Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Lunch at Grain Store

I hadn't seen Hari since I had both hands, but we became re-acquainted via Facebook, where he posts prolifically about Eighties pop - Kate, Siouxsie, Madge - and his indestructible dog, Delius, a beautiful blue whippet. Since Hari is a purely north London phenomenon and I am strictly Sarf, I suggested that we meet on middle ground, round the back of King's Cross, in the redeveloped bit I'd not been to yet, where Bruno Loubet has Grain Store, a vast restaurant in an old warehouse (that stored grain). I had been looking for an excuse to visit since it opened a couple of years ago.

Hari is a busy man, but gave me a couple of open windows in his hectic schedule, which I cross-referenced with Grain Store's online booking system to secure a table for two at 13.30 on 24.11.15. They sent e-mail confirmation, a reminder on the day before, and phoned to check the reservation, too. Phew! I guess that's the way they do things, these days, and it did turn out to be a rainy day, but I was surprised to see any vacant tables in what is a cavernous - but not necessarily carnivorous - space equipped with a long bar and a bustling open kitchen.

I go way back with Bruno Loubet, to the first feature I wrote in one of the early issues of seminal Eighties men's mag, Arena: 'Three Fresh Chefs'! One of the three was Marco Pierre White, then strutting his stuff at Harvey's in Wandsworth; Bruno was another, then cooking at Raymond Blanc's greenhouse restaurant in Oxford (was it called, The Greenhouse?) The third fresh chef was AngelaDwyer!

The same age as me, Bruno is a thoroughbred Haute Cuisinier. From the Médoc, with the claret birthmark of those born 'under the kitchen table,' his talent was spotted as a teenager and he attended a special High School for the gastronomically gifted. They do that in France. Loubet did his National Service in the Navy, where he was given an honorary officer's rank so he could dodge all that tiresome drill and concentrate upon cooking for the Admiral's table, commandeering a vehicle and driver to transport him to the markets in the early mornings while his fellow recruits were on parade. It may be no more than superstition to say that Monsieur Loubet is a natural born cook but, more than that,  Bruno is a French Chef. Cuisine may be the claret the runs in his veins, but it is also an organising principle of the culture in which he was raised.

From Le Manoir, Bruno came to London as Head Chef at the Four Seasons, Inn on the Park, running a big hotel brigade and winning the crucial Michelin star within a year. Then he did his own thing at Bistrot Bruno, Soho, in 1993, going on to open L’Odeon in 1995, located on the first floor of a terrace in Regent Street, where Veeraswamy is now. Having become such a grande fromage on the London restaurant scene during the Nineties, some were surprised when Mr Loubet abruptly quit for Australia in 2001, as he turned forty, taking his young family to live in the sunshine down under for a decade. He returned to reunite with a former mentor, Pierre Koffmann, who came out of retirement to run a near legendary pop-up restaurant in a marquee on Selfridges roof for one heady month during the summer of 2009. Actually, Bruno also returned recently to cook at Le Manoir, closing Blanc's series of Diners Des Protégés, with chefs who came through his kitchen en route to their own careers. Bruno Loubet's job these days, though, is Executive Chef to the The Vetter Group.

Grain Store is in the Granary Square development of old warehouses behind King's Cross. "Bagleys is going to be the part of the next phase, next door to St. Martins," Hari informed me, referring to the scene of many a warehouse rave in our youth. I gave myself plenty of time to get there, but the place was easily found from the Tube, so I had half an hour to kill, wandering around the site which includes a campus for CSM, Central St. Martins and the new UAL, University of the  Arts, London. As it was lunch time, art students clustered around the door to their studios, smoking in the manner that only those who have no concept of  their mortality may. I noticed how much they look and dress like students, these students, these days. Cleaner than we were, but still smoking. Some of the smokiest parties I can recall from when I was their age happened in Battlebridge Road, a stone's throw from where they're stood, in the badlands behind King's Cross, which is  re-developing at a rate that rivals the E&C, where plans also include UAL. Sigh. London, eh? Be nice when its finished.

There's several places to eat in Granary Square that I'd definitely check out if I lived locally and could afford them, you know. Dishoom is styled after the classic Bombay cafés run by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran and apparently has four locations across London; Caravan is a coffee roastery and café with an eclectic, tapas-like menu that includes plenty for veggies. Grain Store, is 'a unique restaurant inspired by chef Bruno Loubet’s extensive travels and years dedicated to his beloved vegetable patch.' Which is not to say it's a vegetarian restaurant, but one where 'the humble vegetable is elevated to the starring role (although many dishes also feature fish and meat).'

In menu terms, this means that garnishes are listed before before the fleshy components of dishes, so that vegetarians reading them have their appetites whetted, then expectation is dashed as they discover that the starter salad of dehydrated crisp vegetable, fruit & mushroom salad in prune vinegar dressing is strewn with extraneous wood pigeon. I mean, I get it. Bruno has banned beef and put an emphasis on game and fish, but that still means that I get excited by the thought of beetroot gnocchi with broccolini & shallots, but let down to find it comes with a piece of griddled silver mullet. Hot seaweed sushi, glazed pak choi, black garlic purée, all sound fantastic, but they are the garnish to a piece of hake, which is also cooked 'à la plancha'. Still, in too many London restaurants, 'vegetarian' is taken to mean, 'may eat fish' and, indeed, while being basically vegetarian, I will eat fish under certain circs.

Grace Dent - or The Delectable Grace Dent as she is also known - put her finger on it when she reviewed Grain Store's impetuous sibling, Grain Store Unleashed  last Spring, when The Zetter Hotel dining room hosted a pop-up spin-off: '...the concept, even to a five-a-day obsessive, might still seem a bit woolly. Here is a ‘vegetable restaurant’ that isn’t really for vegetarians. The menu contains wood pigeon, wild sea trout and meat-based stocks (which can be removed). Was there a market for weirdos like me who eat steak, but get het up over kohlrabi and broad bean ravioli? Yes. Turns out there are tons of us.' See, Ms Dent was once veggie, but now eats meat, whereas I am coming from the opposite direction. A note on the menu does say that many of Grain Store's dishes can be rendered in veggie versions, so we're not short of choices.

Pic by Maddie Mooves
That said, the two main course options denoted as 'vegan' are Loubet's versions of classics that you will find at any provincial veggie bistro: 'chilli con veggie'; and a 'risotto' made with a different grain, in this case Farro wheat, with jerusalem artichokes, leeks & chestnut mushrooms (which does sound divine!) The token vegetarian dish on swanky menus is often raviolis containing pumpkin, or sweet potato or, as here, butternut squash. Several menu items have a wine glass symbol next to them, indicating an optional but recommended beverage accompaniment. For only an extra £4.50, I washed my squash raviolis (left) down with a glass of pumpkin juice. They were plump and sweet, with mustard apricots and a commendable absence of sage, arranged on an oblong plate strewn with wilted rocket & pumpkin seeds. I could have eaten me a few more of them.

I had plenty of time to decide what I wanted to eat because Hari was late. Then, upon eventual arrival, the first thing he ordered was something I had been ogling at an adjacent table: deep-fried balls served on fir twigs. Wild mushroom & Montgomery cheddar croquettes, truffle salt  turned out to be balls of cheesey shroomy joy with bosky truffle on the finish. I asked Helen, our Server, if I might try the vegetarian Scotch egg that I'd heard so much about, from the other, All Day Menu and Hari immediately wanted that, too. Cleverly, Mr Loubet concocted a blend of dehydrated vegetables with secret herbs and spices that does indeed taste a lot how I remember chorizo and he's used it instead of a sausage mixture to coat his egg, which is probably from a free range hen with which he is personally acquainted. However, it's still an egg, so it's not vegetarian, in my definition. Which brings us back to Grace Dent's point about the woolliness of the 'demi veggie' concept.

David Sexton of The Standard - whom The Delectable Grace Dent must call, 'colleague' - decided in January 2015 that Grain Store was too 'self-consciously innovative and stressfully entertaining' for his tastes, but I do declare, I loved it. I'd been looking forward to Dried fava beans & kishk (a soft cheese) soup, pomegranate molasses and it was as good as I'd hoped: hearty and slightly tart, with sweet molasses zig zagged across the surface of the soup. Similarly, 'Baked beetroot 'carpaccio', fermented beetroot dressing, spiced labneh' (strained yoghurt - like the Greek) did not disappoint a beetnik such as I. Although, I must admit, I did begin to imagine how this beet salad might compliment certain stinky cheeses, supplied here by Androuet. Yes, I am back on the cheese and not always strictly in a gourmet way.

Pic by Angela Sam
Hari let me scoff a few of his cheesey shroomy truffle balls and gave me half his Scotch eggg, yet I felt I'd not eaten enough, so I got the Butternut squash ravioli, mustard apricots, rocket & pumpkin seeds while Hari had dessert. His eyesight's going, poor old bloke, but he's not yet reached the stage where he carries reading glasses, like me, so when he ordered Coconut & Kaffir lime green tapioca, sweet potato, banana crisp (right), the chances are he glanced over the word, 'tapioca.' But he wolfed it down any old way, chased by a cup of Earl Grey.

We drank water, freshly filtered and chilled, which is served by the carafe as an alternative to bottled water and spent thirty quid each, including a respectable cash gratuity, which I thought was not bad. I must return, one fine day, to sample the chilli con veggie and/or a poncey risotto.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Times I Saw The Clash #1, 11.11.77

The Clash Get Out of Control Tour @ Cambridge Corn Exchange


When two 11s clashed.
Ask what was the most impressive pop concert I ever saw and I don't have to think too hard. It was Prince & The Revolution at Madison Square Garden on the Parade tour in 1986. Amazing as that epic show was, however, it did not change my life. My life had already been changed by The Clash. The first time I saw the band was at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, November '77. I had turned sixteen in September and was at boarding school in Stamford. We persuaded a liberal teacher to hire a mini bus and improvised a punk look. It wasn't hard, then: if you didn't have long hair & flared trousers, you stood out.
The collectable Clash badge set!

Going into the gig, a man on the door dispensed lapel badges that said, 'I Want Complete Control', which became a highly-prized trophy then and now, according to Robin from Clash City Collectors, 'the Complete Control badge has been copied a few times & should be quite cheap to pick up, but an original one would cost around £25 + P&P. Cheers,'

Complete Control was to be the gang's third single, written as an angry retort to their record company CBS and the latest of a kind of song in which The Clash mythologised their own experience as a band, which arguably started with Garageband. Charles Shaar Murray had quipped that The Clash were the kind of garage band who should be locked in with the car engine running, leading Strummer to come back with the immortal line, 'Back in the garage with my bullshit detector...' After some uhmming & ahhing and no little bullshit, The Clash had eventually signed to a major multinational record company in a move that the punk bible, Sniffin' Glue denounced as a sell out. Still, CBS had put out the emblematic first single, White Riot, backed with 1977 : 'no Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones'! But then, the record company guys didn't know what to do for a follow up, so they picked the nearest thing their sophisticated ears could hear to a memorable tune from the epochal first album and put out Remote Control as the second single, without clearing it with The Clash. 'They said, we'd be artistically free, made us sign a bit of paper,' Joe ranted. 'They meant, let's make lots of money and worry about it later.'

First on the bill was a group of female French Lou Reed fans called, 'The Lous'. I was more interested in checking out the crowd, with its characteristic Seventies smell of patchouli. It was not quite my first taste of rock action, exactly, but might as well have been. Most were older student types with long hair & flared trousers, come to investigate this new thing called punk rock with its sneering & spitting. They stood back, kept a critical distance, leaving ample room for excited teenagers to get to the front of the stage, which was low and not large. I can't recall from this distance if I had previousy heard, Blank Generation, but I'll never forget the sight of Richard Hell & The Voidoids performing it, mere feet away.

Finally came The Clash. My memory has the Stuka backdrop, dive-bombing the stage, but it may be playing tricks. It would be an appropriate metaphor for their performance, though. The band kicked off at 100mph and accelerated through to White Riot at the end. Their version of Police & Thieves, midway through the set, offered little respite from the relentless fury of their music. Paul concentrated on his axe, lurking near Topper's drum riser and was not quite the upfront presence he later became. Mick, stage right in his zippered bondage strides, already had charisma & poise, not to mention riffs: "You're my guitar hero!" as Joe exclaimed on the new single.

Strummer himself was the focus of my attention, riveted by the intensity of his performance. Although mere feet away, he seemed to be in a different world, possessed, separated by a force field of energy that was palpable if not quite visible, except perhaps via ultra sensitive photography. I have a screen-printed poster made from an iconic photo of Joe, taken maybe a month later, that I regard as an avatar of righteous rage and keep to remind me of those indignant teenage feelings chanelled by Saint Joe.

I've looked around online for a set list and been disappointed, as some of the songs I've seen listed speculatively weren't written until later, but basically it was the first album: Janie Jones & Protex Blue. Joe inhabited the songs, acting out, Career Opportunities by flapping his arms, beside himself with frustration at being offered dull jobs. But then came Garageland, with its bullshit detector, hinting at the possibility of breaking from mundanity and articulating one's truth.

When I say this gig changed my life, I mean, it was inspirational, hinting at a life much larger and more vivid than my cosseted schoolboy's existence. I wrote a delirious review that was printed in the school mag, to the headmaster's reported displeasure. Within a year, I was expelled from boarding school after hitch hiking to Cambridge to see another punk band at the Corn Exchange. We got stranded and were out all night. The day after they kicked me out, I remember, I consoled myself by buying a  copy of the new Clash single, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais in a pink paper sleeve, with the sub-Lichtenstein pop art label.

ADDENDUM: (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais was released in the same week that I was expelled from school, in June 1978. I had hitch hiked to Cambridge to see The Vibrators and The DPs, aka The Depressions, who were truly awful punk also-rans. I mean, The Vibrators were old men, but at least they had a tune or two, the title of one of which had been appropriated by Stiff Little Fingers. I wasn't too enthusiastic about this gig, but I had been assured of a lift home from a graphic designer who worked in an office in Stamford that I had started cleaning as a part-time job, after school. (I inherited the job from a girlfriend who had gone to college.) The dude boasted about having been the original drummer with The Vibrators, so this was a chance to call his bluff. I guess it was a bluff, because he set off without us, leaving a note to say he'd see us there. But he didn't show up. Stranded, we had to walk home, most of the way, me and my mate. We walked from Cambridge nearly to to Huntingdon and dawn was breaking when my mate eventually called his Dad, who lived not far away, and he came out to rescue us. Limping ito the boarding house at five in the morning, there stood my house master, grimly.
'The police of three counties have been looking for you,' he declared. 
'Then why didn't they find me?' I wondered.
'I think you'd better go upstairs and pack,' he said.
'You're joking,' I said (he wasn't). 'I'm going to bed.'

Anyway, back at Hammy Pally,  Dillinger, Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson, the Cool Operator, headlined an all night reggae rave - "midnight-to-six, man" - that also featured Ken Booth, "for UK of pop reggae" with "backing bands & sound systems." But, Joe Strummer was disappointed to discover, that "it was Four Tops all night" with synchronis-ized dance routines along the lines of those perpetrated by the 4/4 Motown innovators, who also invented Norther Soul. Smiling performers would dance off and then dance on again "with encores from stage right," which I Jah Man Strummer found strictly silly. He had wanted and expected a militant rasta vibe, not close harmonies and syncopation.
In the lyric of the ensuing song, Joe compares the commercializ-isation of the reggae scene, as he perceives it, with what's going on in his own corner of the musical universe, where the new groups of the short-lived Power Pop craze were not concerned with what there was to be learned from grizzled punk veterans, but were busily wearing Burton suits, if you please, and - in an echo of the title of George Melly's seminal analysis of pop culture, 'Revolt Into Style': "turning rebellion into money."
"All over, people are changing their votes, along with their overcoats," objected Joe. Eric Capton, the guitar god, had made some drunken racist remarks onstage and inspired the formation of Rock Against Racism. Our beloved David Bowie, fully coked-up in Thin White Duke mode, when met by a massive crowd upon arrival at a London railway station, had stood up in the back of an open-topped car and thrown what looked a lot like a Nazi salute. "If Adolf Hitler flew in today," sang Joe, "they'd send a limousine anyway."

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Case for Cannabis

I wrote to my MP:

Dear Neil Coyle,

I write as your constituent regarding today's Parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall, led by your colleague Paul Flynn MP,  'That this House has considered the e-petition relating to making the production, sale and use of cannabis legal.' As a new Labour MP and in the wake of your party's recent leadership election, you would do well to emulate the example of Mr Flynn, a veteran who has represented the cause of cannabis legalisation in the Commons for many years as a matter of principle, but also pragmatism. 'A 50-year experiment in drug prohibition has been a disaster.' he writes. 'Prohibition increases drugs use, harm and crime. It builds empires of criminals as the alcohol prohibition did in America in the twenties.'

'The good news is that the world has recognised the futility, waste and cruelty of prohibition,' Flynn continues, but 'the bad news is that UK has the worst of all worlds.' The Conservative Government has already responded to more than 200,000 people who signed the e-petition, negatively, but today's debate is an opportunity to support rational, evidence-based drugs policy, such as that proposed by Transform, which has published a practical guide to regulating recreational cannabis. Today, I see that Transform is also participating in an expert panel on cannabis legalisation that's been set up by the Liberal Democrats, impotently, now that they can do nothing about it.
In commencing what I hope will not become a protracted and one-sided correspondence, I recall how many times I wrote to your impotent Liberal Democrat predecessor, Simon Hughes, over the years, on the topic of making cannabis legal. Typically, he ignored me, although there was one occasion in 2009 when I almost persuaded Mr Hughes to ask a Parliamentary question concerning the distribution of Sativex - a cannabis preparation made in Britain - as an unlicensed medicine imported from Canada. Since then, in June 2010, Sativex was licensed by the MHRA and, in April 2013, it was placed in Schedule 4 of the MDA.

This is anomalous, since Sativex is a whole plant extract of cannabis - it is essentially a tincture, fundamentally no different from what Queen Victoria took for her period pains - and yet raw cannabis remains in Schedule 1 of the MDA, indicating that it has no medicinal value. In fact, the medical efficacy of cannabis is well-established, with an extensive and ever-growing database of Clinical Studies and Research Papers.

As far back as November 1997, in its report into The Therapeutic Uses of Cannabis the BMA recommended 'changing the Misuse of Drugs Act to allow the prescription of cannabinoids [active chemical compounds in cannabis] to patients with certain conditions causing distress that are not adequately controlled by existing treatments'.

One occasion upon which Simon Hughes did respond promptly to me was in late 1998, during his tenure as LibDem Health spokesperson. He happened to be on BBC Question Time when the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published its Ninth Report, examining 'the scientific and medical evidence to determine whether there was a case for relaxing some of the current restrictions on the medical uses of cannabis.' Summarily, the Report recommended: ' The Government should take steps to transfer cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations to Schedule 2, so as to allow doctors to prescribe an appropriate preparation of cannabis.' Mr Hughes endorsed these recommendations on TV and so I congratulated him, to his evident pleasure.

However, here we are all these years later and there is now a cannabinoid drug that may be prescribed - at a cost that may be unaffordably high - and yet raw cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug, and cannot be used at all in medicine, except for research under special Home Office licence that costs £5000, a situation Baroness Meacher, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, recently described as, “deeply shocking”. Referring to the legalisation of medical cannabis in Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of the United States, she remarked, “it’s exciting to see what’s happening internationally, but here we [the government] have been a failure. Britain is getting left behind”.

Until 10 years ago, British Courts tacitly acknowledged the medicinal value of cannabis when the defence of 'Medical Necessity (Duress of Circumstances)' was accepted in a succession of cannabis trials. Defendants with a range of serious and intractable illnesses, particularly Multiple Sclerosis, successfully argued that cannabis was uniquely beneficial for them and they grew their own medicine, sooner than score via criminals on the street. In 2005, however, the Court of Appeal considered appeals against conviction by five appellants and a cross appeal by the Attorney General against the judges direction in a case where the defendant - Jeff Ditchfield - was acquitted on the basis of medical necessity. Three Law Lords decreed that 'necessity' would no longer be a viable defence in British courts, a decision about which Professor David Nutt memorably blogged, some five years later. (As you will recall, Prof Nutt was the Government's leading drugs adviser until he was sacked by the last Labour administration in 2009 for his insistence that policy should be dictated by scientific evidence, rather than prejudice or expediency.)

While cannabis continues to be used as a political football, anyone who impartially evaluates the evidence of its medicinal value will come to the same conclusions as Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat minister, who, having been lobbied by the United Patients' Alliance, last year called for more liberalised drug laws, and specifically the legalisation of cannabis grown for medicinal use. His suggestion was rejected reflexively: "This government has no plans to legalise cannabis or to soften our approach to its use as a medicine," declared an anonymous spokesperson, who continued to state: "There is clear scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people's mental and physical health." The hypocrisy of that sentence would be shocking, if we were not inured to the cant that surrounds this topic.

To be clear: there has long been an association between chronic cannabis use and the onset of mental illness. In fact, the roots of its prohibition - explored by James H. Mills in 'Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade, and Prohibition, 1800-1928' - lie in a claim made by the Egyptian delegate to the League of Nations' Opium Convention, held in Geneva in 1925, that ‘illicit use of hashish is the principal cause of most of the cases of insanity occurring in Egypt… generally speaking, the proportion of cases of insanity caused by the use of hashish varies form 30 to 60 percent of the total number occurring in Egypt’. His statistics were spurious and his assertions not supported by the British, whose colonial experience, as recorded in the Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1893-1894, indicated that banning preparations of cannabis was unnecessary. Consequently, the British delegate to the sub-committee that subsequently decided to prohibit cannabis abstained, but the UK was still constrained by its decision to ban cannabis, internationally, in 1928.

From the very beginnings of its Prohibition, cannabis has been unfairly associated with hard drugs and mental illness. In the notorious 'Reefer Madness' campaign conducted against cannabis in the 1930s in the USA, dried flowers of the cannabis hemp plant was called, 'marijuana,' and lurid tales were put about that purported to show how the stuff prompted its users to commit insane acts. Now, several generations later, the same tactic is being deployed, with a newly-invented kind of cannabis  - 'skunk' - that is purportedly so potent that it tips teenagers over the edge. South London, in particular Sir Robin Murray's work at the Maudsley has been ground zero for this phenomenon.

'Smoking skunk cannabis triples risk of serious psychotic episode' declared The Guardian in February, 2015. It reported the results of a study published by The Lancet that set out to calculate the proportion of new cases of psychosis attributable to different types of cannabis use in south London. The article was subsequently modified 'to make clear that the study found skunk use was responsible for a quarter of new cases of psychosis in the population in South London that the researchers looked at – not across the country as a whole.' Another study, of 16-year-old twins, conducted jointly (sic) by Oxford and Leeds Universites, found that both cannabis use and psychotic episodes were triggered by environmental factors, including being poor, or bullying.

In fact, while the correlation between cannabis use and the onset of mental illness has long been noted, and despite the weight of research in this area, causality has still not been clinically demonstrated. “It is now well known that use of cannabis increases the risk of psychosis," Prof. Murray was quoted as saying to the King's College newsletter. "However, sceptics still claim that this is not an important cause of schizophrenia-like psychosis. This paper suggests that we could prevent almost one quarter of cases of psychosis if no-one smoked high potency cannabis. This could save young patients a lot of suffering and the NHS a lot of money.” While these bald statements may be true, Sir Robin fails to add the caveats: risk increases, 'for those with a pre-disposition'; we could avoid a quarter of cases if no-one smoked, 'immoderately and all day long'.

The King's report suggests that 'a theoretical explanation of why skunk might have been preferred by patients with first-episode psychosis is that, when they began to experience their illness prodrome, these individuals might have sought increased concentrations of THC to self-medicate. However, experimental studies show that THC induces psychotic symptoms, while cannabidiol (CBD) ameliorates them and reduces anxiety.' This touches upon the area of cannabinoid research that has been opened up by GW Pharmaceuticals' development of Sativex, which contains equal amounts of THC & CBD. Clearly, work must be done to discover the ways in which the numerous cannabinoids interact, but the prohibition inhibits that research, as Baroness Meacher complained.

One argument against decriminalisation - deployed by David Cameron during his notorious interview with Jonathan Ross - is that such a move would encourage more people to consume cannabis. The evidence from tolerant regimes, such as  the Netherlands and Portugal, does not support that assumption. There may be an initial surge in use as the curious and law-abiding experiment, but then the numbers fall back to where they were. In fact, across Europe, with different regimes being more-or-less hostile to cannabis users, the incidence of cannabis use remains fairly consistent, which indicates that Drugs Policy has little impact. More people in England & Wales (6.6%) use cannabis than in the Netherlands (5.4%) where the average age of first use is higher (sic).

Prof. Murray told The Guardian back in 2004, when the last, lamentable Labour Government experimented with re-classifying cannabis, downgrading it from B to C, before The Daily Mail persuaded them to put it back: "To be frank, in south London, it doesn't matter what the classification is. People who want cannabis can get it; it is readily available." Back then, Murray did not see his role as preaching to people about what they choose to put into their bodies. "I don't think it's a particularly useful thing for somebody like me to come over heavy-handed and say that under no circumstances should you smoke cannabis when all their peer pressure will be to smoke cannabis. If people want to smoke cannabis, they have the right to do so," he admitted.

While Britain continues to persecute people for self-medicating with cannabis, or for simply getting high, we waste a considerable amount of public money every year on policing a victimless crime. Quantifying the economic benefits of legalisation is, inevitably, a case of thinking of a number and doubling it. The Guardian, today, quotes 2013 figures from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, which estimated that legalising cannabis would save the UK between £500m and £1.25bn in costs, while raising a tax revenue of £400m-£900m.

Whatever the true figures, it is undeniable that cannabis is the most widely-used illegal drug in the UK and that policing its prohibition is a massive, counter-productive drain upon public resources. Whereas the evidence that is now coming in from the four States of the USA that have fully legalised cannabis, making it available to all adults via regulated outlets, is that they are generating phenomenal tax revenues. In Colorado, where voters legalised cannabis in 2012, taxes on weed sales were specifically intended to go toward school construction, but $50 million in recreational pot taxes has been collected in the first year, which is more than the State constitution permits it to take. They've raised so much tax revenue in Colorado by legalising pot that the state may offer its taxpayers a rebate.

To summarise: cannabis  is potentially the most versatile and efficacious medicine and its prohibition benefits no-one except the pharmaceutical industry. While it is not entirely harmless, the prohibition does nothing to make cannabis safer, nor to limit its availability. Cannabis can be bought anywhere, but its quality is highly variable and the people who sell it have few scruples and pay no taxes. It is past time that we end the failed experiment of cannabis prohibition, you must agree.

Yours faithfully,

Monday, 21 September 2015

My Vipassana Initiation

My psychotherapy could not truly begin before my mother had finally died. I had contacted the Therapist more than two years previously, after going back home with a mission: to persuade our mother to down-size from her rambling farmhouse in the countryside into a more manageable bungalow in town, closer to the Social Services. But she wasn't having it.
"I've considered what you and your sister have been telling me," she said, "and I'm not moving. I want to stay here, in my own home, with my own things."
"OK," I conceded, "but what then? Do you imagine that you will just quietly die one day, peacefully, in your sleep?"
"I certainly hope so," she retorted.
"But supposing it doesn't go like that?"
"What?" she chuckled, sardonically. "Do you think I'm going to live forever?"
"No mother," I told her. "I think that you will have another fall, sooner or later, and you will again be hospitalised. Only, next time, they won't allow you to come back here to carry on alone. They will put you in a home and sell your precious house out from under you to pay for it."

I stuck it out for a year - arguing & reasoning; pleading & cajoling - but to no avail. I managed mother's medication, made her decent meals, and tried to curb her drinking. I sifted through the stuff with which my magpie Mum had filled every nook and cranny of her house, feeling that the weight of all those belongings anchored her to the spot. I did persuade her to part with some of the more worthless junk, but saw how even that caused her palpable distress.

Most importantly, to me, I tried to broach the taboo subject of the catastrophic car crash, thirty years previously, that had shattered our family.
"Why is it that we never talk about Daddy's death?" I asked.
"You never wanted to talk about it," she lied.
"Well, I would like to talk about it now," I said.
"Well, she finally admitted, albeit in her authoritarian, that's the end of it, teacher's tone of voice, "I would not."

A consummate actress, my mother had all her friends and neighbours fooled into thinking that everything was perfectly fine with the mildly batty, theatrical, retired schoolteacher of their acquaintance. If anyone suspected that was not the case, it was none of their business. Of course, that didn't prevent their gossip. What did her adult son think he was doing, interfering with his mother's life? Why didn't he leave her alone? That was the feedback I was getting, via the few old school mates with whom I was still acquainted.

Only I witnessed my mother's escalating insanity, her barely suppressed panic and, most distressingly, creeping incontinence.
"How much longer do you think you can continue to climb the stairs to the bathroom on your hands and knees?" I asked.
"I've been doing that for years," she answered.

My sister was sympathetic, but preoccupied with her own family and career at the other end of the country.
"Why don't you get a job?" she suggested.
"I have a full time job," I replied, "caring for our mother and trying to prolong her life. Only, my work is not remunerated, nor appreciated, apparently."

My tenant moved out from my London flat and I grabbed the opportunity for some respite. A friend who had regular business in Town offered me a lift and I offered him a place to stay, for a bit of rent. As his van turned the corner of my street, I realised that I had spent the entire three and a half hour journey bending his ear about the impossible situation with my mad mother. Clearly, this was ineffectual. I needed professional help. After all, supposing everyone else was right and the problem with my mother existed only in my mind?

I had the phone number of a woman I had gone to see as a practitioner of the Alexander Technique. It had not been at all what I expected. "I thought this was all about posture and that you would give me exercises and perhaps manipulate my limbs a bit on your treatment table," I told her, "but mostly we just sit opposite each other and talk. It's more like I imagine psychotherapy to be." The Therapist smiled and explained that Alex. - which explores how experience is stored in the musculature of our bodies and dictates our present behaviour - has a number of levels. Highly qualified, she was working at the deepest - or highest? - level and was, in fact, also in formal training to become a psychotherapist. Now, I wondered if she'd take me on as a client?

I started coming down to London every other week to see my Therapist, spewing my anger and grief in her consulting room. By the end of the year, I was more than ready to admit defeat with my mother and eager to return to the City to resume my life as a writer and critic and consultant, i.e.: the life in which I had some status and respect. At a New Year's dinner party, I told the woman seated next to me - who worked with the elderly and cantankerous - the story of what I had been doing in that bucolic neck of the woods. "Sounds like it's going to take a crisis to force change," she told me.

The fall came within a month of my leaving. Mother slipped on the ice outside her back door and fell down behind her car, so she could not be seen from the road. By the time the postman found her, hours later, she was frozen and frightened half to death. She was taken into hospital and began her agonisingly protracted withdrawal from life. My mother took a full nine months to die; her death went full term. I returned, to manage the situation, living on her pension, visiting her in hospital, although she had nothing much to say. She was sulking. My mother sulked herself into the incinerator while I carried on seeing my Therapist every fortnight, venting furiously.

But die in the end she did and then it took the best part of a year to clear her house and auction its contents, to sell the house and eventually to share out the proceeds. Now I had enough money to not worry about work for a few years, my psychotherapy could begin in earnest. We started working together twice weekly, in a process I described as, 'spending my inheritance from my mother on resolving her emotional legacy.'

This process became my whole life, in and out of the consulting room. As secretary of our Residents' Association, I was confronted by a committee of three women, each of whom represented an aspect of my mother. There was the controlling, manipulative one who always thought she knew best; the arty, talented one who was prone to outbursts of shrieking hysteria; and the fat, absent one who never turned up for meetings, but was still nominally in charge. They provided useful grist to my mill, but the mirror worked both ways. They hated me and launched a virulent gossip campaign in which I was vilified, demonised and, eventually, excluded.

In the jargon of the consulting room I 'got in touch with my anger,' coming to understand how it was mother's milk to me. We went back to my earliest days and I discovered how my mother's depression, during her pregnancy and after my birth, had precluded our proper bonding. We revisited the scene of the crash and I recalled the atmosphere in the vehicle immediately before impact, as my parents' feud simmered. She was giving him the silent treatment and he could not stand it, so made an unforced driving error that caused a head-on collision. I surveyed the carnage in stark detail.

My mother's response to my father's sudden death was to send me away to boarding school. That had always been the plan and she saw no reason to change it. As I recounted this, I noticed my Therapist was shedding tears.
"What is the matter with you?" I demanded.
"It is so sad," she said. And then she said the most shocking thing anyone has ever  said to my face: "You are the most unsupported person I have ever met."

I came to see how I ran on anger and could barely control it. All I could do was cloak it in dark humour, smother it with drink 'n' drugs, defend it with my sharp tongue. Occasionally, I'd direct it into my writing and activism. I accepted the fact of my anger, but could not rid myself of it. There was a long period, over a year, during which I was acutely aware that I was deeply angry and frustrated by my inability to let it go.
"We keep talking," my Therapist told me. "That's all we can do."

I began a course of Reflexology with an old acquaintance. Initially, he informed me that he usually prescribed four or six treatments, but I would require at least ten or twelve. We did not get that far. The Reflexologist soon started saying that he really was not getting anywhere with my feet.
"You are a bit less toxic," he told me, "but you're still holding so much. I spend an hour opening your meridians and when you come back the following week, they are again clenched tightly shut."

What to do? "Why not try Vipassana?" the Reflexologist suggested.
"You mean those mental silent ten day meditation courses you go in for?" I said. "No way. You must be joking!"
"Look," said the Reflexologist, "you can carry on paying me fifty quid a week in perpetuity, but I'm telling you that it's not working. Or, you can take ten days to learn Vipassana for free and see what difference it might make. What are you scared of and what have you got to lose?"

So, I went. My experience of that first ten day Vipassana course was pure, burning, furious anger for nine days straight with short lunch breaks. My anger was unexpurgated, unabridged and unremitting, although the Indian home cooking was actually pretty good. It was a Hindi/English course and my room-mate was an Indian fellow who also sat next to me in the hall. When we finally spoke on day ten, I was surprised by his Wolverhampton accent!

Anger is heat and it poured out of me as sweat. I would rise at 4am, shower and put on fresh underwear before going to sit in the hall. Two hours later, I was so saturated that I had to shower again and change before breakfast.

As the course went on, the moon grew full and I stopped sleeping more than a few hours after retiring, exhausted, at 9pm. I started waking up in the middle of the night to be extra angry. My defining memory is of being on the toilet at three in the morning, mind buzzing with violent revenge fantasies about those odious women from the Residents' Association, even though I knew that it was nothing to do with them. I was quaking with misery and humiliation, because there was nothing I could do to make it stop.

I came through it and returned home to London and to psychotherapy. My Therapist met me at the door, led me down the passage to her consulting room, where we sat down, facing each other.
"Wow!" was the first thing she said. "What a transformation!"
"What do you mean?"
"You appear to have dropped all that terribly heavy anger you were carrying around with you," she said.
I laughed. "Yes, I left it in a field in Herefordshire."

Toward the end of that session, my Therapist announced, "I think our work here is done." "Really?" I asked. "Yes. We can continue to make use of this healing space that we have co-created, if you want, and tie up loose ends, but essentially your psychotherapy is complete. I don't know what they did with you at that meditation centre, or how, but after five years here and ten days there, you're sorted. Congratulations."

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Post Cheesynessence

Ha, ha: the last-saved draft of this blog entry began, 'hard to believe it's Eater (sic.) already, but you had better believe that, just because I haven't been blogging about it, does not mean that I have not been cooking!' 

Dull pic. of nuthin' much cookin'
Indeed, you must believe that many are the blog posts I have begun to compose over the six months or more since the close of last BBQ season and, believe it or not, we fired up the communal BBQ on our roof top for the first time this season only last night. Not, likesay, that your BBQ is strictly my scene, Gene.

Actually, several of my putative blog posts were extensively researched - the lasagne epic; the nut roast saga - but events intervened before they were written up and then the moment passed. Life, as John Lennon might have said, is what you actually eat while you are thinking about recipes. Permit me to summarize the progress of my on-going culinary odyssey.

During Veganuary, starting the year as I meant to proceed, I confronted my sugar habit, again, and once more abstained from eating cheese. I hoped that a month of no sugar in coffee and tea would re-educate my palate and make unsweetened beverages more acceptable. As for cheese, I renounced all dairy for Lent last year and this year I did it again, having breezed through a cheese-free January. In early February, celebrated with a half kilo block of Mature Cheddar and pigged out on cheesey toasties for a fortnight, until I felt fat & queasy.

Don't get me wrong. If we are going to Franco Manca in Brixton Market for pizza before or after the movie, I am having number five, with anchovy and mozzarella. Innit. However, at home fron day to day, I can mostly do without cheese. Engevita Nutritional Yeast Flakes make an acceptable substitue for grated Parmesan, providing that twist of umami to pasta sauces. Mash the flakes into a paste with oil, plus turmeric and other spices and smear it over a cauliflower before baking to make a weirdly cheesey baked cauliflower!

Gotta love vegansidekick.
'If I am not yet quite ready to relinquish all cheese,' I wrote around the Equinox, 'I am so over blocks of supermarket cheddar, in any permutation!' It is not that I want to be vegan - I embrace no 'ism' - but I do recognis-ize the imperative to progressively refine one's diet. My resolutions for this year are to avoid animal products and supermarkets, so far as is practicable and as much as I want to at any given moment.

Abstinence taught me that I prefer to sweeten coffee or tea, but sugar is bad and I'm not convinced that the approved vegan alternatives - agave syrup - are any better. So, I'm going to carry on using honey. I'm not ashamed to say that I buy the cheapest honey, but at least I buy it from Oli's, - the Turkish 24 hour market in Walworth Road - rather than Tesco. I mean, I know it's stolen from the bees of more than one country, both within and beyond the borders of the EU, but it is 100% clear honey, which must be better than refined sugar. Even if, you know, it is stolen from bees; that is currently where I draw the line!

Nor a Sainsbury's Loco!
Swerving Tesco is facilitated by my involvement with Fareshares, where I continue to volunteer on Wednesday afternoons, when we re-stock, and do the 4-6pm shift on Thursdays behind the counter in the shop. I also run the Facebook page - another reason why this blog has been quiet - and use this image as a profile pic. Indeed, Fareshares is the anti-Tesco, a perfect example of non violent direct action against corporatism and a durable model that should be widely copied. Why doesn't every neighbourhood have its own Fareshares?

My involvement with Fareshares has been hugely rewarding, not financially - although I benefit from the same discounts as y'all - but in terms of community relations and personal nutrition, as I continue to try. My conversion to the creed of coconut oil has been a real game changer, in terms of getting away from animal fats. It has become my default cooking fat and I have been known to spread it on toast.

I think my lingering attachment to animal fats is mostly about that unctuous way they coat one's tonsils. Over Lent, last year, I succumbed to an urge to splurge cow grease on my toast while on retreat with no lovely coco to go to for that peculiarly comforting mouth feel. Even now I furtively stash a block of unsalted butter in the fridge door for spreading on toast, mostly, and melting into mashed potatoes when the Vegan Police aren't looking. Don't tell anyone!