Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A guest at my table - John Daniel

I was minding the time in a tiny second hand bookshop, shoved somewhere up a narrow alleyway in a town I no longer remember. Crouching down amongst the fug of slightly damp, brown paper hedges, I came across a book called 'Cottesbrooke: An English Kitchen Garden' by Susan Campbell. It was 1989 and this book only published a couple of years earlier seemed to have been read and discarded rapidly. But as I started to read this diary of one of the last surviving working Kitchen Gardens in Northamptonshire, documented for the year 1984-85, I found myself standing beyond the door of 'The Secret Garden', looking in on a world that no one knew existed anymore; and I was totally and utterly enchanted. This for me was a formative moment; the moment a passion was ignited whose flame has stayed pure to this day.

I started to soak up everything I could about old Kitchen Gardens, tracing their outline at National Trust Houses where often only a couple of espalier trees remained against a sun drenched wall. I followed architectural books and plans of old hot houses, visited the glasshouses at Kew, traced plant histories in physic gardens and old herbals. And all the while, like a ball of wool being wound, this passion grew and grew.

So when, finally, in 1991, I found myself with an outline for a kitchen garden, hemmed in by the walls of an old farmyard at our new home, I knew exactly what I wanted to create. At just that moment I chanced upon a scruffy little note on the village noticeboard advertising box hedging for sale by the foot. In my mind there was a perfect square parterre with clipped box hedges and filled with herbs and vegetables; with gravel paths to ward off slugs and spanned at the edges with an arch of climbing roses and clematis.

Seeing that the number was just down the road I took a chance and hammered on the old cottage door. A tall man with iron grey hair and a heavy moustache came to the door, still dressed in a pair of enormous wellies. He was gruff but friendly, more so when he realised I'd come about the hedging. He was turning over the whole garden to vegetables, he said, and the old hedging was in the way. We went to look at it and I took a double take. Although it was a little ragged and sitting amongst a good crop of wild grass, the shape was undeniably the same shape in my mind's eye. How many feet did I need? he asked. All of it, I replied, all exactly as it was. Over the next weekend I moved the entire parterre, chunk by chunk, in a wheelbarrow up the road to our cottage farmhouse at the top. The roots of box are shallow and compact and it was like fitting a jigsaw back into place, rotating the corners to just the right angle, as if it had been grown exactly for the space in which it was intended.

John Daniel came up to check I was watering it properly and that all the roots where properly covered and anchored in. Then he came up again with seedlings; vegetables he had a surplus of. Over the next few months all sorts of gifts started arriving; each one a lovingly tended little specimen cocooned within an old yoghurt pot or a piece of empty toilet roll. I had often noted the ingenuity of allotment holders in creating plant holders and supports out of recycled 'rubbish', but John Daniel had this down to a fine art. Nothing was ever wasted in his house. Cloches were made out of orange squash bottles and homemade beer to line the slug defence system. Cd's whirred in the sunshine deterring birds from his precious seedlings and the copper stripped from old wiring to wind around the pots - a second line of defence against the inebriated slugs.

John Daniel lived on his own with only his old sheepdog Nell for company. His wife had died a few years earlier and with her the desire to remain kempt for the rest of humanity's sake. He was reverting back to nature along with the plants that he tended. His plan was to buy as little as possible from an actual shop, preferring to scavenge from the multitude of skips left outside more affluent homes and to grow everything that he ate. I worried that his diet might be a little boring at times, but I needn't have worried. He brought a pan of nettle soup made from the tips of young nettles and a little lemon thyme. It was wonderful. Never did I have the chance to thank him in a way that would have been acceptable. But in exchange, he would look around and see what was going to waste. If the builders we had in had left some plastic pipes then he would go off with those to construct a tower to grow courgettes in or a tumbler for a cascade of tiny tomatoes that grew plump and red in the Cornish sunshine.

In the Summertime, I took him into the cool of the cowshed wall where an old lean-to greenhouse had been constructed. 'This', I told him emphatically, 'was the sole reason we had bought this particular house'. And then I showed him inside my secret palace. The 'Greenhouse', as such was about 30 feet long and had been constructed around a very old grapevine. The previous owner had told me that the grapevine was at least 80 years old. The roots were outside under the shade of a wonderfully-shaped willow tree where I parked the baby's pram, and came in through the wall  and along the roof the entire length of the house. There was a gutter which dripped water onto the roots, which they loved, and the 'stem' of the vine was the diameter of a man's arm. In summer we were harvesting six large bunches of red grapes a day just to keep from going mouldy. The neighbours were kept in presents and my then-husband had me treading grapes in the bathtub to turn into wine. (Somehow, though, it wasn't an occupation he was prepared to do himself).

I made Dolmades out of the young vine leaves and took them over to John Daniel's. We sat on old striped deckchairs next to the blue plastic potato barrel to eat; and I suddenly realised that I'd made something very fine indeed. There was an ease to this kind of living, a giving and receiving that was both natural and uncomplicated. So often there is no gift without a kind of price tag fixed at some imaginary point in the future that will be called in. With John Daniel there was none of this. The only money that ever changed hands was in square footage over a length of box hedging. The friendship built lives on to this day, as does the passion for kitchen gardening which he help foster.

I am smiling broadly as he draws up outside my new home. He carries a bottle with a hand-written label on it. Will it be more of his mind-blowingly strong parsnip wine I wonder? He leaves his worn espadrilles at the door and fusses the dog as she greets a friend she has yet to meet. There are treats in his trouser pockets and he has won her over as he did us all those many years ago. There is a genuine abundance about him, a generosity that has no truck with material possessions. I feel that if I asked for his coat he would give it to me, willingly, and be glad to have been of service. It is hard to give back to someone like that who doesn't ask for it, and insulting to be more obvious. A meal is good. He will accept my hospitality gladly, and the chicken pie that I have made with its liquor interior of pale ale is heartily received. He has made something similar himself, he declares, checking the label on the bottle. Organic, naturally. I never doubted it for one moment.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

J is for Jammy

Dear Nigel,

I am making a chicken pie. It is an exceedingly good chicken pie; and as I stir the chopped tarragon leaves into the rich gravy made with organic pale ale and fresh chicken stock, Molly comes up to me and informs me that she had one the other night and nearly ate half the pie. I inform her tartly that this one is homemade and she is therefore a very lucky girl, and not out of a packet from some budget supermarket. The recipe is 'Quick Chicken Pot Pie' (page329). Good for a damp, dismal day when 'sometimes, you just want pie.'

The recipe calls for White beer, and here you have me floored. Enlisting the help of half the available shop assistants this morning, we decide that white beer is most likely to be pale ale but no one had heard it called as such. That so many young men should be happy to be called over to discuss the subject of beer at nine o'clock on a Friday morning shows a certain dedication to their calling.

Mothers Day on Sunday saw five out of seven of my little chicklings back home for the day. An earlier email from my daughter when I'm trying to firm up arrangements happily says, 'we'll do whatever you want - it is your day'. However, as we sit eating lunch and I drop into the conversation that I'd like to go to Biddulph Grange, an almighty groan goes up from my older ones. 'Not another National Trust Garden'. David finds this highly amusing. I'm thinking - what did that nice little email from Hannah say? Shouldn't we be doing something that I want to do on MY Day? Of course we go. Of course they moan. The little ones enjoy the Dinosaur bones garden (the Stumpery), the Chinese pagoda and  the Tea house, feeding the Carp and finding the imaginary monsters that lurk in all the caves and tunnels. They, at least, are easily amused.

I hear from my two older sons, James and Christopher, and I ring my Mum. I think about you, and your Mum, and I feel grateful for what I have. Trying to write the most difficult of letters ever recently, to someone, I come up with only one thought that seems to resonate in me: The people that I have loved best and who are no longer with me live on most in the values that they imparted. I look at my children and see not just a look or mannerism or colour of eye, but the values and principles that have passed on and assimilated effortlessly in them. Not things that I have taught them, cajoled or badgered them into doing, but a way of living that has come through the years through the people who have taught me how to live well. And which now lives on in them.

The fields are full of twin lambs everywhere at present, and notes on farm gates advertising cade lambs for sale (ie orphan lambs raised on a bottle). The children would like to take one home as a pet but I think the paperwork would be a little excessive these days, even for just one lamb. They are, however, the best indication that Spring is here and Summer, hopefully, not too far behind. Tractors are wearing over-large tyres this season, as the ground is so wet, and young lads are out courting in Green Massey Fergusons driving erratically with their girlfriends in tandem. At least I was only following one lad and his girlfriend this morning as he wove across the road; I wouldn't have liked to have been the car coming the other way who was eyeing his shiny new paintwork with horror.

Last weekend I was hedge trimming at a friend's farm, taking out thick stems with a pair of loppers (a  necessary procedure just before the surge of Spring makes it an impossible job). There in the heart of the hedge I uncovered the most perfectly formed little nest with three bluish-green eggs cossetted inside; looking for all the world like the most twee and artificial chocolate confection. Carefully, I moved it and hid it deeper in the hedge and moved off to allow the flustering mother blackbird to re-establish herself. It is one of the hazards of gardening at this time of year, unfortunately.

The children play a treasure hunt game by my friend's lake and it is a bit like running in a playground full of toddlers as they try and avoid the mass piggyback races of all the nearby toad population. Lawns have been wrecked by an unchecked assault by the local mole SAS team, but the soil makes great covering for the herbs and salad beds. Gardening, which has been left for so long to manage itself over the winter months has suddenly become an imperative as the days get longer and the temperature starts to rise a little.

The Rhubarb is the first crop to be ready for harvesting. It is a beautiful and vibrant pink with long-enough stems to warrant picking. I am also testing some later-cropping variety this year, but this more established mound will soon be pulled and made into crumble. My family like it with Raspberries or alternatively a little stem ginger and brown sugar. It is heartening to make something good that grows so effortlessly under its blanket of well-rotted manure.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A guest at my table - Jo

Entering into Jo's house for the first time was like encountering a different world: It was a different world, different to the life I'd hitherto known. As we sat on enormous beanbags on the floor of the spacious and empty room gazing at the expanse of polished parquet and sipping herbal tea, I felt more at home in this place than I had done back at my parents. John and Jo lived ethically and politically, both in his job in overseas development, and hers helping women in childbirth in Bolivia and now here at home in middle class suburbville somewhere off the M4.

The NCT class was populated with highly educated professional people all in their sensible mid to late thirties, and early forties. And a couple of kids, really. Us. I was 20 years old, barely out of college, and in that seemingly unlikely state of being straight out of school and able to buy our first house. Back in the early '80s when a two bedroom terraced house in East Reading could be had for £19,000, it was strangely possible.

Jo was bright-eyed and dark with tight curly hair and an eternally youthful stance and outlook on life. Coming in as the second wife to a man who already had three children and a view on population, meant that her longing for children only allowed her the one. The longing was always there and she used this to help drive her desire to help others create families of their own. Even though she'd taught as a teacher for many years she'd never been invited to attend a birth - that most personal and private of times. Until now. I think my main motivating desire for Jo's support was the fact that my then husband was prone to passing out at the sight of blood, and I was more worried about what would happen to him than what would happen to me. So Jo was enlisted to cart him off at the ninth hour should it be necessary.

The birth was fairly 'textbook', as they say. Age had a huge part to play in that way, I think. Our society has unbalanced the natural order of things as far as mother nature is concerned, and it shows in the steep rise in intervention in childbirth in this country. Jo was there. Miraculously, Richard was still standing too. And there was this little bundle of joy that looked more like ET than the photographs I'd seen in baby books.

Jo returned the next day with a framed piece of calligraphy she'd done of a piece out of Kahlil Gibran's poem 'The Prophet'. It said -

'Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.'

It carries on in this vein. Many of you may know it well. But it gave me -  a young, naive new mother -  a different view on children to the dolls pram and pretty dresses one so many little girls are brought up on. Jo helped me to look on life and its blessings in a different way. Over the years I have tried to preserve the differences between my children, guarding the personalities that are entirely their own and nothing to do with the way I have brought them up or the way I might wish them to be. One is sporty, another quiet, one flamboyant, another hot and fiery. All quite different.

Jo indulged her desire for daughters in running the local Brownie pack and for the bizarre and spectacular in her beautiful millinery creations (a passion for which carried on through the years). We wrote, usually at Christmas, keeping in touch as my unethical family grew and life wove this way and that across the country, putting down roots, ripping them up and planting fresh ones elsewhere. Her family spread out world-wide in their high-flying careers and she carried on in the same house, imparting the same sound knowledge where it was needed.

She sits at the table now, swinging her legs up to sit cross-legged on the seat in her bare feet and smiling like a young girl. The dish is just right, I think: vegetarian, inexpensive, spicy and hot and of elsewhere. She is notably pleased.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I is for Inexplicably good

Dear Nigel,

Most of life seems to be inexplicable, it seems to me. Things either work or they don't. Food is either inexplicably good or bad but rarely indifferent. Sometimes the culprit is easily spotted and dealt with swiftly - too much seasoning in a casserole, add a potato and let the saltiness disappear. Sometimes, of course, it's too late and it's 'eat it or starve'.

On the other end of the scale are those memorable meals where the inexplicable something is usually the catalyst between one ingredient and another. These are the meals we mark out as sublime, and they can be anything from salt and vinegar on chips to truffle oil on wild mushrooms. This is the outcome I am hoping for with a simple comfort food dish of potatoes on a wild and windy March afternoon when it is better to be in than out, with the hailstones clawing my face as I screw my eyes up and make a dash to the car. The dish is 'Potatoes with Spices and Spinach' ( pg 263).

I am inviting my new friend over here for the first time. He is a Designer, and the one thing about Designers is that they notice everything. Including the dirt. So I am cleaning like there's no tomorrow. Of course I know it doesn't matter in the slightest. And yet it does; this time at least. Dirt is the one thing we do well over here. It is a different kind of dirt to the clogged up London air. This dirt arrives on foot, usually. The dog rarely wipes her feet on the specially-constructed dirt-trapper mat, preferring to jump over it so that she can make perfect paw prints on the tiles. The children are better organised to remove their wellies as they fly in off the moors leaving a trail behind them all the way to the television of boots, coats, and trousers often-enough. The village lanes are cleaned almost weekly now but the off-load of constant tractors fresh from the fields is a constant trial. I want to send the children to school in shoes like everyone else but the obstacle course of mud makes it impractical until it all starts to dry up a bit.

This simple meal is basically another take on the humble roast potato. I ask myself why I've never made this before as I sit down to eat. It's lovely. But when I think of making roast potatoes they are always accompanied in my mind by a roast meat. It's the way I was brought up. Most of us in this country, I expect. So how to get from there to a dish like this. I have often eaten a dish like this when out, but never cooked it myself. Yet it's so ridiculously easy. How can we change the habits of a lifetime and create new ones. Do I need to cook this week in week out until it is embedded in my subconscious, or do I have to deliberately turn to the recipe every time. I want to be able to look at a potato and say, 'this will make a fine dinner today.' I want to move my socialisation process and coat those potatoes in spices and yoghurt, instead of gravy and redcurrant jelly. As you say, the dish is 'hot, cool, crisp, soft' and inexplicably sublime. It is a dish without meat where none is intended, and comfort on a blustery day. It is also very inexpensive to cook, which makes it hugely attractive to me right now. The sublime bit for me comes with the interplay between hot and salty. I think maybe I have overdone the sea salt, but no, it is simply the heat of the cayenne and chilli bringing out the tang of the sea. As a marmite girl this is completely up my street.

There is a newly-rotavated vegetable patch waiting for me to sow now. I am holding fire a little while longer as the morning frosts still linger. I think a couple more weeks will give even the hardiest little seedling more of a fighting chance. I'm thinking we might have missed the snow this year, though it is still very cold out of the sunshine. I only want to plant things this year that will work hard for their money - cut and come again salads and perpetual spinach; that sort of thing. The rhubarb creates a pretty hedge with its leggy pink stems and will soon need pulling. Every year it gets stronger and better. Last year's newbies are feeble in comparison to the rude health of the previous year's stock. I am trying different varieties - early and late- to try and extend the season. The spinach has designer lacework courtesy of a myriad of insects, no doubt. We eat that which would never grace any restaurant table and it is none-the-worse for its doily-like effect.

Each day we wave to old Nigel as he goes back and forth down the lane in his huge red tractor, taking bales of hay to the cows. He is my five o'clock wake up call drifting in to my subconscious and priming me for the series of more insistent alarm calls from my phone. The other day he passed us with his one year old grandson sitting up front, grinning from ear to ear. Young and old together. The next generation of farmers in training.


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A guest at my table - Mrs M

I am looking at a salt and pepper grinder in John Lewis. One click and there is pepper, turn it round and pure white sea salt is dispersed with a second click. People are like this, sometimes; like politicians appealing to every denomination and social strata they click and turn, click and turn. I want my pepper mill to grind pepper, my salt mill salt. They are different heights, different weights and I can see them on a dark night with the lights turned down low without having to squint. They are comfortably permanently the same. This is how I want them to remain.

It is the Autumn of 1981 and a new term at a new college has begun. There is a river of oil on water as the products of two diametrically opposed educational systems seek to merge, or spar. This is the Conservative heartland of Henley-on-Thames. George Harrison is ensconced next door and the local MP has too much make-up on his face from too many television appointments. He is Michael Hesseltine. He thinks in coming here to this little sixth form college in his own backyard that he will have an easy ride. He is wrong. There is a battle going on between the plummy debs and the backyard Stanleys and the lines have been drawn. This is a state school still, but infiltrated en masse by a lobby of partly-educated private and public school adolescents whose parents seek to skim the cream off a state education beacon of excellence. We don't recognise it as such - the plebs without another place to go - it is our nearest and only college within miles of this warren of tiny villages we all inhabit.

The stage is set for a pageant. The principle arrives in flowing robes and a special song is installed in us and reverberates. We state school pupils role our eyes and look for the exits. And there, standing on the stage in the line up of performing clowns is Mrs M. She looks bemused and alert as she gazes from face to face, checking out what the winter winds have blown in for her to sculpt.

The building is a Victorian Gothic fantasy, much like Harrison's, but half way down the drive, hidden by trees and a mountain of rhododendron bushes are a couple of seedy old portacabins - much like any well-thumbed state school - where a cauldron of discontent and future subversives is brewing. This is where the Politics and Sociology classes have been ousted to; to be tolerated at a distance. Mrs M roars up in her sports car and parks it round the back. Her hair is expensively maintained and immaculate. She is bright, articulate with red nails and a Bank Manager husband heading the large fort back home. She talks of equality and an education system for all before collecting her own sons from boarding school for the weekend. She has seen both sides of the street and decided for herself which one to stand on. This is easy for she is pretty and shiny whilst emitting with passion ideals formed in the hot bed of the LSE. We love her for her passion. We tolerate her dichotomy in a world she seeks to change by engaging minds and sowing seeds.

There is a gradual melding of two social systems as we try to become more alike. Toffee-nosed airs are ripped down and grungy clothing is ubiquitously the order of the day. A uniform of  black is taking over in the politics block. CND badges replace the old school blazer laudatum and enquiring minds are put to work uncovering the blinkers and the legacy of social backgrounds. There is anger, there is hunger and a thirst for new ideas and political ideals. Reality does not intervene with all its mundane certainty as Mrs M keeps court. Back to the hall for the week's drill of gowns and flamboyant lecturing. Back to the Nissan hut for a quick roll up and decoding of the subversive indoctrination we've all been party to. One system seeks to neutralise the other. It is ping pong and we are the vacuous white balls in play.

I am putting the dish of Chicken and Spelt on the table as my guest comes flying in on a wave of energy, her eyes darting everywhere, the light in them flickering as she surveys the room. I am wanting to know how the intervening years have mellowed her; whether her ideals have faded at the edges as the will to fight ebbs; or whether the energy to cultivate young minds is as fresh as it ever was. A good teacher carries her pupils along on a wave of passion and discovery. Mrs M was born to teach.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

H is for Hankering

Dear Nigel,

I may have a bone to pick with you this time, Nigel - in fact several bones as it happens. I have a hankering to make your recipe for 'Ras el Hanout Chicken and Spelt' (page 189), but when it comes down to going out shopping I find the ingredients a little elusive to say the least. The pearled spelt I eventually track down in a health food shop, but the chicken wings are unavailable everywhere I go. Perhaps in London with its ethnic diversity it's a different matter but in Ashbourne, anyway, there is no demand for them is seems.

I am beginning to think I might have to substitute a few chicken drumsticks but I can just imagine the comments coming back...'that chicken never flew'...etc Eventually I track some down but even then the butcher says it is for a special order otherwise he wouldn't have had any in either. That said, by the time my guest and I sit down to eat, I know exactly why it has to be wings. There is a claggy stickiness to them that is just so moreish it is worth the hunt. The pearled spelt is a new one on me but it seems to take on the rich flavours as it plumps up, and makes a nice change to normal rice. Another quick and tasty recipe with a waft of Morocco on the plate.

I saw my first Spring lambs this week playing in a meadow, all cotton woolly and new. When they jump it is as if they are tiny puppets on strings being lifted vertically in the air on all four feet. It feels as if it has been a very long winter this year and the first couple of days of real sunshine almost seem unreal. It is warm-enough to eat in the garden on Sunday for the first time. There is lots of over-enthusiasm for these first few rays of sun. Everywhere, it seems, there are tons of pale bare flesh being aired as if a tropical heatwave is on its way.

The good thing is the weather has dried up some of the mud in the meadows and we are less in danger of losing our wellies trying to cross the stile. The rhubarb is shooting up and the flowering currant is about the burst forth. There is an air of Spring around even though there is often a low-hanging mist in the early mornings. As we are high up near the moorlands here it's not surprising. The sun burns it off by mid-morning and the air of mystery surrounding it is lost. The tabby cat stretches out on top of the woodshed as if she is ironed flat with a leg at each corner; maximum surface area soaking up the heat like a little solar panel. She is in her element, drunk on sunshine, with a Cheshire cheese smile going from whisker to whisker. Don't wake me, she says.

My Tom has been away for his University interview, dressed in his suit all dapper, without the apron strings of his mum to tie him down. I think, should I have gone with him after all, despite his protestations? But no, that would be for me. He wants to be independent and confident, without me clucking round him. They offer him a conditional place; perhaps now he'll put some work in...

John has been rotavating the vegetable patch again and a path is going down tomorrow he tells me. Usually by now the seeds are bought and planned out on paper. Why am I being so tardy this year, I ask myself? It is as if I have forgotten a part of myself I left outside last summer and have yet to reclaim and make mine. I start from the house working outwards. The windows wide open, the paths being swept. I remove all the gravel I threw on there to make traction in the ice which never really came this time. It is looking more as if someone lives here, someone who cares. The harsh sun obliterates the windows with their crust of winter grime - another job to do. There is a cleaning woman inside me desperate to get out. I'd better make the most of her - she doesn't come this way often. The vegetable patch can wait a few more days. I hack off some of the dead stuff in the flower bed that I should have done away with last Autumn but didn't. It has ceased to be sculptural and now just looks dank. Every tweak is an improvement. Spirits lighten as fresh winds blow in and the washing dances on the line. Spring is nearly here.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A guest at my table - Mathew and Andy

The year is 1997 and I am travelling to York University to meet a group of people I have never seen before and who will, by the end of the next week, have become like close family if only for a short, intense time. This is the Open University Summer School programme. All of us have spent the entire year individually deep in assignments, books and late night television programmes (although most were starting to appear on video, thankfully) and now we are here all together. I think I have travelled a long way, coming up from Cornwall, until I meet the others. I find myself in a minority, suddenly, as people fly in in drips and drabs from all corners of the earth.

It is an essential requirement of the courses that people attend Summer School, and every help is made available for those with tiny babies, those who have to bring whole families with them, the old, the disabled, service men and women stationed on the other side of the world. There are no exceptions.

I hadn't realised when I started this History degree that it would be so dominated by the army. The services pay/or help pay for servicemen stationed overseas to be able to study for a degree, and many of them fit it in with night work or long periods of waiting. In my group are two young men roughly the same age as me; Mathew is a young officer in his early thirties working undercover for the MOD in Eastern Europe. Andy is part of a Bomb disposal squad in Northern Ireland. It is a difficult time for both of them. Over in Ireland, the Real IRA are waging a campaign against the British security forces, culminating in the Omagh bombing which would occur the year after this. Over in Albania, the United Nations Security Council had, in March, authorised a force of 7,000 to direct relief and restore order to Albania, to try and prevent the unrest from spreading outside the country. Both men have young families back home, and young wives who have mental health problems. You can perhaps pick and train men to be mentally strong in these situations but you can't pick their families. It is an added burden they both share. It is not something I have ever thought about before.

Mathew has dark wavy hair and glasses and unusually pale skin. He is calm and controlled and never seems to become particularly animated by any of the discussions. He is thoughtful and incisive and brings a deeper interpretation to our joint projects. It is interesting to see how different minds work in the same situation. Other people make you look at things in a different way, if they are able to communicate their thoughts properly. Andy shows me a different side. He isn't as intellectual as Mathew but his take on things is totally unique. He breaks things down into a step-by-step approach. Every step provides a choice, but each of these choices lead to a pre-determined step. He is applying his skills as a bomb disposal expert to the deconstruction of an assignment question. He is slightly younger - perhaps in his late twenties still- with a regulation crew cut and square jaw. He is charismatic and witty yet never out of control of the situation. He is an interesting mix, and lives on the hyped-up adrenalin that his job gives him; yet in a controlled and confined sort of way. He isn't a man to shout.

The week plays out in a heightened state for all of us. These events are notable for this I think. Each night we find we are still talking at four or five in the morning, no one wanting to give in to the dull ache of sleep. It is the finite time limit that makes this all the more imperative. And the bug is catching. By the end of the week even the older members who have taken themselves off to bed on the first couple of nights are hanging out in the halls with the dwindling supplies of alcohol and crisps, their wrinkles pinned back and their eyes glistening with fire.

My guests have arrived at the correct time for our dinner of lamb cutlets. They are still in their late twenties and early thirties, and, although I want to find out how the intervening years have left their mark, they are unable to tell me what they cannot know. The world is a different place today. Their conflicts are just another page in the history books; another question on a University exam paper. These young men are helping to write that history, even as they examine the questions from another time. Perhaps all wars and conflicts throw up the same universal questions and issues, and, in answering those, they are seeking to answer their own. Their worlds are very far apart and yet the questions are the same.