Sloe time


In cold November weather when the first frost strikes you wrap up in winter woolies and harvest the sloes.  You have been walking by them on your country rambles and you know where the best cropping bushes are.

Plump black fruts of the Blackthorn which pricks a fair few fingers as you pick.  Prunus spinosa, the thorny plum, the fruit is smaller than a damson, far more bitter and the most astringent thing you can think of.  A sample bite will dry out your mouth, like tanin on speed.

The frost helps sweeten the fruit slightly, but if you delay picking the creatures of the field and stream will beat you to the punch.

Back home in the warm kitchen you prick the fruits with a fork and toss them in a kilner jar.  Douse them in sugar and give them a few days for the sugar to leach the juice from the berries.  When you have a jar of fine pink coloured sugar you can top up the jar with vodka or gin and seal it.  Store in a cool, dark, dry place for as long as you can bear.

The result is sloe gin.



Sloe Gin; by Seamus Heaney

The clear weather of juniper
darkened into winter.
She fed gin to sloes
and sealed the glass container.

When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry.

When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
and flamed
like Betelgeuse.

I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-
black sloes, bitter
and dependable.

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Gilbert not Sullivan

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Anyone who has trod the boards to belt out a musical theatre number has heard, and possibly appeared in a Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera.  A staple of the amateur dramatic circuit for decades if not centuries.

William Shenwenck Gilbert had a number of careers in his life.  As a child in Italy he was (according to his own account) kidnapped and ransomed back to his family by Neapolitan bandits, a plot point that frequently found its way into his librettos.

He intended to become an artillery officer, but missed out because the Crimean War ended too early for him.  He became a Civil Service Clerk and hated the job.  When he inherited an income from his aged aunt (the plot points keep mounting) he opted to become a barrister.  He attributed his lack of success at the bar to his inability to find the ugly daughter of a successful senior counsel to marry.

He turned his natural wit into a career writing humorous cartoons, sketches and verse for FUN magazine under the nom de plume of BAB.  A successful playwright in his own right it was his collaboration with Arthur Sullivan that ensured his enduring reputation.

Happy birthday Mr Gilbert, born November 18th 1836 and who died, in the style of a musical theatre twist of a heart attack, while saving the live of a young lady he was teaching to swim.


The Yarn Of The Nancy Bell; by William Schwenck Gilbert

’twas on the shores that round our coast
from Deal to Ramsgate span,
that I found alone on a piece of stone
an elderly naval man.

His hair was weedy, his beard was long,
and weedy and long was he,
and I heard this wight on the shore recite,
in a singular minor key:

“Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
and the mate of the NANCY brig,
and a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
and the crew of the captain’s gig.”

And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
’til I really felt afraid,
for I couldn’t help thinking the man had been drinking,
and so I simply said:

“Oh, elderly man, it’s little I know
of the duties of men of the sea,
and I’ll eat my hand if I understand
however you can be

at once a cook, and a captain bold,
and the mate of the NANCY brig,
and a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
and the crew of the captain’s gig.”

Then he gave a hitch to his trousers, which
is a trick all seamen larn,
and having got rid of a thumping quid,
he spun this painful yarn:

“’twas in the good ship NANCY BELL
that we sailed to the Indian Sea,
and there on a reef we come to grief,
which has often occurred to me.

and pretty nigh all the crew was drowned
(there was seventy-seven o’ soul),
and only ten of the NANCY’S men
said ‘Here!’ to the muster-roll.

There was me and the cook and the captain bold,
and the mate of the NANCY brig,
and the bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
and the crew of the captain’s gig.

For a month we’d neither vittles nor drink,
’til a-hungry we did feel,
so we drawed a lot, and, accordin’ shot
the captain for our meal.

The next lot fell to the NANCY’S mate,
and a delicate dish he made;
then our appetite with the midshipmite
we seven survivors stayed.

And then we murdered the bo’sun tight,
and he much resembled pig;
then we vittled free, did the cook and me,
on the crew of the captain’s gig.

Then only the cook and me was left,
and the delicate question, ‘Which
of us two goes to the kettle?’ arose,
and we argued it out as such.

For I loved that cook as a brother, I did,
And the cook he worshipped me;
but we’d both be blowed if we’d either be stowed
in the other chap’s hold, you see.

‘I’ll be eat if you dines off me,’ says Tom;
‘Yes, that,’ says I, ‘you’ll be, –
I’m boiled if I die, my friend,’ quoth I;
and ‘Exactly so,’ quoth he.

Says he, ‘Dear James, to murder me
were a foolish thing to do,
for don’t you see that you can’t cook me,
while I can – and will – cook you!’

So he boils the water, and takes the salt
and the pepper in portions true
(which he never forgot), and some chopped shalot,
and some sage and parsley too.

‘Come here,’ says he, with a proper pride,
which his smiling features tell,
”twill soothing be if I let you see
how extremely nice you’ll smell.’

And he stirred it round and round and round,
and he sniffed at the foaming froth;
when I ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals
in the scum of the boiling broth.

And I eat that cook in a week or less,
and – as I eating be
the last of his chops, why, I almost drops,
for a vessel in sight I see!

And I never larf, and I never smile,
and I never lark nor play,
but sit and croak, and a single joke
I have – which is to say:

‘Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
and the mate of the NANCY brig,
and a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
and the crew of the captain’s gig!'”

Catherine the Great Vaccinator

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Catherine the Great, born 1729, staged a coup d’état to overthrow her husband Peter III, and ruled as empress from 1762 dying on this day, Nov 17th 1796.

In 1762 Catherine controversially brough the English Doctor Thomas Dimsdale to Russia to innoculate herself, her son and her court against smallpox.  Vaccination was in its infancy and this was a high risk endeavour on her part.  To her credit she recognised the danger the Doctor faced if the experiement failed.  The Empress arranged for a relay of fast horses to speed the Dimsdales out of the country were she to die.

The procedure succeeded and the Doctor, and his son Nathaniel, were fabulously well rewarded, gaining a Russian Barony in the process.  Dimsdle was able to return to England and leverage his funds to become a banker and an MP.

Catherine used the success of the endeavour to promote vaccination to her subjects and succeeded in rolling out 2 million vaccinations in her lifetime, 6% of the Russian Population.

Catherine brought enlighenment to Russia and her rule is considered a golden age.  The Golden Age of Russian poetry followed her rule.  Pushkin was born in 1799 just 3 years after her passing.  Zhukovsky, who introduced Romanticism to Russia,  was born in 1783 and was 13 when Catherine passed away.  I find the Russians a bit sentimental, a bit flowery and very religious, but they were of their time and of course I know them only through translations, and how good are the translations?


The Boatman; by Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky

Driven by misfortune’s whirlwind,
having neither oar nor rudder,
by a storm my bark was driven
out upon the boundless sea.
‘midst black clouds a small star sparkled;
‘Don’t conceal yourself!’ I cried;
but it disappeared, unheeding;
and my anchor was lost, too.

All was clothed in gloomy darkness;
great swells heaved all round;
in the darkness yawned the depths
I was hemmed in by cliffs.
‘There’s no hope for my salvation!’
I bemoaned, with heavy spirit…
Madman! Providence
was your secret helmsman.

With a hand invisible,
‘midst the roaring waves,
through the gloomy, veiled depths
past the terrifying cliffs,
my all-powerful savior guided me.
Then-all’s quiet ! gloom has vanished;
I behold a paradisical realm…
Three celestial angels.

Providence – O, my protector!
My dejected groaning ceases;
on my knees, in exaltation,
on their image I did gaze.
Who could sing their charm?
or their power o’er the soul?
All around them holy innocence
and an aura divine.

A delight as yet untasted –
live and breathe for them;
take into my soul and heart
all their words and glances sweet.
O fate! I’ve but one desire:
let them sample every blessing;
vouchsafe them delight – me suffering;
Only let me die before they do.



Chinua Achebe and the flag of Biafra

Biafra existed as a pre-colonial state in what is now the South-Eastern corner of modern day Nigeria.  It is the home in the majority of the Igbo tribe.

In 1960 Nigeria attained independence from the United Kingdom and became an independent nation formed artificially by the British from a hodge podge of different tribal areas.  In the North mainly Hausa and Fulani, Sahel region semi-nomadic pastoralists who are predominantly Muslims.  In the South the Yoruba in the West and the Igbo in the East, Christians living in Tropical Coastal regions.

Five years after independence the new “nation” descended into coup and counter-coup replete with proscriptions along the lines of what happened in Ancient Rome when Sulla and Marius battled for control of the city.  To destroy Igbo cohesion the federal government gerrymandered the tribal area to split voting power.  Biafra elected to secede from Nigeria.  But it happens to be the region that contains all the oil.

What followed was a genocidal war against the Igbo by the Nigerian Federal Forces, supported by the United Kingdom.  It is only now emerging from British State papers how deeply the oil interests of Shell and BP were served by the Labour Government of Harold Wilson.  British arms suppliers also had an interest in the war, on the Federal side.  The British helped to starve the Igbo into submission.  Over two million people died from starvation over a period of two and a half years from mid 1967 to January 1970.  That is a genocide very similar in size and scale to the Irish Potato Famine.

Médecines sans Frontiéres (MSF) was founded as a reaction to the suffering in Biafra.  The Irish Spiritan Father Aengus Finucane, a Catholic Priest, organised food flights into makeshift airstrips to relieve suffering.  He put together a relief airforce of superannuated cargo planes with volunteer pilots.  His efforts led to the creation of the charity “Concern Worldwide”.  As a child in school in Ireland the suffering of the Biafran Children was top of mind to me, a constant cause and the subject of much fundraising activity.

The father of modern African Writing, Chinua Achebe, was caught up in the political turmoil of that era, and is himself an Igbo.

He twice refused the Nigerian honour Commander of the Federal Republic, in 2004 and 2011, saying:  ” I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.”

On Nigerian Independence he “found that the independence this country was supposed to have won was totally without content … The old white master was still in power. He had got himself a bunch of black stooges to do his dirty work for a commission”

Today, Nov 16th is the birthday of Achebe, born 1930 and who died in 2013.

Non-commitment; by Chinua Achebe

Hurrah! to them who do nothing
see nothing feel nothing whose
hearts are fitted with prudence
like a diaphragm across
womb’s beckoning doorway to bar
the scandal of seminal rage. I’m
told the owl too wears wisdom
in a ring of defense round
each vulnerable eye securing it fast
against the darts of sight. Long ago
in the Middle East Pontius Pilate
openly washed involvement off his
white hands and became famous. (Of all
the Roman officials before him and after
who else is talked about
every Sunday in the Apostles’ Creed?) And
talking of apostles that other fellow
Judas wasn’t such a fool
either; though much maligned by
succeeding generations the fact remains
he alone in that motley crowd
had sense enough to tell a doomed
movement when he saw one
and get out quick, a nice little
packet bulging his coat pocket
into the bargain—sensible fellow.

The glory days of sail.

Great Tea race

Ariel leading Taeping, Great Tea Race, 1866 by Jack Spurling

Here on Mindship we celebrate the authors of the great boys adventure books, especially those of the sea like Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, who’s birthday it is today, born Nov 13th 1850.

In the year of his birth the French launched Napoléon, the first purpose built steam powered battleship.  It was also the period when the extreme clippers were built.  This was at the peak of sailship design, when the sailing ships gave up cargo space for speed.  The beautiful, sleek and lighting fast greyhounds of the sea were born.

In the burgeoning era of steam the day of the huge East-Indiaman was over.  Steam ships could fill giant holds with cargo and plod their way over the ocean regardless of wind speed and direction.  The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 changed the world of shipping.  The final clippers were built around the time of Stevensons death at the young age of 44, in 1894.

Stevenson grew up the son of a lighthouse designer, so the sea was never far away.  The pinacle of the Clipper Era was the Great Tea Race of 1866, when Stevenson was 16 years old, a highly impressionable time in life.  In that year three ships left China on the same tide and arrived in London on the same tide 99 days and 14,000 miles later.  Taeping won the race by 28 minutes from Ariel by virtue of the depth of her dock entrance on the rising tide.  Serica finished 1 hour and 15 minutes behind Ariel.  The next two ships came in 28 hours later (Fiery Cross) and another day later Taitsing arrived.  To this day the walls of our houses are decorated by these fantastical ships.

Here is a poem by Stevenson in the spirit of a sea shanty, and in the spirit of those songs the name of the poem is the first line.

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
glory of youth glowed in his soul;
where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
mountains of rain and sun,
all that was good, all that was fair,
all that was me is gone.

……………………………………………Robert Louis Stevenson

Seige of Smerwick



These days, with talks of Brexit and Irish Borders and that thorny “Irish Question” that never goes away there are many British (but mostly English) people who struggle to understand all the fuss.  Why can’t it all just be neatly packaged and go away?

So much history.  Scratch any corner of the Emerald Isle and you will open a bloody scab.  Like the one at Smerwick in Dingle.  Back in 1580 Walter Raleigh, him of the cloak in the puddle, found himself in County Kerry under the orders of Grey de Wilton, Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy of Ireland.  They were putting down the ill fated Second Desmond Rebellion.  The pope had sent a force of 600 Spanish and Italian mercenaries to assist the Irish in their rebellion against the protestants.  They were even joined by some English catholics.

These were not nice mercenaries fighting for the rights of the poor Irish Catholics.  They were rabid beasts.  When they landed in Kerry they engaged in a campaign of rapine and pillage on the English planters, on the local people, even attacking the families of Spanish Merchants who lived in the area at the time.

Grey bottled the main army on a poorly fortified headland at Dún an Óir, an ancient Iron Age ringfort.  He had his guns on the landward side and six navy ships at his disposal in the bay.  The Spaniards and Italians didn’t have a chance.  The English negotiated a surrender under terms.  Once the Papal troops laid down their arms they were summarily executed.  With the exception of a few officers the men were massacred under the orders of Grey.

The event might have remained in obscurity, a brutal but forgotten sideshow, if not for English politics.  Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth Raleigh fell out of favour at court.  He was imprisoned by James I and tried.  One of the many accusations thrown at him was the Smerwick Massacre, an event at which he was not present.  Later papers suggest that he found Grey overly heavy handed and Grey left him behind in the race to Dingle.

But Smerwick was levelled at Raleigh in the court papers and he was ultimately found guilty.   So if you go to Ireland today and ask about Smerwick the story you are likely to hear is that this is where Walter Raleigh perfidiously executed 600 brave Irish rebels after they surrendered.  They will tell you he did it himself and enjoyed it.  History is a funny old game.  The massacre at Smerwick took place on November 10th, 1580.


Ocean’s Love to Ireland ; by Seamus Heaney


Speaking broad Devonshire,
Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree
as Ireland is backed to England

and drives inland
till all her strands are breathless:
‘ Sweesir, Swatter! Sweesir, Swatter! ‘

He is water, he is ocean, lifting
her farthingale like a scarf of weed lifting
in the front of a wave.


Yet his superb crest inclines to Cynthia
even while it runs its bent
in the rivers of Lee and Blackwater.

Those are the splashy spots where he would lay
his cape before her. In London, his name
will rise on water and on these dark seepings:

Smerwick sowed with the mouthing corpses
of six hundred papists, ‘as gallant and good
personages as ever where beheld’.


The ruined maid complains in Irish,
Ocean has scattered her dream of fleets,
the Spanish prince has spilled his gold

and failed her. Iambic drums
of English beat the woods where her poets
sink like Onan. Rush-light, mushroom-flesh,

she fades from their somnolent clasp
into ringlet-breath and dew,
the ground possessed and repossessed.