Through the looking glass

Stupidly, because I might have expected it, page 60 of the Daily Mail March 28th 2014 was an entire page that managed to turn a book review into the author’s fears about the end of the world. Taking his work home with him, John Preston claimed that it often keeps him awake at night, or specifically, worrying about what he will do when the horde of illegal benefit-claiming job-stealing immigrants have given cats TB because we didn’t shoot all the badgers. aliceIt’s EU political correctness gone mad.

His biggest worry wasn’t that the world would end – if it was he wouldn’t have got the job at the Mail – but that he wouldn’t be able to cope with the consequences. Being a Daily Mail person he didn’t bother to do anything to solve the problem by learning how to sew or make a fire for example, but by mangling the language a bit further while saying how terrible it all was.

“Let’s say a terrible pandemic has decimated most of the population,” he gushed. I know this is a favourite Daily Mail fantasy, but let’s stop it right there.

Nothing can decimate most of anything for one simple reason: decimate means reducing something by a tenth. Unless John Preston is stratifying the population, which presumably he’d do along the lines of strivers and scroungers, the sentence is gibberish, like most of the rest of the paper.

Given that he wrote ‘most of the population’ he can’t be stratifying in any major sense. Instead, he’s simply conflating his own ignorance and the desire to use big words to imply he’s really clever and making more of a mockery of his newspaper than presumably the editor also intended.

Decimated does not mean devastated. Yes, it sounds similar. But it’s a different word. For a good reason: it means something else. This is what words are for. Meaning something. Not whatever you want them to mean, or you might as well strawberry blancmange.

It was the Romans, as it so often is in our progressive country. I’m not even going near the arsy ‘no, it’s about the practice of executing one man in ten in a mutinous Roman legion.’ I don’t know if it also means that or not, but it’s irrelevant.

Decimus means ten. In Latin. That’s what it means. No more, no less. Ten. So decimate has to mean reduce by a tenth, whether it’s Roman soldiers, survivors of the apocalypse or eggs in a basket. What it doesn’t mean is destroy a lot of.

There were no WMDs Tony. None. As You Knew.

I blame Tony Blair, a bit but not entirely like the Daily Mail. At least he’d obviously read some Victorian literature when he was at Oxford.

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Through the Looking Glass.



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I love croissants. Always have. I’m not talking about the powdery cold pretendy left-overs wrapped in plastic (bread hates plastic. It’s entirely mutual) that grace supermarket shelves. Real ones. Fresh ones. When I lived in North London there was a bakery about 200 yards up the road from my flat. When some poor Lynne or Tansy or oh-so-wow Miguette (yes, I know. Result and so on) had been inveigled into visiting what was on inspection so definitely not my very groovy pad, at least she got fresh croissants and strawberries in the morning, to add a really uncomfortable sugar-rush to the four pints of Stella hangover and the bone-adjusting discomfort of the futon I’d made.

In some ways sadly, Time moves on. The bakery closed because people who liked croissants moved out and the parking was a nightmare. I sometimes got them in hotels, but mostly they were disappointing. It never really struck me that I could make them myself. I knew there was steam involved somewhere, but putting aside visions of exploding bricks shattering all over my kitchen I thought what consumerism encourages you to think: it’s too difficult for me, I’d better buy it. And then this week a strange and disturbing thing happened from which I may never recover. I read something useful in the Daily Mail.

Read All About It

To be fair, it wasn’t the actual Daily Mail, but a tiny supplement specifically about baking breads someone who cares gave me. Early on in the little book there was a croissant recipe. Yeah, right, I thought. Diana was murdered by MI5. And Cameron’s got soul. It wasn’t even 200 words but it was a revelation. Like most baking, most of it is waiting, not actually doing anything. Actual doing stuff time, maybe 10 minutes at the outside. Time overall, a day and a half, one way or the other. The longest bit was just mixing the dough right at the beginning. About three minutes and like all baking the quantities are important. Not to get all Heston Blumenthal, but baking is one area of cooking where you can’t just use the ‘some’ principle (as in ‘peel some potatoes.’ How many? Well, how many do you want? That many.) Roll out the dough to about 1cm thick and put five ounces of butter in it. No, it’s not unhealthy. If you were going to eat this every day it would be. You’re not. So don’t get precious.

Fold it on itself then do it again. Stick it in the fridge overnight. Next day, roll it out and fold it again. 20 minutes later do it again. 20 minutes after that, do it again. Forty minutes after that, roll it out thinner than I did, cut it into triangles wider than I did and roll them up, so the pointy bit is last. Now the technical bit.

You know that wonderful crunchy thing the very best croissants have? That’s mostly because they’re fresh. That salty undertone to the rich taste? The glaze. Oh how very technical that sounds. Beat an egg in a bowl. Add a pinch of salt. Brush it over the rolls while you’re waiting until they’re starting to push their folds apart and the oven gets hot. Do the steam thing, preferably in a proper French steam oven if you’re Mme Poilane, one of the very realest food heroes, or by chucking a cup of cold water into the roasting tray you left in the oven while it gets hot if you’re me and your daddy didn’t have a helicopter, forgot how to fly it and left you a bakery.

Twenty minutes later you can say “Croissants? With maybe some honey, or perhaps some gooseberry confiture? Baby?” Use the only two decent matching coffee cups and saucers you have. And of course, don’t forget the strawberries.



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