Dessert Island discs

A throwaway comment made by a friend a few days ago made me start thinking about desserts, and what five desserts would I take with me to a desert island. You know, like the Radio 4 programme about records. I guess the “discs” part would be the plates the desserts would be served upon. Anyway, I figured the rules would be pretty simple:

  • You can only have five desserts, at least until you’re rescued from the island.
  • erm…
  • that’s it.

strawberryshortbread

Before I start banging on about my five desserts, I’m going to add an extra rule because I’m like that. It has to be something you can make yourself, from (pretty much) scratch. I’m not saying that you have to grow your own wheat and mill it yourself, but you can’t have a brownie sundae without making brownies first. Or ice cream. You’re on an island, for goodness’ sakes; you’ve plenty of time to muck around making stuff.

Ok, we’ll agree you’ve got a magic fridge containing infinite cream and butter.

Here’s my 5 (with shorthand recipes) in no particular order. Also, until I land on the island I reserve the right to change this list completely.

Strawberry shortbread

Love this stuff. I mean, it’s just lovely. If you get it right the joy you get from the textures and freshness and the smell is worth the (really quite minimal) faff of making it. You can keep your Eton Mess, if I can smell strawberries I’m making this. You can make minor presentation tweaks to this pretty much for ever, too.

  • Rinse, hull and halve strawberries, lightly sprinkle with caster sugar, zest half a lemon in there if you like, leave in a bowl for a couple of hours. If the strawberries don’t smell or taste properly amazing you can finely – and I really mean finely – dice a tiny bit of red chilli into the bowl as well, but this is overkill for good strawbs.
  • Make shortbread. Or biscuits. Something with a bit of crunch and a lot of butter. At the moment I’m all about the Breton sablé but that could change tomorrow. Make them leaf-shaped with a bit of a ridge around the edges.
  • Make creme pâtissière. Milk, vanilla, eggs, cornflour (or wheat flour, but that really needs cooking out or it tastes chalky).
  • Make a strawberry gel by taking a few tablespoons of your strawberries, mashing them, adding 50% sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice & 2% pectin powder, boiling for a few minutes then straining the pulp out.
  • Whip up & blob the creme pat on the shortbread base, strew with strawbs, paint with gel.

Jammy doughnuts

It’s deep fried dough. I mean, come on. There’s no way this ends badly.

  • Make jam. At the moment I’m liking rhubarb for doughnuts, but whatever floats your boat.
  • Make creme pat, again. You’d be surprised just how often this comes up.
  • Make brioche dough. Enriched with eggs & butter & (a little!) sugar, use milk as the liquid, make it fairly sticky but not runny. Leave to prove.
  • Rip bits of the dough off, roll into balls, prove again. Then gently drop into pretty hot oil & flip over every now & then until cooked.
  • Toss in cinnamon sugar, leave to cool until you can, yanno, hold them without burning your fingertips. Then pipe the jam & creme pat into the middle.

Brownies

I have banged on about brownies before. Read that article, it’ll give you everything you need to make phenomenal gooey chocolate delights. A Great brownie cannot be cakey, or dry in any way. A Great brownie must be dense and fudge-like. The mixture should be more like a batter than a sponge, and when it comes out of the oven it must have that crispy, flaky top that disintegrates as you touch it and sticks to your fingertips. If the chocolate is good enough, the sugar interesting, the eggs fresh then you don’t need to mess about with nuts or fruit or – heaven forfend – creme eggs. They should stand up on their own. Still, that shouldn’t stop you experimenting.

  • Melt chocolate. Cream butter & sugar. Add eggs. Pour in chocolate. Add cocoa powder & the smallest amount of flour & baking powder you can get away with. Bake. eat.

Ice cream

Back in the day I was paid to do essay typing in ice cream. Those days are long gone thanks to (i) a proper job which pays money and (ii) attempts to make my trouser size smaller, or at least not get any bigger. Really great ice cream is one of the joys I cherish; that whippy nonsense that Thatcher had a hand in inventing set back ice cream innovation 30 years.

  • Make creme anglaise. Try to avoid using cornflour. Do use real vanilla and double cream. Pour into a wiiiiide conductive container like a roasting tin so it can cool down quickly, then stick in a freezable lidded container like a clip-lock plastic tub.
  • Freeze. Every now & then tip out the contents of your freezable container into a bowl and bash it about with a fork, or whisk, or something. Maybe stir in some of the rhubarb jam you made for doughnuts. Maybe break up a few accidentally overcooked brownies and stir those in too. Maybe change the vanilla out for a couple of espresso shots, reduced and reduced and reduced.

Lemon tart

You want to know how I judge the quality of a restaurant? By how good its lemon tart is. Or Tart aux Citron, if you’re being swish (but if it’s on the menu as that it had better be bloody good). It has to be zingy and fresh and have crisp, thin, structurally sound well-baked pastry and not be oversweet – bad lemon tart can be like eating sweet & sour sauce – and the accompaniments be limited to maybe a few fresh berries. No need for cream. No need for chocolate (unless it’s a tiny shard of something impossibly dark). Mint sprig? Get away from me. Salted caramel sauce? I’m looking for what’s wrong with the tart if you need to hide it with that. Meringue? Oh my days, no. I understand that the top of a lemon meringue pie is there to use up the whites from making your lemon custard filling but I cannot overemphasise just how much I cannot stand that too-sweet claggy glop. Dust it with caster sugar and run a blowtorch over the top so you get a fine bruleé if you want to stand out from the crowd.

  • Make pastry. Or pate sucre, or pate brisee if you like. Handle it as little as possible. I’ve seen recipes where the butter & flour & a bit of sugar are blitzed in a processer and then not bound into a paste with water or egg but left as a crumb, which is then packed into the tart tin. I’m not brave enough for that yet and I applaud those who are. Freeze the case. Bake the case, mostly. Paint with egg. Bake again.
  • Make lemon custard. I’m into the recipe from Serious Eats at the moment (about 2/3rds of the way through this recipe here) but honestly use whatever floats your boat. You don’t even need to pre-cook your filling, sometimes. Just use lots of lemons, lots of eggs, a bit of sugar, maybe a bit of cream. Pour into case.
  • Bake until just – just barely – set. It should still wobble in the middle, but not be runny when you cut into it. Chill. Eat.

Just look at that list. It’s a joy and a half, right there. But it doesn’t even begin to cover some of the true joys in desserts. There’s no choux pastry, for a start – who doesn’t love profiteroles? Nor clafoutis, which would be in second or third place during cherry season. Tarte tatin, perfect with a blob of creme chantilly. A simple chocolate mousse with a biscuit and a dab of blackcurrant coulis. Where’s the cake? I love cake. Maybe I don’t consider it a dessert, more of a basic human right.

So what would your five be? What five desserts would you need to have to keep body and soul together trapped on a desert island, with only a record player and an infinitely-fulfilled dairy fridge for company?

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Archiving the present

Fairwell then, the print version of the Indy. The victim of a digital culture (which we’re not really in to the extent people think, but I’ll come to that in a moment), the last national newspaper to be forged in the UK has decided to stop printing things on dead trees and will try to generate money through clickbait and funny cat videos. A lot of people will lose a source of income or see their payment rates drop through the floor, being based on clickthroughs and not wordcount. It is another shift away from “proper” journalism and is more like the meta-journalism we see a lot of, where people aren’t sent out to research and report on stories, but do it all from their desk, trusting their online sources far more than they should do and risking being labelled as “churnalists” regurgitating press releases and marketing spaff as truth with a capital T.

I’m sad to see it go as the Indy was an ok paper, but what is worrying me more than the lack of rigorous journoism is; are we at the start of a trend for news archives to go entirely digital? Because if we are, our cultural effectiveness and place in history is about to be plunged into a new Dark Ages, if we’re not in it already.

There’s a couple of points I’d like to make.

1. Not everybody is online. In fact, despite surveys saying that 90% of the population is glued to a smartphone for at least 2 hours a week, or whatever made up fact I feel like throwing in, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there is a huge digital disenfranchisement going on. Although 90% of the UK has access to the internet considerably fewer than that actually use it. If you take out all the ones who only use their internet access for facebook and football, it’s even fewer. If you take out everybody who only uses it for VoD services it drops right down. Take out everybody who bought a smartphone because it was on a cheap contract and only uses it for voice calls, and everybody who got the internet thrown in for very little with their BT or Sky subscriptions but don’t actually plug a laptop into it. All these people – who quite often buy newspapers and watch broadcast news – are losing information sources. These people are being separated from their council services – they don’t know about changes to bin days, for example – and are confused by the changes to Road Fund Licensing because nobody sent them a letter. They’re getting what culture they can, and need, through physical, real life interaction with things – like books and opera and theatre and paintings. As culture goes increasingly digital the people who don’t use, or know about it because they’re not already there will be losing out.

2. Also, there is an assumption that “everybody is on the internet and they’ll find out about it there” except ‘the internet’ – whatever that is – is different for everybody, and it’s huge. Making that assumption is dangerous and insulting. It’s like putting a single flyer on a tree in the middle of a forest that covers most of the planet and is full of great big chuffing spiders who aren’t averse to rewriting the flyer.

3. Aside from that, as culture goes digital we’re entrusting stuff like instruction booklets and building plans and national defence strategy and diaries and movies and weather data and documentaries and social history books and fiction and gardening tips and the ability to make things to digital media. That’s lovely, except it is incredibly fragile. Hard disks pop. Flash media – of course, yes, you can nail it to a tree, drown it in cola, bury it in soft peat for three months and it’ll come up smiling – still has an expiry date not that far into the future. Tapes will be eaten by robots. Cosmic rays can flip bits on platters, for goodness sakes. Data integrity is very, very difficult – and that’s for stuff we use today. Also, it can be changed trivially easily – by hackers, by lawyers, by people who want to rewrite history to make them the hero instead of the evil, disconnected, narcissistic bell ends that we know them to be now, but if the newspaper archives back them up then ‘we can’t get into the who said what to whom game, can we? And the past is in the past, let’s look to the future!’ And so on. Don’t forget format changes, too – as an experiment try opening a Lotus 123 document you created in the ’90s on a modern desktop. Or try opening the plans to your nuclear powered aircraft carrier in a new version of the CAD software that got installed as part of a systemwide upgrade plan.

4. Oh, and let us not forget the future. At some point in the year 3000 some archaeologist is going to be looking at ancient culture, and could well find lots of relatively hardwearing source material from the 1800s right up until 1994. And then the amount and quality of material will decline, as it all went onto hard disks which won’t survive past the end of the decade, let alone another 984 years. I’ve got a USB hard disk that can’t be read by anything made after 2009, for some reason. There are crates of 3.5″ floppy disks in cupboards that will never be looked at again; we have all this media and because it requires effort to look at – unlike, say, a book or a painting – it will never get examined, and this is stuff that’s only 20 years old.

Our modern culture is becoming increasingly temporary and transient, and when we’re long dead and gone, and our civilisation is lying in ruins the easiest stuff to read will be the markers for our cultural legacy. Whatever arises from the ashes of our civilsation will be starting from scratch, just like those who lived between the fall of Rome and the Rennaisance. You know what the future will find? Millions of discarded copies of 50 shades books. In the same way we deride Victorians for their hypocracy we will be mocked as a generation of people who liked poorly-written text about spanking. And maybe something about wizards.

Welcome to the new Dark Ages.

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Thought Bubble 2015 (thoughts, review, comics)

We recently held the biggest (and friendliest, IMO) pure comics convention in the UK here in Leeds. It’s called Thought Bubble and even if you just take the weekend into account – it does run for an entire week – it’s a massive thing. There’s no movie or TV tie-ins, Marvel & DC are not represented as companies, there’s no famous people from 1970s scifi signing autographs for £15. It’s all about the comics – the writers, the creators, the artists, the ones who are all of the above as well as promotors, sales bods, website techies, accountants, merch makers and tshirt models, and everything else besides. It really highlights indie creators, too; as well as the “names” in comics, there’s so much incredible talent that gets a voice at Thought Bubble that would get lost at MCM or NYCC. I think it’s the most democratically level playing field on the comics scene right now. You get tiny self-published creators sat next to Kate Beaton or Al Ewing. Nicholas Gurewitch and Joan Cornella and Darryl McDaniels (as in Run DMC) in the same place, with Noelle Stevenson and Matt Kindt and Marguerite Bennett a few tables apart. It’s like living in a village of adorable arty geniuses.

Every year since 2007 I’ve attended Thought Bubble’s convention weekender, from the early days of being in the Town Hall basement to moving over to the New Dock site & basically taking over every available inch of space. Since 2009 (I think) I’ve been a volunteer, and I’ve been a hall leader since ’10 (or ’11, I forget). I *love* Thought Bubble. This year was no exception to that; I’ve seen it grow and grow and grow and it’s down to the incredible work by (in no particular order) Lisa, Marf, Biz, Mikey, Darren, Steve & Clark with Nabil and the Travelling Man gang doing whopping amounts of behind the scenes stuff about infrastructure and bookings and logistics and everything that it’s grown so smoothly and the weekend runs like an extremely precise clock. Pete does some work as well, I guess. (Pete runs the volunteers so he’s technically my boss for the weekend.) It does mean I get – maybe – an hour over the weekend to look at halls other than the one I’m managing. But I get to know my hall really, really well. Also I get to see friends of the sort you see once a year in really testing circumstances, which means you definitely find out who can help you dispose of a body.

Anyway, I bought stuff. I don’t have a photograph of it, but here’s the list:

  • Sarah Gordon’s Strip
  • John Allison’s The Case of the Lonely One
  • Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court vol 5 and Traveller
  • Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose’s Porcelain vol 2: Bone China
  • Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona and Lumberjanes, vols 1&2 (with others)
  • Lisa Cummins’ Madam Butterscotch vol 1
  • Joan Cornella’s Zonzo
  • Kate Beaton’s Step Aside, Pops

I’ve read everything I bought. Here’s the five second reviews.

John Allison’s The Case of the Lonely One is lovely and hilarious, and surprisingly sad in places. I read Bad Machinery like some kind of obsessive so I know what’s coming but these self-contained stories are incredibly well put together, they don’t need to be read in order and I love the hardcover printed editions. This is the most onion-y of the Bad Machinery stories.

Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court vol 5 is properly great. Tom’s art has come on in leaps and bounds and this book showcases some of the best. His storytelling works – you don’t get to see everything; in fact, you see surprisingly little given how huge the Court universe (Courtiverse?) feels – and you’re not patronised as a reader. Fill in the blanks yourself, it’s part of the fun. Traveller is one of the tales from outside the Court; it follows Paz one summer. This one-shot made me cry. It’s heartrending. There’s a positive note and I guess in the Courtiverse there’s always the chance that… well. Read it.

Porcelain vol 1 was one of my favourite books of 2013. Bone China expands on this and lived up to expectation. It made me furious, in a good way. Stunning writing that pulls absolutely no punches, with artwork to match. I really, really want Read & Wildgoose to get Ivory Tower done, but at the same time I want it done properly. This is what makes me think British Comics is in a good place.

I’ve loved Sarah Gordon’s art for years. Strip is astounding work. It’s not enjoyable, it’s incredibly accomplished. To describe it too much would give it away; this is work that deserves to be read, but it’s something that you’ll read rarely. The visceral nature of the book should make you uncomfortable, and rightly so; it’s possible to go into this expecting one thing only to get something entirely different. This was a well deserved BCA nominee.

Madam Butterscotch was a whimsical buy, because I loved the art deco character designs I’d spotted on the stall. It’s a fun tale of an assassin who runs a tea shop; light and fluffy, it holds much promise and I look forwards to seeing it develop.

Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is a triumph. This is the sort of writing I wish I could do; the tale of a shapeshifting sidekick to a villan in an odd technological/swordfighting milieu with humour, emotion, an undercurrent of UST between the hero & villan and the basic fact that the good guys and the bad guys are just perspective. Excellent art which suits the story perfectly. Lumberjanes is also fun; considerably lighter in tone to Nimona, though not to its detriment. Seek it out, if you can. It is excellent, empowering storytelling to give to daughters and nieces for Christmas.

Step Aside, Pops is a followup to Hark! A Vagrant and is in much the same vein. If you know Kate Beaton’s work you know what this is. I love it, despite being incredibly difficult to describe. Books like this make me want to learn reviewing properly.

Finally, Zonzo. Cornella is so, so disturbing. The comics – I say comics, I mean tableaux – are very funny but on second glance incredibly disturbing. The joke is sometimes very subtle but it is always there. The art is clever – sometimes a bit samey but that’s the joke – and has an innocence to it which just makes everything wierder. Joan is a really nice chap, though; somehow that really does make the work stranger.

Oh, but that’s not quite finally, is it? In my hall was Nick Gurewitch of Perry Bible Fellowship fame (I adore PBF, seek it out, read it, buy his books). He’s a very nice fellow who has skills and he was selling prints. I asked him for a sketch;

IMAG0507-c

(The bunny loves the Thought Bubble.)

Bless. And roll on next year, when TBubs will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary. It’s going to be huge and I shall be there in my red shirt, asking to see wristbands and making sure everybody is happy.

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Running (again).

On Sunday I did my third race of the year, which was only two weeks after my second. My fourth (and last) is in four weeks; it feels strange to think that many people’s racing seasons seems to be over the summer, and mine is mostly clustered into a six week period at the end of the year.

Anyway! Two weeks ago I did the Kirkstall 7, a partially off-the-beaten-track route around Kirkstall and Horsforth by the river and canal. It was a very pretty route which had woods, canal paths and some (not very big) hills that I was thoroughly enjoying until two miles in where my left ankle decided it wasn’t having any of this and started giving me gyp. I ended up limping around – I was going to finish this come what may – and afterwards found flexing my foot was agony which made driving home hilarious.

Turns out I know a very good sports massage therapist (Dalia of Chapiteau) who agreed with me that I’d done something to my pereneus muscles which do flexing and stability jobs, and she did a number on my legs which meant I found walking a bit tricky for a day or so. I stayed off the running – just in case – until Light Night where I was a group leader for a bunch of people running around the city wearing glowsticks and blowing whistles.

Pic by Penny Andrews

Pic by Penny Andrews

(I became a certified Leader in Running Fitness earlier in the year. We all look like this.)

My foot stayed fine, so I reckoned I’d be good to go for the Scarborough 10k, which I’d booked months ago not thinking I might have to drop out for injury. So over to the coast I went; the drive over was lovely, clear, crisp, occasional low-lying field filled with mist. The weather was brisk, and the half-hour between dropping off my bag (with jumper) and the race starting was a bit chilly, but once underway it all felt fine. With decent strapping and being incredibly careful for the first half of the race I finished in a respectable (for me) 1:05:01; the route is lovely, mostly flat with some tiny inclines, and very pretty and easily distracting. And when I finished I went & got ice cream.

Lemon twist from The Harbour Bar.

Lemon twist from The Harbour Bar.

My last race of the year is the Abbey Dash (at which I’m raising money for Age UK, so donate if you feel like) and it’ll be the last time I run the Dash for a while because Kirkstall Road is soul destroying when running on it. And driving on it. Or getting the bus, for that matter. I think I can do sub 60 minutes there, if I concentrate hard on keeping my pace up. Usually I zone out and drop to 11m/mile until I realise I’ve gone wrong and speed up too much and then it all goes to pot. Fingers crossed, and all that.

So, now I’m thinking about next year. I have a few rules for next year:

1. Don’t run on Kirkstall Road.
2. Only enter races where there’s a t-shirt.

It’s decided: I don’t care about medals, for me it is all about the t-shirts. Other than that the plan is to only do interesting races that aren’t astonishingly expensive. And maybe see if I can get a half marathon in.

There’s a few races I’m already thinking about. The Sue Ryder Keighley 10k, for example. I’m tempted by the Wirral Half, too (mostly because I can stay with my parents & get the train at the start & finish) and the Humber Bridge 10k. I’ve got to limit myself of course, but I’m also looking at trail and maybe fells next year too.

Do you have a favourite race that I might like (distances up to a half marathon)? Let me know in comments or email 🙂

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Cakebot.

cakebot Cake is a pretty big part of my life; it’s something I’ve done since I was very small and it makes me happy to see a properly baked cake come out of the oven, golden, whistling to itself, smelling like nothing else on earth. It is something that I consider to be a very human activity. Most of recorded history would agree with me, too.

So can a robot make a better cake than a human?

Cakes are made with love, with affection, with human fallibility. They are unpredictable, require observation and testing and are always inconsistent. Any baker will tell you of the time a never-fail recipe has indeed failed and their cake has emerged, sunken and burned around the edges from the oven. Cake batter changes depending on the flour you use, the size of the eggs, the fat content of your butter. Flour can change its protein content based on the time of year it was harvested, which can change the entire structure of your cake; it can become more bready, it can rise more, it can collapse easier. These are all things that require learning, experience, and a careful eye on what your cake batter is doing as you mix.

Programming for all of the variables in a cake mix isn’t easy, but you can reduce the variability. You can only use sugar of a specific type and size, your flour has to have the same protein levels, your eggs are sterilised, cracked and beaten in advance, your butter isn’t butter, it’s a type of oil that has a specific fat/water ratio, your raising agent has to have a specific mix and you have buffers built in to your mix which allow for variation.

Once you’ve reduced the variables then you can build a robot – or production line, as they’re normally called – to make your cake. They will be the same shape, size, taste, texture, with the same amount of filling, and they’ll last on a shelf for weeks, if not months. They will be uniform, consistent, effectively identical, because the mass-production model is all about reducing the variables. And if all you want is to eat the cake then that’s probably ok, although you’re getting the reward without putting in any effort. Just because something is there doesn’t mean that you have to have it, although that doesn’t stop people from buying it anyway.

Here’s a simple experiment; make a victoria sponge, and go & buy one from a shop (I’m not saying which one to buy it from but I’d bet real money that people doing this experiment will buy it from M&S). Take a slice from each. Taste it, blindfold. Pick your favourite. Think about why it is your favourite.

What makes a cake better? If you’re a corporate entity like a supermarket or fast food outlet then “better” means “cost-effective” at the bottom line. This then breaks down into “cheap” and “long lasting” and both of these things affect how a cake comes out. If you’re a bakery with a reputation for quality then you’re probably hand making cakes anyway and will probably only make cakes in smaller batches. Home bakers? You can watch every step of the process. What you care about is the overall quality of the finished article and it’ll rarely last more than a day. Economies of scale are less important, so you can spend time on getting the batter just right, being experimental with your flavourings, keeping an eye on the oven. You don’t care about shelf life or profit margins. You’re doing it because you love cake, or love the people the cake is destined for, or for the sheer joy of creating something, or for another reason that isn’t really measurable.

There’s the deeper philosophy; rather than asking if a cake made by a bot or a human is “better”, why not ask why the cake was made by a bot or a human in the first place? And, given that most bot-made cakes are full of stuff that humans wouldn’t put in their cakes, and bot-made cakes are easily-accessible and so there’s no effort involved in the reward process, when the inevitable rise against the humans comes is the first step to make the humans so morbidly obese that they can’t fight back effectively?

Has that already started?


(originally posted on Culture Vulture, I thought this deserved a reposting here.)

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Leeds 10k, 2015 edition

For the third time, I did the Run4all Leeds 10k this year. Unusually though, there were people there I knew relatively well, because I’ve been running with them once a week since March.

Leeds 10k Lakers, 2015

Say hello to some of the South Leeds Lakers (and Hunslet Hawks). We’re a wide-ranging bunch doing 5ks from 40min to 18min, and we’re very friendly and chatty and cheerful and supportive of each other. We run once a week on Tuesdays from 6:45pm at the Co-op in Beeston (usually). Come & join us! And in a few weeks I’ll be one of the run leaders, too. Near the back.

Anyway, the race. Last year’s 10k was 16 seconds faster than in ’13, which annoyed me dreadfully, enough to kick me into doing November’s Abbey Dash (more-or-less the same route) in 1h11m, five minutes faster than in June. But I knew I could do better. A few weeks ago I managed to get a sub-30 at Parkrun so I figured a 1:09 would be a realistic target for 10k, with 1:06 being something to hope for but not realistically achieve.

We all met up for a team photo, I got a cuppa and dropped my bag off, then we all split up into our various factions based on what our expected times were. After some minor faff with the GPS – tall buildings were messing with the signal – we were champing at the bit to get rolling. I started off a bit too fast and lost the people I was running with quite early, and then by the time we were on the road out of Leeds I’d settled down into a regular rhythmn. The pace was a bit slow but I picked it up once we got off Wellington St and I was able to watch the faster runners coming back home, which is a great distraction technique, looking out for and calling out to people you know in Lakers tshirts. Also very welcome were those Lakers who weren’t running and instead stood on the side of the road yelling like loons when they spotted the distinctive green-and-orange shirts!

The turnaround was a pain, as always; it always clusters and the racing line – ho ho – slowed right down as the slight incline took new runners by surprise. But it was ok, and I spotted the group I started with and gave them a cheery wave on the way past. I picked up the pace a bit going past Kirkstall Valley and managed to keep up a steady 9m45s/mile until I got to the fire station when my thigh started cramping up, and I could feel it beginning to let go. I had to stop for a few seconds to massage it out, and then I was fine. Picking up as much as I dared the slip road back up into town beckoned – the bane of many Kirkstall Road runners – and then it was done. I couldn’t sprint finish, but I was only two metres behind a lunatic in a rhino costume who started at the front of the green group (I started in the last third) and although I would have liked to beat him it was ok.

Time? Oooh, I was so, so happy with this. 1:05:09. A minute under my “I’d like but it isn’t going to happen” time. 11 minutes faster than the same course last year. Obviously a 10k PB. And the pint I had afterwards (thank you for opening early, White Swan!) was all the more delicious because of it.

Next up: possibly the York 10k (for kicks and giggles) and almost certainly the Kirkstall 7, and definitely the Scarborough 10k in October (because I’ve already paid my entry fee for that one). I am looking forwards to these. A lot.

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Post-apocalyptic survival skills like sailing.

One day all the oil will run out. Electricity will stop working because of a shift in the Earth’s magnetic field. Someone will nuke someone else. A guy who really hates smartphones will invent a portable EMP that runs off a Raspberry Pi and the magnetron from a cheap microwave and sell millions on eBay, then someone writes a virus for it which sets them all off at the same time. The LHC will open a portal to a dimension filled with dinosaurs and a disease which turns humans into Nutella. Some idiot will rub a lamp and wish for peace on earth. The nanobots will turn everything into grey goo. Triffids will appear, probably on the same day Captain Trips gets released into the wild. Stuff will go bad, is what I’m saying.

Because of this I like to collect a basic smattering of what I call PASS – post-apocalyptic survival skills – where the point isn’t to become an expert in something, but to learn enough about it so that should I ever need to do something I know enough not to endanger myself or the ragtag band of fellow survivors who I’ll inevitably join up with.

This is a bit of a roundabout way of saying that I did some sailing lessons back in April. Look, we live on an island. At some point “get off the island” will become a priority and frankly aviation fuel will have decayed far too much by the time that priority rolls around. We’re using boats. Anyway.

The course I did was the Royal Yachting Association Level 1 and Level 2 certification which was – astonishingly – available at a tarn up near the airport. Yeadon Tarn is a lovely little body of water that has enough winds to make it fun to sail on and is safe enough to be able to basically walk out of if you capsize close enough to the edge.

Yeadon Tarn

It’s the home of the Leeds Sailing and Activity Centre, a LCC-run sports facility which mostly does activities for schools and youth groups, but has boats for hire and will teach you how to sail them. The cost for doing the L1&2 was considerably more reasonable than any of the private clubs I’d been looking at (who sailed in salt water), so I booked a week off and did something way, way out of my comfort zone.

The first couple of days were fine; three of us in a pretty big boat, balancing, trimming, heaving to, tacking, accidentally gybeing when the wind shifted but mostly coming about and having a lot of fun. Then we got into a bit more intense stuff, like hoiking buoys out of the water, sailing without an instructor, deliberately gybeing and setting courses. This was fine. Then we did capsize drill.

This was not fine.

I have terrible upper body strength and I’m overweight. Even with a drysuit and floatation device I just couldn’t get myself high enough on the boat to start tipping it back over (the fact the boom was dug into the mud didn’t help). Long story short: if there was one thing that has made me think about upper body exercise it was this.

On the final day we went out solo in Toppers and a Topaz for me. This was lots of fun until I hit wind shadow and fell out of the boat. A few times. Battered and bruised (the bruises were hilarious) and having walked back to shore dragging a boat behind me I dangled my drysuit-clad feet in the lake and thought about the days I’d spent remembering everything forgotten from a school trip to France when I was 14.

Sailing is fun. Lots of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my week learning how to rig and launch and sail. I shall never again underestimate how incredible a well-fitting drysuit actually is. Very glad I was able to get certified, and very grateful for the patience the tutors at the LSAC displayed with the lump I am. I’m probably not going out solo again for a while – certainly not until I can lift myself without seeing bright flashes of light before my eyes – but I know enough to not put people at risk and I really, truly had fun just listening to the wind and the water, ready to pull on a sheet or shift my weight a bit.

Take this as a wholehearted recommendation for the LSAC, too; they’re good people and you could do a lot worse than get your skills from them.

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