Pre-loved book haul.

I’m currently postponing a considerable amount of Uni work to write this blog post, which is far more interesting! Anyway, a few weeks back, I adopted some unwanted, lovely new books from my relatives. Here, I shall be going through some of my fiction and non-fiction choices…

My first adoption is ‘Walking Dickensian London’ by Richard Jones.

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If you enjoy classic literature and like London, then you’ll enjoy this. This is a delightful 200-page commissioned guide, covering twenty-five walks through the Victorian quarters of London, all associated with the life of Charles Dickens. The book opens with a modest biography of Dickens, revealing that it was a broken heart, poverty and a stifled intellectual desire that finally plunged him into writing in 1833. I’ve also learnt from this section that Dickens directed and acted in Willkie Collins’s 1857 play, ‘The Frozen Deep’.

Collins was another nineteenth-century writer who is perhaps best known for his psychological thriller novel, ‘The Woman in White’ (1859).

The Woman in White
BBC One’s 2018 adaptation of the “Woman in White”

At the bottom of page nine, you will find a short key which helps identify local churches, train stations – if you’re commuting to London beforehand, the walking route – highlighted blue, as well as city parks and gardens. Directions are generally broken down by short paragraphs, focussing on historic points of interest. My favourite walk is “Tower Hill to Barbican”, not least because Barbican is home to the Museum of London and the Barbican Centre – where I’ll be graduating (fingers crossed), but because the whole route is described as going straight through the “very heart” of the City of London and has a “warren” of very ‘Dickensian’ back alleys. I would say that since this guide is relatively old (published, 2004) and it feels slightly dated in terms of its layout and aesthetics. Nevertheless, a very interesting book. It’s relatively lightweight and a perfect companion to slip into your backpack. I feel inspired to embark on some walks!

My second adoption is
‘Walking Shakespeare’s London’ by Nicholas Robins.

As you may have noticed, this is related to the last book as a ‘Walking Guides’ series. This guide contains twenty walks and compared with Dickens, the introduction on Shakespeare is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite short as very little was known about the bard himself. The introduction states that one of the most evocative Shakespearean buildings you’ll find in London, Shakespeare’s Globe, is incidentally one of the most modern additions, reconstructed from the original Globe Theatre in 1997 and 200 metres from the old site. This guide is similarly scattered with photographs, route maps, information on local buildings like Temple Church (p.112) as well as lots of context on historical society, Shakespeare’s contemporaries, political figures and literature in time gone by. This guide’s wide-ranging presentation of information offers an immersive insight into the past and is, therefore my preferred addition of the two.

My third adoption is ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’ by Giles Milton.

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I took ownership of this book from my Dad who has had nothing but very high praise for it. In 1616, an English adventurer, Nathaniel Courthope, stepped ashore on the remote island of Run, six-hundred miles from the coast of Australia, to persuade the native islanders to grant a monopoly to England over their nutmeg. You may forgive the book for having such a seemingly mundane title, but if you’re interested in British naval history and the Age of Discovery, I have seen this book being frequently described as a “truly fascinating” read. The book is based on a little-known but very true story and from what I’ve read so far, Milton has interwoven imaginary writing in his own re-telling of the story of the spice trade; so we may call this a factual book with a little creative licence. Naturally, with any book covering our historic imperial past, there is the issue of a racist ideology which crops up as early as page two: “(the islanders of Run) are peevish, perverse, diffident, perfidious people…” Nevertheless, it serves the correct purpose of acknowledging ignorance of society of the time. I am yet to read this novel as it’s on my summer reading list, but I have high hopes for its depth of information.

How I discovered the Open University.

I dropped out of University after one week.

Here, I talk about my story of how I came to study with the Open University. This article has been written for anyone who might be in a similar position as I once was, along with my experience, so far, with the Open University. It is also aimed at parents of high school students, mature students, and just about anyone who’s interested in the Open University. *Disclaimer: Though I have included some potentially recognisable photographs in this article, I have omitted from explicitly naming either of my previous institutions. My opinions by no means intend to encourage or deter anyone from applying there and should be taken as my own very personal experiences. If you want to make a reliable decision on a potential University option, the best way to go about it is to attend an Open Day in person. Finally, photo credits go to each of the individual sources, which I won’t disclose. Deep breath, here we go…

It began about two years ago, not long after I’d completed a foundation certificate in English Literature at a small college campus in London, that I suddenly fell very ill. Having made it out the other end of a turbulent year, which included losing my old friends and making new ones, commuting a long journey into London on the dreaded Underground, locating my timetabled rooms on a maze-like campus – and being late for a number of them, as well as memorising the contents of some very dense novels, I was relieved to have passed the year. Initially, I was unsure about my college, since was a last-minute decision but by the end of the year, I had come to love the leafy-green campus, with its charmingly old, yet arty hallways, the smell of coffee from the cosy café and small student population. Although I was now allowed entry onto the main course, the only problem was that I couldn’t stay on. Stepping up to the first year of full-time study whilst juggling caring responsibilities at home and commuting across the city would be simply impossible. Something had to give way and so I had successfully applied for another course at a college more close to home, the following autumn.

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This one had a much grander reputation and everything was much bigger. The subject blocks, especially the science area, had been heavily invested in. The student population was four times the size of my old place and for the first time, I became acutely aware of existing as a number in an automated money-making system, along with others who were taking out a £9,000/year loan. The corridors in the English department were spacious but dull. The seemingly endless stretch of grey floor tiles, complemented the low ceilings and white-washed, windowless walls, resulting in the appearance of an underground hospital. My first experience of the lecture hall was one that dwarfed me, as dozens of rows of tightly packed seats were designed to accommodate for two-hundred or more students at a time. The long, wooden tables were uncomfortably narrow and because so many of us were crammed in on a row, there was very little elbow room, especially for a leftie like me who failed to get an end seat. I became preoccupied with avoiding barging in on my neighbour’s personal space and resorted to scrawling ugly notes in my lap instead. It all felt incredibly impersonal. Whilst a sense of utter loss and overwhelming depression likely exacerbated my negative perception of the place, there is no doubt that these symptoms certainly fed off the helpless scenario. I started to wish I was back on my previous course. I had failed to fit in with the excessively confident females that dominated my tutor group and after a few days, hadn’t made a single friend. I didn’t belong here. The place seemed cold, highly competitive and unfriendly. Nor could I handle the excessive social interaction and shakey nerves, especially because I had (and still have) crippling social anxiety; a very personal and heavily disguised issue I’m bound by.

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I decided that I had to leave, no matter what. At the start of my first tutorial, when the class and tutor was busy re-arranging the tables, I carefully picked up my bag and coat and snuck out into the main corridor. I doubted anyone would notice, at least not immediately, as not only had the administrative chaos invalidated the register, but I was a minute statistic and hadn’t properly spoken to anyone here, save one member of the English department on a campus tour. So long as I pretended to be going somewhere, it was relatively unlikely I’d be stopped. Weaving in and out of postgrads and department staff, I strolled down the flights of stairs, to the ground floor as nonchalantly as I could, and out into the open air. Within a few minutes, I had crossed the concrete campus and made it outside the main entrance gates, never to return again. The following weeks were awful as I spent them breaking the news to my family, who were horrified, upset and disappointed, as well as informing the department of my intention and making financial arrangements for future enrolment on a different course. I also binned my hideously-photographed student ID, as I wouldn’t be needing that again. I was suddenly adrift and for the first time, actually outside the education system. It was entirely down to me, to regain a sense of stability in whatever way possible.  

The truth is, right from the moment of walking out of the English department, I knew in my head that my only feasible option would be to study on a distance-learning course, but I knew my family wouldn’t like the idea; you either commit to something properly or don’t bother doing it at all – was their logic. Nevertheless, I spent weeks searching the internet for online courses from bricks-and-mortar institutions, hoping that I could (somehow) pass the idea. Unfortunately, there are not many distance courses for an English student, nor are there many undergraduate options available, as most online courses only accommodate for postgrads. I finally came across the Open University, which is a well-known distance-learning, higher education provider in the United Kingdom. I was delighted to find out they did indeed run an English Literature course and in fact, there were numerous options like combining it with other subjects such as History, Philosophy or Music if I wanted to. I spent a while drawing up tables and making online enquiries (save social phone calls) over different options, before finally deciding on the one course that was best for me. The next problem was trying to convince my parents to support a student finance application for an OU course..! Rather than telling anyone immediately, I held off for months, letting any tensions die down before even suggesting the idea. After about six months, I anxiously took the opportunity to tell my mother when she was in one of her rare happy moods. I was surprised to find out that although she had studied at a London college, she had also completed a short training course with the OU twenty-odd years ago. She quite casually, though not enthusiastically, accepted the idea much to my disbelief and as a result, so did my dad. I wasted no more time, filling in the forms.

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Around early September, I received a large package, weighing about five kilograms, with the “Open University” printed on the top. And when I opened it to reveal the contents, I was quite genuinely blown away. Inside, were four thick textbooks, each in a different colour. These were accompanied by four corresponding DVD cases with multiple DVD-ROMs, DVDs and CDs inside. There were two quite heavy illustration books, filled with picture sources to refer to throughout the year, an assignment booklet with a list of essays to complete and finally, a student handbook to help me make sense of the seemingly impossible task which lay ahead. This was my first welcome to my first compulsory module, The Arts Past and Present. A wave of despair washed over me; I didn’t think I could possibly get through this alone and in the space of nine months, on a supposedly part-time basis too! After a sleepless night, I decided against wallowing in self-doubt. The next morning, I flicked through the advice given in the student handbook and added up the total number of pages across the four main textbooks, to work out how much I’d need to complete each day. I was soon on my way, and by the time the course kicked off, I was weeks in advance – very helpful! In week one, I was finally introduced, by email, to my tutor, who would be responsible for marking all my work. And by week nine, I entered my first ninety-minute online tutorial with one other student (the number improved the second time around), for which I was relieved didn’t require a webcam – just a set of headphones, a microphone and good internet access. The monthly essays start off quite short and gradually build up to higher word counts with more challenging questions. These are still entirely manageable though, as on an introductory module it’s assumed you’ve had little to no experience of higher-level education. The content of the textbooks has been consistently interesting and broad. You’re not expected to complete an essay on every chapter of the textbook, which is usually made up of around six separate sections and some essay tasks offer multiple options. I’ve also found that each textbook usually takes around two months study to complete and since starting, I’m now currently working through textbook three of four. Though you are not entirely alone, you are expected to keep on track and maintain your own study schedule (there is also an online weekly planner to help with this) and meet all assignment deadlines. Even this is quite flexible and for most essays, you can ask your tutor for an extension.

I’m pleased to have found the OU and it’s an entirely viable option for anyone struggles with the physical environment and psychological pressures of actually attending a University. If reputation is a concern, you can later apply to an RG institution for a postgrad course; some OU graduates have been gone on to study at Oxbridge. I thoroughly recommend it to any other school leavers, as it’s a well-respected institution with professionally-planned, high-quality materials. I only wish I hadn’t wasted two years after finishing school, yet to discover it in the first place!

I’ll be doing a follow-up post on some key facts and details on studying with Open University, so please do send or email me any questions you have.

‘The Book of Dust’ By Philip Pullman

His darker materials…

Before I took a long break from writing and embarked on year one of my literature course, I was reading The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. It was another hardback novel gifted to me at Christmas, and upon receiving it, I was enticed by the sleeve’s beautifully carved lino print design and the front cover itself, which was sprinkled with flecks of golden dust. On its spine reads a quote from the story: “Ah, it’s a proper canoe, said Lord Asriel, as if he’d been expecting a toy. Malcolm felt a little affronted on behalf of La Belle Sauvage, and said nothing as he turned her over and let her slip quietly down the grass and on to the water…” the lettering, which has been embossed in the same metallic foil.

The Book of Dust which has taken Philip Pullman many years to complete and was hotly anticipated in the run-up to its publication, is set before the Northern Lights trilogy. As opposed to being a prequel, Pullman has decidedly called the new edition an ‘equal’ to the original series, as although the story takes place ten years previous when Lyra is a baby, The Book of Dust simultaneously sits alongside the original novels. As a heads up, yes, the novel does feature the Magisterium, the alethiometer, Lyra Belacqua, Jordan College, Oxford and of course, daemons.

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The Book of Dust is by no means a disappointment. I thought it was well written with events moving at a steady, often swift pace. The narrative maintains a consistent level of suspense, striking a fine balance between being too dramatic or otherwise not enough. I caught myself gasping at a number of points! Although Pullman usually states that his work isn’t written with a particular audience in mind, I probably wouldn’t recommend the ‘equal’ to readers under sixteen or so, as there is an instance of moderate adult content which the child protagonist is disturbed to witness. That said, I very much enjoyed the novel’s mysterious tone and strong maritime atmosphere, depicted in an underlying weather narrative, which meandered its way through the main story. Eventually, these two merge in a spectacular climax in the final third of the novel.

I’ve summarised the first three chapters as follows… no major spoilers here.

Chapter 1 ~ Malcolm Polstead is an 11-year-old boy who works at the Trout Inn beside the River Thames, with his mother and father, and a miserable cow called Alice. For Malcolm, who is known as an inquisitive boy to passing travellers and sister Fenella at Godstow priory, he leads an uneventful but content life. Though he’s inspired by the conversations of gentry punters and dreams of being a scholar – with his limited education at Ulvercote school, he expects to inherit the responsibility of the family pub. One day, three politicians enter the Inn and a Lord Nugent is interested to know about the local priory across the Thames. Lord Nugent is an ex-chancellor from a previously more liberal govt. Malcolm and his daemon Asta notice that he seems particularly interested in the story of an orphaned baby, but Malcolm is not aware of such a story. Though, Mrs Polstead’s daemon Kerick seems to know something more.

Chapter 2 ~ The next day, after his shift, Malcolm visits Fenella to inform her of the visiting Lord Nugent and his keen interest in the priory. Fenella isn’t aware of a baby but suggests that it may have been protected there in the past. Later that day, Malcolm fetches his boat and rows down to the river with Asta where they see a man in a grey suit who accidentally drops something in the river bank. He eventually leaves but is intercepted on the bridge by two men dressed in black, and bundled away. Malcolm and Asta row across the river to the opposite bank and find an ornamental acorn. Unnerved by what they have seen, Malcolm rows back home. Malcolm and Asta get home and manage to open the acorn which contains an anonymous letter talking about a hypothetical substance called ‘Dust’ and something called an ‘alethiometer’. Upon arriving for his evening shift, Malcolm learns from his father that two members of the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) an agency of the Church are at one of the tables. To his lowkey alarm, Malcolm is beckoned over by one of them who asks Malcolm if he has seen a man. Malcolm recognises him as one of the fellow politicians who accompanied Lord Nugent to the Inn the previous day. The CCD man defiantly rips down some notices from the cork board to pin up his WANTED poster but a regular punter, George Boatwright makes an objecting stand. He is soon seen out in fear and disappears before the CCD can arrest him.

Chapter 3 ~ In the coming days, Malcolm repeatedly rows upriver to see if he can find the man who dropped his acorn. He also pops into the Chanderly for some paint and rope and reluctantly opens up to ask Mrs Carpenter about the man he saw by the riverbank. She shows him an article in the Oxford Times confirming a man called John Luckhurst a historian of Magadelane College was found dead in the river sometime during the week. Malcolm is terrified he and Asta and think it possibly had something to do with the CCD. Malcolm and Asta plan to find out more – but by only by stealth through chatting to college student punters at the Inn, in order to avoid the attention of the CCD – just in case they’re after the acorn. Upon returning home, Malcolm hears from his mum that the famous explorer Lord Asriel is in the pub. She tells him that he has a love child with the wife of Mr Coulter – Mr Coulter was furious and stormed down to his estate – but Asriel killed him and had to pay honour expenses for doing so. Mrs Coulter didn’t want anything to do with the baby and so has been taken in by the sisters at Godstow. Three days later at earliest possible notice, Malcolm visits sister Fenella and when he asks her, she obliges and reveals that a baby girl has been left with the sisterhood. Fenella takes Malcolm to visit the child and from that day forth Malcolm becomes baby Lyra’s guardian for life.

Overall, I would rate The Book of Dust 4/5 stars and I look forward to Pullman’s second edition in the trilogy – whenever it comes out!

Chicken and Mushroom pie.

Since it’s a glorious bank holiday weekend, I felt very much in the mood for some home baking. The result: A sumptuous, rich and creamy, aromatic lunch (or dinner if you’re cutting into big quarter slices!) I’m quite literally a disaster magnet in the kitchen, so if I can successfully bake this pie – anyone can.

Here’s how I made this chicken pie, following a basic recipe with some added improvisation and personal tweaks. By keeping the flame down whilst cooking the recipe, this will allow you more time to prepare and combine your ingredients, therefore preventing you from overcooking things and messing it up!

You will need:

  • 4 medium-sized chicken thighs, sliced into bitesize pieces.
  • A heaping handful of mini closed cup mushrooms, thinly sliced (normal size mushrooms are fine – adjust the amount accordingly)
  • 1 small tub of low-fat Creme Fraiche (Greek yoghurt is an excellent alternative)
  • Half a large onion, finely diced (or 1 whole onion if medium-sized)
  • 4 small spring onions with the outer green stems removed, thinly sliced
  • 300ml of vegetable stock (chicken stock is fine by the way)
  • A few of sprigs of Sage, Thyme and Rosemary.
  • A sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry.
  • Colman’s English Mustard
  • Plain flour from the cupboard, and a pinch of Nutmeg (entirely optional)

To make the pie filling…

In a large pan, gently sweat the diced onion and spring onions on a low-medium flame until softened, don’t brown them! After a minute or so, add the sliced chicken thighs and fry on a medium heat for five minutes until they lose their initial raw appearance. I then added the sliced mushrooms and continued to fry the ingredients for a further 5 minutes. Leaving the ingredients on a low flame, I ripped off a few leaves of rosemary,  thyme and sage – just enough to be a generous pinch – you don’t want this flavour to overwhelm the dish. Toss this into the pan, along with a light seasoning of nutmeg, and some salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

In the meantime, prepare the vegetable stock. I purchased my vegetable stock in the new jelly-like form, as opposed to the dry/ powdered cubes you can typically get. Place this in a Pyrex measuring jug and dilute in 300ml of boiling water. Since the Korr vegetable jellies are supposed to make 500ml of liquid stock, I cut a small tip of the jelly to adjust the ratio for the purpose of the recipe. In order to make the gravy, pour the vegetable stock into the pan with the chicken and mushrooms and on a high flame heat the mixture until it’s reaches boiling point. Reduce the pan to a simmer, add a generous tablespoon of Creme Fraiche (or Greek yoghurt – which I’ve found is pretty much the same thing), a small teaspoon of strong mustard, and a slightly heaped dessertspoon of plain flour to thicken the sauce. Mix in and simmer for a few minutes to reduce the liquid down to a slightly thick sauce.

Once finished, allow the mixture to cool slightly and then transfer into an 8″ enamel pie dish, spreading it out evenly. If you don’t have this, a Pyrex or china ovenproof dish will work just as well. Unroll your sheet of puff pastry and lay it gently over the top of the pie dish to form a lid. Trim the edges with a sharp knife and if you’re feeling confident, crimp the circumference of the pastry with your two thumbs placed in opposite directions, and applying a little pressure to the dough. Next, poke two small steam holes into the centre of the pastry with the tip of the knife. For some decoration, I made two small roses by slicing off two, thin strips of dough, rolling them up into a swiss roll, and then pushing the centre upwards to form the centre of the bud. Then using the tip of my knife, I made small flicks in the layers to give the appearance of petals. Finally, I cut two small leaves and gently scored some veins into the pastry to finish them off. I arranged all this in the centre of the pie lid to give the appearance of a small bouquet.

Before placing in the oven, I made gentle indents in the lid of the pastry and brushed the lid with a double layer of whisked egg & milk wash. The general rule of thumb is to cook the pie until the pastry has puffed up and baked golden-brown. This took about 15 minutes at gas mark 6 in the centre of the oven. Keep checking at regular intervals, as it can burn very quickly! Once done, serve immediately with buttery mash and boiled mixed vegetables. Bon appetit 🙂

Let me know if you try this recipe, and please like and follow my blog if you’d like to see more posts like this.