Sunday, March 20, 2022

My Life in ... Chocolate

The fifteenth 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".

A story of The Dark Side. 

I started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff." - Just Like Tom Thumb Blues, Bob Dylan. 

They say confession is good for the soul so here goes, sometimes you just have to spill the beans (cocoa beans that is).

Wagon Wheel (Kenilworth 1960's). As a child growing up I didn't eat a lot of chocolate. Pocket money was carefully rationed and I was more likely to buy a Jamboree BagFlying Saucers or Sherbert Fountain. If I bought chocolate it was more biscuity fare like Wagon Wheel or Kit-Kat. 

Cadbury's Dairy Milk (Kenilworth, 1971). When I got offered a place at Hertford College, Oxford my mum splashed out and bought me a family size bar of CDM. "A pint and a half in very glass" was their slogan, now retired as it contravenes European regulations by being not metric!

Terry's All Gold. (Oxford 1975). For me it all started at college when my girlfriend at the time introduced me to Terry's All Gold. It was the first time I had ever come across a box of chocolates that was all plain, and truffle fillings. I could never look at a box of Cadbury's Roses again, milk chocolate and fondant cream fillings, yech - except maybe the purple ones with the caramel centres.

Thornton's Continental Selection (Oxford, 1977). So that was me for the next few years until the Sheffield posse started expanding their territory down south. Yes, Thornton's Chocolate Cabins opened a branch in Oxford. Well that was it, Terry's were history after I discovered Thornton's Continental Selection. At Thornton's I could pick my own mixture! "A quarter of plain, dark chocolate truffles, just start at the left and work along until the bag is full". And then I would have another quarter of all plain truffles. 

I had to have separate bags even if I bought a full pound, because opening that next bag slowed me down (a little). I realised I had it bad when I knew that you got eight truffles to the quarter, and if one was a little light they would give you a crystallised ginger stick to make up the weight.

Sainsbury's (London, 1979). Peak chocolate consumption. I spent a year working in Sainbury's head office off Stamford Street. More out of boredom and as a way of time structuring I would have a tea break every day at 10:30 and 15:30. I would pop down to the newsagents below the office and buy a bar of chocolate to go with my cuppa. The usual mass production chocolate - Kit Kat, Crunchie, Munchies, etc. not Mars Bars (too sweet), not Bounty Bar (coconut gets between my teeth). 

I read Alan Carr's EasyWay to Stop Smoking, not because I smoked (never have) but because I wanted some insight into managing addictive behaviour. An interesting read but what changed my chocolate consumption was changing jobs.

Bendick's Sporting and Military (London 1982). After I moved to London I no longer had access to my regular dealer - there was no Thornton's branch in London. So I went cruising the wild West End and there behind Oxford Street I found Bendick's. Now I knew they did after dinner mints but what I did not know (boy was I naive) was that they also did "Sporting And Military" chocolate. OK, it was not a truffle, it was a solid bar but it was 70% cocoa solids. This was the hard stuff! You could not chomp this you just had to let it rest on your tongue and slowly dissolve. Oh that bittersweet taste.

I should mention Green and Black's chocolate bar here. It too was 70% cocoa solids but it just wasn't the same.

Charbonnel et Walkers (London 1983). Then I moved to work in the City - the heart of London's financial district. Well, you have heard about these high-rolling dealers. It's true. There behind the Stock Exchange was 'Charbonnel et Walkers'. Do you remember Carlsberg's very successful advertising campaign with the slogan "Probably the best lager in the world"? No such modesty for C et W. The window display simply declared "The BEST chocolate in the World". And it probably was. Although I have to say that Thornton's fillings have the edge. 

You could tell what kind of shop it was - there were no prices in the window, always a worrying sign. And the boxes on display. Heart shaped and all pink, Laura Ashley; these looked like the kind of chocolates you bought your mistress! So in I went, into a positively Dickensian interior, deserted but for the sound of the tinkling bell my entrance had set off. From a back room appeared an immaculately dressed youth in a pinstripe suit and white gloves. I made my request for a quarter of plain truffles and back came the response I shall never forget, "Certainly, sir, with or without nuts?".

Hotel Chocolat (London 1993 - 2020). Next to Mary's hairdressers in the Strand was a branch of Hotel Chocolat so every time she had her hair done I got a goodie bag of truffles. The three for a tenner offer was particularly good as were the dessert themed flavours: Raspberry Panna Cotta, Tiramisu, Eton Mess, Carrot Cake, Rhubarb and Custard, etc.

Lily O'Brien's (Dublin c. 2004). Mary worked in Dublin on and off for three years and as she passed through the airport on the way home she would pick up a present for me of Lily O'Brien's chocolates. Pretty tasty they are too. We became aware that the Irish go mad for chocolate. In the run up to Easter the supermarket shelves are bulging with crazy quantities of Easter Eggs.

Lindt Chocolate Museum (Switzerland 2008). Mary and I went a Rhine cruise with Mary's mum. One of the stops included a side trip to the Lindt factory and museum. The shop featured chocolates not seen in their retail outlets - slabs of chocolate poured into trays to cool in a variety of interesting flavours; the dark chocolate with pink peppercorn was a first for me and excellent to boot.

Chocolab Easter Egg (Cisternino 2017). One difference between London and Cisternino is that there you actually know the name of the person who made your Easter egg - Antonietta Pinto founder of Chocolab. We've met her and she is part of the family who run Bar Fod across the piazza. Buona Pasqua.

Green and Black's (Penrith 2020 - present). Alas Penrith does not run to a specialist chocolatier but I live in hope. In the meantime we tend to go with whatever is on special offer in Booths supermarket which is usually either Green and Black's or Lindt.

Monday, March 14, 2022

My Life In ... Music Festivals

The fourteenth 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 I was enjoying the bands at Solfest 2021 I thought to myself it is a very long time since I stood on grass in the open air listening to live music. 10 years ago I went to Cropredy and before that it would’ve been the Isle of Wight in 1970. But then I thought to myself this is a very strict definition of a music festival. They don’t all have to be a long weekend with multiple bands and accommodation in tents (unless you so choose) or even in the open air (although many are).

Thinking back I have stood in many a grassy venue under the open sky listening to a variety of bands, acts and orchestras. Some were part of a festival with a series of dates spread over several weeks, some were one off events. When I started to recall them I was amazed at how many festivals I’ve been to. These are the ones I can remember (thanks mainly to my blogging (click on the year for relevant post). 

Isle of Wight, 1970: my first and, in terms of artists, greatest ever music festival. Alas I can remember very little of it as I have written elsewhere on this blog.

Mayfly Festival, 1973 / 1974: this one I had almost forgotten about. It was a small two or three day concert in Oxpens Meadows in Oxford. I have no memorabilia but I believe I must have attended in 1974 because one of my college mates was a huge fan of Gong, Hatfield & the North and Henry Cow. and one of the acts was the Virgin All Stars comprised of members from all three bands.  

It was a lovely sunny day is about all I can remember. I also remember one of the performers saying that he rehearsed and rehearsed so that what you heard when you saw him live was as close as he could make it to the studio album. I am convinced that it was Kevin Ayers but I can find no evidence on the Internet of his performing there so perhaps I imagined it was him. Or it may have been some other artist.

Crystal Palace Bowl, 1983 / 1984 / 1985: I think of the 80s and 90s as the golden age of rock festivals, the likes of Reading and Glastonbury. I was never into those kind of events but I did attend several classical music concert series at the Crystal Palace bowl. A whole crowd of us used to go together armed with splendid picnics with different people tasked to bring different courses. Then a concert of popular classics with the last being accompanied by fireworks. Halcyon days!

Henry Wood Promenade concerts, 1972 / 1991 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016: Too many individual concerts to list. We usually booked a box for 8 and smuggled in a picnic to enjoy with friends. 

French Quarter Festival, 1998 / 2001 / 2009this festival is a small and delightful festival held in the French Quarter, the historic heart of New Orleans. We combined this with the jazz and heritage festival in those years were the two were contiguous. Many of the acts performed on street corners in the town itself but some were in various city parks. 

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1998 / 2001 / 2009some years Jazz Fest followed straight on from the French Quarter festival. Jazz Fest is held on the grassy interior of the race track and one of the best festivals ever. Through this we have discovered many fine acts such as Keb Mo, John Mooney, The Radiators, Anders Osbourne and the unique Mike West as well as better known headliners like James Taylor, Dr John and Van Morrison.

Salisbury festival, 2004 / 2006: when we lived in Ringwood Salisbury was just up the road and we only discovered this festival on the very day in 2004. We bought tickets and rushed up the road to where the festival was being held in the cathedral grounds. It is there that we were greatly entertained by Blazing Fiddles, a band comprised of Scottish and Irish Fiddlers playing some very up-tempo dances and reels.  I also had a run in with a waiter's friend which resulted in a trip to the St John’s ambulance tent to get a plaster for my sliced finger. The second visit was much less eventful!

Jazz at the Tower, 2005 / 2006: in this case the venue was the moat of the Tower of London!  The first year we saw Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and the second year we saw Al Jarreau amongst others. They had a picnic area where you could bring in your own pre-concert repast and then move round the moat to the stage. The MC was a beefeater in full uniform and it is slightly surreal to see one of them enthusiastically saying “let’s give it up for…”. Sadly this concert series appears to have been discontinued.

Hampton Court Festival, 2008 / 2009 / 2014 (twice) / 2016 / 2017: while the concerts (Bryan Ferry, Van Morrison, Tom Jones, George Benson, Curtis Stigers, Cleo Lane and John Dankworth) were on flagstones in the courtyard many of these involved a pre-concert picnic on the well manicured lawn of the palace.

Hyde Park, 19962009: Legendary line-ups:

1996 - Bob Dylan, The Who, Eric Clapton. Eric played the blues, The Who played Quadrophenia, Bob murdered All Along the Watchtower with a croaky, dire rendition of one of my favourite songs.

2009 - Neil Young, Seasick Steve. We enjoyed Neil Young and were impressed by Seasick Steve who we knew nothing about. One clear memory was that it rained and Mary had to buy a plastic poncho to protect our jug of Pimm's!

London Jazz Festival (aka EFG Jazz Festival), 2007 / 2016 / 2019: Some great musicians including  John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek (three times), the latter introducing us to the extraordinary percussionist Trilok Gurtu.

Cannizaro Park Festival, 2010: just up the road from where we lived at the time in South Wimbledon. We went to see the 60s All-Stars comprising of a number of veteran musicians from various one-hit wonder bands back in the 60s. As experienced musicians they put on a fine show.

Cropredy, 2011: now back to a real pop festival in leafy Oxfordshire near Banbury: multi day, multi artist, camping available and in a real field of grass. We were drawn to this by the appearance of Seasick Steve and discovered many fine bands all unknown to me (apart from Seasick Steve, obviously) headlined by Fairport Convention. One uniquely British tradition was a burst of seated Morris dancing lead by Richard Digance.

BluesFest London, 20132014 / 2016: This was mostly held at the Royal Albert Hall but has since moved to The O2 Arena. It falls around our wedding anniversary so for several years we made it part of our celebrations. Artists seen include: Robert Cray, Marcus Bonfanti, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Bill Wyman (plus many legendary guests).

Locus festival, 2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019: This is a mostly free festival in Locorotondo, Puglia, Italy over several weekends in the main square. Every year there are some payable events at outlying venues, we saw: Kamasi Washington at Mavu Masseria, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic at Masseria Ferragnano, and Lauryn Hill in the local football stadium. Through Locus we discovered two avant-garde jazz bands that have joined our regular play list: Go-Go Penguin and Mammal Hands

Chicago Blues Festival, 2016: this was in a local park and included a fine lineup of artists foremost of which was the brilliant Shemekia Copeland. The whole of the concert on the Sunday evening on the main stage was a tribute to Otis Rush.

Great British Rock and Blues Festival, 2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020: Held at Butlins, in Skegness, in January it can get a bit chilly but the music is excellent. The GBR&B Festival has turned into a regular event where we discovered all manner of talented performers, some new, some old-timers: Catfish, Rebecca Downes, Elles Bailey, Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, Mud Morganfield, Climax Blues Band, Lucky Peterson, the list goes goes on...

Solfest, 2021: Just up the road from our new home in Cumbria, near the Solway Firth. That brings this right up to date and the festival that started this reminiscence. For us the best band was Dutty Moonshine Big Band featuring my nephew, Chris Hutchinson-Mogg, on drums. 

Music - better than a Madeleine dipped in tea.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Steve Harley and Eddi Reader at the Armadillo

Scottish Exhibition Centre, Glasgow. Saturday 05-March-2022.

This was Steve Harley's 70th birthday concert postposed from last year and the year before. Sandra and George had tickets and bought a couple extra as birthday presents for us. We decided to make a proper trip of it with an overnight stay and meeting up with more friends on the Sunday.

We went up on the train and had an excellent meal beforehand at Ralph and Finns. We then caught the train out to the Exhibition Centre for my first visit to the Armadillo.

Steve and the drummer are the only survivors from the original Cockney Rebel but, as often is the case, have surrounded themselves with talented musicians. He honoured the musicians' Faustian bargain and played all the greatest hits.

We had gone straight from the restaurant to our seats so I was greatly relieved when, after an hour, he had a break and I could dash to the gents! After the break he was joined by Eddi Reader for a couple of songs including Robert Burns' Ae Fond Kiss.

Eddi also sang her best known hit from Fairground Attraction, "Perfect". Her voice is still perfect too.

Much of the second half was augmented with a string quartet and upright bass. 

Of course the encore had to be "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)". Send 'em home dancing!

We stayed over with George and Sandra. Next morning it was back into central Glasgow for Sunday lunch with Geraldine and Alisdair at Babbity Bowsters. Then home on the train and straight out to more friends for supper that evening. Diet starts Monday!

Thursday, March 10, 2022

My Life In ... Hair Styles

The thirteenth 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".

Barbers (November 1961, age 9). My final year at Thorns junior school. As a schoolboy one went the the barbers for a haircut. Fairly brutal, functional places. They treated your head like an adjustable action man figure. Bang it to the left, cut that side. Slap it to the right, cut that side. Smack your head forward, do the back of your neck. No grace or courtesy. No chat or banter. Mind you had they spoken it would most likely have been football about which I know nothing and care less.

Barbers (November 1964, age 13). I have no pictures from my teenage years apart from the biennial school portraits. Not one. My parents weren’t into pictures of their children. Everyone else I know has pictures of their offspring growing up, their graduation, wedding, grandchildren. My parents had none. It’s like we didn’t exist. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you more.

Beatles mop top (Spring 1971, age 18). Publicity shot for the local paper The Kenilworth Weekly News. My school, Kenilworth Grammar School, was only 10 years old and we three were the first ever from our school to get to Oxbridge. As such we were the darlings of our headmaster (R. N."Ronnie" Mitchell, Cantab.) and I never got any grief for my shockingly long (!) hairstyle although he did glower at me.

Transition Beatle / Hippie (Autumn 1971, age 19). My National Union of Students id. photo courtesy of a Photo Me booth. Got to love the cheesecloth shirt - I was so on trend. Not sure about the dodgy 'tache.

Maximum hair (Summer 1973, age 20). It never grew any longer than this. Featuring the start of my, now politically incorrect, Robertson’s gollie badge collection courtesy of dumpster diving on my summer job as a dustman.

Graduation (June 1975, age 22). For the ceremony you had to wear academic gown trimmed with rabbit fur and a mortar board - tassel to the left, of course.

Unisex salon (1975). The barbers of my teenage years were exclusively male. It was a pleasant shock the first time I went to a unisex salon where an attractive young lady fondled my scalp. Looking back it makes me realise how times have changed.

Permed (June 1979, age 26). My sister’s wedding. I call it my Marc Bolan look, others think it's more Noddy Holder.

Permed (January 1980, age 27). My work’s pass from day one on my new job at Coopers & Lybrand (Management Consultancy Services). My perm was freshly washed and in full effect for the first day at work, positively Roger Daltrey. As you can see I failed to surrender upon leaving.

Purple hair (Early 1980’s). I was seriously planning to go purple next inspired by Space 1999 and Crystal Tipps but as I was now working in the City I bottled it. You had to look the part: pinstripe suit, silk tie and serious black shoes (Loakes or Church’s).

The C&L consultants’ handbook had this to say about dress code: 

“The consultant’s attire should not be so staid as to make them appear fuddy duddy nor should it be so flamboyant as to make them appear frivolous and lacking in character.”  I suspect purple hair might well have fallen into the latter category.

Blonde highlights and beard (Summer 1982, age 29). On a canal holiday in the south of France. I had to treat myself to a special pair of beard scissors (they are a thing). I call it my George Michael designer stubble look, others think it’s more Noel Edmonds. 

Classic haircut and beard (Mid 1980’s, age 30's). City slicker working for BIS (Applied Systems) with my burgundy frames. This is my “Video Killed the Radio Star” look. Boy, were those glasses heavy. With a prescription of -6.0 they were like bottle bottoms. 

Spiked hair (Circa 1987, aged 35). Short hair worked into spikes with plenty of gel. Alas no extant pictures survive.

Well groomed (October 1999, age 47). Head shot for the self-appointed director of the newly founded M&M Enterprises Ltd as I went self employed. Note the absence of glasses as I was wearing contact lenses at the time.

Skinhead / Bovver boy (September 2021). I never understood why the barber would hold up a mirror so I could see the back of my head and ask “How is that?” I didn’t give a hoot, I never look at the back of my head. 

What I did mind as I progressed through my 60's was the shiny spot on the top of my head which got larger as the hair got thinner. I don’t think I want to see that! I knew there would be a time when I would be at risk of entering comb over territory. A style faux pas to be avoided. So last year I bowed to the inevitable and went for a number 3 on top, grading to a 1 at the sides. I have had to buy a beanie because I really feel the chill.

Note the white mark behind the left ear which I have never been able to see before. I know what it is. In my mid teens, whilst exploring round the back of Kenilworth Castle, some unknown youth fired a stone from a catapult which hit me on the head and knocked me unconscious. There was blood and I can still feel the lump.

I guess that’s it as I work my way towards total hair loss. Genes don’t always work in one’s favour. My father, mother and uncle all had a good head of hair till the day they died. My brother who is only 15 months younger than me still had a real mop of hair. But I’m not bitter.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Rob Heron and Tommy at the Upfront Arts Venue

Unthank, Cumbria, UK. Saturday 19-February-2022.

Once again Cumbria has provided an unusual and entertaining musical evening. We were alerted to this event by our friend Andrew. And then again by Heather who was a fellow tail walker with Mary, at the previous Saturday’s parkrun and a regular with me on the weekly Eden Runners Lowther trails outings. It turns out that Rob Heron is her son so I guess I should not have be surprised to see several Eden Runners in the audience

The venue is a quirky combination of art gallery, cafe and puppet theatre. We decided to book ourselves a pre-gig meal which was excellent, very tasty vegetarian supper: starter, main and a glass of wine for very modest price.

Normally the performances would be in the theatre but that was occupied by an interesting art exhibition of totem poles made from tin cans and other found artefacts. Instead half the cafe was cleared of tables and the seats lined up in what is normally an exhibition space.

The first act, Tommy, performed an excellent blues set. All his own compositions full of suitably downbeat themes of heartbreak and despair. He was far too self-deprecating and really should have more confidence in his talent.

At one point the host and compere suggested from the back of the room that Tommy might like to introduce the songs, let us know that he wrote them all himself and give a little bit of background as to how they came about. Sound advice. One of the advantages of a live concert is that you get to hear the story behind the songs: what inspired them, who they were inspired by, what they were about. 

We then had an a break and an opportunity to refill our glasses or take a stroll around the art exhibition in the theatre space.

Rob Heron played a very different kind of set, very country music influenced. Has he said if you don’t like country music then you’ve been listening to the wrong kind of country music. He was a much more confident and sleek performer. The songs were all much more lighthearted and upbeat not to say humorous. Interesting contrast to the first act.

All in all a fun and entertaining evening out. 

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Brunswick Road 10 - painting, shelving, pipework

Penrith, Cumbria. February-2022.

Once the plastering was done (see January update) I had to bring the paint roller out of retirement and slap two coats of Dulux kitchen and bathroom paint all over in order not to delay the kitchen fitting (or even worse let Mary do the painting). Slip on shoe cover make excellent, improvised light protectors.

The kitchen fitter then informed us that the lead time on the units was such that it would not be happening as soon as hoped. A strategic rethink was called for. We brought forward the dining room re-plastering to get that done in the meantime. Unfortunately the weekend before he was due to start the plasterer slipped on some ice, jolted his back and was out of action for at least a week.

In the meantime we had a parallel, DIY work stream fitting the TARDIS circuit in the shed. We decided the Belfast sink had to go  It took up room, had no water tap and the drain didn’t drain. No before picture, alas. I took a hammer to the supporting bricks and, lo, it was gone. It may become a planter or a boot cleaning trough.

Next step was to replace the temporary plastic shelves from B&Q with wall to wall brackets and adjustable shelving to hold all our storage crates.

I had to borrow Nigel’s SDS hammer drill as my battery powered drills weren’t up to brick and stone. 

Order restored, shelves stacked. It may not be the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark but it’ll do for me.

Back in the house when the old bath was taken out from the downstairs bathroom it left a pair of pipes running across the floor that fed the kitchen sink. When we re-sited the boiler we missed a trick. We should have got the plumbers to take those pipes out and take a fresh feed from the new boiler. So while we were in Italy the plumbers came back to retrofit the routing and add a spur for the new shower. 

Next month we hope for full installation of kitchen and utility / shower room.

Repeat after me “ It’ll be lovely once it’s finished”.