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I’ve been reading ‘Conundrum’ by Jan Morris

They say that reading history is the only way to understand the news. Someone recently, perhaps in a news article, suggested reading Conundrum as an essential text to understand the current hysteria over gender.

Morris died in 2020 at the age of 94: she was of my grandparents’ generation. She is best known as a journalist and travel writer, including the only journalist accompanying Edmund Hillary and colleagues on the first expedition to successfully ascend Mount Everest in 1953.

This book, published in 1974, documents her gender transition. She was born James Morris, the name she used until after her gender reassignment surgery in 1972. There is, by the way, plenty of background colour about her journalistic career, which I found fascinating.

Conundrum is of its time, and some descriptions and gender stereotypes would be considered ‘problematic’ today. It is, nevertheless, beautifully written, and I had no trouble turning the pages.

I’ve sometimes struggled to fully understand the motivation behind transitioning from one gender to another. I’m in the privileged position that it’s something I’ve never been driven to contemplate at any length. Perhaps I undervalue the impact of my gender on my life, and so I find it difficult to appreciate why it’s such a big deal to others. Morris helped me see this differently and understand that—for her—the change and associated surgery were ‘corrective’.

This is an idea I’ve come across before, but something in Morris’s explanation made it ‘click’ for me. I think I appreciated her comparison between the medical ethics of removing a healthy arm and a healthy penis, a perspective I hadn’t considered before. I found myself challenged and enlightened as a result.

I also found Morris’s discussion of the bureaucracy of her change insightful: whether she could remain married, still be a member of her male-only members’ clubs, and so forth. I was struck by how such things were dealt with in the 1970s, mostly with compassion, care and, perhaps above all, consideration for Morris’s feelings.

It feels worlds away from the unpleasant approach of those who seek to divide us in the 2020s. It’s both unimaginable and yet true that half a century later, Ministers of the Crown try to score rhetorical points in Parliament by discussing whether women can have penises. There is no compassion for any individual in suggesting, as a former Home Secretary did at the despatch box, that Sir Keir Starker may run as Labour’s first female Prime Minister.

This New Year’s Eve, perhaps we can hope for the future that our leaders will be better at learning from our past.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .


Wendy and I like making meals in our slow cooker, not least because it means they are hot and ready when we get home from work. We’ve got a few books of slow cooker recipes, but we’ve always struggled with two aspects:

  1. Recipes typically require 6-8 hours of cooking, whereas we’re typically out of the house for around 12 hours. We could use a timer to delay the start of cooking, but having ingredients sitting at room temperature for 4-6 hours before cooking begins seems risky. We often ended up with overcooked food.
  2. Possibly because of the above, we found that the food we made often ended up being quite watery and bland.

In an end-of-year round-up somewhere—I can’t remember where, but I suspect it may have been in The Financial Times—I read a suggestion that 2024 would be the year of restaurants promoting their use of recipes generated by artificial intelligence. I don’t believe this, but it inspired me to ask ChatGPT about slow cooker recipes.

Over the course of a conversation where I set out my requirements, ChatGPT generated a recipe for a chicken curry. I asked many follow-up questions about things like substitute ingredients, the need to do most of the prep the night before, and my strong preference for avoiding wateriness, leading to ChatGPT iterating on the recipe.

Earlier this week, we made the curry, our first dinner generated by artificial intelligence. It turned out beautifully, far better than our versions of the book recipes.

It’s an excellent example of something ChatGPT does well: explaining simple things to clueless people. Wendy and I are hardly expert cooks; being able to ask for very simple clarifications and iterations provides a much better experience than trying to work it out ourselves from a static list of instructions.

We’ll probably use the same process again to expand our repertoire.

This isn’t a cookery blog, but if you’re interested, this is the current version of our ChatGPT chicken curry recipe. I think this is the first recipe I’ve posted in the twenty years I’ve been blogging, despite dedicating a chunk of my academic life to the topic!


  • For the marinade:
    • 500g boneless, skinless chicken thighs
    • 75g Greek-style yoghurt
    • 1 tbsp tikka masala paste
    • 1.5 tbsp bottled lemon juice
  • For the curry:
    • 150g frozen diced onions
    • 2 tsp jarred chopped garlic
    • 2 tbsp ginger paste
    • 1 tbsp tomato paste
    • 1/3 tsp ground cumin
    • 1/3 tsp ground coriander
    • 1/3 tsp paprika
    • 1/3 tsp turmeric
    • 1/3 tsp garam masala
    • 1 Knorr chicken stock pot
    • 60ml single cream (to add at the end)


  • Marinate the chicken:
    • Combine the Greek-style yoghurt, tikka masala paste, and lemon juice in a bowl.
    • Add the chicken thighs, ensuring they’re well coated.
    • Refrigerate overnight.
  • Prepare the slow cooker:
    • Place the frozen diced onions, jarred chopped garlic, and ginger paste in the slow cooker.
    • Add the marinated chicken along with any leftover marinade.
    • Spread the tomato paste over the chicken.
    • Sprinkle with the spices (cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric, and garam masala).
    • Add the chicken stock pot.
  • Cook:
    • Cover and set your slow cooker to low. Cook for 12 hours.
  • Finishing Touches:
    • Stir in 60ml of single cream about 10-15 minutes before serving.
  • Serve:
    • Serve the Chicken Tikka Masala with rice, naan bread, or your preferred sides.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3. A better blogger would have taken a photo of the meal, but I was too hungry.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

Ce n’est pas complètement méchant

Back in May, I moaned about the uninspiring decision to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris to be exactly the same as it was prior to the 2019 fire. In my view, it seemed to be an example of preservation at the expense of conservation, forcing the building into a frozen historical state that bears no relation to the changing needs of the building and the community around it.

Yet, I missed July’s announcement of Guillaume Bardet’s incredible minimalist liturgical furniture which is destined for the interior. The combination of boldness and simplicity is stunning, somehow both timeless and contemporary. The decision to create something functional and new, rather than just blindly replicating what came before, gives me a scintilla of hope about the whole project.

They may only represent a handful of objects, but they are among the most liturgically important objects in the building. Seeing the restoration take such a bold path on such important things gives me faith. Perhaps, after all, it is a more thoughtful restoration than the headlines suggested.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Required service

Last week, The Times’s leading article asked:

Why should doctors, trained at great expense by the state, not be obliged to serve a minimum number of years in the NHS?

Politicians occasionally suggest that doctors who have been trained in the UK—and who have accumulated an average of £71,000 in debt in the process—should have a period of indentured service to the NHS or else pay a still higher contribution to the cost of their training to be freed from this requirement.

I always wonder why the equivalent suggestion isn’t made regarding politicians themselves. Elections are costly, and when MPs resign mid-term, before the end of the period of service for which they were elected, there is a cost to the public purse of running an election to replace them. Why not require MPs to serve their term or repay the by-election costs if they don’t?

The answer is obvious: it’s in no one’s interest to have a de-motivated, disruptive, non-attending Nadine Dorries of an MP, trapped in a job they want to leave because of a perceived ‘fine’ if they quit—a ‘fine’ that they may not be able to afford. And it strikes me that the same applies to doctors.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Health, News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023.

I’ve been reading ‘Same as Ever’ by Morgan Housel

This book contains 23 short chapters, each of which Housel attempts to identify an aspect of the world that never changes. Therefore, I had expected this to be discursive and philosophical and was disappointed. This is more the sort of book which belongs in the business section of an airport bookshop, which isn’t the sort of book I tend to enjoy (though many people do).

It’s a book that creates trains of logic between different disciplines, but in a way that does not always seem to work. For example, one chapter is dedicated to the need for businesses to keep ‘evolving’ to stay relevant and successful. Housel uses the example of Sears as a business which became too static, partly because of its size. He relates this to comparing a T-Rex and bacteria: the T-Rex is too large and therefore vulnerable to extinction, whereas bacterial species have tenaciously survived for millennia. But this example undermines the original point: the bacteria have remained static in evolutionary terms, especially compared to a T-Rex, so it’s a counterargument to the requirement to keep ‘evolving’—not a supporting argument as Housel seems to think.

Much of the book struck me as similarly confused. There are a lot of things in this book that Housel cites as fundamental, unchanging lessons about the world, which I think are anything but. He rarely looks back more than a couple of centuries for his supporting anecdotes, and the format doesn’t give him the space to develop his ideas or refute any counterarguments.

At one point, Housel quotes Bertrand Russell as saying:

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

I would characterise the book as ‘stupid’, but it is certainly long on confidence and short on doubt.

One sentiment that I thought Housel put across well in this book was about the difficulty of maintaining long-term plans:

Saying you have a ­ten-­year time horizon doesn’t exempt you from all the nonsense that happens in the next ten years. Everyone has to experience the recessions, the bear markets, the meltdowns, the surprises, and the memes. So rather than assuming ­long-­term thinkers don’t have to deal with ­short-­term nonsense, ask the question, “How can I endure a ­never-­ending parade of nonsense?”

But overall, this book just wasn’t my kind of thing… but it might be yours!

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

A modern Christmas tradition

For Boxing Day, I enjoyed this brief article in The TLS about the surprisingly modern history of carols. It turns out that singing them in church is a relatively modern innovation: they moved there from the village green as part of

the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century and its introduction of what might be called a performative inclusivity – try saying that after two glasses of the Archdeacon’s sherry – in Anglican worship. Get them in and singing, and they’ll feel more a part of things.

My latent assumption had always been that there was a long British tradition of carols, but in fact, most of them are from other places:

“Good King Wenceslas”, comes from a songbook of 1582, Piae Cantiones Ecclesiasticae et Scholastichae, by Jaakko Suomalainen, head of the Turku cathedral school in Finland? Or that both “We Three Kings” and “Away in a Manger” are American? The latter was published in a bulletin of the universalist movement, which falsely attributed the words to Martin Luther.

I had no idea.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

Merry Christmas

What do you write in a Christmas Day blog post?

This is this blog’s twenty-first Christmas, and I’ve written ten previous Christmas Day posts. Most of them are entirely forgettable, but looking through them, two stood out.

In 2009, I ranted about the Dean of Newcastle ranting about Ann Summers. I wrote that

Christmas in particular brings out the worst in Christians. Many normally tolerant Christians see it as their duty to shout down those who don’t have god at the centre of their seasonal celebration, regardless of whether those people actually believe.

This brought back memories, but made me reflect that I’ve haven’t heard anyone complaining about Christ being take out of Christmas for years. I wonder whether the number of complaints has decreased, or whether I just don’t see them any more. It strikes me as the sort of argument I’d once have seen on social media, but that I perhaps don’t see any more as a result of abandoning those platforms.

Last year, I wrote that

One of work’s national leaders tied himself in such knots this week in his attempts to be religiously inclusive that he ended up robotically “wishing you all a wonderful set of end-of-year activities.”

No other Christmas greeting has ever made me laugh so hard and, while not his intention, perhaps that makes it the best greeting of all.

I had forgotten all about that and chuckled anew at the memory. I haven’t seen anything to rival it this season, sadly.

Looking elsewhere for inspiration: Diamond Geezer, an altogether more successful blogger for a similar number of years, normally sticks to a Christmassy picture.

So accept this shot of Newcastle’s Christmas tree. For more than seventy years, a tree has been sent from Bergen as a token of appreciation for support during the Second World War. This year, however, it seems someone noticed that we’re in a climate crisis, and that killing a tree and shipping it over 1,000 miles isn’t all that wise.

Instead, a new tradition began this year: decorating an existing, living tree that grows near the traditional site, and shipping a bauble from Bergen instead. Using a tree that’s still in the ground strikes me as going one better even than the King’s potted, replantable effort!

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, .

Jesmond Dene waterfall

Newspapers often complain about television repeats at Christmas, and in some ways, this is a blog equivalent. The photos are new, but I’ve shared images of this waterfall many times, even as recently as last spring. Here’s an animated gif of the same place nine years ago.

William Armstrong, a noted manufacturer of armaments, used explosives to blast the rock and create the waterfall in the middle of the 19th century.

Armstrong is a fascinating character who is often cited as a supporter of renewable energy thanks to his interest in hydroelectricity and solar power.

But this can sometimes be overdone: both Wikipedia and The Telegraph have strongly implied that his eco-credentials were behind an 1863 prediction that coal mining in Britain would be over within two centuries. This is bollocks, as The Spectator’s contemporary report makes clear: he was merely predicting that ‘in a century or two, the United States, which possess coal-fields thirty-six times as extensive as ours, will supply the world with coal’.

I planned to use this post to moan that Rishi Sunak’s decision to approve a new coal mine during a climate emergency would mean that Armstrong’s prediction about coal production in the UK would be proven wrong. But that, too, would deviate from facts: Woodhouse Colliery is scheduled to cease production after twenty-five years, long before the 2063 ‘deadline’.

A landslip caused by extreme weather a decade ago badly damaged the Dene, and some paths are still closed off. It is hard to be optimistic about its chances of surviving the climate catastrophe we’ll be living through by 2063.

This post was filed under: Photos, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been reading ‘What you are looking for is in the library’ by Michiko Aoyama

I read this popular Japanese novel in its English translation by Alison Watts, and if I could use only one word to describe it, it would be ‘warm’. The book has five sections, each narrated by one of a diverse collection of residents of the Hatori ward of Tokyo. Each of them, for one reason or another, visits the community library. The fearsome librarian, Sayuri Komachi, recommends an unexpected book which helps things work out in their life.

This is a comforting book about things which turn out well for lovely people, if not quite as originally envisaged. It’s a kind and tender book, but it’s a deep kindness: this is a story with depth. I was charmed by it.

This quotation captures the theme of the book, I think:

Life is one revelation after another. Things don’t always go to plan, no matter what your circumstances. But the flip side is all the unexpected, wonderful things that you could never have imagined happening. Ultimately it’s all for the best that many things don’t turn out the way we hoped. Try not to think of upset plans or schedules as personal failure or bad luck. If you can do that, then you can change, in your own self and in your life overall.

Sometimes, books which feature books become a bit overly sentimental about, well, books. Aoyama nicely captures the way that the experience of reading depends as much on the reader as the writer. This is an obvious truth, but it’s too often overlooked in favour of sentimentality about books in books:

Readers make their own personal connections to words irrespective of the writer’s intentions and each reader gains something unique.

It was just lovely.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, , .

New places to visit

The other day, I talked about how many of the EU’s most populous cities I’ve visited. But what about the UK?

As Citymonitor describes, it’s quite difficult to make a list of UK cities by population, so let’s assume we’re talking about the UK’s most populous urban areas as defined by Demographia, instead. And I can’t remember everything I did as a child, so let’s limit it to the last two decades.

By this measure, I’ve been to all the top five, and seven of the top ten. I haven’t been to Southampton-Portsmouth, Nottingham or Sheffield in the past twenty years. Perhaps I should try to correct that in 2024. I like to explore new cities.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Travel.

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