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June 2nd, 2016
12:34 am


Chef de Bloke presents: Asparago con gnocchi, or something [blog post, by yours truly]
Today's recipe from Chef de Bloke*, your personal guide to Cordon Blur cookery.

It's asparagus season, so here's a great quick tasty dinner. You'll need:

  • some fresh asparagus

  • gnocchi

  • jar of pesto sauce

  • cheapo sachet of pitted olives, or failing that, a handful from the jar.

First, put the kettle on.

Now, chop your asparagus. Slap the bundle on the chopping board -- remember to remove the elastic bands -- and chop the whole bundle into about one-inch lengths. For those of you listening in black and white, that's about 2-3cm.

Now, steam it. Whack a some boiling water into a steamer pan, then put the asparagus in the layer with the holes in, or failing that, in a sieve. Put a lid on the pan.

Steam it for 5 minutes or so, until you can easily stick a fork into the pieces.

While you're doing this, boil your gnocchi. Strain the brine off the olives and toss it in the water you're boiling the gnocchi in -- gives 'em a bit more flavour.

Fish out the gnocchi, plonk 'em in a big bowl. Add the olives and pesto. Stir it about a bit. Add the asparagus. Stir it a bit more.

Plonk some in a bowl, grind a bit of black pepper on it, and eat.


Do not, in the interests of saving a pot and some washing up, attempt to steam the asparagus over the pan you're boiling the gnocchi in. It'll froth up like nobody's business, go all over the sieve, the lid, the cooker and bloody everywhere, and presto, you'll be cleaning the cooker again.

Don't ask me how I know, I just know, OK?

-- CdB

* This is, or at least was, an actual brand. A most amusing birthday gift from the estimable tamaranth demonstrated this, some 20 years ago.

P.S. here's how the pros do it, if you want to be all boring and fancy.

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March 8th, 2016
02:55 am


Fun with the Czech language -- #projectBrno blog post, by me
Tomorrow is my third Czech lesson. Yes, I have been procrastinating wildly, but I have at least started.

And my friend and housemate Otto, who has always been extremely supportive of me learning Čeština, has been helping me again with my homework tonight.

Lots of new words. Some I use often enough to stick. I can now make a few different simple conjugations of half a dozen verbs, ask very simple questions, parse a simple sentence with an unknown noun and invert it into a grammatical question while preserving gender. Really baby steps and not much to show for nearly two years here, but I'm making progress.

Alongside the myriad complexities -- I've never studied a language with such baroque grammar; I didn't know the Indo-European family even included languages with such complex grammar* -- there is also, even with my very meagre vocubulary, the problem of untranslatable words. I've just learned a new one and it's interesting.
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Current Location: Brno-Žabovřesky
Current Mood: baffled
Current Music: BBC Radio 6
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January 28th, 2016
07:21 pm


Winter in Central Europe [#projectBrno blog post]
Even as I grow more settled over here, cultural differences still crop up.

This far from the ocean, the seasons vary far more than in Britain. I'd never really grasped how peculiar the British climate is -- how much it is stabilised by the proximity of the sea on all sides. British summers aren't very hot and winters aren't very cold -- especially in certain areas, such as my homeland of the North-West, sheltered by the Pennines and the hills of the Trough of Bowland and beyond that the Lake District to the North, and to the south by the mountains of North Wales. Also true of my adopted homeland, the south-east, of course.

Here, the sea is nearly a thousand miles away. Summer is properly hot and dry -- 35º C is normal for a few months, and rain is infrequent and tropically heavy. Winter, meanwhile, is real winter. Last winter was the longest and coldest of my life, but the locals all told me that there wasn't a winter at all last year. This year has been significantly colder. There was snow on New Year's Day, and there's been more at least once a week since. A week into January, I took my snowboard to the local park, Wilson Forest, for a bit of a practice. The last two Sundays, I went to a nearby resort, Olešnice. My meagre skills are slowly returning, after about six years off.
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Current Music: BBC Radio 6
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November 3rd, 2015
08:45 pm


Fighting off the Central European winter... with goulash #projectBrno
Goulash, or guláš as it's called around here, is a popular local dish. But the "real thing" is made with beef, so I can't eat it.

Now, I cook quite a bit -- I normally prepare at least 1 big dish a week from fresh ingredients then eat it for a few days -- but I tend to cheat & use pre-made sauces or concentrates as a base. I've yet to find a vegetarian goulash sauce, so I Googled 4 or 5 recipes and them improvised something from all of them put together. I avoided any fake meat or meat substitutes, but I did use a sachet of guláš spice mix. I think it was mainly paprika, to be honest.
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September 5th, 2015
12:24 pm


What aging feels like, according to the late great Sir Terry Pratchett
Little extract from The Last Continent, a much-underrated Discworld book:

The wizards are getting hit with ageing spells. The old ones get young, and the solitary young one (Ponder Stibbons) is suddenly very elderly:
'Could be, sir. Er... some of them have gone, sir!'

Ridcully looked unflustered.

'Temporal gland acting up in the high field,' he said. 'Probably decided that since it's thousands of years ago they're not here. Don't worry, they'll come back when it works it out...'

Ponder suddenly felt breathless. 'And... hwee... think this one's the Lecturer in Recent Runes... hwee... of course... hwee... all babies look the... hwee... same.'

There was another wail from under the Senior Wrangler's hat.

'Bit of a... hwee... kindergarten here, sir,' Ponder wheezed. His back creaked when he tried to stand upright.

'Oh, they'll probably come back if they don't get fed,' said Ridcully. 'It's you that'll be the problem, lad. I mean, sir.'

Ponder held his hands up in front of him. He could see the veins through the pale skin. He could nearly see the bones. Around him the piles of clothing rose again as the wizards clambered back to their proper age.

'How... old... hwee... I... ha... look?' he panted. 'Like someone who shouldn't... hwee... start reading a long book?'

'A long sentence,' said Ridcully cheerfully, holding him up. 'How old do you feel? In yourself?'

'I... hwee... ought to feel... hwee... about twenty-four, sir,' Ponder groaned. 'I actually... hwee... feel like a twenty-four-year-old who has been hit by eighty years travelling at... hwee... high speed.'

'Hold on to that thought. Your temporal gland knows how old you are.' Ponder tried to concentrate, but it was hard. Pan of him wanted to go to sleep. Part of him wanted to say, 'Hah, you call this a temporal disturbance? You should've seen the temporal disturbances we will have been used to be going to get in my day.' A pressing part of him was threatening that if he didn't find a toilet it would make its own arrangements.

'You've kept your hair,' said the Senior Wrangler, encouragingly.

Ponder heard himself say, 'Remember old “Cruddy” Trusset? Now there was a wizard who had... good... hair...' He tried to get a grip. 'He's still alive, isn't he?' he wheezed. 'He's the same age as me. Oh, no... now I'm remembering only yesterday as if it was... hwee... seventy years ago!'

'You can get over it,' said Ridcully. 'You've got to make it clear you're not accepting it, you see. The important thing is not to panic.'

'I am panicking,' squeaked Ponder. 'I'm just doing it very slowly! Why've I got this horrible feeling that I'm... hwee... falling forward all the... hwee... time?'

'Oh, that's just apprehensions of mortality,' said Ridcully. 'Everyone gets that.'

'And... hwee... now I think my memory's going...'

'What makes you think that?'

'Think what? Speak up, you... hwee... man...' Something exploded somewhere behind Ponder's eyeballs and lifted him off the ground. For a moment he felt he had jumped into icy water. The blood flowed back to his hands.

'Well done, lad,' said Ridcully. 'Your hair's going brown again, too.'

'Ow...' Ponder slumped to his knees. 'It was like wearing a lead suit! I never want to go through that again!'

'Suicide's your best bet, then,' said Ridcully.

'Is this going to happen again?'

'Probably. At least once, anyway.'

Current Location: Onchan Head
Current Mood: missing Sir Pterry
Current Music: seagulls

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September 1st, 2015
10:38 pm


Guča trumpet festival (#projectBrno interlude)
(This is by nature of both a brief interlude from the account of the Bosnian trip, which I'll get back to Real Soon Now, I promise, and indeed of the #projectBrno posts in general.)

One of innumerable small cultural differences I've noticed in the Slavic world is musical. All the same kind of stuff is popular here, from Tchaikovsky to Taylor Swift. I've heard metal, deep house, country & western, Richard Cheese -- you name it. (Not much goth and bleep, alas -- I think that's more a thing of the German sprachbund.)

But there's another, less familiar kind that enjoys wide popularity: Balkan dance music. I'd never really heard it before. The only thing I'd heard before that it resembles is Klezmer. Think of a fast, bouncing rhythm, minimal drums - bass, a snare, a cymbal. Maybe some accordion or fiddle, but lots of brass. And I do mean lots. Trumpet, tuba, anything staccato -- so not much trombone, which I presume is just too slow. It's leagues away from the sort of Bavarian oompah-band stuff you might think of as continental brass band music. This is frenetic, jazzy, with high twiddly trumpet or cornet playing in the lead.

It's more versatile than you might think, too. I hear covers of western pop, I hear occasional Mariachi-band-type stuff, I hear snatches of classical and traditional ballroom-dance; anything goes.

There were DJs playing an entire evening of this stuff in Kraków last New Year's Eve. Sorry, "Sylvester" - that's what NYE is called here. (That was confusing.) I've also been -- albeit a tad reluctantly -- to a club night of it in Brno.

It really was not my thing. Some of the recognisable covers were fun, but mostly, it was noisy, frantic, samey and repetitive and overall just annoying. Whole evenings of it got old very quickly.

But the local kids love it. Actually, not just the kids. It induces foot-tapping from seven to seventy. It gets nightclub and festival crowds dancing just as effectively as commercial pop hits do, here as everywhere else. But you'll also hear Balkan tunes drifting from cars and bars and homes and picnics on the many hot sunny summer days.

Here in Central Europe, it's exotic, foreign and a bit kitsch. Not so down in the actual Balkans.
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Current Location: Addiscombe
Current Mood: Frazzled
Current Music: Tinnitus
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August 1st, 2015
06:51 pm


A holiday in Cambodia, no, the other one, Bosnia (part 1) [travel blog post]
I've been living in Central Europe for nearly a year and a half now. It was time I explored a little more of it than my immediately-neighbouring cities. So, with mild trepidation, I laid down just under 10,000 Czech crowns for a week and a half's trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the spring.

It was with a local firm, Kudrna. (That's a lot more pronounceable to Czechs.) They apparently do mainly outdoors, activity-type holidays, not something I've done a lot of myself. They are also mainly used to coping with Czech customers -- little of their website, literature or materials is in English. I and my three friends -- one American, one Pole and one Lithuanian -- are apparently the largest group of foreigners they've ever had on one trip.

The price worked out at about £250 -- pretty good for an all-in ten-day trip including travel and hotels. For some of the locals along for the ride, though, this was a big expense, and the company knew it. There was a lot of packed food and little notes in the guides saying things akin to "yes, it's OK to bring your own food into the hotel restaurant, you don't have to buy anything."

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June 15th, 2015
01:56 pm


A brief word on Czech beer (mini-post in #projectBrno)
Czech lager has been a revelation for me.

I've never been much of a lager drinker. I used to prefer chewy brown beer with twigs in.

But the real local thing is stunningly different from the exported stuff. Actual Pilsner (it's a brand here, not a style), well-kept, is rich and delicious with a creamy amber head and a dark golden-brown colour.

Local microbrewed lagers are revelations of flavour.

Even the mass-produced cheap low-quality draught crap -- Starobrno, now owned by Heineken and derided by all except the determined price-sensitive piss-heads -- is better than any name-brand British lager I have ever sampled. It's the worst beer in the country (except for the super-weak, ~4%, 50p-a-bottle supermarket value stuff) and it's still a quality premium lager.

Actual Czech Staropramen is also good and highly drinkable. Budvar is about the only one whose exported form even resembles the domestic stuff -- it's not highly-regarded here, but it's probably the best name-brand lager in the UK.

The overlap is so small it's shocking. The Czechs gave the world its favourite beer style, but the rest of the world gets a weak tasteless version lacking all character and interest.

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June 13th, 2015
11:01 pm


Donner und blitzen
I went swimming to escape the 30º heat this afternoon. The outdoor pool at my local place, on top of the hill at Kravi Hora, was closed, for some reason.

During my refreshing indoor dip, through the huge floor-to-roof windows, I watched a huge thunderstorm roll over the city from the west.

Unfortunately, this meant that the pool closed a little early and my friends and I were ejected into the torrent in our summer clothes.

We scuttled into a nearby vaguely Tex-Mex steakhouse for food and shelter. Not what we planned, but it wasn't bad at all.

When we emerged, the storm had abated, so I put my friends on the tram and walked home to change into drier clothes. I went upstairs barefoot -- the cool of the tiled floors is pleasant in this heat. I went into my room in the dark, preserving a bit of night vision,  to see if from my north-facing window I could see the huge firework display planned for tonight at the dam. I knew it was happening, weather notwithstanding, because of the sounds. Either that or Vladimir Putin has taken Slovakia and started the invasion.

No joy. I could hear them but not see them.

So I put the light on.

The storm had one effect. It had knocked the open pot of stationery supplues on my window-ledge onto the floor, which was almost completely covered in large and small drawing pins.

And somehow, in the dark, I missed them all.

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March 13th, 2015
08:20 pm


This is not the best novelist in the world. This is just a tribute.
A long time ago, a man decided to take a chance and moved abroad for a new job.

Not me, although I did that too, last year.

No, this was my dad, Ian Proven, in about 1972 or so. He went to Lagos in Nigeria to take over Pilkington Glass (Nigeria) Ltd. It went very well -- he diversified from plate glass into glass fibre, ideal for boat hulls in the tropics, both because it doesn't rot and because it can easily be made and repaired by unskilled people, even illiterate ones, working from purely pictorial instructions. But the stress destroyed his fragile health, and in about 1976 we came back to Britain.

He recovered, and in 1977 or so, we went back, this time to work for a different company, Leventis. This is a Lebanese Cypriot-owned chain of supermarkets in West Africa, who decided to get into glass bottle making. (Soft drinks are a very big seller in the tropics.) My dad was about the 8th general manager they hired. He went out to a large hole in the ground, and when we left in about 1980, Delta Glass' plant was producing a million bottles a week. I still have a few.

But this job was far upcountry, in Bendel State, deep in the Niger Delta. Initially we lived in a small town called Warri-Effurun, at first in the Gardenia Hotel and later in a chalet in Chief Essiso's compound. Then we moved closer to the factory, to the village of Ughelli. I think we were the first white people ever to live there -- we caused a lot of interest and attention.

But it meant that I was something of a lonely child, studying at home by correspondence course, socialising almost entirely with adults. My dad had already got me reading SF, giving me his old Heinleins and Asimovs and Van Vogts. Indeed I already disdained fantasy; one of my set books from Mercer's College was The Hobbit and I remember exclaiming in horror at having to read a book with a dragon on the cover.

But SF, I devoured, in great quantities. An adult novel every couple of days, at least. Anything I could get. Everything SF&F in the Warri Club's tiny library, including lots I really disliked -- Philip K Dick, Barry Malzberg, Brian Stableford (in his enfant terrible years -- the later stuff is wonderful).

But I also bought a lot, or got my mum to. Anything SFnal that appeared in the supermarkets we went to in Warri -- Kingsway and Alex, mainly. And in the book rack in Alex one day, I found something that looked very promising. A slender NEL paperback with a beautiful Tim White cover of a robot fly, resting on a leaf.

It was called The Dark Side of the Sun by a new writer called Terry Pratchett, and it was -- and is -- one of the best books I have ever read. In parts it's an hommage to Larry Niven, but it's so packed full of references to everything from Aristophanes to Heinlein that it's a joy to try to unpack.

I loved it. I still love it.

I had it stolen once, but as it happened, I got it back again.

A couple of years later, the Proven family returned to UK, and shortly afterwards, to the Isle of Man. There, in another book rack in another supermarket, Shoprite on Victoria Road, Douglas, I found another Pratchett: Strata. This is the novel where Pratchett invents his flat alternate Earth, a world the shape of a disc, populated by a vaguely Mediæval culture with magic, demons etc. -- but all powered by technology. Demons fly because they're constantly teleported back to base and then back out again, this time slightly higher in the air, because there's no such thing as antigravity and a humanoid with wings can't fly in 1G.

Again, a wonderful book. Any sufficiently advanced technology can be made to look indistinguishable from magic if you try hard enough. This book also spells out panspermia, has one of the best depictions of large-scale terraforming ever and works in some great conspiracy-theory gags too.

I wrote to NEL and asked if they'd got any more by this fabulous writer (and also if they'd got any stuff for a school project on SF that I was doing). An actual paper letter -- this was the early 1980s. They wrote back. They said, in essence, "sorry, no -- and those two did so badly, we'll never touch him again. But, if you're really keen, he did a kids' book which was not our sort of thing. It never made it out of hardback. We believe his publisher has rather a lot of them left. Here's his address. Ask him."

So I did.

A year or two later, when I was off at university, in my second year and living in digs in Virginia Water, I got a phone call from a chap with an immensely rich, plummy, posh English voice.

"Hullo! Are you Liam Proven? You wrote me a lovely little letter about books by this Terry Pratchett chap! Yes, I have hundreds of the bloody things -- office is full of boxes of 'em. Can't give 'em away! How many d'you want?"

It was Colin Smythe -- a charming chap I met at the launch party for Hogfather, the twentieth Discworld book, a decade or so later.

And that is how I came by my third -- but oldest -- Terry Pratchett novel. This copy here, scanned the day I rediscovered it:


It is now, of course, far and away the most valuable book I own or have ever owned. Rare unsigned copy, too. And I do mean rare.

Before it got to me, The Colour of Magic launched -- from Corgi this time -- and the rest is history. A few years later, I was at ConFiction in the Hague. Pterry was on a panel about clichés. I think Sourcery had just come out in paperback. People in the business were starting to really notice him. He was introduced as "Terry Pratchett, a man who should know all about clichés because that's all he writes!" Pratchett visibily ground his teeth, but as ever, gave a good show.

So, yes, dammit, I was a Pratchett fan, and one long before all these damned kids and their Discworld stuff. (Much as I love the Discworld novels.)  But I wonder how many others of us are there who were Pratchett fans from before the Discworld? Of his original, early SF stuff.

Goodbye, Sir Terry.

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