Writing Portfolio


How did London's sports venues get their names?

Ever wondered where Wembley got its name from, or why the Stoop is called the Stoop? What about Lord’s or White Hart Lane? I thought I’d do a little historical research, and in the process found that the origins of names can at times be both intriguing and unexpected. The result has been published on Londonist:


James Bond's scrambled eggs

There’s a little-known short story by Ian Fleming whose title never has, and probably never will, be used as a title for a Bond film. It’s called ‘007 in New York’ and for many years it was unpublished in Britain. It was written for the American version of a travelogue that Fleming wrote; he was so negative about New York that his publishers persuaded him to add a little something involving James Bond visiting said city in order to avoid antagonising his readers in the US.

It is less than ten pages long. The main plot, such as there is one, is about a mission concerning a woman who used to work for MI6 and whose boyfriend works at the UN; unbeknown to her, he’s actually a KGB agent who’s on the verge of being found out by the FBI. Bond has travelled incognito to New York to warn her (this probably forms the basis of the final scene in Quantum of Solace where Bond meets a Canadian agent whose boyfriend is the ex-lover of Vesper Lynd; by warning her of the man’s intentions, he saves her from a similar fate).

A lot of the story concerns food. Bond arrives feeling a bit queasy due to his having consumed “the BOAC version of ‘An English Country House Breakfast’” on the flight, and after some consideration he decides to have lunch at the Edwardian Room at the Plaza rather than the Oyster Bar at Grand Central (“the best meal in New York – oyster stew with cream, crackers and Miller High Life”). The former is a place where his friend Felix Leiter knows the head waiter, and on a previous visit Bond had instructed the staff on how to make his particular version of scrambled eggs which he intends to have with smoked salmon.

Oddly, he’s prepared to order this despite his poor airline breakfast having presumably contained eggs of some description, and his evident belief that eggs in New York are of poor quality compared to those back home; “one could never tell with American food. As long as they got their steaks and sea-food right, the rest could go to hell … flavour had gone from all American food except the Italian” – one wonders just how scathing Fleming had been about New York in the first place if this is what he was like when he trying to avoid annoying the locals!

That said, the Bond of the books is, like his creator, very partial to scrambled eggs; he eats them in most of the novels. What’s notable about ‘007 in New York’ is that it includes what was apparently Fleming’s favourite scrambled egg recipe.

Why not have a go? The recipe is for four “individualists” and calls for a dozen eggs, so that’s three per person, and between five and six ounces of butter – after dividing that by four and measuring it out, I noted that that’s more than double (maybe even triple) the amount of butter that I’d usually use for scrambled eggs.

Admittedly, when I do scrambled eggs it’s usually because that’s what happens when omelette-making doesn’t quite go according to plan. Wondering about Fleming’s egg-scrambling technique, I consulted the oracle – Delia Smith (in this instance, volume one of How to Cook) – and was mildly surprised to find that, while going for two eggs per person and considerably less butter, Delia’s method is more or less identical – melt some (between half and two-thirds) of the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, turn the heat down, add eggs, stir continuously until the eggs aren’t quite ready, then take off the heat, add the rest of the butter and keep stirring. I tend not to add any butter at the later stage, and it’s been a while since I took the eggs off the heat to finish them, if I ever did.

But I did so this time, following the Fleming recipe to the extent of adding some finely-chopped chives (since we have chives in the garden) although I didn’t go for his serving recommendation. He reckoned that the result should be served “on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink champagne (Taittinger) and low music.” Hot buttered toast I could do, but I have neither copper dishes nor pink bubbly, so I just had mine on a plate with some coffee.

It was, of course, delicious (anything with that amount of butter would be), although a little on the wet side. Proper egg-scrambling is truly an art that has to be mastered. In terms of quantities, though, I reckon I’ll stick with Delia in future.


'Sausage? Sausage?'

Did you know that there's a museum in London devoted to Samuel Johnson? Dr Johnson's House on Gough Square was where the great lexicographer lived from 1748 to 1759, before he met James Boswell but during the time when he wrote his famous Dictionary of the English Language which was published in 1755. It's a fantastic 300 year-old townhouse located in the maze of alleyways and courtyards north of Fleet Street.

A statue of his cat, Hodge, stands nearby. He was fed on oysters, which in the 18th century weren't the delicacy they are today, and Johnson insisted on buying them himself so that his servant would not come to resent the cat. 

Few people have actually read anything by Johnson nowadays; ironically, the one book concerning one of this country's greatest men of letters that is still widely read is Boswell's biography of him (an assiduous diarist, Boswell took it upon himself to record as many of his friend's witticisms as he could, which came in very handy when he set himself the task of writing his biography). But the number of people who've read Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is itself in all probability dwarfed by the number of people who know that Samuel Johnson was the man who wrote the first dictionary (not actually the first, but definitely the best-researched and most influential prior to the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884) because they saw that episode of Blackadder.

I refer, of course, to the episode in the third series (the Georgian-era one) in which they try to get the Prince Regent to be the patron of the Dictionary. Dr Johnson (played by Robbie Coltraine) is not impressed, and Blackadder, having made up several words in order to wind Johnson up, ends up attempting to re-write the Dictionary after Baldrick inadvertently burns the only copy.

(Before we go any further, I should point out that I am well aware of the extent to which the writers of Blackadder took certain historical liberties; after all, it was a comedy, not a documentary. Johnson's Dictionary was published many decades before the Regency (which Johnson himself did not live to see) while Lord Byron is shown as a contemporary of Johnson's when in reality the former hadn't even been born when the latter died. In other episodes Blackadder, Baldrick and the Prince Regent encounter Pitt the Younger, who also died before the Regency, and are involved in a send-up of The Scarlet Pimpernel which, while the future George IV is a supporting character in said novel, is set some time before he became Regent. But I digress).

One of the attractions at Dr Johnson's House is the Dictionary Room, which houses shelves full of Johnson-related books including several Dictionaries (it is believed that when Johnson lived here, this room was his bedroom; the Dictionary was written upstairs in the Garret). A 1755 original lies opened under glass, while on the table are facsimiles of the two-volume original in which visitors can look up any word of their choosing.

One of the gags in the Blackadder episode is the discovery that Dr Johnson left the word 'sausage' out of his Dictionary. Fans of Blackadder will no doubt be disappointed to learn that in real life, 'sausage' is in fact in there (although 'aardvark' is not). That said, 'sausage' is not where you would expect to find it.

For Johnson had the letters 'u' and 'v' the wrong way round. The order in which these letters come in the alphabet was apparently not standardised until the 19th century. What this means for the word-hunting Blackadder fan is that 'sausage' comes after all of the words beginning with 'sav-', not before. 

After the Dictionary, Johnson set himself the task of editing the works of Shakespeare; his eight-volume critical edition of Shakespeare's plays was published 250 years ago (it proved so popular that the preface was also published separately) and established Johnson as a leading literary critic. Dr Johnson's House is currently housing an exhibition commemorating this, 'Shakespeare in the 18th century: Johnson, Garrick & friends', which will be there until 28th November.


Hunter Davies and Match of the Day

The football season has been going for several weeks, and that means that Hunter Davies’s weekly column in the New Statesman, 'The Fan', is back. Although best known as the biographer of the Beatles, Davies also has a long pedigree as a football writer, having written The Glory Game after a season of nigh-on unlimited access (of the sort that most football writers would kill for, nowadays) to the inner workings of Spurs in the early Seventies, and his column in the NS has spawned two books of his columns, The Fan and The Second Half; he’s also ghost-written a few footballers' autobiographies.

He can be a bit obsessive at times, but as he's writing from a fan's perspective I find that what he has to say is usually worth reading and can strike a chord at times. A few months ago, I came across an article of his in which, while describing an eleven-hour spell of football binge-watching (told you he can be a bit obsessive), he had this to say about that fifty-year-old highlights programme Match of the Day:

"Early doors, I watched Match of the Day, which I'd recorded. I go to bed at ten, so never watch it live, desperately avoiding all scores in order to have virgin, unsullied eyes. I can whizz on and miss all the studio stuff, daft talking points, pointless analysis. I have my own daft, pointless opinions."

Those last two sentences sum up precisely why I like to watch Match of the Day via the iPlayer.