A Victorian Dinner

dessert food in tray
Image from Unsplash, taken by Richard Iwaki

Do you eat avocado toast? Because if you do, there will be people out there who will label you as soon as you confess. Do you eat ramen? How about swordfish steak? Do you eat tofu? How about truffle oil in your omelet aux fines herbes? Food can come with more labels than ‘best served hot’.

Throughout the ages the difference between the peasant’s pot and the lord’s table was always there. However, in Great Britain during the nineteenth century, there were new differences and complications.

As the events of ‘Out of the London Mist’ were unfolding, households were coming to grips with new foods and ideas. Curries had been popular in Great Britain for over a hundred years at this point, and were becoming more widely eaten as the men and their families returning from Colonial India brought back a nostalgia for the food they had enjoyed. Along with curries, fish and chip shops started opening, often credited to Eastern European immigrants. Markets now had such exotic stuff as bananas as well as the familiar onions and turnips, and the grocer now had stacks of meat in tins from far off Australia and South America.

Along with the new foods appearing on the tables, new social distinctions were causing confusion. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the Middle Classes of doctors, lawyers and business men expanded massively. Suddenly there were polite households, desperate to keep up to high standards but completely unaware of how to run a household with servants. Housewives in the new, brick-built villas of the expanding suburbs were faced with a swathe of social difficulties. How does one ‘leave a card’? How should one pack a picnic? What are the duties of the second housemaid?

Instruction manuals on cooking and housekeeping proliferated as women who once would have stayed at home and cooked the stews and puddings that fuelled the working class were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a more supervisory role. The most famous of these was the weighty Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. It was originally published in 1861, and by the time of Out of the London Mist it had a huge following and had already gone to many editions. Along with clear, logical and precise instructions for how to clean a bedroom and how to lay a fire are cleaning tips (mirrors should be cleaned with gin and an old silk handkerchief), morality (‘Charity and Benevolence are duties that a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow creatures’), etiquette (‘in giving a letter of introduction, it should always be handed to your friend, unsealed’) and several hundred recipes.

I love reading recipe books. I don’t necessarily use them, and no-one should expect fine dining from me, but I love the social history behind the food. Along with such recipes for dishes such as a toast sandwich (yes, a piece of toast between two slices of bread), an Indian Dish of Fowl (cold, cooked chicken seasoned with curry powder and sautéed and served with fried onions) and Collared Calf’s Head (I always skip that one) are recipes for sumptuous desserts, elegant entrees and some very intriguing recipes for liqueurs.

Mrs Beeton was aware that most of her readership were middle class and quite content with plain cooking with a cook and a housemaid. Lady Clara grew up in such a household, and the meals that were served to John Farnley were very middle class in nature with mutton featuring heavily. However, housekeeping books always include the aspirational and Mrs Beeton included plans for formal dinners of the sort that John Farnley would have found familiar.

A suggested formal dinner for October, for six persons, starts with Hare Soup, Broiled Cod a la Maitre d’Hote, and Haddocks with Egg sauce. The entrees are Veal Cutlets garnished with Green Beans and Haricot Mutton. The second course is Roast Haunch of Mutton, Boiled Capon and Rice and Vegetables. Finally the third course would be wheeled in with Pheasants, Punch Jelly, Blancmange, Apples a la Portugaise, Charlotte a la Vanille and Marrow Pudding. After all that culinary splendour, there would be coffee, fruit and liqueurs before the ladies left the room and the gentlemen enjoyed their port and cigars. I have stomach ache just thinking about it.

Of course you would not have a full plate of each dish placed relentlessly in front of you. Instead you could take some of each or just have a portion of one of the offerings. Even so, it was a hefty amount of food laid on the table. Mrs Beeton was much more realistic with plain family dinners. One October menu starts with ‘the remains of a codfish flaked and warmed in a Maitre d’Hote sauce’, followed by cold mutton and salad, veal cutlets, rolled bacon, French beans and potatoes and followed by an arrowroot blancmange with stewed damsons. That would be much kinder to the household bills, though still extremely substantial.

Food was very different in the East End of London. In the overcrowded slums, it was rare to find a family with access to the basic means to cook. Houses often were crammed with a different family to each room. Cold and draughty attics and dank, dark cellars were all crammed in with the rest of the house and shared communal washhouses and toilets at the end of the street. Food was bought elsewhere, usually from the street vendors. A halfpenny could get you some hot eels in broth or some pea soup. You could buy baked potatoes, whelks, oysters (then very much a staple of the poor), pies and cold meat from hundreds of street vendors. If you had a few pennies there were stalls selling nuts, fruit, pastries, coffee, tea, cocoa and cakes, all of varying quality. There were no food inspectors checking whether the food was safe. One of the regular sights were a herdsman selling milk fresh from a cow. At least then you could be sure of what you were getting and its freshness.

And on every corner there was a pub, and cheap gin was always available.

Less well known than Mrs Beeton, Alexis Soyer produced a shilling cookbook aimed at the working class. Soyer was a Frenchman who had moved to England and was a celebrated chef at the Reform Club. He was not, however, merely a celebrity chef. He advised the British Army on food and supplies during the Crimean War and took an active part in organising soup kitchens during the Irish Famine. His aim was to help those poorer people who couldn’t afford the veal cutlets that Mrs Beeton described. Instead he described how to make a hasty pudding, how to cook a cow heel for a good soup or stew and how to buy meat that, while not of the first quality, is still fit for eating.

Many of the East End would be unable to read the book, and they would have had no access to any sort of stove or fire to use for cooking, but it was a useful resource for those struggling in less straitened circumstances. Soyer described his meals clearly and methodically, always aware of the meagre resources available to the poor. One of his recipes seems very thin. ‘Poor Man’s Potato Pie’ which is sliced potato, laid in a dish with some suet or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and covered with pastry. Soyer suggested that perhaps some smoked herring could be added for flavour. For many of the people huddled in the streets where John Farnley pursued his brother’s murderer, even if they could afford the potato and fat and the pastry to go over it, the access to any form of fire that could cook it was out of their reach.

This is a snippet pulled from my research for Out of the London Mist, a steampunk novel set in Victorian London where there is more than just food barrows hiding in the East End in the London fog. – available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and all good online booksellers as well as from the amazing Three Furies Press

A London Peculiar

grayscale photo of street post with smoke
Image by Rory Bjorkman on Unsplash

My novel, Out of the London Mist takes place during a prolonged period of smog, or a London Peculiar. Over the centuries, London became known for its noxious, choking fogs that were sometimes called ‘pea-soupers’ as they were as thick as pea soup. Other countries around the world have suffered from smog, but London became known for them at an early date due to an uncomfortable set of circumstances.

The London Peculiar formed when fog settled and absorbed the fumes and soot of the myriad of fires that fuelled England’s capital. When London, or Londinium, was first built by the legions on the low-lying Thames estuary, and so subject to sea fogs, the soft woodsmoke was not such a problem. However, by the twelfth century, London was the largest city in England, with around twenty thousand souls. Not only did the population use open fires and flame filled ovens for heating and cooking, but many of them were busy with the industry and commerce that was fuelling London’s growth, including large scale iron and glass works. At the same time, wood became expensive as the demands of Edward I’s military expansion and castle building made a diminishing resource even scarcer. London turned to coal.

Woodsmoke is not safe, and, when mixed with the fogs that rolled in through the estuary, would not have been pleasant in concentration, but coal has its own hazards. Like wood, burning coal produces carbon monoxide that, when trapped in the fog, would be far from healthy. Coal, unfortunately, also produces such nasties as sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid when mixed with water, and fog is, essentially, water vapour. In the still conditions that produce a fog, the fumes of carbon monoxide, sulphuric acid and irritating soot particles, are trapped at street level. There is no escape. By the time of Out of the London Mist, London was a vast, sprawling city filled with workshops and factories and stuffed with tenements with only coal for heat and cooking. Fogs could be so dense that moving around the city was nearly impossible. Only the London Underground was likely to keep running.

The regular winter smogs took a terrible toll on the people of London. Far too many died during these events, and the death toll kept rising. Finally, there was the Great Smog of 1952 which lasted five days and is generally thought to have caused 12,000 deaths, either immediately or in the following few months. This was such a striking event that it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act, which limited what sort of fuel could be used within urban areas and meant a massive reduction in London Peculiars.

As the air quality around the world improves during the lockdown due to Covid-19, perhaps it’s as well to remind ourselves that the air we breathe isn’t always as wholesome as we think, and we should never take it for granted.

And meanwhile, back in the world of Out of the London Mist, the smog rolls around the East End, shrouding the horrible deeds within.

Check out Out of the London Mist on Amazon and other great retailers

Perspective

I am a bad lass. I’m so slammed with other stuff that I haven’t written anything for this. However, I think this piece from February 2018 works. Hugs and good health to all.

I look around, my mind is filled

With pots and cloths and clothes and things

The clutter that comes in bags from school

The scattered stuff the postman brings

A sock hangs off the angled chair

A cup is perched right on the edge

Fingerprints on walls abound

Cat fur lines the window ledge

But if you walk across the park

And head towards the underpass

Ignore the coloured painted tags

Step round the routine broken glass

Look up, a square of pristine sky,

Windwashed leaves are dancing free,

Nothing besides, that’s all I want

The sky, the leaves and, down here, me.

Sometimes You Lose

woman in white long sleeve shirt sitting on chair holding wine glass
Image from Unsplash, taken by Klara Kulikova

My response to this week’s writiing challenge is actually a re-post of a former challenge. I saw the picture and all I could hear was the old story, so here it is!

I tried everything, using every trick in the book.  He never saw me cross or demanding and I was always, always attentive.  I made him the centre of my universe in the stolen moments he could get away. 

I lived for those moments, when he kept one eye on the clock and one foot on the floor as we snatched some tenderness.  He brought me perfume and a gold chain that I wear always.

I never faltered.  I kept myself just for him, curled up on the comfy sofa with the soft cushions, desperate for the rushed phone call or hurried text.  Why would I go out when everything else was ashen compared to his vital passion? 

Then she found out and he chose.  I heard him telling her how little I meant to him as he dashed off back to the perfect wife.  He left me behind with his spare razor and a coat and hat he forgot in the rush.  I keep them hanging near the door and sometimes I spray them with his cologne.  He is still the centre of my world, and I am empty without him, but there is nothing I can do.  Because sometimes you lose. 

Deepest Desire, or, How I Found Steampunk

Many, many months ago, a challenge went out for stories based on a steampunk theme. I’d always loved Jules Verne and the stories written at the end of the nineteenth century, full of lost worlds and strange sciences, but I never thought I would be able to write them. I am not very good at science. I always have to ask either my brother (big chemistry and general science nerd) or my son (who actually seems to pay attention in science lessons). So when I saw the call, I thought about it and then rejected the idea. I could never write anything like that. I should have known myself better, and, besides, it’s always about the story.

I finished Deepest Desire about four hours before the deadline. The idea had ambushed me a few days earlier and so I went for it with gusto. Things changed a little after the call but it eventually ended up as the sparkling Crowns Cogs and Carriages that I reviewed here. For various reasons, mine wasn’t included, partly because I was already mentally tied up with Out of the London Mist and I didn’t want things to get confused.

Out of the London Mist was accepted by Three Furies Press and is coming out soon (as I may have mentioned a gazillion times) and I didn’t know what to do with the short story. Yesterday I made a decision, swore, muttered, grumbled, converted files, created a book cover and published Deepest Desire on Amazon. It’s not a very long read, and I put it at the lowest price I could, so the equivalent of 99c in Amazon. However, if you want to save some money you can register at Booksprout where I have listed it as an ARC (Advanced Review Copy). This is where you have access to free copies of books in return for a review, either on Amazon or similar places like Goodreads, and the link is here I’m not stressing about reviews, just trying to make sure people get access.

Deepest Desire is my first attempt at steampunk, and is a dashing tale about a gallant aether pilot, John Farnley, who flies an expedition to the Balkans near the edge of the Ottoman Empire to uncover a potential archaeological site. His passengers are the coolly capable Miss Sylvia Armley and the erudite Professor Entwistle, but things are not exactly all that they seem and a forced and bumpy landing is just the start of his problems.

I hope that people have as much fun reading this as I have had writing it as I had a blast! If you have any questions or suggestions, or any thoughts, please leave a comment. I love hearing from people.

Book Review: Cogs, Crowns and Carriages, a Steampunk Anthology

Cogs, Crowns and Carriages is a sparkling Steampunk anthology collection of a dozen stirring tales. As a newcomer to the Steampunk genre, I was excited to dip in to a great selection. The thing about Steampunk is that it is gloriously undefined and wonderfully varied, so I really looked forward to getting stuck into this.

The collection starts with an intricate and intriguing story of pirates steering airships through uncharted seas. Then there is the wonderful vampiric inventor written with a lovely light touch, the ghost powered machines and an amazing, delicate story with a Japanese background that resonates so much with the interweaving and contending cultures of today.

There is a wonderful clash with a sea-monster that is only pushed back by the ingenuity of the characters, a tale of silken bowers framed by mechanical wonders and a tense, layered story set in an alternate timeline. Then a rollicking western-style story of monsters and wrong doing followed by an exquisitely crafted gothic story of colour and loss which is followed by a dark, psychological horror.

Finally there is a beautiful story of transcending the horror of war and a last, piratical yarn of derring do in airships wheeling above the Spanish Main.

It is a wonderful, glorious, vivid collection of stories and I sincerely recommend it.

Out of the London Mist: Pre-order available!

I am sooooo thrilled. This is the first of my books published by a proper publisher instead of being dragged together by me, and it’s available for pre-order! I’ve never worked out how to do ‘pre-orders’ before. It’s been a journey.

I submitted my manuscript to the Three Furies Press at the beginning of the year and they were kind enough to accept. It took me around three days to calm down, I was so thrilled. I knew the people involved, and knew that they are awesome, so I felt incredibly privileged. And I felt a lot safer. I had no idea about what was involved in traditional printing. Up til now it had been a case of checking for spelling mistakes, hoping I hadn’t missed a name and harsh language while I pressed ‘self publish’. Now I was involved with professionals who had more at stake than me playing around.

My first surprise was the ‘developmental editing’ process. I thought I would have an email telling me things like, ‘You have got this scene wrong. Correct it!’ Instead I had lovely Rebekah Jonesy tactfully point out where I could perhaps do better. I felt hugged as we worked through the sticking points in the manuscript. I felt my story grow and blossom through this.

Then there was the line editing. This was where the whole language stuff was cleared up. I was very nervous about this, because I don’t really understand punctuation. I do my best, but there may have been an issue with commas. I’ve never really mastered the tricky things, and I was expecting the worst. However the editors were very sweet and even arranged a conference call between me, Julia Jinkyong Allen and Emily Fisher where they very patiently explained to me how to punctuate speech – without making me feel like an idiot! Which was incredibly lovely as I am a complete doofus on punctuation.

In the few months since I submitted my manuscript, I have had such wonderful support and advice and I am incredibly grateful. My writing is already so much improved because of their kindness and generosity. And now I am on a learning curve for a book launch.

As I gear up for Out of the London Mist to go live on 23 July 2020, I’m soooo thrilled to share that the pre-order is not only available on Amazon here, but you can also find links to the pre-order on Apple, Nook, Kobo, 24 Symbols and Angust & Robertson

Watch this space. Now I feel like a really real author and I’ll be posting more as I get the hang of my new path.

Hugs and good health to all.

Writing Challenge 22nd June 2020

The reason I’m posting this prompt because I like writing a little flash fiction. It’s something I treat as going to the gym for my writing muscles. If you want to join in, that’s brilliant, but there’s no pressure. If you want to leave a comment with a link, that’s great, but if you don’t feel ready to share yet, that’s also great. Or you could decide that you had a good session at the ‘gym’ and want to submit it somewhere, or use it as the basis for other work, which would be amazing. It’s up to you how you use this prompt. The only thing I would like to insist on is that you enjoy yourself.

Here is a picture and a quotation. The challenge is to write something that is sparked off by one or both of them. It doesn’t have to be directly related to either, just the story you hear when you see them. It’s limited to 500 words (or less, lots less if you need to, or a little more, and I don’t check), and you should try and finish it by next week. It can be prose, poetry, fact or fiction – just have fun.

It is like a finger pointing toward the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

Bruce Lee

If you wish, leave a link in the comments and I will drop in, read and comment, and I encourage everyone to do the same. I’ll also be sharing stuff on Facebook and wherever else I can think of. There are no prizes and no end goal, unless it is to have fun writing. I hope I get to see some awesome stuff sparked by this. Good luck!

Writing Challenge 15th June 2020

The reason I’m posting this prompt because I like writing a little flash fiction. It’s something I treat as going to the gym for my writing muscles. If you want to join in, that’s brilliant, but there’s no pressure. If you want to leave a comment with a link, that’s great, but if you don’t feel ready to share yet, that’s also great. Or you could decide that you had a good session at the ‘gym’ and want to submit it somewhere, or use it as the basis for other work, which would be amazing. It’s up to you how you use this prompt. The only thing I would like to insist on is that you enjoy yourself.

Here is a picture and a quotation. The challenge is to write something that is sparked off by one or both of them. It doesn’t have to be directly related to either, just the story you hear when you see them. It’s limited to 500 words (or less, lots less if you need to, or a little more, and I don’t check), and you should try and finish it by next week. It can be prose, poetry, fact or fiction – just have fun.

blue and yellow abstract painting
Image from Unsplash taken by chuttersnap

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is the noblets; second, by imitation, which is the easiest, and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.

Confucius

If you wish, leave a link in the comments and I will drop in, read and comment, and I encourage everyone to do the same. I’ll also be sharing stuff on Facebook and wherever else I can think of. There are no prizes and no end goal, unless it is to have fun writing. I hope I get to see some awesome stuff sparked by this. Good luck!

Writing Challenge 8th June 2020

The reason I’m posting this prompt because I like writing a little flash fiction. It’s something I treat as going to the gym for my writing muscles. If you want to join in, that’s brilliant, but there’s no pressure. If you want to leave a comment with a link, that’s great, but if you don’t feel ready to share yet, that’s also great. Or you could decide that you had a good session at the ‘gym’ and want to submit it somewhere, or use it as the basis for other work, which would be amazing. It’s up to you how you use this prompt. The only thing I would like to insist on is that you enjoy yourself.

Here is a picture and a quotation. The challenge is to write something that is sparked off by one or both of them. It doesn’t have to be directly related to either, just the story you hear when you see them. It’s limited to 500 words (or less, lots less if you need to, or a little more, and I don’t check), and you should try and finish it by next week. It can be prose, poetry, fact or fiction – just have fun.

Some think it’s holding on that makes one strong; sometimes it’s letting go.

Sylvia Robinson

If you wish, leave a link in the comments and I will drop in, read and comment, and I encourage everyone to do the same. I’ll also be sharing stuff on Facebook and wherever else I can think of. There are no prizes and no end goal, unless it is to have fun writing. I hope I get to see some awesome stuff sparked by this. Good luck!