Robes of Promise

In my final year of school, one of the texts I studied in English Literature was Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (another was Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience – my fledgling foray into Blake studies). The play, set in the early eighties, focuses on a group of eight boys at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield who are preparing for an entrance exam and interviews to gain places to study history at Oxford and Cambridge.


Studying the play whilst myself going through the process of applying for a place at Cambridge was somewhat surreal. Whilst the admissions process has changed in a number of respects (the seventh-term entrance exam is no more and efforts to widen access have improved), I could identify with the experience of the History Boys in some respects, particularly because my school, like Cutlers’ Grammar, had little experience of students applying for Oxford and Cambridge, and as such was feeling its way in its efforts to guide me through the alien application process.


At the end of one of my interviews at Cambridge, after the interviewer had already made closing remarks and I was gathering up my belongings, I was asked how I found studying the play whilst going through the admissions process. I don’t know if that was part of the interview; I suppose everything in an interview context contributes to the impression of the candidate. I can’t remember what I said, but whether or not it made a whisker of difference, I was lucky enough to get a place to study Theology at Magdalene and very much enjoyed my time there.


I’ve been prompted to cast my mind back to this experience recently for various reasons. Yesterday (9 May 2014) was Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday, so his name has been doing the rounds on Radio 4 and twitter (among other places no doubt), and last week I spotted Frances de la Tour, who played Mrs Lintott in the original stage cast and the 2006 film, in the British Library. But the chief reason is that I’m going back to Cambridge next week to collect my MA (by a peculiar tradition, a Cambridge BA matures into an MA; see details on the University’s website).


I’ve been back a number of times since finishing my degree, but this will be special in that it’s not merely a visit but, in a sense, the final rite of passage associated with my degree (as well as being probably the biggest reunion for members of my year at College). Among other rites and rules associated with the MA, the ceremony requires a different gown to the BA graduation, and, where once I felt like one of the History Boys, the prospect of robing up for my MA makes me feel like a figure from Blake-land.


As I’ve written before, Blake was quite disparaging about Cambridge; when he called Oxford and Cambridge “places of thought” in his poem Milton (13[14]:42; see another previous post), he was ironically referring to these universities as institutionalising “thought.” Milton is Blake’s imagined account of the poet John Milton’s undergoing a spiritual journey to correct his former errors. As part of this process, Milton “took off the robe of the promise, & ungirded himself from the oath of God” (14[15]:13).


The “oath of God” is the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which one then had to swear in order to be admitted to the University. Milton’s taking off “the robe of promise” is depicted in one of the illuminated book’s full-page plates. I didn’t and don’t have to sign up to the Thirty-Nine Articles and these days you can also opt of the Trinitarian formula by which degrees are traditionally conferred (see the University website’s outline of the ceremony). Nevertheless, when I come to robe up next week, I know I will feel like an anti-icon of the plate from Milton.


Welshcakes for St David

When I was an undergraduate, I spent three years living in a College that did not like its students to cook and as a result provided rudimentary kitchen facilities, which generally consisted of a plug-in electric hob and a microwave. This set-up not being conducive to baking in the strict sense of the term, Welshcakes (which can be griddled or shallow-fried) became my signature offering for puddings, tea parties, bicycle rides and any occasion (or none) when cake was required.

Welshcakes, then, are for me one of those foods that unlock many fond memories. They’re also a bit of a family tradition – the recipe I use came to me from my Grandmama, who is half Welsh (as was my Grandfather, which I only found out this week, thus making me two eighths Welsh).

These are simple cakes, but deliciously moreish. I also enjoy the process of making them – rubbing the fat into the flour, patting out the dough, cutting the circles, frying, flipping and letting them cool at least long enough not to burn any tongues! It forces me to slow down and simply immerse myself in the ritual of it all.

An annual excuse to make Welshcakes is St. David’s Day (1st March) – the feast day of the patron saint of Wales. This year, it is providing me with an excuse to make Welshcakes to take on a walk in the hills to escape the city and to fuel a planning meeting for a conference I’m organising in April.

A quick note on ingredients: traditionally, Welshcakes are cooked in lard, which gives a distinctive flavour and texture, but in order to be able to feed vegetarians (as St. David himself was), I usually end up cooking them in butter, which is delicious in a different way. A variation which works well is ‘Christmas Welshcakes’ with dried cranberries and perhaps some finely grated orange zest.



8oz / 100g self raising flour

tsp ground mixed spice (you can buy a jar of mixed of sweet spices or use any combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, according to your taste)

pinch salt

3oz / 75g demerara sugar

4oz / 100g cold butter, cut into 1cm cubes

3oz / 75g sultanas or currants

1 large egg, beaten

a little milk if needed

Lard or butter for cooking

Sift flour, spice and salt into a bowl, stir in sugar, then rub in the butter until crumbly.

Add the fruit, and then the egg to form a firm dough (adding milk if needed).

Roll or press out on a floured surface to 5mm / 1/4″ thick. Cut into rounds.

Heat a heavy frying or griddle pan and rub with lard or butter. Cook the cakes over a low heat for about a minute on each side – until lightly brown.

Leave to cool.

NOTE: the pan should be heated first, then the heat reduced to cook the cakes.

“places of Thought” and other Delights

“…Cambridge and Oxford, places of Thought”  (Milton 13[14]:42)

Blake liked to take long walks from his various homes in central London – to Peckham Rye where he saw angels in an oak tree, and to Hampsted Heath, where he visited his friend John Linnell. These open spaces survive, but around them the city has expanded and you have to get a lot further out to get rural open space and fresh air. It’s the same in Manchester, and since summer decided to appear, I’ve been feeling hemmed in by the city – we have plenty of parks but it’s not quite the same.

Open space was one of the delights of the first few days of August when I spent a long weekend in Cambridge, where it’s not far to walk from the city centre to fields along the river (not to mention a higher than average amount of green space in the city centre itself), and there were opportunities to make the most of it during my visit.

I was down (or up in Cambridge-speak) for a friend’s wedding, which was a lovely day, helped along by beautiful weather, the wonderful surroundings of Magdalene, and the company of good friends.

It was also a chance, after two abortive attempts in the last few months, to visit the prints and drawings room at the Fitzwilliam Museum to see their Blake collection. I looked at two boxes of watercolours, some I had seen before and others I hadn’t. I ended up looking at some I hadn’t even asked to see because they live in the same box, which was a nice surprise.

Apart from the works I had actually gone to look at, I was especially pleased to see the three watercolours of the story of Joseph (of the dreamcoat fame), which Blake painted c.1784-5 and exhibited at the Royal Academy. They are a completely different style to any of the works I am working on, which (with a couple of exceptions) date from 1795 onwards. You can view the Joseph watercolours on the Fitz’s website (Joseph’s brethren bowing before him, Joseph ordering Simeon to be bound, Joseph making himself known to his brethren) and compare them, for instance, with the watercolours of Paradise Regained (c.1816-20), which are also at the Fitz (view via the Blake Archive).

Joseph’s story is one I have a soft spot for because when I was a primary school my choir was the chorus for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor© Dreamcoat when it came to the local theatre, so I know that version of the story inside out (I think I could still roll off the words for the full two hours without too many mistakes).

I also looked at various works by other artists – either that he could have seen and potentially been influenced by, or contemporaries dealing with the same subjects. In the latter category I was looking at sketches which I had not found reproduced anywhere, so it was a complete unknown how they would compare to Blake’s – for the most part differences were more striking than similarities (I can’t put any comparisons to up because the images aren’t available online).

They also finally sell some Blake postcards (I’m fairly sure they’ve never had them when I’ve been before), so I have a few more to add to my pile which I can’t quite decide whether to find wallspace for (it is healthy to be able to not think about the PhD occasionally).

Puttanesca for Mary Magdalene


If I hadn’t gone into researching pictures, I would have loved to be a food historian. Maybe I can find a way into it in years to come. In the meantime, together with my Dad, one of my irregular diversions from PhD-land is collecting or inventing recipes to mark feast days.

Today, 22nd July is the feast of Mary Magdalene. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been looming large in my research recently (although I’ve just finished working on that chapter for the time being) and I’m an alumna of her College, so it’s a good feast to mark.

I’m not aware of any tradition of a particular foodstuff for her feast day, but I have invented my own:  spaghetti alla puttanesca is such a remarkably appropriate dish that one almost wonders if it was created for this very occasion. The name literally means “whore’s pasta.” It is said to have been created in the red light district of Naples, though its red colour and spicy chilli make the name appropriate whatever its precise place of invention. Likewise, the colour matches the red garb and hair of images of Mary Magdalene.

Biblically speaking of course, Mary is not identified as a prostitute, but thanks to Gregory the Great and centuries of religious writers and artists, she is conflated with various other women in the Gospels so that we think of her as a penitent prostitute.  Aside from the name, many of the ingredients of puttanesca can also be linked to Mary Magdalene.

Recipe for two portions

Start by heating the olive oil from a small can of anchovies; you may find that you do not need all of the oil. The oil recalls Mary’s association with the anointing of Jesus, though your fellow-diners probably will not welcome you using any remaining anchovy-infused oil for that purpose!

When the oil is hot, reduce the heat and slowly sauté finely sliced garlic. When softened, add the anchovies, chopped, a can of tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes if they are plentiful), capers (the observant may notice I didn’t manage to get hold of any today), olives (I believe they ought to be black, but I only had green in stock) and chilli to taste. Capers are tear-shaped, so they evoke Mary’s identification with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and her lamentation at the death of Christ.

Leave the sauce to simmer while you cook your spaghetti (NB. you may need to allow longer for the sauce to cook if you are using fresh tomatoes, so make sure you don’t start cooking your spaghetti too early, or you will end up with soggy pasta).

The spaghetti recalls the hair of the women anointing Jesus’ feet. There are thinner varieties of spaghetti called capellini “thin hair” and capelli d’angelo “angel’s hair,” but you need the more robust spaghetti to hold the sauce.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, check the sauce for seasoning and combine. Serve sprinkled with parsley. This garden herb serves as a reminder that it was in the garden that Mary encountered the risen Christ on Easter morning, mistaking him for a gardener. Parsley is one of the easiest herbs to grow at home, even if, like me, you only have a windowsill and some potted herbs from the local supermarket.

More feasts to follow at irregular intervals.

Recent Discoveries

1. Mary Magdalene is probably more important than I first thought, but I have various ongoing issues writing about her: a) how to pronounce her name, b) whether I should adopt Blake’s (and as far as I can tell the standard eighteenth-century) spelling which omits the final “e” (my spell-check doesn’t like it, nor does my College loyalty), c) whether or not I need to refer to all the women associated with her as “Magdalene” (see Just a Brief Update). She’ll definitely be getting a section in the chapter I’m working on at the moment and maybe I’ll try to write a conference  paper on her (speaking about her would get round b) but raise the stakes for a)).

2. New parts of the library (new to me that is), namely Theatre, Law. My usual haunts are English and Art History, History probably coming in third, and increasingly less often Religion. Previous novel excursions have included Economics, and, most unexpectedly of all, Physics.

3. I missed a chance to see some Blakes in Cambridge. As previously bemoaned, I wasn’t able to arrange to see the Blakes I was hoping to at the Fitzwilliam, but I have since discovered that they actually currently have some of his tempera paintings on display, which I’ve never seen “out” there before. I have seen the one that’s relevant to my research before, but it’s always interesting to see things on display, not least to be able to eavesdrop on other visitors’ conversations! I know I’ll be visiting Cambridge again in August so fingers crossed they might still be out then.