UK Gagging Bill closer to becoming law…

This is only a blog posting because the editor on Google+ has the infuriating habit of crashing during the editing of a long post, leaving no way to retrieve the lost text. This site can handle auto-backup. Why one Earth can’t Google+ do the same thing, or is it rocket science? Anyway…

The Gagging Bill continues to progress

I had an email from 38 Degrees, about the continuing progress through Parliament of the poorly thought out attempt at a bill based on Callmedave Cameron’s proud boast that he would “do something about lobbying”. This bill would be able to be used, if it became law in its current form, to silence bloggers such as myself, preventing us from campaigning on any political issue at all, for a year prior to an election. 

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have been pumping out propaganda to suggest that there are no problems with the bill, but as 38 Degrees says, these are mostly myths:-

Myth 1: The new law will stop “big money” buying /
influencing elections.

The government claims that this law is needed to stop US-style
“super-PACs”, run by millionaires, flooding the airwaves with
negative political advertising. But they can’t point to any examples of
millionaire-backed “super-PACS” in the UK actually existing. Perhaps
that’s because we already have laws banning big money radio and TV advertising.

The way “big money” actually influences elections in the UK is
through massive donations to political parties. That’s a huge problem, with
wealthy donors basically buying influence and peerages. The gagging law does
nothing to stop this – millionaire party donors like Lord Ashcroft or Lord
Sainsbury can continue to funnel as much cash into their chosen party as they

If the government really wanted to stop “big money” influencing
politics, they could introduce a maximum donation limit for both political
parties and independent groups. That would tackle the current problem and
prevent any future rise in “super-PACs”, and it’s a measure 38
Degrees members would certainly support. Why are they instead targeting
charites, community groups and campaigners?

Myth 2. Civil society
will still be allowed to talk about issues – as long as they don’t get involved
in party politics.

Important issues which ordinary people care about, like trying to protect the
NHS, will be a key election issue for most of the political parties.The gagging
law would apply to campaigning on most issues that are being contested by
different political parties – i.e. any big issue of the day!
For example, if
one political party made privatising NHS services a key part of its manifesto,
then a 38 Degrees campaign against privatising the NHS would be considered ‘for
election purposes’ and be subject to the gagging law.

Myth 3. £390,000 is a
lot of money. Why should organisations be allowed to spend more?

In a free society, charities, local groups and ordinary people should be able
to come together and campaign effectively. £390,000 is only 2% of what
political parties are allowed to spend. Also, the new law says that charities
and campaign groups will have to include core staff costs in this limit –
something political parties aren’t expected to do.

Groups like 38 Degrees don’t need as much money as political parties – we rely
on people power rather than expensive advertising agencies. But organising
people power does cost some money. 38 Degrees currently costs around £1.1
million per year to run – money spent on maintaining a powerful and secure web
site, a small office, a staff team of 15, printing leaflets and posters, hiring
church halls for member meetings, and so on. That’s all funded by small
donations (average donation £10.78) and reported in full in the annual audited

Banning 38 Degrees from spending more than £390,000 would mean big people
powered campaigns like Save our NHS or Save our Forests would be impossible to

Myth 4. Charities are
happy now that some concessions have been promised

This isn’t true. A wide range of organisations including NCVO, Oxfam, Christian
Aid, Countryside Alliance and Friends of the Earth are still warning that the
gagging law will have a huge impact on what they can campaign on.

MPs have been claiming that NCVO are now happy with the amendments the
government has committed to drafting. In fact the NCVO wrote a piece in The
Guardian last week highlighting the problems they still think need solving:

“NCVO and the wider voluntary sector have made it clear that the legislation
remains ambiguous and potentially damaging in a number of places. In

  • The proposed list of activities that could count
    towards controlled expenditure remains neither clear nor workable
  • The expenditure thresholds proposed in the new bill,
    both for registration with the Electoral Commission and as a maximum cap
    allowed, will be damaging
  • The question of how to sensibly regulate groups working
    in coalition remains to be addressed.”

I decided to find out what the MP supposed to represent me, Duncan Hames, a Liberal Democrat, had been doing about this. I follow what he does in Parliament, as he is supposed to be representing me, and all the other voters in the Chippenham constituency. Most of the time, he seems to me to be doing this by asking ministers easy questions that allow them to churn out smug answers about the wonders the government is performing. But that’s just how it seems to me, and your mileage may vary…

On this issue, he is voting in favour of the government. Obviously, I’m not terribly happy about that, so I have emailed him to ask him to try to change the bill. I used the excellent 38 Degrees facility to email my MP, as follows:-

Dear Duncan Hames,

I see from your voting record that you are continuing to support the Gagging Bill.

This law would be used to prevent ordinary Englishmen such as myself from publicly expressing political opinions on our websites and blogs for a year before an election.

I find it hard to believe that you are actually in favour of such an absurdly draconian measure. Please find the time to look at the bill again, and see to it that it does not pass in this form. The whole bill does (deliberately?) nothing like the Prime Minister’s stated aim of curbing powerful lobbyists, and would be used to suppress democratic opinions.

In the event that I get anything other than an automated response or a letter with a copy of what a minister says, I will add it here…

I would urge all UK readers to consider writing to their own MP about this, while you still can without breaking the law.

Repeat Post – Pastis et mélanges

Sardeles pastes: The Verdict

It was two days before I had the chance to taste the sprats masquerading as sardines properly. I had one after a day, and judged that the salt needed to do its work for a little longer.

Scraping the salt from the first fish, now slightly smaller than when it went into the salt, I attempted the technique for preparing them that Matt Barrett gives on his pages. Messy. The fish split in an unexpected way, leaving me with its top half in one hand; the next one did much the same, only more messily. 

Resorting to a knife or two, I cut fillets from a few more, sloshed olive oil and lemon juice on them, and poured a tiny ouzo, purely for tasting purposes.

Not bad, since you ask. Not as salty as the large sardines had become, and delicious with the oil and lemon juice on them. Sips of ouzo were a delight, as well. They do go together very well indeed.

You can probably see the fillets were too small for me to get the skin off them properly. I think the ideal sized fish for this would be a little larger than a sprat, but a lot smaller than the first batch of sardines I used. I expect Greek sardines would be just that little bit better, too. In a taverna or ouzerie. With nothing to do for the rest of the day. Well, a chap can dream…

Repeat Post – Où sont les sardines d’antan?

Sardine Salting Sequel

I thought it only polite to tell Matt Barrett about my last post, about one of the Greek ways of serving sardines, sardeles pastes, and ask him if I had anything wrong. 

was great! So these sardines you bought, were they the big California sardines?
Maybe 6 or 7 inches long? If so they would be difficult to make into pastes and
were probably frozen and then thawed to be sold. Or maybe they were smaller and
from the Med. But I am impressed that you did it.

So, it was as I had thought, the sardines were too big. They were actually from the sea off Cornwall, England, rather than Californian, but too big. They were fresh, I believe, not frozen, but still too big.

Seeking smaller sardines, I had another look on the Tesco fresh fish counter today. All the fish that were labelled sardines were about 6 to 8 inches long. But a sardine, apparently can be one of several species. And so, seemingly, can the smaller fish known as sprats. Both get described as small, oily fish.

Tesco had sprats, so I bought half a kilo. I didn’t ask for that weight, just “a couple of big handfuls”. They are delicious the way I usually prepare them, fried in a little olive oil, so they seem likely to be good as pastes. They also have the major merit of being incredibly cheap, £1.52 for 505 grams has to be a hard food price to beat. Here they are, with the dried out salt from the previous experiment.

I unpacked them and washed them. Thirty-four nice little fish, all about the right size to be sardines, and looking very much like smaller versions of the ones in the previous post.

Selecting a suitable container, I put in a layer of the once-used salt, and began putting fish in. After a couple of layers, they looked like this. [Isn’t this exciting?]

I’ve left the heads on, and cleaning that many tiny fish would have been way too much like hard work, so they are intact. Given the way the bones are arranged around the guts, nothing I don’t want to eat should get onto the plate when I separate them using Matt’s highly scientific method. 

Now, we will wait and see. I shall try the first ones out tomorrow. There are too many to eat in a single session, and I don’t want them to remain in the salt for more than a couple of days, as they’ll probably become too dry. So, I’ll probably fillet the rest and preserve them in some nice olive oil. I’ll be able to have a few for a snack when I feel like it, if that works. 


Repeat Post – À la recherche du sardines perdu.

Salted sardines sound splendid.

I’m a great fan of Greek food, ouzo, sitting in tavernas, Rebetiko music, and any combination of those things; I have been for ages. 

It’s well over fifteen years years since I first encountered Matt Barrett’s writings about those things on the web, and I’ve referred to his writings on Rebetiko on my own website’s pages about that most wonderful Greek music. Here’s a picture of him, enjoying those things… Well, it’s a silent picture, so we can’t really tell if there was any Rebetiko playing, can we?

I recently came back from our holiday in Crete, which was a lovely place, with plenty of good food. There wasn’t a whole lot of fresh fish around, apart from a couple of splendid exceptions. And there was no sign at all of a dish Matt mentions, sardeles pastes. That’s salted sardines. I should have gone to Lesbos, of course, as they specialise in sardeles pastes.
Mytilini town at seven in the morning is a beautiful place. Traffic is light and the air is clean. Already the market street is alive with fish, meat and vegetable sellers. I am instantly attracted to the fish shops which are full of sardines, anchovies, and mackeral for under two dollars a pound. … I stare at the sardeles pastes, easily my favorite. These were caught this morning and immediately salted. 
By evening they will be sold in the cafeneons to be peeled and eaten with ouzo, the Lesbian equivelent of sushi, and to my taste, superior. And at a thousand drachma a kilo, a hundred times cheaper.
I’m missing being on holiday, of course. So it seemed like a good idea to attempt to recreate this interesting dish, and sit sipping ouzo while nibbling at a few sardines. How hard could it be? The ingredients were, well, sardines and salt.

Tesco had some enticing Cornish sardines on its fresh fish counter. They looked a bit big, for sardines, being easily over three times as long as the usual size of sardine tin, but maybe it was because they still had their heads on? I bought half a dozen, and was pleasantly surprised by the low price. Removing the heads, and the guts is not particularly fun, so I just switch off and do it, without thinking too much about what I am doing. Perhaps I should have left the fish whole, as I’m sure they do on Lesbos, but I can’t imagine that would add anything worthwhile to the eating experience. I’ll cheerfully eat gavros, the much smaller fish that are fried whole, leaving only a few of the larger heads on the plate to puzzle the waiters, but these sardine heads were probably big enough for a Singaporean curry.

Packing the beheaded, cleaned sardines in cheap cooking salt, and leaving them for a few hours was all the recipe I had to go on, but for once, I think it’s enough. We had a nice bottle or two of ouzo we had brought back from our holiday, which was handy, as Tesco stopped selling it ages ago. I wrote to them a while back, asking why, and was told it was because nobody wanted it. Thanks, guys, I’m nobody.

Tasting time!

Now, it was time to see what I had made, and whether it was good enough to eat, let alone worthy of the ouzo. Incidentally, I’ve heard people bragging about how they drank large amounts of ouzo, becoming very drunk, and they seemed to think they had done something clever by not bothering with food while they did it. Matt again:

Unlike most nationalities, the Greeks don’t drink to get drunk. They drink to enjoy life and drinking ouzo is an art form. Never taken alone, it is served with snacks called mezedes. My favorites are of course the sardelles pastes, octopus, and the simple tomato, feta and olive combo.

 There are places called ouzeries in Greece, that specialise in serving lots of little dishes of very tasty food along with ouzo, which is served with plenty of ice and water. I would have liked to use them more, but we generally eat in tavernas, as these have food the younger member of the family will eat without being force fed. I couldn’t recreate the atmosphere completely, though I did put some music by Markos Vamvakaris on while I did my taste testing.

Now, how to eat the little beasts? They have a lot of bones, which as I said, are alright to eat when the fish are very small, and have been cooked, but I didn’t fancy trying it with these larger fish. 

Matt describes his way of dealing with separating the flesh from the skin and bones in several places on the web, for those times when the person serving the fish hasn’t done it for you. Here is his video of his method. Quite a few recipe scraping web sites have hoovered the description of the serving process up and presented it as the recipe for sardeles pastes, without anybody bothering to check whether it actually was a recipe.

Anyway, This is what things looked like, after I had managed to get the first fillet off the first fish. I admit it, I used a knife. But I was able to pull the bones off the remaining side. Sploshing them with a good amount of Greek extra virgin olive oil, and some juice from an Argentinian lemon, I poured a small ouzo, with a fair bit of ice (English) and began my taste test.

What can I say? The combination is good, very good. It’s not too salty, provided you remove the skin, and the lemon juice and olive oil are just what the fish needs. Oh, and the ouzo is pretty much a necessity. Just sip it…

There is quite a lot of very fishy smelling salt left over, which it should be possible to dry out and re-use with some more sardines. Preferably rather smaller ones, I think.

I need to go back to Lesbos, just to check whether theirs taste like mine…