Monthly Archives: November 2011

The rain it raineth … but where exactly?

The main bulletin is over. Hugh or Emily or Peter or whoever’s go it is, smiles, shuffles papers a bit and announces brightly,  ‘And now for the news where you are.’ Of course, the news in Birmingham won’t be the same as the news in London, which will be different from the day’s events in Swalesdale, which won’t be the same as those in St Ives. Why not? Because it’s local news. There you see – there’s already a perfectly good, serviceable word, which describes the situation perfectly. So come on guys – how about using it.

The habit of personalising everything is not restricted to newsreaders. The weather boys and girls, bless their spits and spots, have got into the same annoying habit of telling us about the weather ‘where you are.’ Oh really! It’s raining in my sitting room is it?  And is that a patch of low cloud shrouding the lower deck of the bus? And yes, I did notice a distinct drop in temperature in Tesco. Though of course that could have been because I was standing right next to the freezers.

The prime example of this obsession with the possessive pronoun is M & S. Am I the only person who finds the expression ‘Your M&S’ not only irritating but more than a little smug.   They are a bit holier than thou, with all this sustainable this and additive free that. I might have had more respect for them if they had a sense of humour. Alas, that was sadly lacking back in April when Ann Summers, the equally iconic sex shop parodied the Meal Deal offer and just about everything else. And cheekily transformed the famous slogan into ‘Your S & M’ with the strapline – ‘It’s not just sex, it’s Ann Summers sex.’  But instead of seeing the funny side, poor old Marks and Sparks got its knickers in a twist. Ann Summers got a right old slap on the wrist. Though a slap on the bottom might have been more appropriate. The ads never ran.


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Death comes in many guises. But if death by carrot sounds just plain silly, try a blow to the head from a frozen fish!

Our relationship with food is complex – we love it, hate it, overindulge in it, deprive ourselves of it. Whether we see it as a pleasure or a curse, we all have an opinion about it. The Internet is stuffed with blogs about bacon, cup cakes and capons.  With food fads and fashions and freakish diets – recipes for unachievable weight loss that may even lead to disaster.

And that’s just what food has proved to be for some. From the ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, food has been the cause of many deaths in film, in literature and indeed in life.  Far from life imitating art, with food it’s often the other way around.  For every fictional death by espresso machine or garlic canapé there’s a real life death by cocoa or carrot. Yes, really!

La Grande Bouffe, a classic film from 1973, sees a group of friends get together with the express purpose of eating themselves to death. Distributed in the UK as ‘Blow Out’, its comic depictions of sex and gluttony were highly controversial. Nevertheless, whether deliberately or not, some of the crowned heads of Europe have equalled, even surpassed, that level of gormandise. Take our own dear Henry I, for example, said to have died after stuffing himself with lampreys, his favourite food. His tastes appear somewhat peculiar, since lampreys are an extremely ugly, primitive fish that feed on the blood, body fluids and muscles of bigger fish.  Thankfully, they’re not something we’re likely to find at the fish counter in Waitrose.

Fast forward to 1771 for yet another monarch setting a bad example. Remembered by Swedish schoolchildren as ‘the king who eat himself to death’, Adolf Frederick died after scoffing an enormous dinner. If the lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne didn’t do the damage, then maybe the pudding was the coup de grâce. Greedy Adolf finished his meal with Selma, his favourite food – a sweet spiced bun, stuffed with almond paste and whipped cream, served with hot milk. Nice. But fourteen bowls of the stuff! No wonder he didn’t make it to 1772.

Perhaps these monarchs brought misfortune on themselves, but that’s hardly true of the victims of London’s Great Beer Flood. Though maybe there are worse ways to die. Death by carrot or death by beer? No contest, I’d say. The tragedy happened at a brewery in London’s Tottenham Court Road on October 17th, 1814. Some huge vats ruptured, sending a wave of beer gushing into the streets, destroying homes and a nearby pub. Nine people died but, although the Meux Brewery was prosecuted, no one was held responsible. An early example of the need for a corporate manslaughter law.

The Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919 gave a whole new meaning to the saying ‘meeting a sticky end’. On an unseasonably hot day in January, a storage tank exploded, sending a wall of molasses coursing through part of Boston, Massachusetts. Between 8 and 15 ft high, travelling at around 35 mph, it killed 21 and injured 150. The force flung people and horses into the air, hurled a truck into Boston Harbour, snapped the girders of the elevated railway and swept buildings off their foundations. People were ensnared in the sticky mess as if they were flies on flypaper.

If that could form the plot of a zany horror movie, death by carrot sounds downright silly. But this unassuming vegetable, generally considered to be good for you, can in fact turn out to be lethal. And not just in implausible fiction.  Perhaps the craziest carrot death is that in the opening scene of the movie, ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ when Clive Owen brings down the baddie with a stick of carrot. Less well known is the sad case of Basil Brown, a 48-year-old health food enthusiast. Having swallowed excessive amounts of vitamin A and drunk ten gallons of carrot juice, he ended up bright orange.  And dead. So be sensible – stick to your five a day.

Of course, most crime related to food is fictional. Not to be outdone by the vegetables, meat also figures in these tales.  Fish too. There’s the infamous Roald Dahl story, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, where a wife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, swiftly defrosts it, roasts it and serves it up to the investigating constabulary. A great way to destroy the evidence.  There’s a similar idea in an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Here the weapon was a frozen fish, which, after it had served its purpose, was served for lunch.

Although the murderer is generally unmasked in the end, the primary aim in detective fiction is to fool the reader. Which leads to some truly ingenious plots. Like cleverly using the victim’s own weakness to engineer death by anaphylactic shock. Strictly speaking not all allergies are food related – bees are not food, not in Europe anyway. Honey is though, and so are peanuts. Ruth Rendell used a bee sting in ‘To Fear a Painted Devil’, as did H.F. Heard in ‘A Taste of Honey’ and Julie Parsons in ‘The Courtship Gift’. In ‘If Looks could Kill’, Kate White used peanut butter.

In that case the victim didn’t die; such deaths are not that easy to pull off, even in a book. So a word of advice – don’t try this at home. As to that death by garlic canapé, I cheated. The victim was a vampire. And the unfortunate who met her death at the espresso machine? She was fictional too and she was electrocuted, not scalded or smothered by coffee. However, truth is stranger than fiction. In 1975, in the charmingly named Peachtree City, Georgia, two kitchen workers thought it might be fun to throw cocoa power at each other.  The room was small. The powder got in their lungs. They died. But don’t let that put you off your hot chocolate – unless of course you’re in the habit of inhaling it!

©  Clodagh Phelan, October 2010 – this article first appeared in Issue 4 of Eat Me Magazine



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Whacky and Wonderful

While the Angel of the Star of Love may sound suitably romantic, some angels have jobs that positively beggar belief.

The Dictionary of Angels is a unique book. A mixture of serious scholarship and delightful whimsy.  The New York Times called it a ‘wacky and wonderful compendium of angelic lore. ‘ While the book naturally contains much erudite information there are also many quirky, little known facts.

It was news to me that there are angels over clouds. That angels guard the gates of the South Wind, as well those of the North, West and East winds.  All nature seems to be covered. Rivers and running streams, showers (not I think the one in the bathroom), the sun’s rays, whirlwinds, earthquakes and the rest. Even vegetables have their own special angel. So does fruit, not to be outdone.

The animal kingdom is well represented. There’s an angel who’s job it is to return small birds to their owners, another for birds in general, though doves get a special mention for some reason.  Maybe because of the Ark! Other angels, respectively, look after ‘wild fowl and creeping things’. Tame beasts have their champion angel and wild beasts do too. There are angels over fish, aquatic animals, the ocean and the deep.

The book includes the fallen angels.  And there are plenty of those.  Take Abbadona, not an Abba tribute band but a rather dithery fallen angel.  Known as the penitent angel it seems he wasn’t entirely committed to the rebellion and kept moaning about his fallen state. So he got a reprieve.  They were probably glad to get rid of him.

The splendidly named Watchers are another fallen lot.  Sent from heaven to instruct the children of men, they were condemned for cavorting with their charges. Though they weren’t all sent to outer darkness, some stayed in the 5th Heaven. We’re not told whether that was because they behaved themselves or for some other reason.

Writing didn’t get a particularly good press either. The angel Penemue ‘taught mankind the art of writing with ink and paper.’ An art that was frowned on: it was thought to be wicked and corrupting and as a result ‘many sinned.’ Better watch it, all you writers out there.

There are angels for the days of the week, the signs of the zodiac and the twelve months of the year. There are angels whose task it is to look after countries and watch over professions. Yes, including the oldest one. Not doing a very good job, some of them. Javan, the angel of Greece, really needs to pull his socks up. Anauel, on the other hand should give himself a pat on the back, though I for one would rather like to shoot him in the back. His task? Protecting commercial bankers.  No one could claim he isn’t doing his job.





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