Saturday, December 26, 2020

Christmas Pudding

For years Mary has made this delicious, vegetarian Christmas pudding from an ancient Sainsbury Book of Puddings and Desserts by Carole Handslip, one of a brilliant series of small format hardbacks that Sainsbury published around 1980. You can make this diary free by substituting a vegetable fat, such as TREX, for the butter.

Christmas Pudding

175 g (6 oz) plain flour
2 teaspoons ground mixed spice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
175 g (6 oz) fresh white breadcrumbs
175 g (6 oz) butter
175 g (6 oz) soft brown sugar
350 g (12 oz) sultanas
250 g (8 oz) raisins
250 g (8 oz) currants
75 g (3 oz) chopped mixed peel
grated rind and juice of 1 orange
2 eggs, beaten
120 ml (4 fl oz) brown ale

Sift the flour and spices into a bowl, add the breadcrumbs, then rub in the butter. Stir in the sugar, add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Turn into a greased 1.75 litre (3 pint) pudding basin, cover with a pudding cloth or greaseproof paper and foil, and steam for 6 hours, topping up the pan with boiling water as necessary.

Cool slightly, then remove the cloth or paper and leave to cool completely. Cover with clean greaseproof paper and foil and store in a cool dry place.

To serve, steam the pudding again for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Turn out onto a warmed serving dish. If liked, pour over 2 to 3 tablespoons warmed brandy and ignite. Top with a sprig of holly and serve with cream or Brandy Butter.

Serves 8 to 10

NOTE: Christmas Pudding improves with keeping as it allows the mixture to mature. If possible, make it 3 to 4 months before Christmas.

© Cathay Books 1980

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Music to Run to

When participating in parkrun I saw many people listening to music as they ran, likewise runners in the street. At one point during my less than illustrious running career I thought I’d give it a go. It was completely hopeless, I just couldn’t do it. My legs wanted to operate at the tempo of the music, it literally threw me off my stride. 

So I did a little research and discovered there are playlists defined by the cadence at which you run. Unfortunately for me none of the suggested playlists were slow enough; I was off the bottom of the scale. So I abandoned that idea.

Now I rely on my mental jukebox which always goes at exactly the right speed. I have a small playlist depending on which part of my technique I am focusing on:

The Locomotion by Little Eva. Working the arms to keep them snugly by my side in counterpoint to the legs, working to keep a good rhythm going. 

Kylie's version of this song because Kylie!

Hold Your Head Up by Argent. When I spot that my posture is less than optimum I use this track to straighten my spine and open up the lungs.

Rubber Ball by Bobby Vee. When I want to focus on being less leaden footed, aiming to land on the balls of my feet and use the biomechanics to keep a spring in my step. Bouncy, bouncy!

Longer Boats by Cat Stevens. Tweaking the lyrics to “Longer *strides* are coming to win us, hold onto the shore.” Useful when trying to have a more loping gait on the flat or down slopes.

Keep On Running by the Spencer Davis Group. A general-purpose track when I just need something to fill the silence and cover the sound of my wheezing lungs.

Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush. Uphill, or any kind of a slope, I find hard, certainly not a case of "I'd be running up that road / Be running up that hill / With no problems".

Maybe I’ll try some podcasts instead.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Benson Row - 19

Penrith, Cumbria. November-2020.

After last month's hiatus caused by our fitter having to self-isolate for two weeks the flooring recommenced. First the insulation in between the new joists...

...then the chipboard.

Then the engineered oak was delivered. Unfortunately it had to acclimatise in its final resting place for at least a week before it could be laid, so that meant another 10 day hiatus before work could recommence.

In other news: we have a bedroom door that closes! Following the settling of the building after all the structural work last year the opening was squint and the door no longer shut. So for over a year we have put up with the door ajar. Prudence dictated a good long wait to be sure all movement had settled before trimming the door. Now it shuts, Mary can creep out early in the morning, close the door and leave me to sleep. Oh joy - simple pleasures!

Next month the floor laying will resume and skirting boards and architraves will be fitted. We are hoping for no more delays so that it will all be over by Christmas!

Friday, November 27, 2020

My Life In ... Recipes

The eighth in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

As a bachelor for many years it was a case of "cook or starve". My hey-day for cooking was the 80's when I held regular dinner parties. My normal routine was to head off to the supermarket at high noon to do the shopping. I would then return and do all the prep including the veg sliced and diced and in bags in the fridge ready to cook so that, as far as possible, I had nothing to prepare when my guests arrived, just cook. At five o'clock I would sit down to relax with a gin and tonic and watch The A Team. When my guests arrived I was chilled and ready to enjoy my own dinner party as all was in order and ready to go.

The following is a long way short of all my favourite recipes but more a case of ones that stuck in the mind, sometimes not always for good reasons!

Unleavened bread (1965): the Boys Own Paper, a periodical from my early childhood, had a regular series of survival articles on how to, for example, escape from a car that had plunged into a river. It was a sort of primitive Ray Mears. One item included improvising a skewer by taking a green twig and stripping the bark to reveal the slippery inside stick. I made some basic unleavened bread mix using flour and water (although where you’re supposed to find a bag of flour in Mirkwood I don’t know). Not having the wherewithal to make fire in the garden my mother let me grill the chewy bread “sausage” in the kitchen. Whether it was edible or not I have no memory.

Crab Apple jelly (1967): in the nearby woods there was a crab apple tree where I scrumped a whole bagful of small, golfball sized apples. Boiled up they actually did produce a very palatable, lovely, pink jelly suitable for spreading on toast. Delicious and food for free!

Vesta Chow Mein (1973): Like many people, college was my first serious, needs-driven introduction to cooking. For the first two years at college I had no access to a kitchen in the accommodation where I lived so ate either in the college dining room or in the White horse pub (always pasty and beans). When I moved into a shared house in my third year I had to start the process of learning to cook. A regular was Vesta ready meals, not exactly cooking from scratch. I read that they deliberately tweaked the recipe every so often to prevent people from getting bored and so would come back for more.

Rabbit in Cider (1973): We had a party in the shared house where we served scrumpy brought up from Somerset by one of our friends, Vincent Russett. That Christmas I was given my first ever cook book by my sister's German boyfriend. One of the recipes was rabbit in cider so we thought we would give it a go. We went off to the covered market where we bought a whole rabbit which we asked the butcher to behead and skin and gut. We got it home and had no idea how to fillet it so Vince and Pete got out their dissecting kits and we dismantled the corpse. The resulting pieces of meat went into the cider and it turned out very tasty for my first ever attempt at real cooking.

Coq au Vin and Hertford Pudding (1974): Inspired by the success of the rabbit in cider, my three friends and I decided to host a dinner party for our college tutor. Coq au vin for the main course. We studied at Hertford College and so when I discovered a recipe called Hertford pudding it was a no-brainer what to serve for desert. It is simply chestnut purée flavoured with a little whiskey, stirred into whipped double cream to give a marbled effect and served in a wine glass, my first sophisticated pudding.

Mung Bean Moussaka (1975): After graduation my cooking repertoire expanded. I was introduced to The Cookery Year cookbook by Reader’s Digest and most of my culinary firsts came out of that including moussaka. I had the ingredients purchased and the aubergines all salted and sweated when suddenly two vegetarian friends were added to the guest list. Momentary panic then inspiration: substitute mung beans for mince, they would provide a similar granular texture to that of mince. So I soaked some beans and carried on as if nothing had happened. I was well pleased with my cunning improvisation.

Pheasant in cream and brandy (1976): After I started work I moved in with Lorna and Carmichael as their lodger. I bought a couple of pheasants from the same game butcher as the rabbit and following the recipe browned them in a ridiculous quantity of butter. The next step was to flambé with brandy rather like a Christmas pudding. I poured in a tablespoon of brandy, set light to it and it went out. So I repeated the process, same result. Once more, ditto. So I warmed up the pan, set fire to the brandy in the spoon, tipped it in and, Hey Presto, a pillar of fire of biblical proportions! Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring!! When the flames subsided I poured in a whole tub of cream. Healthy it wasn’t but delicious it certainly was.

Hungarian goulash (1976): I was making a basic beef stew when I decided to experiment a little. Some variations of goulash and borscht include sour cream. Some dishes mix meat and fruit like duck a l'orange and gammon and pineapple. I didn’t have any sour cream but I did have a tub of black cherry yoghurt in the fridge. So, in a spirit of experimentation, I decided to add some into the stew. Unfortunately the yoghurt was past its sell-by date and had started to bubble a little so maybe it wasn't such a good idea. Alas the result was inedible and the stew wasted. Lesson learned!

Salty bread (1977): I started making my own bread following the recipe in The Cookery Year. Unfortunately there was a misprint so instead of 1 teaspoon of salt I added 1 tablespoon of salt. Of course as a novice bread maker I did not spot the typo. The first loaf went in the bin but the recipe was annotated and it got better after that I’m glad to say.

Birthday cake (1979): My first year in London was working in Sainsbury's head office and commuting in from the culinary desert that is North Acton. I invited a young lady round for dinner to celebrate her birthday. I decide to bake a rich fruit cake with icing and, as a novice baker, followed the recipe literally. It said cover it with marzipan so I did exactly what it said, I covered ALL sides including the bottom. Of course it stuck the circular breadboard I had been using as a base so I decided to cut it off using the breadknife. Inverting the whole assembly on the outstretched fingers of my left hand I quickly realised it wasn't going to work as the the weight of the cake sank it onto my fingers making holes like a bowling ball. I quickly flipped it back, smoothed the marzipan over the holes and iced the whole thing as if the breadboard had always been my "serving suggestion".

Crème brûlée (1990): One of my signature dishes this time thanks to a misreading, not a misprint. The recipe said 2 x 284ml (10 fl oz) and I read that as "10 fl oz" not "2 x 10 fl oz". So basically I used half the amount of cream with the result that the creme part was particularly rich. Once I discovered the misprint I decided to carry on making it ultra rich using 20fl oz and twice the number of egg yolks.

Peppers and capers (1991): a Carluccio recipe that I make regularly, often when we have pork chops or escalopes for which it is a perfect accompaniment. Even when Mary is cooking it is always my task to make this.

Gumbo (1998): Mary and I learnt how to make Gumbo at the New Orleans School of Cooking during our first visit to the jazz fest. Making the dark roux requires patience, manual dexterity and nerves of steel so I get the job of setting off the smoke detector whenever we have gumbo.

Nowadays Mary does almost all of the cooking while I act as commis chef, dishwasher operator, wine decanter and wine glass hand-washer.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Benson Row - 18

Penrith, Cumbria. October-2020.

The month started off slowly and then went into a bit of a decline.

First up we removed a chimney. Although it was capped off with copious quantities of lead we were still seeing damp patches on the chimney breast in our bedroom. Obviously not watertight! We had no need of the chimney as there is no fireplace in the bedroom and we removed the chimney breast in the kitchen / diner below when we took out the wall. 

This chimney sat above the junction where the middle and back cottages meet and the disparate rooflines made it hard to seal the join. So the answer was to remove the chimney completely, batten the roof and tile over the hole. The lads did a good job of matching the two different (of course) styles of tiles. While they were up there I got them to remove the redundant Sky dish, bracket and cabling; always satisfying to tidy things up.

In other news we had a water leak from the flying freehold where the neighbour's bathroom intrudes into our building at the first floor level. We informed the owner and the tenants and it would seem that some remedial action has been taken as we have had no further leaks. Provided it stays that way we just have an investigatory hole in the ceiling to patch. 

The living room floor was a different matter. The timber man came to implement the structural engineers plan to treat and reinforce the joists. Once he started work he did a sudden body swerve and decided to replace the offending sections entirely. As part of this he removed some plasterboard from the cellar ceiling leaving us with a big hole in the living room floor.

He then coach-bolted new timbers to the main cellar beam and affixed new joists from there to concrete pads in the front wall of the house. The plan was then for the floor fitter to come and lay new top joists, hardboard and engineered oak floor.

We had a two-seater and a three-seater sofa in the living room which had to go to a friend's garage for the duration to make the work possible. The corridor is too narrow to move them to the back of the house so they had to go out the front door. It was a "Right Said Fred" moment "we ought to take off all the handles, and the things wot held the candles." Only by unscrewing the sofa's feet and removing the door were we able to squeeze the sofa out the building. We will worry about the scuffs later.

That done the floor fitter could lift the remaining chipboard revealing evidence of woodworm and a dead mouse. The timber man was called back in and, after some discussion, it was decided to treat the remaining old oak timbers, remove all the 1970's joists and go for a complete replacement; all new treated timber with cross braces to stiffen and spread the load.

Unfortunately the work is now on hold because two of the floor man's children have tested positive for Covid-19 and he has to self-isolate for two weeks. Work will recommence mid-November with him keeping to the front half of the ground floor and us in the back. 

We really hope it will all be over by Christmas!

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Benson Row - 17

Penrith, Cumbria. September-2020.

Despite being in Italy for the whole of the month of September some progress was made in the money pit.

We had a joint visit from a structural engineer and a timber treatment specialist to look at the dodgy joists. The recommendation was some reinforcing to the Victorian joists in the corner nearest the door. That will happen sometime mid-October.

Once that is done a kitchen fitter will put in additional cross joists then lay boarding and the oak floorIng on top of that.

In the meantime the fitter came and installed skirting boards in the kitchen/diner - the final touch - so that room is now done, hurrah! The cross piece was temporary to hold the skirting in place while the glue sets.

Although the dining room is now complete we still have some furniture from the living room there until that floor is done.

This bookcase is now attached to the wall for safety as it will contain all our glasses.

In a more exciting news, we have a new front door. This was necessary because the new floor will be higher than the old floor. Not only is it new and lovely but it hinges the other way making it easier to get into the room without falling onto a sofa.

It is a proper wood door not uPVC. The colour is chosen to continue the gradation from light blue wall to dark blue surrounds to navy blue door.

Slowly getting there. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer!

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

My Life In ... Sport

The seventh in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

So my life in sport: stop sniggering at the back! I’m not renowned for my sporting prowess. To quote Michael J. "Crocodile" Dundee referring to roast goanna lizard: "Well, you can live on it, but it taste like sh*t." I feel that way about sport: I can do it but I don’t like it and I’m not very good at it.

Rugby: I went to a rugby playing school. As a very myopic, non-sporty schoolboy with a father who considered all team sports “macho bullshit“ I was not in enamoured of this game. Kenilworth Grammar School playing fields were on particularly poorly drained clay soil and in winter turned into a horrible quagmire. Obviously I had to play without my glasses and I could not see a brown ball on a brown field. 

I could never understand the point of the game: you had to throw the ball backwards and you were supposed to tackle the opposition by throwing your arms round their legs and risk getting a mouthful of boot. Nobody explained the rules to me. It only occurred to me many years later that they must have assumed I knew what they were.

There were 33 boys in my year and 15 boys to each side. The captains took it in turns to pick players from the assembled company. In direct contradiction to the childhood trope of "fear of rejection" I was hoping not to be chosen. I used to stand there trying to look round shouldered and consumptive, praying "Please don’t pick me." As they knew I was hopeless at the game I rarely got picked. The three usual rejects were the wimp with glasses (me), the fat boy and the guy with the glass eye (with apologies to Brian Burton and Nigel Walden).

We were told to go and run round the sports field. We never did of course, we ran to the far corner then sat under a tree as far away from the rest of the game and had a natter until it was time to go in for the shower. 

Other School Sports: As every Wednesday afternoon was sports lesson and over the seven years of secondary school I played cricket, ran cross-county, threw discus and javelin, jumped (high, long and triple), vaulted over horses of the wooden variety and ran various distances. In the 6th form I even played a round of golf. All of which left me devoid of any enthusiasm for physical activity. 

Canoeing: (or should that be Kayaking?) In my first year of college I was persuaded to venture out on the River Isis in February by a friend called Peter Friend. It was cold out there and ducking under a low hanging tree a branch caught in my buoyancy aid and flipped me over. I wriggled out of the inverted canoe and into the icy water, my scrotum shrank to the size of a small walnut and my testicles tried to retreat into my body cavity for warmth. It was enough to make my eyes water with the pain. That was the end of that outing. The following week I spent an hour in an indoor swimming pool practising the eskimo roll. I more or less got the hang of that but never went out on the water again.

Cycling: I have cycled many thousands of miles but mostly for commuting not for pleasure. It is only since knowing Mary that I’ve started doing charity bike rides (including London to Brighton and London to Paris) or going out for the "fun" of it. For more see "My Life In… Bicycles".

Running: I tried running for a few weeks in my early 30's but found it very boring so gave it up. Fast forward 30 years and I ended up training for not one, not two, but three marathons. The backstory is that I was inspired by some friends doing Couch to 5K and so went for my first run in about 30 years and managed 2 miles. Two days later I went for a 5K run. Well that was easy! “How hard can it be to run a marathon?” I asked. "Hundreds of thousands of people do it every year." “Try a half”, my wife advised. So I did the Royal Parks Half with no problem and then entered the Brighton Marathon.

I found out how hard it can be! My first two marathons (Brighton 2017 & London 2018) were both done in record temperatures. I completed Brighton but only by walking the last 4 miles; I was unable to complete London and withdrew after 18 miles. In 2019 I was fortunate to get another place in the London Marathon and learning from the previous two I managed to complete the course in a respectable time (05:15:05). 

Much more running than I had originally intended: when you add together the training and taking part for three marathons and the half marathon it was a total of 221 runs covering 2,340 km!

Now that bucket list item is done I say sod that for a game of soldiers. I am down to one parkrun per week. For more see


"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head-
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

The only activity which might be considered sport and that I have continued to practice for over 45 years is yoga. Quite why I cannot say given my general view on things sporty. I think in part it may be because I can. I am reasonably, naturally flexible. My mother when she was a small girl had a party trick: she would kneel with a handkerchief between her heels bend over backwards and pick it up with her teeth. I was never that bendy but inherited some of her flexibility.

I was introduced to yoga in 1975. The first teacher I had was a guy called Kofi Busia. He was pretty hard-core Iyengar style, we had to work on each pose holding it for some minutes, very static, everything had to be at right angles or horizontal or vertical. Some years later I googled him to discover that he is now one of the world's foremost yoga teachers having studied many times directly under Sri B K S Iyengar. I must have been in one of his very first classes. The disciplines he instilled have stood me in good stead over the years.

My party piece is doing the headstand which, because I’ve done it for so many years, I find very easy. However there are some poses that I just cannot do, and will probably never do especially as I get less flexible with age. Even at my most practised the lotus posture eluded me, I never could do the pigeon properly, and with old age one legged poses are beyond me, I wobble too much. Still I will keep up my practice.

Edit: added a video of Kofi being taught by BKS Iyengar in 1985.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Flying Gazebo

Cisternino, Puglia, Italy. Sunday 05-January-2020.

First we knew was a notification on FaceBook of an incident in Cisternino centre.

We then got a WhatsApp from our friend Antonella to say that high winds had blown a roof top gazebo into the street below damaging two cars. She had been told it belonged to the English couple who had an apartment there. We were able to stop the rumour mill straightaway. Not our gazebo! We only have shade sails for our terrace and they were boxed up for the winter.

You can see why the locals thought it might be ours as it landed right outside our front door as seen here.

It turns out that it came from a roof across the way. The winds had uprooted it and blown clear across the street onto our roof where it smashed forty tiles, took out an air conditioning unit and demolished part of the parapet wall. It then fell back to the street below taking out a street light on the way down and writing off two cars parked below. By some miracle no-one was injured as this happened mid afternoon during siesta time, the shops were shut and the streets quiet.

Roof damage.

We happened to have a picture of the gazebo from when we were doing up our apartment. All that is left now are a couple of uprights.

It took some time for the emergency services to clear the debris and tow away the cars. The police were called and accessed our roof from the civic building next door. They took lots of "8 x 10 colored glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back" [*] and issued a full report.

It was a highlight of the week (month?) and made the local paper "Porta Grande" [** see translation by Google]


Our builder got straight onto the repairs to make the roof waterproof and the parapet safe. This was all managed locally by our friend Pietro who was invaluable. He organised everything, liaised with the authorities and the tradesmen. It would have been a real nightmare without him. 

Scaffolding and a hoist was the best way to access our roof to clear debris and bring up new materials.

Repairs in progress.

We had hoped to meet with the owner to discuss reparations and were due to fly out for the weekend of February 29th for a special parkrun and again on April 5th for the summer but COVID put paid to that. Instead we sent a recorded letter in May setting out our costs but heard nothing back. It turns out the letter was sitting unread in a letter box while he was away on business. 

When we did establish contact in June we had a very amicable conversation and agreed that settling direct was much better than the hassle and expense of an insurance claim and subsequent recouping of the money by legal means. Payment came gradually in instalments with the final payment arriving in September. Fortunately our builders were very understanding and content to wait for payment. Now all the money is in, the workmen have been paid and honour is satisfied.

* Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie

** translation by Google:

A TRAGEDY IN THE VILLAGE A large wooden gazebo literally flew over Corso Umberto. The material damage was considerable, but luckily no one passed, either on foot or by car. It was just past 3 pm on the first Sunday of the year, it was last January 5, an afternoon in which almost everyone was closed in the house due to the very strong gusts of wind and the freezing cold that characterised the early 2020.

There were also many tourists in the village, but at that time they were still comfortably seated in restaurants. In short, if that gazebo really had to fall, he couldn't have chosen a better time of the day. 

The gazebo was on the flat roof of a historic house owned by a well-known professional from Cisternino and, according to what is learned, it would have been the subject of a control by the Local Police in 2017 which would be followed by a removal order. The wooden artefact in question, once unhinged from its attachment points to the roof, located about 15 meters from the standard level, flew to the opposite pavement damaging the roof tiles and an air conditioning motor, before going down and destroy a street light and hit three cars causing various damage. A JEEP off-road vehicle of major damage, although the owner managed to bring it, it would have been barely touched, while a utilitarian KIA suffered away in gear; the worst was a Nissan Note owned by a local restaurateur. This last car was almost completely destroyed and the images show the extent of the violence of the landing of the gazebo. 

Throughout the country there was talk of the fear and risk that anyone who had found himself passing by at that juncture would have run. Fortune wanted the road to be deserted. civil protection who concretely collaborated in the clearing of the road to allow it to reopen around 8 pm, after the local police and the Pro volunteers intervened on the spot - over 4 hours of work, culminating in the removal of the last car with the tow truck.

Monday, September 14, 2020

My Life In ... Cars

The sixth in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

I am in no way a petrol head. I do not like driving. When asked what car I would buy if I won the lottery I immediately replied "Whatever my chauffeur likes to drive!"

Most of my cars have been acquired or disposed of with some degree of quirkiness.

Citron Ami Super: a rust bucket bought from my father. I was very excited as this was my first car. I told all my friends who, of course, asked "What is it?" I replied "It’s French." That’s all I knew. After a month of this, in the middle of a dinner party, I said "Hang on" and rushed out into the street to read the label on the back and ran back indoors and up the stairs chanting "Citroen Ami Super, Citroen Ami Super, Citroen Ami Super!" So then I knew the make and model and could answer the question.

I didn’t hang on to it long as the amount of daylight visible through the bodywork was rendering it a tad unsafe and it failed its MOT. I disposed of it at the local car breakers yard in exchange for a tenner, less than the value of the recently installed battery.

Golf GTi Mk2: Red to match my shoes. My first company car. When I joined a small consultancy I asked what car they would give me. They said "You have to choose, within a monthly lease value." Since I know nothing about cars that did not help at all. I bought a copy of What Car magazine and a round of drinks for my mates who drew up a shortlist on a paper napkin. On the Monday morning I went into the office and spoke to the car admin person. I started at the top of the list. "You can’t have that it’s too expensive", "You can’t have that it’s too expensive", "You don’t want a 16 valve do you? They're like hens teeth!" I had no idea what she was talking about so I said "I don’t think so" and opted for a Golf GTi.

"What colour do you want?" she asked. At the time I had a pair of bright red, patent leather shoes that were my party shoes, I also wore them to the Christmas black-tie party with matching red cummerbund and red silk bowtie. “I’ll have a red one to match my shoes" I said. And so it was that the only decision I made concerning my first company car was the colour to match my shoes, Tornado Red!

After a couple of years, in a moment of inattention, I turned into the path of an oncoming car and wrote off the Golf. That cost me 4 points on my license. At first I was upset but then realised that it wouldn’t happen again whereas there are idiots out there who would infringe repeatedly, accumulate 12 points and get taken off the road making the world a safer place for me.

Car colours: I coined the terms "Boy Racer Red", "Poseur White",  "Cool Cat Black" and "Peacock Blue".  Since meeting Mary I have added her favourite electric blue to the list: "MMG Blue" as we call it. 

Toyota Celica. A sexy short term loan car. A temporary replacement for the Golf in Poseur White, it had pop-up headlights and a low-slung body that slithered round corners in a most satisfactory manner.

BMW 318. My first BMW with "optional" sunroof. I was going through the menu of additional features to get up to the allowed monthly lease value. The sunroof was very expensive so I said I won’t bother with that. The dealer replied that they always made them with a sunroof, even though it was an optional extra. If you want one without a sunroof it will have to be a special factory order and take several months! So I went with the sunroof and knocked off some of the other bells and whistles.

BMW 318: My second BMW and the wrong colour! At the end of the two-year lease I ordered the same model in Tahiti Blue as my new car. When it arrived it was Burgundy coloured. The colour chart said Tahiti Red so my mistake. I wanted blue whatever fancy name it was given. The dealer didn’t check and ask me what colour I actually meant. They simply assumed that I couldn’t tell the difference between red and blue but that I obviously must have meant Tahiti!

BMW 318: Another BMW, back to blue. Nothing to say about this car but then I took voluntary redundancy from the company and had to give it back!

BMW 5 series: a tank with gravitas!  I used some of my redundancy pay out to buy a car. I would have gone with a boy racer Golf GTi but Mary said I had to have a car with gravitas, a quality I fear I may lack. So we popped down to our local dealer, Keystone Cars, who specialised in BMW's. I'd never bought a car from a dealer before so I said to Paul, "What questions should I be asking?". His response, "How many miles?", "Does it have full service history?", "What's your best price?". I dutifully parroted those questions, he replied and so the car was bought. 

It was elderly and you measured the acceleration with an egg timer. But it was solid and comfortable for the long commute to my first freelance contract. The petrol tank was so large that it took more than £60 to fill it (and that was in 1999). Over the floor limit for most garages who then had to ring up for authorisation whenever I paid by card.

BMW M3: We only went in for a headlight bulb. We took the 5 series tank in to get some new headlight bulbs. Mary said “that’s a pretty blue colour” ("MMG Blue" of course) pointing to an M3. We looked it over and decided we liked it. I declined a test drive because my last four cars have been BMW’s. “But the test drive is my biggest sales technique!“ Paul confided. After a short discussion we walked out with a new performance car instead of two headlight bulbs. As Paul said "My kind of customer".

Keystone cars: Excellent service for over 30 years. Here I must put in a plug for Paul Heron at the local garage in Ringwood, Keystone Cars, from whom I have bought all my cars for the last 30 years. Most of them have been serviced by his head mechanic, Keith. We even make special pilgrimage down there for trade-ins or repairs.

BMW 330 Ci Sport. Killed by a piece of wood. After a few years we were persuaded to trade in the M3 because of the high mileage, this time for a normal coupe. However it was just over a year old, previously owned by a company director and had every single accessory going: special paint colour, automatic seat adjustment and lots of other gizmos. 

The plan was to run it into the ground and when it finally died not bother with a replacement. Living in London our plan was to use public transport and, for longer journeys, hire a car or use a combination of trains and taxis. However I was not expecting the car to be killed by a piece of wood.

Driving up the M6 motorway in the dark I suddenly saw something wooden in front of me. In the middle lane, with cars to the left and cars to the right all I could do was grip the steering wheel and wait for the thump. I fully expected to hear the flap, flap, flap of burst tires but fortunately they survived and I continued my journey. I saw a couple of cars pulled over on the hard shoulder who had obviously hit the same debris.

The next morning I examined the car to find the front spoiler hanging on by a thread, the front foglight (what was left of it) dangling by a piece of wire. I took the car into a local garage so they could do a temporary repair. As I turned into the yard I managed to clip a van and knock off one of the side mirrors. I got the garage to cobble the spoiler back together which they did and handed me back a chunk of plywood, some bent pieces of metal and mangled plastic ducting that the mechanic had extracted from the underside of the car. It looked like I hit a piece of pallet.

BMW 3 series. My first diesel car. With no keyhole for the boot! After the incident with the piece of wood, I rang up Paul at Keystone to discover that a replacement spoiler would cost more than the car was worth Not to mention a new wing mirror on top. Plus there was a laundry list of other niggles that needed fixing. We checked his website to see what he had available and at the first opportunity drove all the way back to Ringwood to look at the likely replacements. We returned that same afternoon in a newer BMW 3 series, this time diesel instead of petrol.

A month later when going to Italy I disconnected the battery as usual and off we went. On my return I went to unlock the boot to reconnect the battery and, guess what, no keyhole! Googled and found that BMW had removed that feature between my previous car and this model. I couldn't open the boot using the remote because the battery was disconnected. I could open the front doors using the mechanical key to try accessing via the back seats. But no, the seat releases are inside the boot. More googling showed various drastic break-in tactics. 

Finally gave up and call The AA for assistance. The mechanic turned up and I learned that there are battery terminals under the bonnet which I could open using the lever under the dashboard. After connecting his jump leads to the terminals, the car had power and I could use the remote to open the boot. Hurrah! Reconnected the battery and the mechanic checked the car over to discover that some of the electrics were knackered by the jump start, including the indicators. So we drove slowly in convoy to the BMW dealer where they replaced a fried fuse box at a cost of over £800. Ouch!

Apparently it was just bad luck the the circuit board blew when doing the jump start and normally disconnecting should be fine. Next time I will leave one of the back seats released!

Now this is the car we drive in the UK until it dies. Well that is the plan. My last ever car. We will see!

Fiat 500: the Italian job. Having retired we were spending more time in Italy and renting a car for 5 months would be ruinously expensive. So it was time to buy an Italian car which we could do as we had a certificate of residency. With the help of our friends Chris & John we were introduced to a good local garage who did us a deal on an Italian classic.

We were amused to see that it came with two spare seat belt buckles which the Italians use to silence the seatbelt warning.

She is a great little car. Perfectly sufficient for just the two of us and ideal for the narrow lanes in Puglia. 

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Benson Row - 16

Penrith, Cumbria. August-2020.

When I said the end was in sight it turns out that the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train!

The fitter came to start work on the new oak flooring in the living room. He lifted the old laminate and remarked that the floor seemed a little uneven. High in front of the fireplace and low by the front door; it was a little bouncy there. So he lifted an experimental piece of chipboard to discover that a 5 inch section of joist had rotted away and was precariously balanced on a piece of plywood!

Under the floorboards it is a curious tiered construction. In the cellar are two massive oak beams supporting the structure above. Laid across those are what look like the original joists from the mid-Victorian construction made of some chunky, dark timber, possibly oak. Laid atop those are modern pine joists dating presumably from the 1975 works.

We guess that rain coming in under the front door is responsible for the rotten joist which is rather unfortunate as the modern pine joist closest to the door is not attached to the side wall!

We called round the structural engineer who recommended that we really ought to pull up the rest of the chipboard so we could see the entire room joists to make sure that nothing else was amiss before laying the new floor.

So far that has revealed that the stud wall furthest from the door is actually resting on the chipboard not the joists. The next step will be to have the structural engineer and the timber specialist visit together to come up with recommendations and a plan of action.

Once any rectification has been done we can get back to laying the new floor. With any luck it will all be done by the time we get back from Italy.

The money pit that never ends!

Monday, August 17, 2020

My Life In ... Wine

The fifth in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

When I first met Mary she had a reasonable knowledge of wine having taken the Wine and Spirit Trust's Certificate and Higher Certificate exams. I, on the other hand, knew little but did have a full 60 bottle wine rack in the cupboard under the stairs, perhaps that is what attracted her to me! After we married the wine collection expanded rapidly and our house hunting requirements thence forward included a cellar. This was our stock at home at Christmas 2006 and even more out with the wine merchants.
The following are not necessarily the finest of wines but ones that stuck in my memory as milestones on my own personal wine route. The dates are those of drinking not the vintage; all dates approx.
Sherry, "blended" (1972): The student drinking equivalent of rummaging in a skip. When I lived in Walton Street, Oxford there was an off-licence. One evening as my mates and I were wandering down the street we saw the shop had put out rubbish for the next day. Amongst that were a number of boxes that had contained loose sherry. My friend Vince picked one up and shook it. We could hear remnants of sherry that wouldn’t go through the tap sloshing about. There must have been a dozen of these containers so we grabbed them, unscrewed the taps and emptied the assorted sherries into a jug. We must have got about 2 pints of sherry, blended. It tasted fine to us, it was alcoholic and sweet and we were poor students.

Moulin a Vent (1975): The first "proper" wine whose name I remember. When I was lodging with friends in Oxford we had a bottle of Beaujolais Cru at a dinner party. It was delicious and we looked it up in their Hugh Johnson World Atlas of Wine. It was a revelation to me that you could know in such detail where a wine came from and see the small village on a map. The following year I drove down to the south of France with friends for a holiday in a gîte. We drove down through Burgundy using Hugh Johnson to plan our route instead of a normal road atlas.
Rüdesheimer Rosengarten (1979): The first wine I ever bought by the case. I had drunk it by the glass in after work sessions in the local Davy’s wine bar close to our office in Noble Street. I was so impressed I bought 12 bottles. Not the most economical way to buy wine but I knew nothing of wine merchants and wine warehouses!

Banda Azul (1980): The first wine I bought more than one case of. This was in the days of Oddbins expansion in London and they were doing this wine as their Wine of the Month: buy a case and get an extra discount.  It was such a favourite with my group of friends at the time that several of us went out and bought a case or two each. A real bargain, it was all we drank for some months thereafter.

Marque de Caceres (1981): My first experience of quality Rioja. By then I was working for Coopers & Lybrand in their management consultancy division. I went to see a production at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and bumped into the head of the IT group. Always an uncertain etiquette situation when you bump into your boss who you don’t know particularly well in a social context. Full marks to the boss, she invited me and my girlfriend back round to her flat just around the corner for a glass of wine. And it was my first memorable experience of a seriously full-bodied red. Delicious even if I had not the faintest idea how to pronounce it.

As long as I can get the cork out!
 Around this time wine warehouses started to appear where you could taste the wines before buying. To me a novel concept. While I was in such an establishment in Merton a man came in who declined the offer of a tasting. "We're having a party. I've got the beer. The missus says we have to have some wine. I don't care what it is as long as I can get the cork out!"

Zind Humbrecht Herrenweg Turckheim (1987): My first discovery of dessert Gewurtztraminer. I don’t know how I discovered this wine but it gave me my first introduction to a seriously delicious wine. I knew about Rhone sweeties such as Muscat (de Beaume de Venise, Miravalle and Frontignan) and have majored in dessert wines ever since, especially the magnificent triple vintage of 1988/89/90.

Chateau Suduiraut (1992): My first experience of premier cru classé Sauternes. Mary and I won a week's wine course at Chateau Magnol in a competition run by Decanter. Previously only for trade Barton & Guestier we guessed that they were thinking of opening it up as a commercial holiday offering and a dozen of us were the lucky guinea pigs for a trial run. Classes in the morning, a four course lunch with wines, and afternoon excursion to a chateau then a four course meal in the evening with even more wine. One trip was to Chateau Suduiraut, a neighbour to Yquem, producing Sauternes from similar terroir for a fraction the price. We got to taste the wine in cask: nectar of the Gods!

Chateau D'Angludet (1993): The first case of wine Mary and I bought together. Discovered at the East Anglian Wine Festival. It is a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel from Margaux and a wine we have returned to many times since.
Chateau Lynch Bages (1993, vintage 1989): Our wedding list wine. We married late and both had well established households. Combining our household presented a challenge with the wedding list as we already had pretty much two of everything. Once answer was fine wine from the year we met. Friends could buy as many or a few bottles as they liked; one extremely generous wine-loving friend bought six, we ended up with a complete case of 12. It was stashed away for at least 10 years before we cracked the first one. We still have four left after 27 years!

Chateau Yquem (1994, vintage 1988): A gift from a friend. We had our friend Bron stay with us for a few months in 1994 while he was between house moves. As a thank you present he gave me this to be saved for my 70th birthday. That's a long time to have to wait to open a present
Colavecchio Primitivo (2008): My favourite grape variety from Puglia. When we bought a home in southern Italy in 2004 we were introduced to a range of regional varietals. This rich, jammy, alcoholic wine is my favourite. This cantina sells wine from the pump, take along your own containers and stock up of some serious quaffing wine for around €1.60 per litre.

For more on my wine voyage see elsewhere on this blog: "Wine".

Who knows what delights the future will bring?