Jean Armour's Cookery Book: Robert Burns's Plain Tastes and a Hair Thickener to Remember.

Among Jean Armour's possessions, was a cookery book: the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, first published in London in 1747. We don't know how much Jean used this book, although I think we might safely assume that it was a gift from her husband, who was in the habit of buying books, especially second hand books, and might have picked this one up for her alongside his own treasured volumes.

We do know that Robert Burns had plain tastes. He preferred simple meals, simply cooked, and wasn't even very keen on puddings and pies. This could be deduced from his poem in praise of the haggis, in which he scorns complicated French cooking, but his wife herself tells us that he didn't like fancy stuff. Not for him the eighteenth century equivalent of the Burns Supper trifle in the shape of custards and syllabubs. Nevertheless, Jean - who had learned how to make sweet milk cheese, and who was a well brought up lass - may have been more interested in the art of cookery than her husband. I find myself wondering if she thumbed through her copy and occasionally experimented.

When I was researching The Jewel, my new novel about Jean, I bought a facsimile copy of Hannah Glasse. I've always been fascinated by old cookery books, ever since I came across an antiquarian book of recipes lurking somewhere on the stacks in Edinburgh University Library, back when I was a Mediaeval Studies student there. It struck me even then that it would be possible to try out some of the recipes, that the history of cooking might be an interesting field of study, more interesting than the Middle English with which I was wrestling.  But this was the 1970s, and I was way ahead of my time. I filed it away in my head, intending to come back and look at it later. Of course I never did, but it's something I've always regretted.

But back to Hannah Glasse. Among the many and varied recipes showing the housewife how to boil tongues and pigeons, how to roast tripe and how to make Scotch Barley Broth (I assume Rab wasn't averse to that one!) there are a great many enticing recipes for sweet puddings, including 'cherrie pies', custards, 'mackaroons' and little plum cakes and fine cheese cakes all of which sound delicious.
There are specimen menus, recipes for cider and other alcoholic beverages, but also for stewed calves' feet and eel soup for Lenten fare. (Not quite so delicious.)

One interesting recipe caught my eye:
 'An approved method, practised by Mrs Dukely, the Queen's Tyre-Woman (I assume this refers to the queen's attire) to preserve Hair and make it grow thick.
Take one quart of white wine, put in one handful of rosemary flowers, half a pound of honey. Distill them together, then add a quarter of a pint of oil of sweet almonds, shake it very well together, put a little of it into a cup, warm it blood warm, rub it well on your head and comb it dry.'

All of which sounds pretty good to me, apart from a certain stickiness in the application. But there is no mention at all of washing it out. I suppose the hair would be nice and shiny and pretty thick, but the risk of attracting bees and wasps in season would probably outweigh the benefits of all that rosemary and sweet almond oil ...

Who among my readers is going to give it a try? I must admit, it does remind me, faintly, of those noxious mixtures I used to make when I was a child and try out on my patiently loving grandad. Just don't blame me if it takes you hours to get the oily stickiness out of your hair! It'll be all Hannah Glasse's fault. Or Mrs Dukely's.

Meanwhile, watch this space for more news of the Jewel, which is due to be published on 1st May this year.

Vodafone Mega Fail

Wot, no Vodafone?

I've been thinking about nominations for the company offering us the very worst customer service of 2015, but it's no contest, really.  Saga were in the running when they tried to double the cost of our house insurance. When I phoned to query this, the pleasant woman at the other end took off a few benefits only to find, somewhat to her surprise as well as mine, that it had actually gone up in price. But when I found a much better deal from LV, they suddenly became penitent and asked plaintively if there was anything they could do to retain my custom. (No.)

BT almost got a nomination when our landline went on the blink, because they make it so damn difficult to contact them on the phone. But then they redeemed themselves by sending out an experienced engineer who fixed the problem with cheerful efficiency.

So there's only one serious contender. I've been pondering designs for the trophy: perhaps a broken mobile phone mast with a customer impaled on top of it.

Vodafone. You take the biscuit.

Here in this picturesque village where I live and write, we have been without a Vodafone signal since 6th December. Nothing, zero, zilch, nada. And no help whatsoever from the 'customer service' department.

Most of us here are with Vodafone because they promised the only real coverage, and for some years, that is exactly what they delivered. To be clear about this, we don't live amid remote highland hills. We don't live on an island.  In fact one inhabitant has just reported that she can get a good signal on holiday in Orkney, but not here. We live in a village some eight miles south of the county town, and with a great many towns and villages round about: in other words, this is a populous place.

On 6th December, our signal disappeared. The weather hadn't been any worse than average: a bit wet, a bit windy, but hardly hurricane level. One by one, we called the company, went through the usual hellish rigmarole of trying to speak to a human being (the human beings when we did speak to them were generally pleasant, so for most of us that isn't the issue) - and then the weeks of sheer flannel began.

We were told, variously, that there was scheduled mast maintenance/there was nothing obviously wrong/there was an unknown issue/there was an unexplained fault and it would be fixed in three days/six days/sometime/never.

We were directed to the website to check the signal. We were told there were no issues. We were told they had no updates. We were told not to worry. We were told maybe there were issues. Again they were investigating. We were told they were sorry. (But obviously not very and not half as sorry as their customers.) We were told to go to websites and go through procedures designed for individuals rather than whole communities. We were told to waste time on forums when we had already phoned them six, seven, eight times and more.

Now we're not unreasonable. If Vodafone had got their act together, told us that there would be a delay and it would be fixed by a particular date, we wouldn't have been quite so furious. Instead everyone has been told something different. This is a village. We speak to each other. We know that we are being fobbed off endlessly, lied to and generally treated like mushrooms rather than valued customers.

Kept in the dark and fed a whole heap of shit.

It is now 1st January 2016 and we still have no signal. Some people here only have a mobile with no landline, so they really are in the shit. There are people on call who can't stray more than a few feet from their houses.

I have lost count of the number of times I have now phoned, tweeted and messaged Vodafone - all with no satisfaction at all. I can't even access my account online. I need to set up a new password, but whenever I try to do this, they have to send a code number to my mobile phone. You know. The one that doesn't work, here in the village.

I have now resorted to contacting my MP, who says she is investigating, because this affects so many of her constituents. It has also been reported to Ofcom. Next, it will be local and regional press, local and regional radio. And Trading Standards. And Watchdog. And anyone else we can think of.

The really ironic thing about all this is that Vodafone laughingly claims to be a telecommunications company. They must be breaking some advertising standard, since nothing we have experienced since 6th December could ever be described as 'communication' by any normal definition of that term. Miscommunication perhaps. And certainly not any kind of customer service. Customer irritation, yes. Customer trust abuse. Customer deception.

A couple of days ago, I gave them another call. Same old rigmarole, but this time, because their lines were busy (When did you ever phone any telephone company and not be told that all their lines are busy?) they put me through another piece of idiocy and told me that if I recited my landline number and my name they would call me back within six minutes. So I did. And sure enough, an automated voice called me up and said that I was in a 'top priority' queue. And then, my friends, the line went as dead as bloody Marley's ghost.

Vodafone - you are behaving like a bunch of shysters. And if you treat your private customers like this, God help your business customers. Tim Peake can phone his family from space. I can't even phone my family from this village.

So what about accolades for good customer service? Well, there have been a few.  A company called Caledonia Water was contracted to undertake a massive and potentially disruptive piece of work in this village early last year: the installation of a new water main. My husband has mobility problems and an advisory parking space outside the house. The guys worked cheerfully through hideous weather, coped with all the serious problems inherent in dealing with old systems in a very old conservation village - and throughout the weeks of work obligingly made sure that Alan never needed to have to walk very far to get to the house. They all deserve medals for genuine, all round, excellent customer service.

Also Amazon. Bezos could teach Vodafone a thing or two about customer service. Not least the way, when you have a problem, you can click on a little button online and somebody will call you back immediately. But of course I don't suppose a telecommunications company like Vodafone is capable of anything so customer friendly or - you know - communicative.

Here's hoping for a mobile signal from Vodafone in 2016. Here's hoping for some compensation. Looking at their past incompetent form, I'm not holding my breath.