Thursday, 29 April 2010

Getting the Message

One week to go before election day! If I wasn't such a stiff-upper-lipped type, there's the chance that I might just have weed myself with excitement. Tonight sees the last of the televised leaders debates but there have been two pieces of news in the political spectrum - the first that anyone British will have had to have spent the last 24 hours under a rock to miss, and the second which has been slipped under the radar in most of the mainstream press, which is a shame, because it's much funnier than the first.

The Bigot of Rochdale has of course dominated the news, with Gordon Brown's ill-timed vent about a widow concerned with immigration being caught on a Sky News microphone. It is clear Mr Brown is not keen on face-to-face contact with voters and finds the touchy-feely approach of this campaign uncomfortable to say the least. But then, not all great men are people people. As long as he can keep the economy stable, I'm with...oh.

In a hilarious event which has been mostly skipped in the press as a result of Bigotgate, Nick Griffin will be in the High Court today defending the BNP's use of Marmite in election campaign material. Like the love-it-or-hate-it yeast extract product, voter opinion is torn on Mr Griffin, but with an opportunity to get his party's central policy as the focus of national discussion, a genuine bigot will instead be in the dock defending a vigorous legal action from Unilever. Oh, irony, thou art more delicious than Marmite.

Monday, 26 April 2010


Spring is here!

I'm in the mood to celebrate the warmer temperatures and longer days. I also noted that the most popular blogs on this site tend to employ pictures far more than I currently do, so I'm bringing some colour to the season.

My favourite thing about spring is cherry blossom. I love the way that the flamingo-pink flowers are so wonderfully contrasting with England's usual green and brown backdrop. So I took some pictures of blossom on my trusty digicam, and uploaded a couple here for you to see.

I would love to visit Japan, and their national interest in the cherry blossom is one reason why. The Japanese cherry blossom variants are almost pure white, and their progress is reported in the daily news as it sweeps northward across the nation from January to May, marking the changing of the season as it does so.

One of those things that I miss about the gardens from my childhood is an absence of colour, smell and sound. We just don't seem to have the aptitude or work ethic for gardening in my generation. It's a great shame, because a beautiful garden is a joy to behold. What a difference it would make to England if we all planted one tree, or one flower, each. It might bring back the bees, for a start.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Going Down

For the benefit of those of you who like to know these things up front so that they can stop reading now, this post is about football. Well, that and the emotions it stirs. For those of you who are already familiar with Nick Hornby's 'Fever Pitch', you've probably got some idea of where this post is going. Nonetheless, there is still something here to add, because Hornby, being an Arsenal fan, will be very used to glory and attractive football whilst I, being a Norwich City fan, am more used to a rollercoaster ride up and down that ultimately ends in soul-crushing disappointment.

Over the last few years, Norwich City have moved up and down the top three leagues of English football with the grace of a bored toddler in a lift. Some years there are heroes, names that are carved on fans' minds as passes connect, goals are scored and point-blank saves made. Some years there are only villains, and time passes as they move through the club like ghosts at a time of bad harvests.

I am a moderate fan. I don't have a season ticket because I can't afford one and generally struggle from weekend to weekend knowing where I will be at any particular time. However, I do go to games on at least a semi-regular basis, I can sing all of the words of the club song and I have been known to occasionally shout insults at referees where I feel it is justified to do so. I have never rung CanaryCall or 606 to insult a player, a manager or a board member, but I listen when I have the chance because the occasional fen-dweller rant on Saturday evening radio raises a smile and reminds you just how much worse life could be.

The memories that stick at football games are charged ones. I have been pelted with coins in Wolverhampton, come within inches of serious violence at West Bromwich and Blackburn and watched a tide of yellow and green engulf Cardiff as my side took possession of the city for the day of a play-off final. I have seen Thierry Henry destroy a defence single-handedly with his cultured first touch and clearly remember getting a front-row ticket for a Tuesday night game in December years ago against lowly opposition and being first soaked and then frozen in front of a tawdry 0 - 0 draw.

It is despair that for me epitomises what I love about football. Before anyone sees fit to challenge my use of the word despair, believe me, I picked it specially for this occasion. It is the only word that will do.

On the day of that Cardiff final, I had seen a superior Norwich City team dragged to a penalty shootout by a lacklustre, uninspired Birmingham side, and ultimately fate smiled on our opposition. I had known all along that this would happen, of course, that it did not matter how many opportunities we had or goals we scored. We were simply not destined to win on the day. I remember sitting numbly, unable to find any words to say as my fellow supporters applauded the players at the end (and deservedly so, for they had really given it everything that they had.)

Don't ask me about the game. I know the facts, who scored, who missed, but I don't really remember anything about it. But I remember Cardiff's amazing Millennium Stadium, which from the inside with the roof closed was like a giant, bubble-shaped alien spacecraft. I remember being the only Norwich fan who couldn't sleep on the torturous eight-hour coach trip home. I remember the Birmingham fans, who were without exception dignified winners, shaking our hands as we passed, praising our team and assuring us that we would join them soon in the league above.

In my lifetime, Norwich City have been relegated three times. Each of the three times I have experienced the same funereal emotions, which can only be compared to losing love or walking towards the electric chair. There is the simple, desperate loneliness. There is the clawing sense of injustice, even though you know the league table cannot lie. There is the gut-wrenching and entirely visceral feeling of physical sickness. There is the knowledge that the opposition are indifferent to your plight, and in some cases, are even delighted to be the cause of your demise. There is the feeling that the world is happening somewhere far far away, and you are no longer a part of it.

Yesterday Norwich City defeated a spirited Charlton side in London to confirm promotion back to the the second tier of English football. In one of those little quirks that the game throws up from time to time, Norwich were promoted on the same ground that saw them relegated the year before, and the irony is not lost on our long-suffering fans. If, as seems likely, Norwich win the title next week at home to Gillingham, there will be no overwhelming sense of elation for me, for I am clearly the masochist of the piece. Instead, I will allow myself a wry smile and enjoy three months of cautious, tempered optimism before the unwinnable fight begins again in September.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Food for Thought

Ah, so many things to write about...a general election campaign thrown wide open by a stylish podium performance from a liberal, the entire UK airspace frozen for days by an Icelandic volcano, the country's first case of corporate manslaughter which could see directors being imprisoned for negligence. I wonder how I ever coped without a blog. Presumably I just used to read about these things and have private thoughts.

No, it's no good. I want to talk about all those things but the sky is blue, the sun is shining and I just feel too good to wax lyrical about something so thoroughly indigestable on a Saturday morning. Instead, I'm going to talk about something very close to my heart. I refer, of course, to TV chefs.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the UK is obsessed with celebrity chefs. It goes far beyond simply watching their television programmes and buying their cookbooks. These days they can be seen dating models, backing political figures and fronting national campaigns about healthy eating. The most famous and loudmouthed ones are even exported so they can be famous and loudmouthed in other countries.

I am no different from anyone else in this regard. Indeed, such is my love of cooking and food in general that I am far more interested in the regular comings and goings of TV chefs than I am in, say, Premiership footballers. I recently came up with the idea of filming myself in my kitchen, a ten minute skit of me messing around with chicken breasts and chili flakes, and posting it on FoodTube. After suggesting the idea on Facebook, I received 15 comments (some complimentary, some less so) in as many minutes.

Regular readers of this blog will know my fondness for the Hairy Bikers, but I regard them (perhaps unfairly) as enthusiastic amateurs, much like myself. I like to watch Nigella Lawson and Sophie Dahl for obvious reasons, and while I like their programmes I do not regard them as chefs in the truest sense. Who then, are the UK's finest for me?

Four names come to mind...I have a favourite, but I'm not going to say which. Rankings are for football teams and schools under Labour governments. Here then are the UK's four best TV chefs and why...

Love him or hate him, I'm a huge fan of Gordon Ramsey. He is a talented and passionate chef with an excellent grasp of fundamentals. It's this grasp of detail that makes Kitchen Nightmares such a compelling show. Gordon is the only chef who could march through a menu of goujons and jus and yell, 'WHERE'S THE FUCKING PIE?!' It's a shame, all considered, that he is more famous for being rude than for his ability as a chef - but perhaps he's happy with that...

Padstow's Rick Stein has made his name primarily as a seafood chef, and his enthusiasm for the genre is intriguing at a time when the UK seems to be very much out of love with fish. As a sushi fan, I was always going to love the multi-course sushi meal that he cooked for the Japanese Ambassador but perhaps what attracts me most to his shows is the way that they always make me think of blue skies and warm evenings, simple dishes cooked to perfection and enjoyed in good company. At his best, Rick reminds me why I like food so much.

Finding a category all of his own, Heston Blumenthal is more food scientist than chef, but anyone who can charge people to eat snail porridge and egg'n'bacon ice cream has got to have something about them. Having survived rumours that his Fat Duck restaurant poisoned as many as 400 people in 2009, Heston remains charismatic, innovative and totally bonkers. The thing I love most about him is the way that he looks for influences for his show and pushes borders at every opportunity. The Christmas idea was excellent, the Hansel & Gretel house was inspired, but for me the edible garden was the pinnacle. Genius.

Heading the list of lifestyles I would love to emulate, the entirely self-sufficient Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is another chef who has become synonymous with the part of the world in which he lives. He is the owner of River Cottage in a small corner of Devon and as well as growing his own fruit and veg, making his own cheese and cider, he is probably Britain's most famous smallholder, champion of the allotment and organically-grown produce. He even single-handedly stormed a Tesco AGM and tried to get shareholders to change the company's chicken farming processes. If I had a few million behind me, I would be Hugh.

Who's your favourite?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Tie Your Ribbon To The Right Tree

Three days of the four-day weekend have gone, and I have to admit that I've had a wonderful time so far. Norwich City might have been cheated by some truly awful refereeing decisions on Friday, but my poker game has been going well, the French Market has supplied me with some top-notch food and I've spent my time in excellent company.

I want to take this chance to shout out for BBC2 as well. While other channels continue to commission pointless reality TV and Z-list celebrity shows, BBC2 leads the way for quality broadcasting. This evening alone sees Simon Reeve studying religious tension along the Tropic of Cancer and Professor Brian Cox in his quite excellent show about how the laws of nature apply throughout the solar system. Turn off the phone and get on iPlayer now.

I promised that my blog earlier this week would not be about the general election...but it turns out that I'm more eager to talk about it than I thought at the time. I have no secret line to Government, but the hustings have been cleared and it seems likely to me that on 6 May 2010, one-third (or thereabouts) of the population of the UK will make a choice of government that will hopefully see an end to the economic recession.

At this point I believe I should point out that the suggestion that only one-third of the population will bother to vote is entirely my own estimate. Nonetheless I would imagine that even the most optimistic observer would struggle to believe that the turn out will be in excess of 50%. This is a sobering thought, as it suggests that half the country either cannot decide or don't care who will lead them for the next four years. It would be easy for me to sceptically suggest that contained within the set of '40 million people who do not vote in general elections' there will be a significant subset who also fall into the '20 million people who do vote in Pop Idol' category, but this is perhaps missing the point.

The low turnout is critical for the UK, as numbers have dwindled in successive elections and the reducing turnout weakens our democracy. This is beneficial for extremist parties such as the British National Party, who rely on a small but dedicated hardcore of supporters who are frustrated with the perceived failings of the main political parties. If for no other reason, we all have the responsibility of voting to deny extremists the chance of benefiting from such opportunism.

Low turnouts also suggest a high degree of apathy within the electorate. Of course, with the ongoing MP expenses scandals, it is hard to be critical of those who don't vote because they feel that politicians are all crooked and self-serving. Despite the stories, I really feel that this is little more than apologism for laziness. I simply do not believe that all British politicians are in it for the perks of the post. This is not to say that there aren't individuals who are, of course, but I would imagine that most MPs are dedicated and hard-working individuals who really want the best for this country and for their constituents.

Compared to the average British voter, I would consider myself to be an intelligent and knowledgeable person with a high degree of political awareness. Among my friends, there are many keen political observers and I am fortunate that their opinions and knowledge ultimately challenge and enhance my own. However, even after watching the news and studying the literature, I openly admit that I have struggled to find what the main parties these days actually stand for. The political billboards are all about image and media capital - primarily, the content tends towards mocking the opposition parties rather than championing the success of one's own. One notable friend, coincidentally a candidate in the last local election, describes it as 'the usual bunch of public schoolboys teasing each other in the playground'.

I'm thankful then, that there are sites like Rather than decide where your vote should go based on personalities, you can read summaries of half a dozen manifestos, broken down by subject, without knowing which one belongs to which party. You then select which policies you like for each subject, and the site then tells you which party you have supported with your choices. I would actively encourage anyone who will be voting in the forthcoming election to give the site a try, and you may just be surprised - a lifetime Labour voter, my preferences matched a measly 1 in 9 of their policies this time round.

The results overwhelmingly pointed towards one party at the expense of the others, and on polling day I will therefore be flying the flag for the Green Party with pride. It makes me wonder just how the different the outcome might be if all voters were asked to complete the survey at the link above rather than just being given a voting slip.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Got to get it right

The great thing about the forthcoming long weekend is that it will give me a chance to catch up with those tedious jobs, the ironing, the general tidying, that I normally allow to go undone for long periods when I'm at work. After all, I hardly ever get visitors, so whether my books are in their allocated positions on the shelves or spread over the floor is not particularly relevant. More importantly, it frees up time for me to write blog entries, particularly when there is something well worth talking about.

One of those things caught my eye today - a political headline which will go largely unnoticed in the entirely unwarranted media frenzy that is kicking in already even though a date for the general election has yet to be set (so who do you want? That sadistic Scottish bully who took the economy down the toilet, the far-too-smooth public-school educated Toff who looks so earnest on interviews, it's as if his head is about to explode, or that...what's his name? The other guy.)

Okay, so my analysis of the situation is more than a little crude, and this entry will not be about the election. Regardless of who gets in, there will be tough decisions to be made, and the only thing that seems certain is that things are likely to get worse before they get better. Furthermore, if you work in the public sector, it's probably best to look away now, because we are the chief target for private sector media agitators, who see it as our responsibility to 'share the burden' (did we share the boom?)

Earlier today, for the second time in five months, the British judiciary have made a ruling that it is illegal for a trade union in Britain to strike. As before, the devil is in the detail, and as the union supporting the BA cabin crew were forced to reballot on the basis of a number of votes taken from workers who had already been made redundant, so now the RMT have had their noses bloodied for apparently collecting more 'yes' votes than there are workers in key areas, and balloting a number of signal boxes that don't exist.

I am sympathetic towards the trade union sides, particularly when you consider the sheer size of a national ballot and the organisation that must go into co-ordinating the voting. There are hundreds of thousands of ballot slips, to be delivered on time to the correct addresses, the response must be swiftly counted and the outcome delivered in a way that fully supports the media goals to be achieved from the outcome. It is an operation akin to a tap-dancing comedian delivering a long-winded joke to the most sceptical of audiences.

Even so, if the media stories about the RMT vote collections are true, it is vitally important that such things are not allowed to happen. As well as making all trade union supporters look like fools, it allows the management of companies like BA to undermine the efforts of those involved and use obfuscation to distort the true message that is being sent out.

It is little short of scandalous to see representatives of the main political parties criticising trade unionists for exercising their democratic right to strike. In these difficult financial times, low-paid workers do not desert their posts for days at a time for frivolous reasons. They do it, as the BA crews did, because they believe that cutting crew numbers leads to reduced safety for those on board and lower standards of service. They do it, as the RMT surely will when their members are re-balloted, because reduced maintenance could lead to more scenes like those at Hatfield and Potters Bar. It's worth remembering that while strikes may affect your holiday or travel plans in the short-term, it is the last resort option afforded to those who are there to deliver the service without the support of their own intransigent management.