Thoughts and Words

Do we need a regulator for new AI life forms?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere, and I can say with honesty that I was there near the beginning.

Long ago in the 1980s I was working with a colleague, Dr Robin Gostick, trying to integrate AI into the systems we were developing to help companies improve their decision making. Of course, we were only marginally successful. We didn’t have the software or computer power now available, but it was pioneering and a credit to Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) and Peter Burnham, that we were given the chance.

With the huge increase in data available to all businesses I know that the work we started is being carried forward and today, AI, in its many forms, is impacting on our lives in ways most of us probably don’t realise.

There is a general agreement and acceptance that driverless cars will soon be on the roads in much larger numbers. Meanwhile many companies already use manifestations of AI far more commonly than you may expect. It may be a chatbot or the system controlling a large warehouse picking and selecting your groceries for home delivery. AI is already pervasive.

I remembered that Professor Stephen Hawking had once spoken about AI. I went back to the BBC news website to remind myself. The quote was already three years old:

Prof Stephen Hawking, one of Britain’s pre-eminent scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence. He told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans. Kubrick’s film 2001 and its murderous computer HAL encapsulate many people’s fears of how AI could pose a threat to human life. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate,” he said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

He was not finished and in 2016 said:

“The potential benefits of creating intelligence are huge,” he said. “We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one – industrialisation. And surely, we will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty.

“Every aspect of our lives will be transformed. In short, success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation.”

But there is a new goal for the computer scientists; the goal and target in the development of AI is sentience.

When I was involved in AI we didn’t have any pretentions that our work would lead to a ‘sentient’ machine but would simply improve data analysis. On reflection I am not sure that then I even knew the definition of the word sentient. It wasn’t in my vocabulary but today, it is the place where  every commentator’s dictionary falls open.

Last week there was a minor Parliamentary tiff when some conservative Members of Parliament were accused of denying that dogs, cats and many other animals were not sentient. It was not true, and that debate has quickly passed.

This weekend I watched the frightening vision of artificial intelligence getting out of control in the film Ex Machina. A highly realistic, sensual, sentient, and female manifestation of a human, Ava, manipulates and kills its inventor to escape into the ‘real world’.

The film is disturbing in its vision and demands that we consider where we are going.

With a sentient capability will a driverless car make moral decisions? In a potential accident will it preserve the lives of its passengers or those of a woman pushing a pram with a baby who has stepped suddenly onto a crossing?

Do we want machines that have any moral capacity? If machines do acquire a set of moral codes than that capacity will develop through machine learning and that learning will have to come from a fixed and exclusive clique. That clique may be the scientists themselves, or a selected group selected of white, middle class consumers. Whatever the group it can never be the accumulated experience of the totality of world history and its people.

As a country we need to keep working on AI and rightly it is at the centre of any industrial strategy that is developed. We should never be afraid of its impact on jobs and employment. History shows from the Luddites and industrial revolution that new and different jobs are created.

However, we still need to be concerned.

In the UK we have ‘The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)’ which, to quote their web site is ‘the UK’s independent regulator of fertility treatment and research using human embryos. A world-class expert organisation in the fertility sector, we were the first statutory body of our type in the world.’

No one denies that we need rules and ethics around how we develop new life forms form embryos and DNA.

Is it now the time to have a similar regulator for how we develop a new sentient life form through AI?

A perspective on being successful

Today I was invited to talk to a small reading group about my most recent book, ‘Maran Avdoniy’. I know they will have read the book and will be asking me awkward questions about the plot, the characterisation and why did the lead, DCI Paul Catchpole, not do something or other.

I can manage this easily although it does mean that next week, before we meet, I will have to skip read the book again. As I move onto the next project I quickly forget what it was all about. It is less of a problem so long as they stick to ‘Maran Avdoniy’ and don’t start asking me about earlier books. With those I can only remember the titles and hardly any of the plot.

The questions I hate and feel totally unable to answer are those about the ‘art of writing’. Despite four published novels, a children’s book of poems at the illustrators, and my next novel half completed, there is far much more I don’t know than know.

I fall back to Stephen King’s brilliant book: ‘On Writing – A memoir of the craft.’. I was already a veteran of two novels when I read it and happily it reinforced all my thoughts. Writing courses and classes he dismisses as of little value. That was good to read as I had no intention of enrolling for a weekend in the countryside to sit, at the end of the day with other aspiring authors, reading my day’s work over rustic bread and joss sticks. My work was only going to be published when it was finished, reviewed, edited and complete.

Stephen King also implicitly approved of other aspects of the way I approached my craft.

The creative muse hit me (If that is how muses arrive) and it was shock and surprise. One day I was running a successful management consultancy in Dubai and the next I packed it all in to write. For once that is not hyperbole or writer’s creativity but a fair record of what happened. The transition took less than week from the first idea to execution. The muse, the need to tell a story, was that instant.

My first instinct was use the techniques I had learnt in a business life. I tried to outline plots, write mini resume of each character, and draw mental pictures of each location. That was quickly abandoned. I was not writing a report, proposal, or anything formulaic.

There was a tiny thought which had a start in a small opening paragraph, an event I saw as pivotal and the vague vision of an ending. My role as the story teller was to get from one place to the end, describe what I saw, and meet lots of new people on the journey who wandered in and out of the story, just as they do in real life.

I knew how right I was in this approach when one night, a character, who was by now a friend, died. That was where the story had gone. I had expected her to be with me until the very end. I wanted her there at the end. I had a plan for her but now she was gone. As she died on the page, and I have no problem owning up to this, I shed a few tears. A friend had gone and my writing for the evening was curtailed early.

When I think back to those early days I had bohemian visions of myself as a writer living in a Parisian garret, pulling on extra jumpers as the winter forced its way through cracked and dirty windows into my single room. I think I can see the outline of Montmartre in the distance. My life, though, is a little more comfortable and warmer than that, but I hate the days, weeks, and months I must give up writing to try to earn enough money to see me through the rest of the year.

Reflecting on those early writing days I was surprised to find that so few of the technical skills I had acquired as a senior management consultant were transferable into my new profession although, when it comes to trying to sell my work, that is a different matter. What is more interesting is to think if nearly five years as an author have changed the way I now approach my interim management or consulting assignments?

I think there is.

When I write a book, there is always intrigue and suspense, mainly because, just like the reader, I have no idea of what is going to happen next but, that is too wide and obvious analogy of life in a company.  No. The real lesson is the reminder that in my writing I weave together the daily lives of many disparate people, who touch my story only when in the plot. Their motivations, interests and desires when not in my story may or may not be important to get me to the end. I don’t worry about what they eat at home or where they buy their groceries unless I have poisoned their food or someone else important will be at that supermarket.

When I leave my books and head back into the commercial life I no longer look at the business as just an isolated entity that can be moulded or a set of processes that can be changed just to be more effective. I keep those in mind, but I add the perspective of a whole new set of characters in a wider story.

A writer’s perspective, telling the story of the business, is a skill many a manger could add to their repertoire and if you want to share my Montmartre view, just ask.



This is the first blog that will have a far wider reach and is being published on both LinkedIn and Facebook. If you would like to know more about Brovary, or read earlier blogs, then please visit the web site ( or the Facebook page (

Why I won’t read the news

Here are some of news items I just can’t and won’t bring myself to write about.

Today, among these are:

  • Anything to do with President Trump. I don’t know where to start but the examples today are that his message to his nation basically said the USA should take the opportunity of Thanksgiving to give thanks to him. I could have included reports that his proposed USA tax reforms will benefit the Trump family by over a billion dollars, or anything else he says or does.
  • The poverty of skill in politicians exampled by the UK and Europe’s appalling attempt to negotiate anything and particularly Brexit. What a total mess they are making of negotiations all of them parading around like peacocks. Stop briefing and just get to work on it.
  • Anything to do with the sexual harassment cases sweeping across the world over the last couple of months.

There are of course many, many more but these are items I have read about today.

It is not that I don’t have strong views about all these matters. These are important news items and they should worry me because, however they resolve, the outcome will change my world, my children’s world, and their children’s world. Not just this year but, forever. Invite me to a bar and I will bore you for hours on any of these but that is just the point.

They bore me, and that worries me far more.

I have reached that point of information overload that turns the important into the ‘oh, no, not again.’ I have become immunised against any reaction other than a shrug and an under the breath muttering of unsurprise.

I am bored because behind each of these there is a common theme: men and women driven to be powerful and behaving like powerful people have always done.

There is nothing that I read about politicians, film producers or corporate leaders that surprises me. I know that people in power have always abused their position. That is how they became powerful. We know that it is not the brainiest who get to the top but it’s those with the (and I am generalising) megalomaniac, sociopathic, genes that succeed.

Those are the genes that cause them to be ruthless in pursuit of their goal often without little remorse. I may have exaggerated just a little on the remorse tag, but just a little.

I have always been fastidious trying to sieve real from fake news but now I keep asking myself, ‘why bother’?  Meanwhile, I will get on with my life. Sigh, as I read the news and wait for the broadcast that the end of the world is nigh. I just hope that on that day I am sitting on a tropical island, sipping my cocktail, letting the sea wash gently over my feet dangling in the ocean from the balcony of my villa.

How did I get here? By being ruthless and grabbing more than my share of the world!!

Why do we need a Government?

Today, in the UK it is budget day and that means that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond will stand at the dispatch box in the House of Commons and tell the population how they will be taxed over the next year.

That is quite remarkable. He stands up and tells the people how much they owe their Government and although we may moan and groan all we say, more or less, is OK. Thank the Gods we have a strong Parliamentary system that scrutinises and argues on our behalf.

As part of my continuing series which develops my Manifesto for Government ( ) today I want to ask why do we even need a Government?

Before my Government will raise any taxes, before I can ask you to give me any money, you need to be sure that you agree with the ways I am going to spend it. You need to be sure that I have a valid role in your life and we share priorities. We need to share and agree what your Government is there to do.

This is where I start.

We need a Government to support the population to coordinate itself.

Are you happy with that? I don’t want to tell you what to do, I don’t want to take you down paths you don’t want to go. All I want to do is help sixty million odd people coordinate the big things you can’t do individually.

The concept of state had been much debated and is built out of hundreds or even thousands of years of culture, initially from China, through the sub-continent of India and finally into Europe. I am not an historian, but it does seem to me that the definition of a State, the unit that requires government, came about through the desires and ambitions of kings, queens, fighters, and tyrants. The definition of a state was defined by their cruelty, the capability to maintain supply lines and secure the geographic barriers.

The commonality and unity of the people they ruled was of less interest to them than the capacity of the population to pay taxes to support the growing wealth of the ruler.

Times have changed. For most of the world, physical barriers have been circumvented, supply lines can be universal, but far more importantly taxes are no longer raised for the benefit of the ruler but for the benefit of the people who make up the State.

This has put pressure to define that cohesive unit we call a ‘country’.

Recently there has been a separation vote in Scotland and we are in the midst of a similar discussion in the Catalan region of Spain. Some Catalans clearly want to leave their union with Spain, others don’t, and the rest of Spain hasn’t yet had the chance to express an opinion. I have vowed not to write about Brexit, but the Irish boarder issue will soon become the key issue there. And then there is the annexation of Crimea by Russia. I will try and exercise some self-restraint and say little. The demand for Ukrainian independence was fully covered in my first novel, ‘The Masterful Manipulation of George Cove’ and with a fiancée living in Kiev I have strong opinions. However, and wherever you look the concept and unity of the State is under continual review.

What all these current situations illustrate is that Governments don’t have a feudal right to raise money for the King’s benefit. Governments need to be sure they carry their population with them highlighting the significant change in the role of Government.

In my manifesto the definition of the coordination role of Government is at its core: to support the population to coordinate itself.

The purpose of all this coordination is to help build a society that is becoming ‘happier’ and ‘wealthier’. These are subjective terms which require more immediate and more important discussion.

As anyone who has supported a football team and tried to agree among friends on the merits of the manager or team selection; for anyone who has belonged to a social or sports club, there is never full agreement on everything. That is the way of the world and one of the great joys of being human.

We all have different interests and priorities and what makes me happy is unlikely to do much for you. What makes me feel sufficiently wealthy to live happily, to you, could seem excessive or far too little. We will not agree, and we need to accept that.

Then, why even try to solve the problem? Because, as with everything in this world, doing nothing will leave everyone (apart from a very few who have taken power and authority by force – think Middle Ages) unhappy.

Philosophers have spent years pondering this question. As far back as the Eighteenth-century Jeremy Bentham defined as the ‘fundamental axiom’ of his philosophy the principle that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” He also went on to espouse many of the principles that we would call very modern (i.e. the decriminalising of homosexual acts). Even with all its own conflicts I can see no reason to go any further than that and it should be a core principle of any Government.

This will never be achieved on a short-term basis. The only way forward is to avoid any discussion of where next year’s billions go but to gain a consensus on the country we want our children and their children to live in. Continuing the analogy in my earlier blog ( ) we need agreement on the shape of ‘scoring a try’.

Phew, at last, Mugabe goes

I jumped the gun last week but finally there is confirmation of what we all hoped for and expected.

Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe Resigns, reports the BBC News Web Site (21st November 2017). They go on to say,

“Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has resigned, parliament speaker Jacob Mudenda has said.

A letter from Mr Mugabe said that the decision was voluntary and that he had made it to allow a smooth transfer of power, the Reuters news agency reports.

The surprise announcement halted an impeachment hearing that had begun against him.

Lawmakers roared in jubilation and people have begun celebrating in the streets.

Mr Mugabe had previously refused to resign despite last week’s military takeover and days of protests.

He has been in power since independence in 1980. Mr Mugabe has won elections, but over the past 15 years these have been marred by violence against political opponents.

He has presided over a deepening economic crisis in Zimbabwe, where people are on average 15% poorer now than they were in 1980.

What triggered the moves to oust him was his dismissal of Emmerson Mnangagwa as vice-president two weeks ago.

That decision was seen by many as clearing the way for Mr Mugabe’s wife, Grace, to succeed her husband as leader. It riled the military leadership, who stepped in and put Mr Mugabe under house arrest.”

Don’t Vote for Me

I like my morning shower very, very hot. I love to feel that flow of water embracing me, and I can stand there for as long as the water stays hot. Of course, I don’t because there is always something else to do and it is always reluctantly that I pull myself out to towel down. It was in my shower this morning that I started to wonder about the things I just couldn’t do without.

The hot shower is a sensory experience that is far more fulfilling than the thought of being clean and, so it is not really on the essential list. On the other hand, toothpaste is. The menthol freshness in the mouth is a prerequisite for a successful day.

I wouldn’t miss any of the non-basic foods. If smoked salmon was un-invented I wouldn’t care. I would probably even survive losing a slice of fresh, white bread, laced with butter and tomato sauce but, as you may have guessed that would be more difficult. I decided, in my shower that was easily solved by classing it as a basic staple and not a luxury food.

This may all sound very trivial, and of course it is, but, in the way my brain jumps around, it caused me to think about other things I really want. Just as I was lost in these thoughts I was called by Epsom hospital to let me know that a regular six-monthly treatment of an immunotherapy has been booked for December. (I will come back to the subject of the UK National Health Service which has been wonderful for me.)

If I was Prime Minister or President keeping my people fit and well would be one of my three highest priorities (the others would be providing the best education and then keeping them safe). What would my other priorities be? What other ‘staples’ would I prioritise? What would be national ‘toothpaste’ and just like smoked salmon, what would be on the ‘nice to have’ list.

And so, I have a new project that will be published here over the coming months. I am going to publish my manifesto for Government.

Once, before wall-to-wall political television coverage and, when youth led to more enthusiasm, before an election, I would insist on reading as many party manifestos as I could. I don’t that any more, but it is nothing to do with the voting alternatives. None of the manifestos give me the insights I need to make an informed decision on how to vote.

In my new task I have one clear advantage over all the established parties: I am not seeking political power. I don’t have to canvass a myriad of voter’s preferences. That does make this a great deal easier, and means I don’t have to pander to entrenched views. Whoever ‘wins’ a democratic election has not carried 100% of the voters (even in Belarus the President was only in the high ninety percent). In any population there is a spectrum that ranges from those who are totally behind everything the winner says, to those who agree mostly with the approach and finally to those who are fundamentally against everything the ‘winner’ espouses.

But, once elected a Government should work for all the people and not sectors (big business or the ‘just about manage’). Meanwhile for continued recognition, the ‘opposition’ seems always to look for and exploit those differences hoping that next time round they get into power?

I intend to address that issue as we progress but that requires that we modify our democratic system and I have a plan!! Meanwhile, i can progress unencumbered by the any political bias, agenda or need to be loved by ‘just enough’ of the population.

The 1st Principle of Government (and hence my manifesto)

My first principle is stated quite simply: Don’t give me a solution to yesterday’s problem but tell me the philosophy, criteria and process you will be using to solve tomorrow’s

Over the years I have tried, many times, to predict the future. It doesn’t matter if it is in my personal or business life I have always been caught out by something coming on my blind side. Predicting the long-term future is impossible as everything around me always changes. Fortunately, it has never been a problem because, just like everyone else, I have a set of moral values and decision-making processes that mean I can respond consistently, positively and effectively.

Before I vote for a Government I want them to set out clearly their ‘values and decision-making processes’. I want to know their vision for society in twenty or thirty years’ time and I want to know that as they make daily decisions they are moving towards that vision.

Let me tell you a story to try and explain. When I was a schoolboy and playing rugby (I hope this analogy holds good for those readers that don’t know about this great game), a recent ex Welsh fly half coached us. For those of you that don’t understand rugby the fly half is the main tactician of the side. He is often the most talented of the players and rarely one of the big oafs who plod around the ground. In the days of muddy pitches, he would often come off the field still spotlessly clean because no one had ever been close enough to touch him. In Wales, the fly half or number 10 was as close as possible to a living God.

At the start of every season, to remind us how much we still had to learn, even though we had travelled the country to beat the best, he played in warmup games to remind us just how much we still had to learn.

Our Welsh 10 was built like all the best: short, stocky and a will of the wisp. He would side step and accelerate away from any would be tacklers. The only difference from the others (or I suspect so) was that he was very short sighted and could really only see 20 or 30 yards ahead of him. But that was no hindrance. He would catch the ball behind his own goal line and accelerate, side step, swerve, duck and dive all the way up the field to score a try leaving sprawling 18-year-old boys flat on the ground as they had tried to stop him. Believe me we tried. It was not every day that you get the chance to smash a teacher into the mud.

In my final year, as captain of the team I had the chance to spend time with him and one day I asked him if he had a plan when he first caught the ball of the route he was going to take.

He didn’t.

To paraphrase his words, he said that when he caught the ball he knew that he was always faster to the nearest patch of green, the only one he could see. And that is where he went evading all attempts to dissuade him. When he arrived at this interim destination he would look up, reassess, and then again look for a clear area and go. This he did until he scored a try. But, he said, there is a huge danger that in this approach you could end up going around and around in circles unless you keep a strong sense of where the end point is.  You can never get to that line at the end, score a try, unless you always keep that goal in mind as you move down the pitch.

I tell you this story now because it seems to me that most of the manifestos I have read and the promises I hear from political parties only talk about the patches of green and they all argue about is which is nearer, and which is greener. They never tell us about the end goal. They never tell us about what it means for them to score a try.

When I put a large X on a ballot paper I am far less concerned about what the recipient will do the day after being elected but how they will react to the almost certain different set of circumstances they will face in three or four years’ time. I don’t want to vote on short term tactics, give-aways to voters in marginal seats, or headline grabbing initiatives. I want to vote for those who have and share a vision with me of their future.

I want to know how they will react to situations not yet envisaged.

I know that whoever is in power I will never agree with them on every short-term action, but if they set the solution to the immediate crisis in context of an agreed end goal, I will let them get on with it – well, at least for a time.


There is my first promise. As we progress I will describe the society I want in the long term and whenever we take short term actions the Government will be required to describe how it impacts on the long-term objectives.

I want the debate and discussion between parties to start to concentrate their debate and discussion on this long-term vision keeping the population in the examination because we won’t tolerate zig-zagging from one direction to another.

In my opinion there is a much more agreement on that end goal than you might believe.

Oh! Bertie. I am sorry

My Grandson, Bertie Bodle, is almost ten months old and this summer the family was gathered for his Christening. It was a wonderful day and my only problem was trying to identify the perfect present. I went through the normal list of pewter tankards, silver cuff links, case of Port but, nothing grabbed my attention.

What I wanted to do was give him something that was also part of me. Finally, I decided that I would write him a letter to be opened on his 18th birthday. I need to be a little careful as no one other than me knows what it says. Properly sealed I left in trust with my daughter and so not even she knows what I have said to her son.

I’m telling you this because as I wrote the letter I thought about the skills he might need to survive eighteen years from now, as he grows into a man and, among my thoughts, were the attributes of trust and a passionate sense of justice.

This weekend, as I read the headlines, that thought was dramatically reinforced in the most surprising way.

If we go to war, we don’t expect it to be on the whim of a Prime Minister or President and we expect it to be lawful. Well, I suppose my memory is short because, in a way, this is what happened with the Iraq war but, at least with that we are having inquiries, if not retribution.

However awful the Iraq war was, its consequences would be nothing compared to a global nuclear war. When nuclear missiles start flying over our heads there will be no time for plucky resistance and a subsequent long-lasting inquiry.

If we are going to annihilate humanity we need proper cause, consideration, legality and the exhaustion of all other solutions. We don’t want an angry, rushed, mad, President telling the Generals to make real his promise that “(North Korea) will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” or as he threatened at the UN “to ‘totally destroy’ (North Korea).”

What we need are checks and balances in the process and this weekend I found some of those from the most unusual source: Air Force Gen John Hyten, the top US nuclear commander and in this role, he’s the man that will have to execute any Presidential order.

(Quoting from the BBC news site) he has made it clear that he would ‘resist any “illegal” presidential order to launch a strike.’

When US Senators start meeting and talking about a President’s authority to launch a nuclear attack and the man who has to implement the order questions the legality of the order, the world is suddenly saner than I had thought.

The president is not given an entirely free hand. “I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,” Gen Hyten said.

“And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say: ‘Mr President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works.

For just a moment I was feeling that there were people in positions of power, a power that directly impacts the continuing lives of both me and Bertie, who shared my thoughts on the importance of ‘trust and a passionate sense of justice’. I was feeling good. I thought that my words to Bertie were well formed and then I read the final sentence of the report:

“It’s not that complicated,” Gen Hyten added. He added: “If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life.”

Yes, General, that’s less likely than a global nuclear attack. You can tell President Trump that when you come out of the bunker as the last two living humans.  And Bertie, I did write that letter but I am sorry it has been burnt to dust. Ashes to ashes etc

My Weekend’s Work

Weekdays are working days, and they have a routine.

My mornings are hindered because I am a proper night person: brain synapses don’t work until sometime around midday and a lot of coffee. It is in the afternoon that I start to write. I am currently working on another DCI Catchpole thriller.

I may carry on into the evening until I sit down to write a letter to my beautiful fiancée, Sasha, who lives in Kiev. We write long letters to each other every day. Although we can’t sit down after work to talk about our day, we can do it in written words. Over the years we have been together I have worked out I have written over three full distance novels and I have received the same from her. It doesn’t diminish my desire to work on my own books but if anything helps me.

The weekends are far less structured and this weekend the focus is finally but, only for a moment, on Christmas. I have noticed that the rest of the world is far ahead of me. The adverts on the television are already there and we haven’t even yet got to Black Friday. I will resist temptations to share all my thoughts on these as it would take far too long but as a quick blast I will say that in my family trees and decorations were always put up on the 24th December, not before. However, there is one Christmas activity that is essential at this time of year – making the cake.

I have used the same recipe now for over five years and I would like to attribute it, but I am sorry I can’t remember if I found it in a book or the internet. If the original owner sees it here, then let me know and I will make an edit.

It is a great recipe: low on flour and high on dried fruit. It is rich in taste and moist, especially if you feed it with sherry each week before icing it on Xmas Eve.

This is never going to be a recipe blog but there are some Christmas gifts that need to be shared and this one. I hope you enjoy it every bit as much as I do.

The Very Best Ever Christmas Cake Recipe 

Your shopping List

  Small cake Medium cake Large cake
Sultanas 350g 700g 1kg
Raisins 110g 225g 350g
Currants 50g 110g 175g
glacé cherries 50g 110g 175g
Mixed peel 50g 110g 175g
Brandy or sweet sherry 200ml 400ml 600ml
Butter 150g 225g 350g
dark brown sugar 90g 195g 300g
Orange zest, grated 1 teaspoon 2 teaspoons 3 teaspoons
lemon zest, grated 1 teaspoon 2 teaspoons 3 teaspoons
large eggs 2 4 6
Marmalade 1 tablespoon 2 tablespoons 3 tablespoons
almond essence ½ teaspoon 1 teaspoon 1½ teaspoons
plain flour 250g 350g 525g
Mixed spice ½ teaspoon 1 teaspoon 1½ teaspoons
ground cinnamon ½ teaspoon 1 teaspoon 1½ teaspoons
Nutmeg ¼ teaspoon ½ teaspoon ¾ teaspoon
tin: round 18cm 23cm 25.5cm
or square 15cm 20cm 23cm
Temperature 150C/gas mark 2 150C/gas mark 2 150C/gas mark 2,
(reduce to 140C/gas mark 1 after 1 hour)
cooking time 1¾ – 2¼ hours 2¾ – 3¼ hours 3¾ – 4¼ hours
Yield approx. 12 slices approx. 16 slices approx. 20 slices

Making the Cake

Place all the dried fruit in a saucepan, and add the alcohol. Bring to the boil, then take it off the heat, covering once cooled, and let it steep overnight, covered, and make sure you take your eggs and butter out of the fridge so that they will be at room temperature.

The next day, preheat your oven to 150C / gas mark 2, and prepare your tin, (see below). Cream the butter and sugar together, then beat in the grated lemon zest.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in the almond extract.

Sift the dry ingredients together, then mix the soaked fruit alternately with the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, combining thoroughly.

Put the cake mix into the prepared tin and bake in the oven, following the table opposite, or until a cake-tester or skewer inserted into the cake comes out cleanish.

When the cake is cooked, brush with a couple of extra tablespoons of bourbon or brandy or other liqueur of your choice. Wrap immediately in its tin – using a double-thickness of tin foil – as this will trap the heat and form steam, which in turn will keep the cake soft on top.

When it’s completely cold, remove the cake from the tin and rewrap in foil, storing, preferably in an airtight tin or Tupperware, for at least 3 weeks to improve the flavour. And see the Make Ahead tip, too.

Preparing your tin

To prepare your tin, line the sides and bottom of a deep, round, loose-bottomed cake tin with a double layer of greaseproof paper or baking parchment. The paper should come up a good 10cm higher than the sides of the tin; think of a lining that’s about twice as deep as the tin. Cut out 2 circles of paper, and 2 very long rectangles that will fit along the sides of the tin and rise up above it like a top hat. Before you put the 2 rectangular pieces in the tin, fold one long side of each piece in towards the centre by about 2cm, as if turning up a hem, then take some scissors and snip into this hem, at approx. 2cm intervals, as if making a rough frill.

Grease the tin, lay one paper circle on the bottom and get one of your long pieces and fit it down one side, with the frilly edge along the bottom, then press down that edge so it sits flat on the circle and holds it in place. Press the paper well into the sides, and repeat with the second rectangular piece. Now place the second circle on top of the 2 pressed down frilly edges, to help hold the pieces around the edge in place.

If you’re making a big cake, it’s worth wrapping the outside of the tin with a double layer of brown paper (also coming up about 10cm above the rim of the tin) but I don’t bother if I’m making a normal-sized one (20cm–23cm).  (I made the 23cm cake and I did use brown paper but on the inside of the tin and then parchment paper in side that.

Make ahead tip

Make the cake up to 6 weeks ahead and wrap in a double layer of greaseproof paper and then a double layer of foil. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. (You could add a bit more bourbon or brandy over this storage time to feed the cake and keep moist.)

Trumped-Up Charges

In the UK I believe that we have a fair and impartial justice system and as writer of crime thrillers my police characters always try to live within the law. Investigators collect evidence which is presented to a court, a jury determine guilt before a judge determines the penalty.

It was the failure to follow these principles that led to much of the outrage when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran declared a death fatwa on Salman Rushdie. It wasn’t just the content but the arbitrariness and lack of proper process that offended.

As Iran once was, North Korea is today’s outlaw state and just like Iran, North Korea and their President Jong-un Kim have taken international law into their own hands acting as investigator, jury, and judge. But, while Rushdie’s case caused massive international reaction, including sending the object of Iran’s hate into hiding and exile, the news headline I saw yesterday has not caused a tiny ripple of conversation.

North Korea sentences Donald Trump to death

Few can support North Korea and its very unclear aims, and there are polarised opinions on President Trump, but surely, they have gone too far this time. The arbitrary sentencing of a US President to death is clearly very wrong and should be condemned. While I can think of many reasons to bring him in front of a Court, I cannot imagine any of them are capital offences.

North Korea and their President Jong-un Kim however seem to disagree and in their effort to start a nuclear war have ‘trumped’ up a new criminal charge:

North Korea sentences Donald Trump to death …….. for being a ‘hideous criminal‘*

I agree that President Trump’s hair looks like a very bad wig and he appears orange in every photograph I see but this is going too far. If being hideous and repulsive is now considered an international crime, then many a politician needs to be wary and the International Court of Justice will be very busy.

In this topsy-turvy world of modern geopolitics nothing now surprises me.

*International Business Times 15th November 2017

Power Passes – Robert Mugabe

After he was reported as being unwell and that his wife Grace Mugabe was likely to succeed him, I have just heard on the radio that in Zimbabwe President Mugabe seems to have been deposed. I can’t feel any sympathy for him at all after all he has done to ruin a great country.

I visited Rhodesia, as it was then called, and later I revisited Zimbabwe. My memories are mixed.

It was from Rhodesia (as it was called when I was first there) that I visited one of the world’s greatest natural wonders; the Victoria Falls. There were eight or nine of us visiting from Malawi, where we then working, while sanctions were in force. To fund the trip, even then I didn’t have any money, we each ordered a case of whisky in advance from the duty-free shop in Blantyre, to be collected on the plane. Custom officers in Salisbury (as Harare was then called) didn’t blink at my excuse that the case of 12 bottles was for my own personal consumption. I remember his next question. ‘Then, how long are you staying?’

‘Just the weekend,’ I said.

‘Fine, off you go,’ was all he could answer. We sold the case half an hour later to a bar not far away, which paid for all the hotels.

I was with a beautiful girl friend and it pains me now that I can’t remember her name. Somewhere, stored away is a photo album of that trip and maybe I have annotated it with her name. She was tall, thin, beautiful, with luxurious dark hair, and for a short period lived with me in my villa in Blantyre. Like me, she was an expatriate working in Blantyre but whereas I came from London for the three-month secondment, she was from East Africa the daughter of a mixed race, Indian and Caucasian liaison.

I can’t remember a time when I had racist thoughts and clearly, even then her race or colour meant nothing to me. We had a wonderful relationship and I remember days and nights when the house was boiling hot from the near equator sun and she lay beside me gently blowing her cool breath on to me to keep me cool. Happy days and happy thoughts but back to Salisbury and that holiday.

As a group we went into town to have a meal and drink. We were happy walking along, laughing until we found a bar. The first of our group were already half way in when a bouncer stopped us. ‘You are Ok,’ he said, ’but she can’t come in. Only Whites in here.’

I won’t go into the ensuing conversation, but the bottom line was that apartheid was still the norm and my girlfriend was considered ‘coloured’. What I saw as a beautiful skin tone, akin to a modern Mediterranean tan, in that Rhodesia was barred.  We all bailed out and found somewhere more amenable to what was now labelled our mixed-race group.

Let me be clear I could not and will never be able to understand the discrimination that coloured and black people face every day but at that moment I had a tiny insight and so when in London Mugabe negotiated with Prime Minister Thatcher their independence I was delighted. I loved Africa and I saw a wonderful future for all these newly great countries. Apartheid was going, but sadly it was false dawn.

Mugabe turned into an oppressor as bad as any white man had been. Tanzania, another country I love, turned from being the potential bread basket of Africa into a net consumer of aid. The promise of a new and better future is all still in the future.

Maybe today, as Mugabe seems destined to leave his role as President and his wife is reported to have fled, there is a new future for Zimbabwe. Maybe some of the huge agricultural and cultural capital can be shared back with its people. Maybe, the financial position will be better managed. Maybe inflation can be reduced to normal levels. Maybe the country will become prosperous. Maybe, maybe, maybe but I fear that one old and aged dictator will have been thrown out and somewhere not too far down the line there is another one in the waiting.

I hope I am wrong.