Thursday, 31 December 2009

A hundredweight of drivel

I think it was one of my now long-departed grandparents who said, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Were they alive today, that same grandparent might also advise that "If you can't think of anything to blog about, then don't blog at all." Were I to follow this latter piece of advice, it's likely that this blog would be either very sparse, or (which is more likely) non-existent. The truth of the matter is that, over the last year and a bit, I've managed to say very little of consequence, but have said it a hundred times. This is indeed my hundredth post.

We've had to batten down the hatches here in Sussex over the last few weeks. The weather has been terrible, giving me an excuse to have a proper open fire in the grate, something that, coming from smoke-free London, still fills me with childish delight. The recent stormy weather has also resulted in a rather curious phenomenon. We inhabitants of Seaford found ourselves with a sandy beach. Seaford beach is usually resolutely pebbled, its mile or so of flint being marshalled and kept in place by an army of heavy bulldozers that fight to prevent longshore drift from scouring away the beach completely. But over the last couple of weeks, the storms washed away the shingle and left behind a beach that, although it didn't rival those of Thailand or the South Seas, would nevertheless have allowed the building of sandcastles. If anyone had been there to build them, that is.

It's been a funny couple of weeks. In one of my (thankfully) exceptionally rare visits to Tesco's, I saw a raincoated sixty-something man get increasingly frustrated with the self-service till. He'd bought a couple of small items, and, sensible man that he was, had decided to pay with some of those vouchers that the supermarket sometimes sends one through the post. Upon the appropriate prompt, he put the aforesaid voucher into the appointed slot. Nothing happened. Our friend then decided that the voucher must have become lodged in the machine. So, he grabbed a handful of leaflets from the counter (Clubcard application forms, I fancy they were), tore them into strips, and started to insert them into the voucher slot. Nothing happened. Then something happened; the machine disgorged the voucher. He put the voucher back in. Nothing happened. He inserted further bits of Clubcard leaflet. Out came the voucher again. By this point, I was both wearied and fascinated at the same time, so I had a discreet word with a nearby sales assistant, suggesting that the gentleman might need a little help. He was only about three feet from the assistant, but at no time did he ask for anything in the way of aid. Perhaps he was at a loose end that day and the whole thing afforded him with a little diversion. I'm not keen on those self-service machines. They always tell me there's an "unexpected item in the bagging area." That unexpected item always turns out to be my shopping. If shopping is unexpected, what would be an "expected" item? A set of false teeth, perhaps? A copy of Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy? Or maybe a sense of ennui? Whatever that is.

A few days after this, I saw Mr. Toad of Toad Hall fame, outside the station. Of course, it wasn't actually a toad; it was a man. But he was sporting the kind of garb Mr. Toad would have worn to drive his car - bright yellow corduroy trousers, lovat green jacket with a red check, peaked motoring cap of a similar material. It was with great difficulty I resisted the urge to say "poop poop!" before running away. Just thought you'd like to know.

This post is in danger of turning into stream of consciousness drivel, if it hasn't already. My initial purpose was to wish you all a very happy new year. I don't make new year resolutions, and the closest Mrs. H has come to one so far this year is when she said, "I think I'm drinking too much. I think I'll just have a couple of gin and tonics." (She doesn't drink too much, dear reader!) No; I think if you resolve to make some change to your life, any time is a good time. Why wait until January the first? However, if I were to make a resolution, it would be to get something written other than this humble blog. The pilot episode of Pardon my Jaguar, perhaps? Or some more of the perpetually unpublished Middenshire Chronicles.

I think I've already taken up far too much of your time. A very happy new year to all of you, my bloggy friends. I'll see you in 2010. Perhaps then I'll have something useful and/or interesting to say. It would make a change, wouldn't it?

Friday, 25 December 2009

A Christmas message (or Yule Blog, if you prefer)

Happy Christmas to one and all, and especially to you, my dear bloggy friends. I realise I'm probably not the first to wish you the compliments of the season, but this does not diminish the sincerity of my wishes.

Each nation has its own peculiar customs. By 'peculiar' I do not, of course, mean weird, odd, strange, call it what you will; but rather, 'singular'. It may be a particular mode of dress, a type of dance, a sport, or even a national characteristic. Most of our national customs seem to be crammed into a single day of the year - Christmas Day. It is, of course, customary for us to eat turkey (with 'all the trimmings', whatever they might be), Christmas pudding and mince pies. But there are so many other little bits and pieces associated with Christmas, and particularly Christmas dinner, that change what could be a simple meal at home with the family into a nightmare of complexity. You've got the turkey; now, what about stuffing? And those little chipolatas wrapped in bacon? Oh, and the cranberry and bread sauce that hardly anyone likes? And not forgetting the brandy butter for the pudding...

It fell to me to make the brandy butter. How hard could it be, I thought. Get some butter and mix it with brandy. But no, it isn't that simple. You have to stick sugar in it as well, and beat it until it attains a smooth consistency. So, I took equal amounts of butter and sugar, and combined them (the chefs love the expression 'combined', don't they?) in a bowl until, it seemed to me, they were of the smooth consistency aforesaid. At this point I tipped in some South African brandy (there was no expense spared in the Hale household, I can tell you!) and then whisked the agglomeration as if my life depended upon it. As indeed it might have. The resultant mixture very closely resembled the substance called brandy butter, that I had seen on sale in the various food emporia in the run-up to Christmas.

I tasted it. It tasted buttery and brandyfied, I grant you. But there was something curious in its consistency. It was not the smooth paste I had anticipated. It seemed...well...gritty. It reminded me somewhat of the sensation you get when you bite into a bit of seafood from which not all of the sand has been eradicated. This wasn't brandy butter. It was Sandy Brandy. Or possibly Sandy Butter. Of course, Mrs. H was supportive as always, saying that it didn't matter, but that next time I might try using icing sugar to reduce the...grittiness. Anyway, there being no time to experiment with alternative ingredients, the Seaford Shingle Butter, or Brandy Gravel, or whatever the heck it was, had a cooling session in the fridge and then was duly placed upon the Christmas table as the tradional accompaniment to the (sensibly) shop-bought pudding.

I noted that its spell in the cooler had changed my Sussex Brandy Pebble-dash. It had started to separate, and now looked suspiciously like a tub of value range humous, or that lumpy mix that forms in the cheese vat just after the rennet has been added. An hour in the kitchen's answer to the naughty step had only served to make it even more unpleasant than when it started out. I gave it a quick twirl with a fork, hoping to force the ingredients into some kind of homogeneity, but it was no good. There had clearly been a falling-out in that particular marriage.

As we ate our pudding, no. 1 daughter had pushed a spoon into the centre of the admixture, leaving a little depression. The brandy started to exude from the solids to form a little pool in this concavity. The thing now looked like some terrible medical emergency; a huge, suppurating wen, perhaps; or a long untreated bedsore. At daughter's behest I scooped out a tiny amount of the glistening, purulent liquid and tasted it. It was clearly a mixture of brandy and sugar that somehow managed to combine the worst characteristics of each ingredient, whilst eschewing anything good that might otherwise have been present. I couldn't bear to be it the same room as this creature any longer.

I was all for chucking it down the sink, but Mrs. H quite rightly pointed out that our drains are over a century old. So it went into a bin bag. It's been very quiet since.

The rest of the meal was fine, by the way.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Imprecations on the A120

I have always loved the poems of John Betjeman. Even as a child, the Englishness of his work and the underlying humour in many of his poems captivated me. I remember seeing Sir John at Oxford Circus back in the late sixties or early seventies. I was wandering aimlessly round the west end shops (as was my wont), when I happened to notice the great man, wearing his trademark trilby and a rather shabby raincoat, making his way through the crowds with an other-worldy expression on his face. I like to think that I was the only one who noticed him.

I speculated here on the type of poem dear Sir John, were he alive today, might have written about our reliance on computers. But there are huge swathes of 21st century life -"reality" TV, recession, fears of global warming - that might well prompt him to put pen to paper. However, as I recently bought my first "satnav", I thought that ought to be the poet's next topic. It is loosely based upon Meditation on the A30, and I have attempted, as far as possible, to keep the original rhyme scheme. It is entitled Imprecations on the A120. I hope it will amuse!

A man on his own in a car
Is creating a terrible stink
His effing and blinding’s a product of finding
His satnav has gone on the blink

“She’s stopped telling me where to go,
She should have said ‘left’ at that fork!
This journey is going too slow,
I think I’ll just get out and walk

“Why can’t you just give me directions?
It is your damned job, after all.
My wife said today she’s been playing away
With Derek from near Coggeshall.

“If I had a Garmin, let’s say
Or Tom Tom ‘Go’ with Lane Assist
I’d find Derek’s lair straight away
And introduce him to my fist.

“This satnav is trash, and a waste of my cash, and
I will bin you, God knows I will!”
As he pokes at the screen, he hasn’t yet seen
The DAF truck closing in for the kill.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Cloth encounters

It's now three weeks until Christmas Day, and the tills are ringing with all the gusto of yuletide bells. Except that tills don't ring any more; they kind of spit and splutter and refuse point blank to do anything without a barcode. And it seems that I always manage to choose the one item on the shelf that doesn't have a barcode. But it was fine. John Prescott, the former deputy Prime Minister, was on the till at B and Q in Eastbourne, and he seemed more than equal to the task of keying in the product information manually, thus enabling me to take home, and install, a brush-type internal letterbox flap to keep the sea breezes at bay. Strange how these celebrities keep appearing in the shops of East Sussex.

Eastbourne was rather crowded on Wednesday. I'm not sure why, but I always feel somewhat resentful about this. What are all these people doing, taking my parking spaces and filling the shops? I enquired aloud. Haven't they got jobs to go to? Why are they there during the day? But I was quickly reminded by Mrs. H that I was, of course, part of the problem. In an attempt to engage my interest in something other than the crowdedness of the shops, she took me to a linen emporium.

In truth, it was a linen shop, rather than an emporium. And it wasn't crowded. I very quickly discovered why. There are very few shops (other than those selling commodes or surgical supports) that are as stultifyingly dull as linen shops. The shop window display indicated that it was, indeed, Christmas by displaying novelty yuletide tea towels featuring the Jolly Old Gent, snowmen, reindeer, and all manner of other seasonal motifs. There was also a smattering of Christmas stockings, ready to be filled with oranges, nuts and...aww, who am I kidding! But the best bits were inside the shop...

The place was full of curtain poles and blinds, tie-backs, tea cosies, bedding, net curtains; in fact, just about everything linen-y. But tea towels seem to be the staple of this particular shop. There were large metal cages full of them, all at extraordinarily low prices. Perhaps tea towels will have some sort of role to play if ever nuclear war threatens, and the government advises us to wet them and use them to cover our heads. If so, I'll be there to avail myself of their three for a pound offer. Further cages were dotted about the shop, containing towels, duvet covers, and something called a 'Jane Rug'. Jane Rug seemed to me like a marvellous name. Stick another 'g' on the end and it becomes a Dickens character! Persuade the Americans to use Jane Rugg instead of Jane Doe in their cop programmes! I told Mrs. H as much, but she was preoccupied with an orangey-red throw that she'd taken a fancy to. Not for herself, you understand, but for a friend's Christmas gift. Now, I'd always thought of 'throw' as a verb, and here they were, this linen shop, using it as a noun. But this use of nouns as verbs and vice versa seems to rear its head quite a bit at this time of year. Which of us hasn't heard someone say, 'I'm going to marzipan the cake tomorrow', quite oblivious to the fact that marzipan is a noun? I decided to keep these particular thoughts to myself. Until now, that is.

Boredom does strange things to a man. So, in the listlessness of despair (this phrase copyright Jerome K Jerome) I started to use the objects in this shop as puns in song titles...

Duvet know it's Christmas?
A Question of Valance (alright, so it's an album title - but this is my game!)
Nice day for a white bedding
I'm linen on an lampost
Long Towel Sally
Sheet Child of Mine
The Throw must go on
Anything by Curtains Mayfield

Probably just as well I didn't start on film titles. After all, who could forget The Towelling Inferno? Or The Counterpane of Monte Christo? Or GI Jane Rugg? Or even Who Shot Liberty Valance? Sorry; the last one was just too far-fetched.

My frankly rather pointless reveries were brought to a close when Mrs. H decided that The Throw wasn't quite the thing, and determined to take us off to Debenhams where, I believe, these items are called bedspreads.

An encounter with a retired politician; twenty minutes of punning; a look at some of Eastbourne's finest bedding. I can't remember when I had a better day...