Arsenic in the Sugarbowl?


If you haven’t already read Shirley Jackson’s final novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, please be reassured that the title of this post gives nothing away. In fact, if you haven’t worked out the identity of the murderer in the first fifty pages or so, perhaps you need to read a bit more Agatha Christie – because it’s really quite obvious, I’m afraid.

In fact, the character I’m more interested is one of the survivors of that event – Uncle Julian Blackwood. Now it would be very fair to say that he’s a bit of a strange old bug; confined to a wheelchair since the murders and apparently with a tenuous grip on reality. Jackson seems content to suggest that Julian’s afflictions are a direct result of his recovery from arsenic poisoning, but this doesn’t seem right to me. Admittedly, everything I know about arsenic comes from reading a lot of Victorian crime histories (it was a great favourite in those days, as it was easy to get hold of and administer) and, of course, the Great Agatha, but she much preferred cyanide. Still…

Before the murders, Julian was apparently fully ambulant and happily married, although having to live with his brother and his family due to being somewhat impecunious. Yet when the reader first sees him, he’s confined to a wheelchair (and frequently confined to his bed), on a restricted diet and often unable to recognise the two women he sees on a daily basis – Constance is often mistaken for his late wife, while Merricat is simply not recognised at all.

Julian’s vagueness is reinforced by his frequent questioning of Constance – “did it really happen?” His memory is failing and he keeps copious notes on the murder and the trial. He says he is writing a book about it, but tellingly reveals on page 62:

“I really think I shall commence chapter forty four,” he said, patting his hands together. “I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie.”

Is he actually writing the definitive version of events, or simply his version of events? When Miss Wright visits unexpectedly, he takes considerable glee in showing her the dining room and entertaining her with his account of the fateful night – which he seems to remember very well indeed. I can’t help but think this is Jackson taking a sideswipe at Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, but I digress.

My point is that I have never seen portrayed anyone survive arsenic poisoning to suffer from such limb paralysis as to render them virtually immobile or any apparent symptom of dementia – from what I can gather, that isn’t how arsenic works. I can only assume, therefore, that it wasn’t just arsenic in the sugarbowl. Given that both Constance and Merricat are well versed in herbal toxicology (which they must have learned from somewhere, so I’ll open the suspect list to include the rest of the family), it wouldn’t be too much to assume that some kind of natural neurotoxin was added to the mix – at least, this would explain Julian’s symptoms much better. Whether it was added to ensure that the family died quickly, or by someone who didn’t realise that the arsenic was already there, isn’t elaborated on by Jackson, so I’m afraid we’ll never know.

I don’t think Hercule Poirot would have taken much time over the investigation though.

My First Perfume


When I was little, I wasn’t allowed perfume but my auntie had a little bottle of something that I was allowed to wear when I was playing dress up which smelled gorgeous. The bottle had a distinctive blue and gold label and always made me feel grown up, stonking around the house in an old satin negligee and someone else’s high heels. At that time I had no idea what it was, but I’m delighted to say that I tracked it down as an adult and still wear it – although not quite as liberally as I used to.

A classic eau de cologne, 4711 is still available now and the smell is still as citrus fresh as I remember. The citrus comes from bergamot, which gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive taste, lemon, orange and neroli, with lavender and rosemary providing a herbal base on which the citrus sits delicately. The actual combination, apparently, is a trade secret but if you have a decent supply of essential oils, I expect it would be fairly easy to replicate. At the very least, it would be great fun experimenting!

Just don’t blame me if your children smother themselves in it and disappear with your best heels and party frock. It’s what I would do, after all.

Van Gogh – Still Life with Absinthe


A bottle and glass on a table; and yet the whole painting is distinctively Van Gogh. It’s the brush strokes; thick with paint and in dazzling shades of green, blue, yellow and white against the varying browns of the café wall, the absinthe glass sizzles with life. I could almost reach out and drink it.

Van Gogh painted a number of still lifes over the years; it was a good way of honing his skills without having to waste anyone else’s time sitting for him. The majority, however, are of flowers – the best known of which is in the National Gallery – and the subject matter does make this one unusual. It wasn’t often that an artist painted his drink!

It’s a simple painting with a basic arrangement and yet there are things worth noting. The glint of the glass in the sunlight, the shimmer of the liquid, the person walking outside just visible through the café window; the perspective seems a little odd but it’s a vivid picture and has a distinct reality to it that one doesn’t usually see in a still life. It’s not his best known work by any means, but I think it’s underrated and I like it very much.

Chambord Liqueur


The latest in my series of “drinks I’d rather like to try but can never seem to find” is Chambord, a raspberry liqueur produced in France to a 17th century recipe. I love raspberries anyway and I have to say I’m rather in love with the bottle. It’s made from both black and red raspberries, Madagascan vanilla, Moroccan citrus peel, honey and cognac. Apart from the honey, all things I like. I’m drooling already.

According to the Chambord website, the liqueur is based on a recipe dating back to the late 1600s and which was tasted by Louis XIV on one of his visits to the Loire Valley. Whole raspberries and blackberries are steeped in spirits for several weeks to create an infusion, a process that is repeated several times. After the last infusion is drawn off, the fruit is pressed to obtain the sugars and juices, and the infusion and pressing are combined together and mixed with the other ingredients. It’s all rather potent – 16.5% ABV, more than beer but less than gin – which is worth remembering as it sounds all a bit moreish.

The bottle itself is also rather distinctive, being almost completely spherical with a gold “belt” around the widest part and a coronet on the lid. As it’s used in a number of cocktails, I suppose a well-stocked cocktail bar would have Chambord – but it still seems to be quite hard to find. That may be just as well, as there’s a possibility I would just drink the lot.

POSTSCRIPT – Since originally drafting this post, I have now found Chambord in Waitrose and resisted the urge to buy it. Even the bottle looks moreish.

The Curse of the Mexican Blackberries

Yes, I’m fully aware that the title of this post is slightly reminiscent of (i) a very bad 1950s B movie or (ii) Les Dawson’s legendary monologue on the plight of the Morecambe whelk, but bear with me. Some of this might actually be important.

One of the ladies with whom I work has lately been bringing in punnets of Mexican blackberries, which she claims are the sweetest she’d ever tasted. Showing me the few she had left from that morning, I can confirm that they looked suitably plump and juicy. I was more concerned that it never crossed her mind how wrong she was to be eating them.

This is not about food miles; although I grasp the concept, I’m not sure I could translate my understanding into an explanation that doesn’t involve waving my arms around a lot and resorting to drawing a diagram. This is about the sheer wrongness of eating blackberries in late spring. It’s just… not right.

Blackberries are, and always have been, an autumn fruit. Blackberries are reminiscent of weekend afternoons risking life and limb rummaging through hedgerows in an attempt to fill an oversized Tupperware container, and then resisting the urge to eat half of the crop before you get home. Blackberries live alongside apples in crumbles and pies before being smothered in custard, or mixed with meringue and cream for trifles and compotes. Blackberries are one of the last wild foods still regularly foraged by any and all comers. You have no idea of my delight in finding a blackberry bush growing wild in my front garden; nor of my frustration in finding that the blackbirds have got the pick of the crop before I’ve even got a bowl out of the cupboard.

While I’m quite sure that the Mexican blackberries are lovely to eat – and my colleague seemed to think they were – I dislike losing the ritual of gathering the blackberries, making the pies and crumbles and sharing them out with generous dollops of thick yellow custard (Birds is entirely acceptable, although I appreciate that other types of custard, including home-made, are freely available). I look forward to my autumn crop, even though I know it’s a sign that winter is coming. I can’t face eating blackberries at a time of year when the strawberries are starting to come out.

Perhaps this is a sure sign I’m getting old, but it’s a real slap in the face for anyone who likes to eat seasonally. How are children to know when fruits are in season when they are available all year round? Besides, bramble bush scratches used to be a badge of honour – it’s about time we brought them back.

Will Somebody Please Sort This Mess Out?

I have tried very hard to avoid getting political on my blog but over the weekend, I caught a snippet of news that changed my mind on this point.

Today, for the first time in the history of the National Health Service, junior doctors will strike without providing any emergency cover. In previous episodes of industrial action, A&E services have been provided, but from now on, they will not. This is absolutely unheard of and is not a matter that the Government can ignore, I’m afraid. Here’s why.

When transport workers strike, it’s a nuisance but alternative arrangements are made and people work around it. When post office workers strike, it’s a nuisance, but alternative arrangements are made and people work around it. When civil servants strike, I doubt very much many people actually notice, because life seems to go on as normal for most people (sorry about that, but it’s true).

However, junior doctors have a very specific skill set and when they strike, people notice. With the best will in the world, a nurse or paramedic simply cannot cover a junior doctor – they have not had the same training and do not have the same skills. I think even they would admit that, and I hope I am not doing them a disservice by saying so. If emergency care is not provided, there is a very high probability that people could die.

So great is this probability that a cross-party group of MPs, together with the Royal College of Surgeons, made proposals to be put to both sides in an attempt to at least avert the possibility of losing emergency medical cover. The Department of Health dismissed these proposals as “ill-informed” and “publicity seeking”. Perhaps they were, but at least someone seems to care enough to ensure that people do not die unnecessarily because either side refuses to get round a table and talk.

I do not want to come down on one side or the other in this argument – I am not a doctor, nor am I a government minister. However, I do feel very strongly that putting people’s lives at risk for political point scoring is a move too far. If the government and junior doctors do not wish to discuss the imposition of contracts, so be it. At least each side should be brave enough to consider proposals by others without dismissing them out of hand before they’ve been explored.

I just hope nobody dies over the next 48 hours. I really wouldn’t want that on my conscience.


Some of the later New Zealand essences are very much more spiritual than the initial flower, fern and tree essences; they form a fundamental part of the First Light Medicine Woman programme and as such, it is often a little tricky to see how they can be utilised in daily life. This is one of those essences as it forms part of the Shamanic Essence Collection.

The key word for this essence is council fire. It’s not easy to see what this would mean, until you consider what a Council Fire actually is in Maori culture; this was where the elders would meet and discuss problems, eventually reaching solutions that would benefit the tribe. It was also a court, a tribunal and a place where advice was sought. Consequently, the notes for this essence focus on divine intervention, justice, order and universal law. It has a strong focus on maintaining the balance and doing what is right.

One of the other references in the notes for this essence intrigued me. It simply said “The Knowledge Tree”. The image of the Tree of Knowledge is one that cuts across many cultures and the Maori are no exception; they knew the land, they knew the plants that grew on it and nourished and protected them, and also the plants that would kill. This ancient knowledge was also shared around the Council Fire; it was information that benefitted the tribe as a whole and maintained the balance between the people and the land they occupied.

I feel that there is an entire history lesson in some of these essences; I especially feel it with Hutu. This is an essence for when you want the Universe to advise, rather than intervene, and show the way to restore the true order of things. I suspect I will be using this essence frequently.