seen "one nest box per eight hens". Our four nest boxes for nine hens should be more than enough, you would think.

But perhaps not, judging by this morning's behaviour: the bird perched on top of the boxes is waiting to dive into the next available nest. On the right of the picture you might just be able to see that two hens have somehow managed to squeeze together into one nest box. I suppose it was quite a cold morning...

17 January 2010


There hasn't been much snow to thaw, but what there is has been slowly disappearing over the last few days. The weather is quite different from last winter's, when there wasn't a thaw in January and the mean temperature (-9°C) was a full two degrees below the long-term average.

I took this photo at the fence near the cattle grid about a year ago:

Here's the same view today. Not quite so pretty.

The chickens have enjoyed being out in the orchard and eating the grass that is now visible again. It makes a change for them from eating the hay that I'd lined their nest boxes with.

We've been watching Hugh's Chicken Run recently, a programme which focuses on the living standards of intensively-reared chickens and contrasts them with the way that a group of free-range birds are cared for. It's not easy to watch, but it is fascinating. I don't know how Canadian regulations for intensively farming chickens compare to UK ones, but I can't imagine that they're much better and I've never seen free-range birds in the supermarkets here.

Our wood supply seems to be holding up well, but that is probably because November was so mild (the mean temperature then was over 5°C, when usually it should be 0°C).

11 January 2010

Spooky sunset

The sun didn't put in an appearance until the very end of the day.

And when it did, it looked other-worldly. The flock of starlings heading off to roost added another layer of creepiness.

10 January 2010

Becoming Canadian

This has got to be the quintessential Canadian scene. A group of people thoroughly enjoying themselves on a frozen lake on a winter's day.

I have absolutely no interest in watching professional hockey and have some deep (but relatively uninformed) reservations about the way that youngsters enter the professional game here (this news item left an abiding impression). But I was bursting with pride at seeing my own son holding a hockey stick for the first time and getting the hang of skating with the help of some really lovely people. I would not want to see him involved in playing for a 'proper' team, but can't think of anything better than seeing him enjoy being on the ice like he was today.

And if that wasn't pleasure enough, there were marshmallows, toasted over a fire built on the ice.

I love this country.

04 January 2010

About that weight loss resolution...

Admire this photograph (taken at the edge of the pond), please:

No, you need to really admire it. For much longer than that, if you don't mind. Otherwise, all my suffering will have been in vain.

While I was framing the shot the ice beneath my feet gave way and I overbalanced, finding myself sitting in the snow with my lower legs dangling inside this hole:

The temperature outside was -10°C/14°F. Not the best weather to go paddling in, really. The water was certainly ... bracing.

02 January 2010

Orange and almond cake

With the hens laying well, a fair supply of oranges still on hand, a large bag of ground almonds to use up and a fit of the winter blues to overcome, there was only one solution:

This is a traditional Middle Eastern cake (most online sources credit Claudia Roden for the recipe). It doesn't contain flour or butter (although I suspect that the almonds (and the six eggs) provide a fair amount of fat!). You cook two oranges until they're soft (about two hours simmering in a pan or (I haven't tried this) pierce them with a fork and cook for 8 minutes in a sealed container in the microwave). Then you cut the oranges in half, remove any pips, and whizz them (peel and all) in a blender until they're puréed. Mix together 250g/9 ounces/2 ½ cups of ground almonds (almond meal), 225g/8 ounces/1 cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder and six eggs and then stir in the puréed oranges.


I only have a 9-inch springform cake tin, but an 8-inch one would probably be better (the cake doesn't rise). I lined the base with a circle of silicone, but you could use baking parchment, too. It needs to bake at 190°C/375°F for about an hour. I had some for dessert last night and am feeling much more cheerful today than I was yesterday. Not sure that can completely be attributed to the cake, but who knows?!

01 January 2010

Happy New Year?

I was thinking a lot about yesterday about New Year's Eve 1999. We spent it with my parents, playing games, no doubt drinking too much, and generally having a lovely time (we had two children under the age of two, so didn't get to do much socialising!). It was a perfect start to the new millennium. Mum died two years later and I found that the memories of that night filled me with incredible sadness on this ten-year anniversary. By the time I went to bed last night I was feeling utterly grief-stricken. Not how you're supposed to be feeling on New Year's Eve.

I couldn't sleep, but gradually a narrative began to form itself out of my feelings. A lot of this has been drifting around in my mind for a while now, but something about last night's belated mourning brought forth words to describe it all. It may be completely inappropriate to share them, but it seems important to do so, if only so that I can stop looking back and turn to face the New Year with a more cheerful state of mind.

April: The Burial of the Dead

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,          
And bathed every veyne in swich  licour,          
Of which vertu engendred is the flour[1]

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing        
Memory and desire, stirring      
Dull roots with spring rain.[2]


I've always had ambiguous feelings about April. Even before my mother died in that month.

She had gone into hospital on the Tuesday, nearly unconscious. When I saw her on the Thursday morning she had come back to herself and was joking, as ever.
"How do you like my black eye?" she asked. She'd fallen out of bed a few days earlier and had an impressive shiner. Her next questions were more disturbing.
"Where am I?" she wondered. On being told, she then asked "How long have I been here?"

There was an apple tree in blossom in the yard between her ward and the next one (it was an old part of the hospital, all on one floor and laid out on the ground in the shape of a television-aerial). But the tree was behind her bed and she could not see it. Would never see it.

By the time I returned in the evening, she was no longer able to speak to my brother and to me. They moved her onto a different ward, a chest ward. Her breathing was becoming laboured and the pneumonia was taking hold. The patient in the bed opposite seemed to be quite mad; offering comic relief to the grim situation in which we found ourselves.

The next day, one of my mother's friends brought in a red flower in a pot. By then, it was clear to us all that this was Mum's final illness, that she would not be leaving the hospital. The gift would have been perfect if Mum had been able to see it, if she would be taking it home with her after getting better. As things were, it seemed terribly wrong.

When Dad collected Mum's effects after her death in the early hours of the Sunday morning, he fretted over not getting her reading glasses back, before realising that he would have no use for them. I found myself regretting the loss of the inappropriate red flower.

When her own mother had died (another April: almost exactly six years earlier), Mum had gone to see her body in the nursing home. It was still warm, she told me, and she'd held her hand and been glad to see her at peace, free of the worry that had always been part of her in life. Perhaps this memory was in my mind when I went to see Mum in her coffin at the funeral home. She had been in a terrible state when I'd seen her last in the hospital and I wanted to erase that memory with something more soothing.

She did look restful, although the undertakers' skill had not managed to disguise the bruising around her right eye. I picked flowers from her garden to put on her coffin. I would have liked to put lilac blossoms on there too (there was a lovely lilac tree in Mum's garden), but they were not yet in flower, whatever Eliot might have written. The tree later blew down in a gale. On Mum's birthday.


Five years passed and on the anniversary of Mum's admission to hospital we were house-hunting. In Canada. Her death had cut a cord that was anchoring me to the land of my birth and we were now at the end of the long process of emigrating. On that day, 16 April, we found the house that would become the future focus of our lives. The weather was terrible: driving rain and snow (not quite Chaucer's 'sweet showers'). In the house, the kitchen woodstove was warming and welcoming. Here there was the space to build the small-holding that my mother had once dreamed of creating. I would plant an orchard and watch the apple trees blossom. There were lilacs in bud all around the building. I knew that I'd come home.

[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Prologue, lines 1-4)
[2] T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, (lines 1-4)