Some years ago, when I attended a Scottish Library Association dinner, I was seated with a Scotsman who, while consuming his third double Scotch, was castigating me for eating carrots, on the grounds that they are very calorific. “Ye need to watch carrots,” he said. “They make ye fat.” (To save readers of this blog the chore of carrying out any additional research, I am reliably informed by Google that a large carrot contains about eighty calories and an average cooked helping about forty. A double Scotch contains 110.)
I was reminded about this conversation during my visit to Glasgow, from which I have just returned. One of the most endearing things about the Scots is their love of all kinds of ‘unhealthy’ food and drink and their ability to justify this completely with no trace of guilt whatsoever. When I worked for a Scottish library supplier in Dumfries (not for nothing the home of the deep-fried Mars Bar – and I understand that ice-cream and frozen butter have now been added to the town’s repertoire), we had a fully-working canteen staffed by two stalwart ladies who believed that the way to cope with Scottish winters was to look after the inner man (or woman). The menu was always robust: lasagne and chips, pie and chips, and mince, neeps and tatties (often also including chips, though I never experienced triple potato dishes on the same plate in Scotland, as I have several times in Ireland), always followed by a pudding.
Visiting customers were also fed by the canteen, although they took their meals in the boardroom. On one occasion I suggested that a bowl of salad might make a nice change for some of our less valiant guests, instead of tatties or chips. The ladies looked at me in horror: “Salad? In the winter, hen?” The compromise was substantial plated salads (ham and egg pie, Scotch eggs or cold beef) with potato salad and… chips. The two canteen ladies were perfectly aware of health and fitness regimes, but, like most Scots of my acquaintance, simply not interested in them. “We know what we should eat,” as another Scot once said to me. “We just don’t like it.” I once discovered the canteen ladies, neither of whom was much more than five feet tall, running round the outside of the building before they served lunch. Both were scarlet in the face and dangerously out of breath. “We’re trying to get down below fourteen stone before Christmas,” explained one. “Aye, so we can have plenty to drink,” the other added.
So, by this gently circuitous route, to the main topic of today’s post, which is… ta da: TABLET! If you haven’t been to Scotland, it may be helpful to provide a definition at this point. Tablet is a cross between toffee and fudge. My guess is that it’s made mainly with lots of sugar and butter. It melts in your mouth and gives you an energy boost to die for. It’s as integral a part of Scottish life as Irn-Bru, Tunnock’s Milk Chocolate Coated Caramel Wafer Biscuit and shortbread. And at least as ‘bad’ for you.
But you wouldn’t know that either from the upright Scots attitude towards it or the name ‘tablet’ itself. Not only is the name majestic, imbued with ancient wisdom – think Moses and the ten commandments or Sumerian cuneiform script, both inscribed on tablets – but it has an authoritative ring, as if the product were essential to your health. It’s a word that conveys much more gravitas than ‘pill’, with its undertones of neurosis, hypochondria and birth control. Mention ‘tablet’ to a party of Scots men and women and they’ll know immediately what you mean: a joyous feast of what in other lands might be forbidden fruit, often consumed in quite large quantities. Full of northern promise.
Nowadays, tablet has an additional, very modern meaning: the name the IT industry has given to the small, streamlined machine with various multi-functional capabilities (Don’t ask me the difference between a tablet and a laptop, as I shall get very confused, even though I now own one of each, but I’m sure that one exists.). If anything, I feel, the advent of this chichi newcomer enhances the reputation and the possibilities of traditional Scottish tablet even further: how prescient of ancient Scots confectioners to come up with a name that would also epitomise sexy technology to upwardly-mobile thirty-something educated men and, by extension, their baffled but trusting mothers and fathers.
And hats off to the Cambridge University Press marketing team – as you would expect, no slouches when it comes to words and their meanings – for picking up the potential of both meanings of the word and, at the same time, providing joy to everyone passing by their stand at the conference by dispensing unlimited quantities of this Scottish toffee-fudge to maintain energy levels during three days of worthy but occasionally soporific talks.
A-less-than-favourite favourite rail journey…
I’m writing this on the train to Glasgow, where I’m about to attend a conference. It’s a Cross Country train. Though I haven’t had a duff experience on Cross Country trains before, on this occasion I’m finding the service a little less than up to snuff. I’ve got a first class ticket (cheap weekend deal) and have been looking forward to being pampered in the way I have enjoyed so much on GNER / East Coast trains. The last time I travelled first class on one of the latter (cheap weekday deal, unsociable hours), I was regaled with tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish, a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake, a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket! By the time I staggered off that train, some two hours after I had boarded it, I’d have been happy to phone the Prime Minister and tell him how wonderful the experience was, if any of the crew had asked me to.
The standards on the present train are a little different. When I boarded, First Class was jammed with people, including one occupying my reserved seat. To add insult to injury, he was wearing a purple jumper. I was told that there were no seat reservations operative on the train, ‘as the system is down, but we have some boffins trying to fix it’. I was advised to grab or fight for a seat, on a may-the-best-woman-win type of basis. I decided to keep close watch on a man who hadn’t taken off his coat – a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t planning a long journey (I’m not a crime writer for nothing; I can read clues!). Sure enough, he ‘alighted’ (I’ve no idea why all train guards use this poncy term – perhaps they have a vision of the gossamer-winged traveller, wand in hand, floating like a dandelion seed from train to platform) at the next station, possibly relieved that I didn’t try to follow him, as he might have thought I was a stalker, and I hopped into his seat sharpish before another crowd of people with worthless seat reservations got on.
If I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman so far, that’s probably because by this time I’ve had a glimpse of the at-seat menu. The ‘complimentary’ food available consists of tea, coffee, water, fruit cake, biscuits and crisps. And there are lots of ‘ors’ on the menu, implying that two choices maximum would be seemly. I haven’t got to my age without knowing how to push the envelope, so I have demanded tea, water, fruit cake (which turns out to be one inch square and plastic-wrapped) and crisps in short order, in a very firm, dowager sort of voice. To this I’ve added an egg-and-cress sandwich and a tiny bottle of Pinot Grigio from the ‘paying’ menu (no hot food available – that will be £7.95 to you, Madam). There is not a newspaper in sight, although I have seen that a lady seated nearby is doing the crossword in Woman’s Weekly. I doubt if this has been supplied by Management. (I’ve also seen Management – he hides in the still room, guarding his supply of complaints forms, and twitches if anyone barges through to ask him about seat reservations.)
However, now I have eaten my sandwich and drunk my Pinot Grigio, water and tea and inspected the sell-by dates on the cake and crisps to see if they are fit for human consumption, I have to admit that I am quite enjoying myself. For a start, one of my fellow travellers is a man with two collies – I thought there was only one at first, but another peeped round from the seat behind mine and fixed me with her liquid eyes – and he has demanded not one, two or three, but four bottles of still water to put in their water bowl. And he wants free cake, crisps and coffee as well. So he has busted my temporary record of four free items by a margin of three… but I’ve been able to stroke his two lovely dogs to console myself for the disappointment!
And then there’s the journey itself. Of all the journeys I undertake, this one wins hands-down for interest and enjoyment. Already, from this train today, I have seen the innermost secrets of Victorian Leeds and the architectural wonder of York Station and I’m looking forward to the dour but unique crumbling red brick of the station at Darlington, Newcastle’s panoramic kaleidoscope of aesthetically gob-smacking, state-of the-art bridges, stupendous river, industrial buildings and purposeful roads, Alnmouth’s deceptive sleepiness (it lies between the buzzing commuter town of Alnwick and the lovely village of Alnmouth itself, on the gloriously beautiful Northumberland coast) and, best of all, the sight of the majestic, historic, sandstone bridge at Berwick-on-Tweed with the huge sweep of sea beyond it. And after Dunbar (another favourite place, with its Braveheart-style castle) and venerable, stately Edinburgh, I shall eventually arrive in vibrant Glasgow. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had time to map out the next few chapters of The Crossing (D.I. Yates 4).
So what’s not to like? Well, if Arriva’s UK rail Managing Director Chris Burchell is reading this, I have a message for him. At a push, he might get away with this service on the basis that it’s the weekend and the destination is magical, mystical Scotland, but he should know that I’m very glad that it’s Virgin, and not Arriva, which has won the East Coast franchise, because, on the basis of my experience today, the prospect of an Arriva standard for my regular, working week, London-and-return journey would fill me with despair. Next time I board the train at King’s Cross, I’ll be looking forward to what I’ve missed this time: tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish (or similar), a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake (or similar), a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket. I understand that Arriva’s Cross-Country franchise has been extended to 2019 from the original 2016; that’s a pity, but perhaps Virgin will win it next time around…