Posh toilets and a numb septum

I spent the morning of my day off masquerading as someone from another layer of the socio-economic sphere (a layer closer to the crust, I would say), as I made my inaugural visit to Jack Wills on George St and then, acting on a tip-off from the Admin Supremo, I tried out Burr & Co for coffee.

Trying out the toilets first – not because I judge establishments on the quality of their facilities, but because I needed to wash my hands – I found them to be very posh, and the broadness and lushness of the stairs and hallway reminded me of various American hotels of my acquaintance. 

Posh because they had the two liquid-soap-dispensers-per-sink arrangement a proper posh toilet demands. Which requires you to inspect the labelling carefully so as to avoid a premature lotion application. This minefield successfully negotiated, I returned upstairs and opened today’s Guardian. Not to read it, obviously, that would only bring me up to speed with what’s not happening with Brexit. I opened it as far as page 2, which had the table of contents, to find out where the crossword was, for it was not where I would have expected it.

Nina Simone is playing, distantly.

I sit opposite the counter, and watch various people, who look more at home in a George Street establishment than I feel, some of them knee-deep in make-up, enter stage right and order their drinks.

A number of them look like they’re part of the decaf-skinny-cappuccino-no-chocolate-sprinkles-please brigade. The question which I longed to put to these people when I worked in a café was, essentially:

“Why bother?” and

“Would you like a glass of water instead?”

As a coffee-related aside, McDonalds have recently been aggressively marketing their coffee offerings here in the UK. Taking aim at what they see as pretentious purveyors of coffee, they have a series of billboards which target the flowery naming of small/medium/large by the large chains, and other aspects of the hipster coffee culture. 

They also have an excellent, funny and, to be frank, very astute TV ad which debunks the mysticism surrounding the flat white. After a variety of common myths about the flat white are presented, a McDonalds server punctures the superciliousness by explaining 

“It’s just a stronger latte with less milk.”

Which it is. Despite what Costa will try to tell you.

The irony is, I have never known a proper hipster coffee shop to buy into the overblown hype around flat whites. And the thing about hipster coffee is, usually, it really does taste better.

Also, McDonalds include latte art in their targeting of hipster coffee.

“We could draw fancy patterns in our milk and charge more for it. But we don’t.” 

Or something like that. I take exception to this on the grounds that:

  1. No you couldn’t, McDonalds. You don’t have baristas capable of producing latte art. Nor a proper coffee machine which would allow them to do it.
  2. Coffee shops don’t, in my experience, charge more for producing coffee with latte art. A latte/flat white/cappuccino is £2-and-something, pretty much everywhere, whether it has a nice pattern in the milk or not.
  3. Latte art takes real skill and practice to produce, and I appreciate people adding beauty and creativity to things. 

So, McDonalds, I applaud you for your services to flat-white-demystifying, but as regards latte art, wind your neck in.

At the table next to me a lady and her daughter are having coffee. I am guessing at the relationship, but it seems likely. After a time, the daughter departs in the direction of the posh loo. The mother takes time to re-apply her lipstick.

Belatedly I realise that right behind me is a long shoulder-level mirror, which means that the mother could, in fact, have read everything I’ve been writing, provided she was sufficiently interested to make the effort to read backwards. I decide to take the risk, but furtively reduce the brightness on my screen a little.

It’s a long time since I attempted the Guardian crossword. I have recently been re-enthused in my crossword-solving attempts by re-reading Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8), which is one of my favourite books of all-time. Possibly number one, in fact, but definitely in the top five.

Since re-opening it, I have attempted a couple of Telegraphs, one of which was quite successful (only three clues left unsolved) but today is my first foray into Guardian territory.

Typically my attempts at the Guardian involve me managing to solve one or two clues on the first pass, and then maybe another one or two if I come back to it after a day or so. But the incentive to come back to it is not high, if I have been thwarted by 93% of the clues first time round. So today I am risking getting my day off to a bad start. But the sun is shining, so it won’t be all bad.

In other news, two weeks on from my melodramatic ski-in-the-face incident, my septum is still numb. Nicola has been parsimonious in her sympathy on the matter. I am considering changing GP practice out of protest. 

Guardian crossword update: the first pass through yielded ten solutions, and the second pass another six. I am somewhat encouraged, and, fortified by my pain au chocolat and long black from Burr & Co (both of which were excellent) I stride out to meet the day.

I later found Haggis Pakora in Sainsbury’s, which I suspect may be the most perfect union of national culinary traditions ever.

I shall keep you posted.

Chambéry, Wednesday

Hannibal wuz ere

Yet another sunny day in Chambéry. The air was crisp and cold as I walked into town and found a café. I have learned some important skills on this trip to France. The French for “what is the password for your wi-fi?” for example, and the word for doughnut. Both have come in very useful.

Yesterday was the third full day I have spent in this town in the last 2 weeks, but the first where everything was open. Everything shuts down on a Monday, it would seem. Encouraged by places actually being open for business, I explored a bit more of the town, and it’s a great little place. Lots of old winding streets, Savoyard architecture and the odd castle and cathedral popping up when you least expect it.

A lovely thing about being in Chambéry is that, contrary to one’s typical experience of a French ski resort, it feels like being in authentic France, among the French. An American girl walked past me on Monday night, talking to her friend in English (or what passes for it among the North Americans), but the only British voice I’ve heard (apart from DC, of course) is from some relatives of the guy in the adjoining hospital room – who suffered an accident in Tignes a few days after him.

DC continues to make good progress in his recovery. The  highlights so far have included his reaction to my informing him I’d brought him the Guardian and Observer for reading material, and a purple patch yesterday morning when his humour was in full flow. A male student nurse called Tahar, pronounced ‘Tar’, at least by me, had a few questions for DC, which the big man attempted to answer, not always in the most helpful way imaginable. Replying to the question “Have you any children?” he replied “No.” before adding “Apart from the people I used to live with.” I convulsed. Tahar just looked bemused.

Tahar went on to explain that his name was Algerian in origin, and that his mother is French but his father Algerian, which provoked a robust comment from DC, which, while not especially racist in the great scheme of things, invoked a certain favourite French stereotype of his, involving surrender. I daresay Tahar, had he understood the comment, might have found it a change to have the French side of his family targeted by a racial slur…

It’s just after 11am here. Visiting starts at 12. Time for another coffee, I reckon.

England in shock World Cup exit

I find myself in London, watching the game with my sister as England take on Germany in the World Cup.

“Great tackle.  GREAT tackle”, emphasised Mark Lawrenson as Ashley Cole went in studs first on a German ankle.

“The referee got that one right,” the commentator asserts not long after, as replays showed Rooney throwing himself melodramatically against a German defender.

My sister can’t understand why I am not fervently rooting for England.  I find it hard to grasp why she is.  Alison, though, lives in England, where the hysterically one-eyed media coverage of England’s various footballing campaigns doesn’t seem quite so inappropriate as it does in other parts of the UK.  For my part, I take no specific pleasure in England losing, as some of the natives in my adopted country do.  An English exit from a major tournament brings relief, rather than glee.

Germany’s keeper whacks a long goal-kick down the middle, and Klose holds off the attempted foul from Upson to poke it into the corner past James.  “Sunday pub league goal,” dismisses Lawro, as if the Germans should somehow be ashamed of themselves for scoring it.

Podolski makes it two after 33 minutes.

I was midway through explaining my Brits-don’t-have-the-right-psychological-makeup-to-win-consistently theory to Alison, when England, rather inconveniently, scored.  She shrieked.  I slumped.

This seemed to be a good time to ‘catch up’, my sister having paused the match near the start on account of retrieving baby Sebastian from his slumbers.  She fast-forwarded the TV back to normal time, just in time to see Lampard’s shot crash off the crossbar and over the line.  Not given.  Cue a studioful of half-time experts who, it would seem, have been campaigning vociferously for goal-line technology to be introduced for years.

Mercifully England’s overall ineptitude meant it finished 4-1 rather than 2-1, or there may have been riots in the streets.  Not in Hackney, probably, where there may well be more local support for Ghana than England.

Two days later, Peter Singer, writing in the Guardian, has a pop at the German goalkeeper for ‘cheating’ by not owning up that the ball had crossed the line.  As, no doubt, the England goalkeeper would have done in similar circumstances.  He quotes cricket as an example of a sport where players sometimes walk even when they haven’t been given out.  Tellingly, to find a high-profile instance of this happening, he has to go all the way back to the 2003 World Cup, when Adam Gilchrist walked against Sri Lanka in a semi-final.  Walking is not common in high-level cricket, or even at lower levels, for that matter.  Besides, Gilchrist once walked thinking he’d been caught, when replays proved his bat had hit the ground rather than the ball.  Gilchrist’s approach was laudable, but at that level a player is entitled to allow the umpire to make the decision.  And if Neuer, the German keeper, had insisted to the referee and his assistant that the goal should stand, they would most likely have waved away his protests.

Having sweated my way into town yesterday and exhausted myself by simply pootering around the South Bank in the heat, I have decreed today to be a rest day.  Sitting around, mostly outside, reading Marcus Berkmann’s Rain Men, has been the order of the day.  My sister is just about to go out for a walk with Maggie and the little girl she looks after on Tuesdays.  Sebastian is upstairs asleep, and I am instructed to get him up at 3.45pm.

“Do I need to do anything after that?” I enquired, hoping that I wouldn’t be expected to do anything too complicated, like change his nappy.

“Change his nappy.”

Deep breath.

“Ok.”  How hard can it be?

Starbucks and skiing

Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, was interviewed in the Guardian today. I learnt of how he was inspired to build a chain after his first visit to Italy in 1983. Seriously? How can a visit to the home of beautiful coffee have spawned such a monster? How much better the world would be if he’d restricted himself to building daisy chains.

I read of how he’s planning to refit 100 UK stores this year, making their interiors more individual and in tune with their local area. Oh, the irony. Starbucks, the destroyers and growth-stunters of bona fide independent local coffee shops the world over, are to copy their approach. Stick to bland, bitter homogeneity Mr Schultz, it’s what you’re good at.

I also read how Peter Mandelson, responding to some derogatory comments from Schultz regarding the UK economy, launched a foul-mouthed tirade in his direction back in February. I found myself developing a soft spot for Mandelson all of a sudden. Perhaps I should stop reading the Guardian, it’s becoming unhealthy.
Still feeling the post-holiday blues after skiing, and wondering if I’ve maybe overlooked several hundred pounds in my current account somewhere that would allow me another trip this winter. I fear not. I have eulogised enough about the delights of skiing before now, but something new struck me on this trip – the uniqueness of each run down the mountain.

On Friday, we were making our way down the valley via a series of runs and lifts. Mel, one of the more talkative hobbits in the party, had fond memories of a particular run called Jerusalem, and en route to it, we found ourselves on a chairlift, ascending directly over a blue piste which was (a) groomed, (b) sunny, (c) virtually empty and (d) looking like a lot of fun. “Looking like a lot of fun” means it had a lot of bends which looked like they might like to be taken at high speed. So we postponed our pilgrimage to Jerusalem, temporarily, and bombed down this run instead. Twice, both times without stopping. Strictly speaking, I did come to something of a stop first time round, having misjudged the racing line somewhat through a bend, and slid horizontally off the piste, over a ridge and out of sight of MacRae and Kirsty, who claimed to be hard on my heels. Now, it being a fast run, and there being boys involved, it had developed into something of a race, without anything being expressly mentioned to that effect. When MacRae saw me crash and slide off the piste out of sight, potentially surrendering my hard-earned lead, he was (a) delighted, and then (b) momentarily concerned for my welfare. So he stopped, as did Kirsty, or so they tell me, and called out to see if I was alright. I did actually hear them call out, but considered the fact that I was back up on my feet and skiing on to be an adequate answer to their enquiry, so didn’t visibly acknowledge it. I didn’t realise they had stopped, and so as I got up, dusted myself off and skied back on to the piste, still in the lead, I quietly congratulated myself on being so far in front that I’d had time to fall over, laugh for a bit, and still be in front when I returned to the ‘race’. I didn’t hear MacRae loudly calling me a fascist at this point, but took all his abuse on the chin once we’d got to the bottom, and got our breath back.

It should be noted at this stage that Mel would have destroyed all of us in a race, real or imagined, had he been strapped on to his customary snowboard. However, he had chosen that day to temporarily reject the dark side, and use skis instead. I believe he had a grand old time, burning quads notwithstanding.

So the point of all that was to explain that the next day we went back to this piste and it wasn’t nearly so much fun. There were more people on it, which meant we had to ski more circumspectly, it wasn’t as sunny, and the piste wasn’t in quite such good nick. Every day is different, and the same run is different on different days. Which means that each time you do a run it’s a unique event, and adds to the joy of the experience such as we had on Friday, as you know that it’s not always possible to recreate those conditions again.

Carpe diem…

No delays when you need them

After a consecutive series of delayed flights over the last week, the least I might have expected was for tonight’s flight back to Edinburgh to be shunted back, at least a little. Which would have been useful, as a points malfunction at Stratford had left me scrambling onto an overcrowded bus in order to complete my ‘rail’ journey to the epicentre of the 2012 Olympics, from where I still had to take a tube and the DLR to get to the City Airport. I hadn’t managed to get on the first bus, due to the panic instilled in my fellow travellers by being denied their timely arrival into Stratford, and the scrum that ensued.
Finally made it to check-in, with the screen showing my flight as boarding, and on to security, which had the longest queues I’ve seen there. Naturally, I joined the slowest-moving one, which is a natural gift of mine, and then forgot to take a pen out of my trouser pocket, which triggered the scanner. At which point I had to remove my shoes, belt, and all pocket contents before undergoing what amounted to a full-body grope. And an electronic sweep-down which seemed convinced that I had something metallic somewhere very personal. I know privacy campaigners are exercised by the prospect of the new X-ray scanners which display an image of you in disturbing detail through your clothing, but personally I think that’s preferable to the physical invasion of your dignity as it currently stands.
By the time I had been certified a non-terrorist, the screen was displaying ‘Gate closed’ beside my flight. Undeterred, knowing my hold baggage had gone ahead of me, I pressed on, almost breaking into a run at times despite flapping shoelaces, and less-than-secure trousers, having had no time to reinstate my belt to its rightful place.
Escorted individually to the steps of the plane by a very kind and patient member of the BA ground crew, I finally made it on to the flight ten minutes before it was due to take off.
I had eschewed the opportunity to change my seat during online check-in earlier, since having done this on the way down and yet still failed in my attempt to secure a seat with no-one beside me. Miserably. I was sat beside an absolute bear of a man. I took my seat and tried to make myself comfortable. The Bear was working his way through a puzzle book, and I could feel the pressure as I reached the crossword in the Guardian, and folded it over, in a way which suggested I had every confidence of being able to solve one or two of the clues. And what do you know, I solved 1 Across instantly. Instantly, I say. And then had a lucky run with four more in a row (in a row, I say) later on. Quite satisfied with myself, I put the paper away and re-opened Mr Trescothick’s autobiography.
The City Airport being principally used by, um, City types and pink-sweater-clad students at the London School of Economics, I was, by some distance, the scruffiest person on the flight. I love the City Airport, for its proximity to my sister’s house (points failures at Stratford notwithstanding), and its spectacular flight path in and out over the centre of London. But I can’t help but feel it wasn’t made with the likes of me in mind. Visiting the cash machine in the terminal on Monday I noticed that on selecting ‘cash withdrawal’ the amounts assigned to the screen-side buttons started at £100 and increased in multiples thereof. I selected ‘Other Amount’. On plugging into the free LCY wi-fi I was presented with a welcome screen which requested the usual user info – name, email, postcode etc. And two drop-down boxes in which I was to state my industry and occupation. The default suggested for industry was ‘Accounting’, and for occupation was ‘Board of Directors’. I didn’t even satisfy the default age range (18-24).
Sigh. At least the John Mayer gig was brilliant, and worth the travelling and hassle. My ears were ringing for some time after getting home, not so much from the music as the audience. I had commented on how many teenage girls were present to my gig companion, affectionately known as The Maestro. He pointed out that girls which looked like teenagers to me were probably 25. I thanked him for his observation. The 25-yr-old girls made a heck of a racket when JM’s band arrived on stage, but managed to ratchet it up even further when the man himself appeared. And they kept it up for most of the gig. In fairness, he played a great set, despite him not playing my favourite songs (why do artists do that… is it just me?), memorably throwing a bit of the Jackson 5 into the mix at one point. The Maestro was playing in his own gig the following night, and I went along to watch him. Was greatly pleased to see that I wasn’t the sole target of his youthful insolence, as he publicly heckled the singer/guitarist he was playing for.
I say ‘youthful’, but actually he’s getting on a bit himself. As is Maggie, 3 years old today, and terribly excited about it. I deferred my present until later in the year, as she has quite a few to be getting on with, and anyway, junior cricket sets cannot be practically demonstrated in January. Those delights will have to wait.
Now back in Edinburgh for the foreseeable, I find myself experiencing a slight return to the post-holiday blues which hit me hard on Sunday night. A reappearance on the slopes before the ski and cricket seasons crossfade, while financially daunting, seems like a great idea right now…

Nelson no more

This is my 112th post. Listened to the end of the Chris Evans show on Radio 2 this afternoon. Johnny Saunders is interviewing Will Carling at the end of the show. Chris, having recently discovered Twitter, and being very excited by it, interrupts.
“So, Will, I was following you on Twitter today, and I see you were out on your bike this afternoon…?”
Gosh. I must really get myself onto Twitter, there’s a lot of interesting news going down there. Perhaps I could call myself @frequentlyburgled or something. I arrived home one Friday night recently from a conference in Ascot, somewhat empty-handed, BA having lost my bag in Terminal 5, as is their wont. My key wouldn’t turn in the Yale lock. I feared the worst, as the only person who could have snibbed the lock from the inside (legally) was my mother, and she was in London. And if she had snibbed the lock, she must have left by the window. Which it seems is what the burglars did, having entered the same way, before spurning my entire CD and DVD collection (again) on their way to finding my digital camera. Installing pretty-looking window locks, as I did after the last burglary, appears to have been the equivalent of owning a nightclub and hiring a couple of teenage girls as bouncers. Attractive, but ineffectual. The electrified steel bars with barbed wire and sensor-triggered shotgun, which I have just added to the back of the property, should put paid to them when they come back for my new camera.
Shopping for the new camera was an interesting experience. Last time, my insurance company insisted I buy a replacement from Jessops, which suited me fine, as they know things about cameras in there, not to mention customer service. I duly was given a full explanation and demonstration of my chosen camera, and the photographic miracles it could perform. This time, I had to buy from Comet. When I asked about a specific model, I was taken to the nearest computer screen, where the young chap helpfully read out the list of features that appeared. Still, he was very pleasant.
I subscribe to a weekly cricket email, called the Spin, which is sent out from the Guardian HQ, and brightens up my inbox of a Tuesday. This week, the author, in passing, made reference to the UK Citizenship Test, and I followed the link to have a go at it. It appears I am ineligible to live in my own country. I have now lived in the UK for thirty-five and a half years, and I failed the test that they give people who want to live here. I deeply regret that I do not know the year that married women gained the right to divorce their husband, or how many people in the UK declared themselves to be Muslims in 2001. I imagine there are many, many people in the UK who know how many parliamentary constituencies we have, but I trust that I will be able to continue to survive without that knowledge. How embarrassing, that prospective UK dwellers have to answer these questions. Personally, I think that Norman Tebbit’s Cricket Test makes more sense. After all, that’s what we’re all here for, right? ‘Course it is. Apart from Wiseman, who’s only here for the kick-boxing. And beer…

Spare some change

This morning saw me breakfasting with the Guardian at Urban Angel just off Broughton Street. The note above the tips jar read “Fear change? Leave it here…”

The seasons are a-changin’. Summer is drifting away, and in its place autumn, a long-neglected friend, is edging ever closer, extending its misty tendrils in an alluring embrace. At least for me. Others, I know, dread the arrival of the darker evenings and the cold mornings, but there’s nowt queerer than folk.

Summer in Edinburgh has been a severe disappointment, or “not too bad”, depending on whom you speak to. Some spells of very warm weather were appreciated between the all-too-frequent deluges. It was a good summer for cricket, with rain and sodden pitches effecting fewer call-offs than last season. My church team won all their matches. Holy Cross 2nd XI, who carry me in their middle order of a Saturday, struggled throughout the season, clumsily wresting East League Division 5 survival from the grasp of our relegation rivals in the final game at Falkland. Falkland, it is worth noting at this point, is quite simply a magnificent place to play cricket. The ground, surrounded by trees, plummets down at one end to a large wooded area at the base of Falkland Hill, which rises majestically upwards, keeping an eye on the cricketing proceedings from above, like a more pastoral version of Table Mountain, perhaps, at the Newlands cricket ground in Cape Town. The downhill descent to long off/long on is so pronounced that should fielders of normal stature be posted there, they are periodically asked to raise their hands in the air to identify their position for the benefit of the batsman.

Naturally, not being good enough play in the same league as Falkand 1st or 2nd XI, we were playing on another pitch entirely, with a dodgy artificial strip laid in the middle of an upturned bowl of a field which seemingly hadn’t been cut for weeks. Nonetheless, the view from the middle was quite possibly even better than from the main square, with the same imposing hill, and the added aesthetic bonus of a large stately home in the woods, poking several of its turrets out between the trees. A butler, say, standing looking out of a turret window, would have a decent view of the cricket, although watching Division 5 cricket may not be at the top of the domestic staff’s list of things to do on a Saturday afternoon in the summer.

However, should they have taken this option this particular Saturday, they would have witnessed an astonishing Holy Cross recovery from the somewhat precarious position of 15/5, chasing 139 to win. My part in this fightback involved grinding out an unbeaten 52, at a pace more commonly associated with coastal erosion, as I eschewed any attempt to breach the short boundaries in favour of nurdled ones and the occasional two. Taking so long to achieve victory had its problems, most notably in the form of the midges, who arrived approximately 30 overs into our innings. Taking a particular liking to the Stately Home End, they hovered in a cloud around the batsman’s head, making it even more difficult than usual to concentrate on watching the ball out of the bowler’s hand. And there they remained, face-bitingly defiant of our feeble wafted attempts to shoo them away, until my more attack-minded teammate edged one over the slip cordon to win the game.

So, the 2nd XI campaign ended on a relative high, despite the entire team picking up the award for the Most Disappointing Season (previously considered an individual award) at our glittering awards night, and personally-speaking, some hope remains that this previously-rarely-seen dogged batting attitude will be evident for more of the season next time, which would make a welcome change.

Changes have been afoot at work too, with Dave, our patient and gentle-hearted receptionist/admin assistant moving on to pastures new as a Church of Scotland minister. He retires from our office a happy man, having finally succeeded just this week in his multi-year quest to extract a smile from the girl-from-the-flower-shop as she walked past his window. To my knowledge, the Studio One girls remain obstinately resistant to his charms. He has one more week to melt their cold hearts. Being on holiday for the next week myself, yesterday was my last day working with him, and we headed to the movies last night to mark the occasion. Dorian Gray, after a spot of online research, was rejected in favour of District 9. We bumped into two of Dave’s young female friends in the ticket queue, and I was momentarily concerned that Dave would want to accompany them to their chick flick, but mercifully he kept the faith. District 9 is a great movie, with a lot more to say than might be apparent from reading a brief plot synopsis. Afterwards we hooked up with Dave’s friends for a drink. They being members of that ultimately elusive club, the Younger Generation, there was the occasional blank stare from their side of the table when musical tastes crept into the conversation, and some furious concentration from our side, trying to pick out their words with hearing resources slightly depleted by the ageing process. I may need to prescribe some of my own medicine soon.

The contrast in musical tastes between generations was further highlighted this morning, as I wandered round Tesco making some last-minute purchases before my trip to London today. As an insistent beeping sound emanated from a machine in the bakery, I viewed, with some bewilderment, a young boy nodding his head and dancing along. I had a vision of DC, shaking his head gravely and muttering softly.

Being a Times man, he would have been disappointed at my choice of dinner date last night as well, although I find The Guardian very well-behaved company for dinner as well as breakfast, and I took yesterday’s edition out for a pizza last night before the cinema. As I do from time to time in that particular establishment, I bumped into JB, Holy Cross’ marquee batsman and frequent winner of the Most Entertaining Run-maker award. JB is a good enough player to have played on the main square at Falkland. He is also a non-Guardian man, to my knowledge, but I pounced on an entertaining article on bowling machines by Harry Pearson, which I think distracted him. We shared some news on work and unclehood, before he collected his pizza and left me to mine.

And with that, I shall conclude my first blog post since I last visited London in May. At several times over the last few months I have considered writing a note to you all, bewailing my manifold sins of omission (at least in terms of writing, I wasn’t about to lumber you with more intimate confessions), explaining that it wasn’t you, it was me, and then sadly pressing the Terminate Blog button, wherever that may be. However, for reasons not entirely clear (to me, and quite probably you) I have decided to continue, and attempt to champion the art of proper writing (or my muddled attempts at it) in the face of the apparently relentless rise of Twitter. Twitter, to my mind, has its place, that place being for snappy amusing observations, but is still an inferior cousin of the blog.

Moreover, I may even post it from the train, as the National Express wi-fi provision is considerably more robust than the last time I attempted to use it. Wi-fi. Just one of the reasons why the train is better than the plane…

Camping and Clapton

“We’re going camping for the weekend!” Alison had announced a week or two ago.  So I did have some warning, but nothing quite prepared me.  Alison and Sebastian collected me from the City Airport in the Passat Estate, which was packed to the gunnels with all manner of camping equipment, and some equipment not conventionally associated with camping.  Like king size duvets, for example.  “I don’t really do camping,” my sister explained.  There was barely room for my luggage.  I was glad I had decided to travel light.
Camping on the south coast of England is somewhat different to my previous camping expeditions in Scotland and Ireland.  The ground, not to mention the air, is somehow drier and warmer.  After a pleasant lunch of baguettes and pork pies, Angela and I set to work on putting up the tent, while Alison blew up the airbeds and made a cafetière of coffee.
Later I poked my head into the tent to find my sister kitting out the beds with organic Egyptian cotton sheets.  Like she says, she doesn’t really do camping.
But we all did it, and survived.  Despite a decent thunderstorm threatening to rip the tent away from its moorings in the early hours of Monday morning, apparently.  I was oblivious to it all.  Ah, the value of good earplugs.
We retreated back to London yesterday, once the tent had dried out a bit.  I showered and changed and shot straight out again.  I had tickets for Eric Clapton, and I didn’t want to be late.  I wasn’t, as it turned out, and it was a great night.  I was there with my friend Iain, who also accompanied me to see Clapton this time last year, in Hyde Park.  This time round, it all felt a little more… civilised… which was, I suppose, entirely reasonable and to be expected given that it was in the Royal Albert Hall.  A magnificent venue, and we had brilliant seats, but all in all I preferred last year.  The band was slightly different this time, Doyle Bramhall II having been replaced by Andy Fairweather-Low, who was curiously subdued throughout, only getting a solo spot once, towards the very end.  In my experience, a band feeds off its audience to a large extent, and with a crowd of well-behaved mostly forty-to-sixty-somethings, all sitting down, as compared with last year’s younger, sunshine-and-alcohol-fuelled crowd, nothing was going to get set alight.  And with Clapton on the seventh night of an eleven night stint, I suppose the band were going to be on auto-pilot to a certain extent anyway.  ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ was certainly an unwelcome addition to the set-list from where I was sitting, and the acoustic version of ‘Layla’, while great in its own right, is not quite as, um, electric as the original.  Anyway, it was a good experience, and I’m glad I was there.
Today was a chance to recharge the batteries a little, although I ventured into the East End in the afternoon.  Got a little lost, and found myself passing the end of St Mary Axe, a street which houses the organisation that regulates my profession.  I considered popping up to their offices to see if any of their staff were doing enough work to merit our scandalous retention fee, but opted to try and find a record shop instead.  I ended up in a hip coffee shop on Brick Lane.
“Black coffee, please.”
“Americano or filter?”
The girl hesitated as her eyes fixed on my t-shirt.
“Can I read your t-shirt?”
The strap of my man-bag was obscuring the anti-Starbucks logo.  She was clearly concerned that it was an actual Starbucks t-shirt I was wearing.  I moved the strap.
“Oh, that’s cool.  We like that.”  Her colleague behind the counter chuckled.
Phew.  I was relieved that I was considered ok to drink coffee there.  I glanced up at the board on the wall above the counter to discover  “Chav Coffee (filter)” in the list of drinks available. Phew, again.  I settled down at a table with a left-behind copy of the Guardian, and tried to look nonchalant.
Tomorrow sees my second visit to a renowned London arena in three days. This time it’s Lord’s, for a Twenty20 thrash between Middlesex and Kent, where the newly-installed floodlights at the home of cricket are set to be used for the first time.  And I get to catch up with another old friend.  This holiday lark is just the thing.

It’s not all doom and gloom

I apologise for the lack of bloggage recently. I would dearly like to tell you that the hiatus has been due to my spending quality time with an outstanding woman, but I’m afraid the quality time has been spent with Commandos 2: Men of Courage, and the outstanding woman remains afar off. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as Burma has been more or less liberated, and I am currently in the process of rescuing a Resistance man from Colditz. No easy task, as I’m sure you can imagine. However, I have looked up from my computer screen long enough to pick up a copy of the Guardian, wherein I read an article on the world’s finest (and most expensive, surely) coffee maker, the Clover. This mostly hand-made machine makes coffee so good that retailers can afford to charge getting on for £10 a cup. Step forward Starbucks, purveyors of evil-tasting coffee. According to the article, Howard Schmuck, or is it Schultz, the Dark Angel in charge of the Starbucks Legions, was so upset that they no longer had the most overpriced coffee on the high street that he promptly bought the company that makes the Clover. Which means that if the coffee from these things really is that good, independent coffee shops will no longer have access to it, which is a dastardly ploy typical of the fiends.

Or perhaps it’s just a successful capitalist tactic. And here’s where I struggle. I can consider myself both a capitalist and a socialist, depending on which way the wind’s blowing at the time. I buy the Daily Telegraph from time to time, and the Guardian at other times. I sometimes even read them, and find myself amused by their extreme right and left winged-ness. I wear, with some pride, a T-shirt bearing a mock-up of the Starbucks logo with the words “Big Bucks Capitalism” replacing their name, and bask in the compliments from dissident-minded student types who like it. But I work for a company that is essentially capitalist in nature, and enjoy it. As I see it, capitalism rewards hard work. A socialist approach, while brilliant in theory, will inevitably be milked by those in our society who can’t be bothered to work and are more than happy to live off the hard work of others. But capitalism is also fallible, and susceptible to corruption, by corporations who grow too large to be bothered with ethics. Starbucks, I am sure, don’t even feature on the map of the world’s most unethical companies. They obtain their coffee from Fair Trade sources, I am assured, and pay the best prices for it. But somewhere along the way they make it taste really bad (I know, I know, that’s a matter of opinion) and charge outrageous prices for it (that’s indisputable) and place their outlets in every street in every land, even in France, where they should know better, adding to the global homegeneity and making me upset. And that’s, more or less, why I don’t like them.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Starbucks were referred to in the article as an “ailing coffee giant”. How I like that description. Jones informs me that 650 out of 830 Starbucks have closed. I presume he means in Australia, which is where he was when he told me that. And presumably they’re properly closed this time, rather than closing for a few hours to teach their baristas how to make coffee (you’d think they might have thought about doing that earlier).

When Starbucks finally falls catastrophically from its position in the global financial firmament, there’ll be a party at my place, and you’re all invited. Let’s hope it’s not overly soon, though, as my kitchen ceiling collapsed last week under the weight of a not insignificant amount of leaking water from upstairs. Not a problem, mum has returned to her position as chief cook and clothes washer, and I have moved my Command Centre to the living room. Colditz has been conquered (this blog was a while in the writing) and I’m about to liberate Paris. Vive la Résistance!

Coffee and my Granny

I’m fed up drinking tea. I finally cracked yesterday morning, while I was in town getting my ski boots attended to. I needed some breakfast, and having still 40 minutes of Edinburgh George St rip-off parking still paid for, decided to go across the street to Cento Tre rather than my usual West End haunt. Regardless of where I ended up, the prospect of having a cup of tea with my breakfast was really too dismal to contemplate. I miss coffee so much, having given it up for the sake of my stomach over a year ago.

Tea is so… featureless. So insipid compared to coffee. At least at breakfast. Tea has its place, but it’s not beside a croissant on a breakfast table. And you can’t get a decent cup of tea in town anyway.

So I marched across the street, full of resolve and determination, with The Guardian clutched under my arm. My sister had texted me earlier this morning.

Get guardian today page 83 of magazine.x

Just like that. No capitalisation. No punctuation to speak of.

I’m not usually a Guardian reader, in fact I don’t normally read newspapers at all. When I do buy one, it’s the Telegraph, which is more an indication of my crossword preferences, rather than any political leanings. The Guardian crossword, on the odd occasion that I’ve attempted it, has remained defiantly inscrutable.

I looked up page 83 of the magazine to find the Food section. And did a sharp double-take. It’s not every day you open a national broadsheet’s magazine to find your granny featured in the text. The writer was a chef friend of my sister’s, who was promoting one of his recipes which combined potatoes and pasta. Our granny was name-checked as someone who, being Irish, was unable to eat a meal without potatoes. I’m not entirely sure that gran would have approved of Mr Ottolenghi’s potato lasagne. Might have been a bit new-fangled for her. And despite being born in Co Donegal, she might even have disputed the ‘Irish’ tag, as someone who deliberately chose British citizenship over Irish after the Partition in 1921…! But I daresay she would have held her hands up and acknowledged that no meal is complete without some potatoes.

I sat back with my black coffee and almond croissant and reflected on what our granny would think of my lifestyle today. I can still see her shaking her fist at me, usually when she was baby-sitting us and I wouldn’t shut up and go to sleep. When she wasn’t shaking her fist she was often waving her walking stick in a vaguely threatening manner. When I wasn’t playing golf with it, that is. It was a very nice blackthorn walking stick, and its shape bore a strong resemblance to a driver, at least to me. I have no idea what she would make of me driving into town yesterday when I could have walked, having my ski boots adjusted in preparation for a ski holiday in the French Alps next month, and settling down to a continental breakfast in an Italian eatery while reading the Guardian. And no porridge or potatoes to be seen anywhere.

How times have changed.

Oh, and the coffee? It was AMAZING.