Friday, July 10, 2020

My life in ... Gin

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".

The aperitif of choice for 45 years, my appreciation of this beverage has evolved over the years.

Gordon's: with Schweppes tonic. This was my introduction to gin in 1975. My girl friend at the time was a G&T drinker and so I was inducted into this beverage. That was the only brand of gin and tonic that I drank for several decades.
Bombay Sapphire: I read about this in a Sunday times colour supplement, a sophisticated premium gin. I can do sophisticated! So decided to break with a two decades old loyalty. Plus it came in a pretty blue, square bottle. Still with Schweppes tonic. And that was it for another decade.

Hendricks: on the recommendation of a friend in Italy I thought I'd give this a go. Made with cucumber in the botanicals and hence normally served with cucumber. Not convinced about the cucumber but the gin is fine.
Jinzu: my first Japanese style gin bought by me at the behest of my mother as a 60th birthday present. She had read an article about Japanese gins and decided this was a fitting present for her G&T drinking son. This is the winner of a gin blending competition and is actually distilled in Scotland. Contains sake and very tasty. 

Graveney: a boutique distillery in Southwest London. First encountered when we were dining at Unwind in Tooting market where Graveney had a stand. After a slightly boozy lunch we went to try this as a digestif. They had their original still there in the shop, tiny, only about 3ft high. Served with grapefruit the gin was delicious, a lovely combination.
Fever-Tree: not a gin but when I first tried it I was an instant convert. Schweppes was condemned to the dustbin of history. I always ask the server if they have Fever-Tree.

Sipsmith: Mary bought me a tour of the Sipsmith distillery for Christmas 2015 which came with a bottle of gin. The waiting list was so long we didn't get to take the tour until the following July. Fascinating to learned the full history of gin and Sipsmith's part in opening up the boutique gin industry.
Ophir: I went on a pub crawl with a dozen or so friends where one of the party didn’t drink beer and stuck to gin and tonic. As an Indian he liked Oriental spices and Ophir was his recommendation. Interesting in a good way.
About this time I decided that henceforth I would try a new gin every time a bottle ran out. This is where the list gets too long so here are just some that stuck in the mind:
  • Bosford: a London gin that was one of the cheapest in the local Italian supermarket. I thought I'd give the bottom end of the non-premium market a go. It was passable enough but lacked the quality and I don't need to save money that badly. Onwards and upwards! 
  • Martin Miller: definitely one of my favourite of all the gins I have drunk, I’m not sure why, so I have allowed my self a couple of repeat purchases.
  • Silent pool: a local gin from Hampshire. I’ve tried it but I’m really not convinced about the flavour, maybe it will grow on me. Also the glass stopper is a pig to get out especially as we keep our gin in the freezer and it is cold and slippery.
  • Roku: another Japanese gin. I’ve had two bottles of this. It comes in a very pretty, hexagonal bottle.
  • Ki No Bi: the name inevitably reminds me of Obi-Wan Kenobi. That said I don’t think they named it after the Jedi knight.
  • Marmalade gin: local production from the Lake District. File under "interesting", I don't think I'll bother again. It will also make me wary of other flavoured gins, Sloe Gin excepted.
  • Gin Mare: a thank you from Anne.
  • Caorunn: a thank you from Sandra.
  • Tarsier: a lakeland gin bought in Penrith, very palatable, would happily repeat.
  • Hotspur: another lakeland gin bought at the Rheged centre. 
  • Shed No. 1: another lakeland gin bought at the Winter Droving festival. Interestingly the distiller himself, who was manning the stall, said "Any tonic but Fentimans" as apparently the botanically brewed tonic clashes with the botanicals in the gin. Never would have thought about that.
  • Bulldog: whimsical bottle, ok-ish gin.
  • Brockman: now this is a lovely gin. Up there with Martin Miller. This is why trying a different gin every time is a good strategy to discover new delights.
  • And the list goes on...
Some time during this journey I switched to lime instead of lemon. I don't get through the lime fast enough so now I keep a tub of frozen lime slices in the freezer. Always there and it acts as an ice cube.
Is it six o'clock yet?

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Benson Row - 14

Penrith, Cumbria. June-2020.

The big excitement was the easing of lockdown which meant work on the kitchen could resume. We retreated upstairs with a picnic lunch while Alan fitted the doors to the kitchen units. Barry also came and drilled a hole in the back wall for the extractor hood flue. Now it all looks like a show kitchen.

In the living room I made good the three walls that Mary had stripped of anaglypta wallpaper and painted with two coats of white emulsion ready for the top coat. The back wall was in a particularly bad state and I used most of a large tub of B&Q filler to smooth out all the dents and general roughness.

Next Mary did what she'd been wanting to do for ages: take out the false wall in the living room and open up the fireplace behind it.

Either side of the chimney breast was basically stud wall construction, the fireplace was bricked up and cemented over.

We got Barry's lads to chisel off the cement and unblock the opening. That left us to bag up huge quantities of rubble and make multiple trips to the local tip.

The fireplace has a lovely stone lintel and pillars. The interior had clearly been through several iterations to accommodate different ranges. We took out even more stone to get back the original opening.

The electrician had to chase in the exposed wiring which was then cemented over. Next the chimney breast was repointed and the two alcoves plastered (and still drying out). The interior still has to be cleaned up.

In other news I installed a mosaic splash back in the shower room; a lovely neat job.

Then Mary decided she didn't like it and I had to chisel it off and replace with a white one!

Down in the cellar we installed two sets of shelving so it is now more organised. Plus I have put a bolt on the wine cellar door so can finally tick that off the list.

Next month I will mostly be painting walls.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Mars Inc Lawyers Letter

Ibsley, Ringwood, Hampshire. 28-October-2003

Seriously, Mars, get a life! I recently came across this historic document. Mars Inc's lawyers wrote to me way back in 2003 because I whimsically used this image on my website:

Given my initials are M and M and my company was legitimately and legally called "M&M Enterprises Ltd" it seemed like a harmless homage to that fine chocolate. However Mars Inc had a sense of humour failure. The weight of a mighty corporation and one of the largest firm of lawyers in the world deigned to write to me. 

Dear Sir

We are the solicitors acting for Mars UK Limited (hereinafter referred to as "Mars"), The content of the website at has recently been brought to our clients attention. We note that the site has now been re-branded. However, our client is concerned with the former content of the site which used characters similar to the M&M's characters.

Mars are the proprietors of several UK registered trade marks in respect of the M&M's characters. The M&M's characters are also protected by copyright owned by Mars.

We are writing to put you on notice of Mars' rights and trust that the site will not in the future feature characters which are similar to the M&M's characters

Yours faithfully

Clifford Chance LLP

So I changed my logo to:

And put the following disclaimer on my site: 

"M&M Enterprises is in no way connected with Mars or their fine product M&M's®. Any similarity between Mark McLellan (a human being) and M&M's (a sugar coated candy) is entirely coincidental."

I wrote back very tongue-in-cheek to inform them of my compliance with their request. Phew, another legal disaster averted.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Isle of Wight Festival 1970

Freshwater, Isle of Wight. Friday/Monday 28/31-August-1970.

They do say that "If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there". Much the same could be said of most of my own life. Specifically, I was at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and I don't remember much of that. 

I read the line-up on Wikipedia Isle of Wight Festival 1970 and am astounded at the line-up. There are some of the most famous and influential bands and acts in musical history. Some of them I remember and some I don't. I think much of this was due to my musical illiteracy at 17. If they hadn't appeared on Top of the Pops I wouldn't know who they were and so did not appreciate who I was listening to. Sadly I only remember most clearly John Sebastian, Tiny Tim, The Who and Melanie. 

Evening Standard Festival Fun Book:

I went with my friend David Fee who I'd met working on an archaeological dig at the Lunt Roman Fort in Baginton. I was a very unadventurous teenager so I think it must have been David's suggestion that we go. I met up with David recently and it turns out he remembers even less than I do, so that scuppered my plan to fill in some of the gaps in my memory.

Me in 1971 (standing at the back).

David Fee in summer 1972.

I don't remember when we travelled down or how we got there; I am guessing we went down on the Friday (28-August-1970) because I do not remember any of Friday's acts but do remember John Sebastian with his colourful trousers who was first up on the Saturday.

We probably went by train and ferry, I was equipped with a rucksack, a two man tent and a cheap, yellow, feather sleeping bag all bought specially for the occasion. How we got from Cowes to East Afton farm is also lost in the mists of time.

Festival Grounds Plan.

When we arrived we pitched our tent in what must have been in the Freshwater campsite because I remember we were generally sitting to the left of the stage. An enterprising local farmer was selling straw bales so we bought two. One we untied and spread inside the tent as a mattress, the other we left outside as a seat. The following day when we got back from a day of watching the acts some b*****d had stolen the bale because we had trustingly left it outside our tent. 

I don't remember what was in our rucksacks but I am pretty sure we didn't pack any food. We ate at the various stalls and I do know that was the first time I ever tried a bean burger; it was delicious. David remembers that he enjoyed the macrobiotic stew from the macrobiotic tent and we largely ate bags of juicy pears from local farmers.

The sanitary arrangements were quickly overwhelmed and became a boggy unapproachable mess. Since they were outside the main arena it was in any case a struggle to get all the way to the “loos”, so lots of people were peeing against the corrugated iron perimeter fence.

Full programme:

Saturday 29th
  • John Sebastian
  • Shawn Phillips
  • Lighthouse (second set)
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Tiny Tim
  • Miles Davis
  • Ten Years After
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  • The Doors
  • The Who
  • Sly and the Family Stone
  • Melanie
Sunday 30th
  • Good News
  • Kris Kristofferson (second set).
  • Ralph McTell
  • Heaven
  • Free
  • Donovan
  • Pentangle
  • The Moody Blues
  • Jethro Tull
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Joan Baez
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Richie Havens
We found a spot to sit but this was long before that days of big screens, all you saw was a dot on the distant stage. Alternatively you could wend your way though the crowd to get up close but then had to stand as the crowd was so packed. Inevitably the days were spent see-sawing between the two positions.

I do remember The Who because they played the whole of Tommy which I had recently bought for the princely sum of 85/- shillings (that's £4.25). Sadly I also remember Tiny Tim. Melanie was memorable because she was a babe and I had seen her on Top of the Pops. 

David says he slept through Jimi Hendrix so there is a real possibility I may have dozed as well; it was in the early hours on Monday morning and I am not a night owl. As for the rest it is all a bit of a blur. Even looking on YouTube at the various performances hasn't jogged any brain cells. So sad. 

On the way back, once we had disembarked the ferry, we decided to hitch back. The first car to stop was a bloke in an MG who said he was going all the way to Coventry where David lived and going through Kenilworth where I lived. 

A fantastic ride, to get all the way home in a single lift. Obviously there was only one passenger seat. So we said we'll both sit in the one seat; we took it in turns to sit on each other lap until the legs of the one underneath went dead then we swapped over. We got home in record time!

That was my sole experience of festival going for 40 years until I went to Cropredy in 2011.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Benson Row - 13

Penrith, Cumbria. April/May-2020.

The lockdown special. Obviously no progress from the builders but the devil finds work for idle hands.

Mary was bored and she always hated the anaglypta wallpaper that covered the walls throughout the house. Not long after we bought the place I redecorated the living room to tone down the custard yellow walls to a Dulux Nutmeg white. But that was not enough to satisfy Mary so one day whilst bored she attacked the last remaining anaglypta.

Of course Buggins here gets to make good and redecorate. The back wall was in a shocking state. I used almost a whole 3kg tub of Polyfilla (US: spackle) smoothing the wall and the dust from sanding it back down caused a major white-out.

Next up was the "booze box" so named because we used to store all our gins, whiskys and other spirits in it. I don't have a before picture but it was dark oak all over (the colour of the pattern). We have had it over 25 years and it was essentially a bonus purchase. It was part of a job lot at auction where we were bidding for a bridge table. The plant stand, footstool and hat stand that came with it have long gone but the faithful old booze box lives on including re-gluing it back together when it tried to self destruct. 

Cue a bored Mary and the attack of the sandpaper! After a couple of dusty days the lovely original oak, free of dark stain, was revealed. A couple of coats of varnish to protect the surface and box is resurrected.

One side panel was over-sanded in part ruining the even colour but it is amazing what a little improvisation with brown mascara can do when you don't have wood stain.

Meanwhile down in the cellar I was working on a door for the storage space. We bought an old door from Brunswick Yard architectural salvage in Penrith. Unsurprisingly 150 year old stone walls are not straight, level or square so I had to hand craft a door frame.

Once I had done that the door had to be trimmed to fit, hung and the surround made good.

The final touches and a bolt are still to be done but I am pleased with the progress so far.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Benson Row - 12

Penrith, Cumbria. March-2020.

Well I guess that's the Pause button pressed on the works for a while. Prior to our arrival the kitchen fitter had laid the lovely, engineered oak flooring, the worktop company then came to template and went away with a promise to return in a week with the worktop.

They returned along with our fitter to install the worktop. We are hugely grateful that he worked late that day, the eve of the PM's announcement of a shutdown, to fit the hob, sink, dishwasher and washing machine. We can live without cupboard doors!

We had been surviving on microwaveable meals and the soup-maker (a brilliant device). We used to eat out occasionally for a bit variety, now not an option. However doing all the washing up in the tiny handbasin in the bathroom was getting very tedious. Also we used the local laundry which meant trying to build up full loads whilst not running out of knickers and socks. Now we have a viable home we can stay up in Penrith and not have to return to London.

We were isolating ourselves upstairs for the day while the workmen were in to fit the worktop so our kitchen fitter WhatsApp'd us this video from downstairs to show us the work in progress.

The kitchen floor was raised to match the level of dining room. That necessitated a replacement window as the old sill would have been below the new worktop.

Outside that left a gap awaiting a new windowsill once the danger of frost was past.

The new windowsill and gap filled with local stone plus re-jigged pipework for the new sink and dishwasher.

The surround to the new back door (previously a window and before that a door) has been plastered but the final skim will have to wait.

Meanwhile I was not idle. I fitted 15 metres of picture rail all round the upstairs landing to put an end to filling pinholes when Mary decides to rearrange the pictures. I borrowed the builder's laser spirit level (an excellent toy!) to mark out the line from the front bedroom architrave. It really showed up the difference in floor and ceiling heights.

 Of course none of the walls were even.

A panorama of the completed rail.

Pictures hung.

Also on my to-do list was fittings for the downstairs shower and loo.

The access panel to the under stairs void needed painting as well.

And finally we have a fully working downstairs shower and loo.

Until restrictions are lifted and the workmen can return, "That's All Folks!"

Friday, March 06, 2020

The Blues Band at Under The Bridge

Chelsea, London. Friday 06-March-2020.

We first saw The Blues Band at the Great British Rock and Blues Festival 2017. Featuring Paul Jones formerly of Manfred Mann. This time we went with our friends John and Andrea. This being our eighth time at UTB we knew the score - get there early and queue so you get some of the limited seating available. We bagged four bar stools in the floor area with great views of the stage. Result!

They did a solid Chicago blues style set.

You just can't beat some live music.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Message in a Bottle at Peacock Theatre

West End, London. Thursday 20-February-2020, Thursday 05-March-2020.

So good we had to see it twice. Mary was so knocked out by this show that on the bus home she booked to go back and see it again. One first viewing it was spectacular but on second viewing I got so much more out of the storytelling. Helped by the fact that we were closer to the stage and able to see their expressions very clearly.

Lyndsey Winship in the Guardian gives it 4 stars: "A compelling cast pour their hearts into Kate Prince’s jukebox tale of civil war, trafficking and three siblings separated as refugees."
"The blistering cast attacks Prince’s sharp, tight rhythms, laced with pops and power poses, with a huge amount of heart, their technical tricksiness thrown off with casual grace.[...] Overall, though, this story of loving, losing and finding your way again is moving and hopeful. It has clarity, immediacy and mainstream appeal, and there’s no denying that the songs are great. Most importantly, it has an infectious, pressing energy that boils over the edge of the stage. It should be a big hit." Full review...
Can't argue with that. What was good was that although they said no photography or recording during the performance they encouraged you do to so at the curtain call.

Great stuff.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Brubecks play Brubeck at Ronnie Scotts 2020

Soho, London. Wednesday 03-March-2020.

The second time we’ve seen the Brubecks play Brubeck at Ronnie's. We enjoyed it so much last year that it was well worth a second visit. The band consists of three Brubeck brothers Darius, Chris and Dan with Dave O’Higgins on sax. They played music from their father’s repertoire (clue in the name!) And they’ve clearly inherited his musical talent. Excellent musicianship.

We had superior seating and opted for a table on the raised section. It was a table we hadn’t sat at before and belatedly realised why - there is a pillar in the way! We requested a move to one of our favourite tables, lesson learned.

The set started with Blue Rondo à la Turk and ended, inevitably, with Take Five. Ronnie's seem to have taken to Live Streaming some gig's which means we can rewatch this concert:

As it was a mid-week concert we got two sets from the band - excellent value.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Mary's 50th parkrun

Bushy Park. Saturday 29-February-2020.

Mary has quite got into parkrun and it is all Nigel's fault! He started doing Couch to 5K and I thought how hard could that be. Easy, peasy as it turned out. Then he started doing parkrun so I signed up as well and started parkrunning at Tooting Common.

Nigel and Kate came to visit us in Italy in June 2018 with their friends Sarah and Andrew. Sarah is a keen runner and said “let’s do a parkrun”. “There isn’t a parkrun here” we said. “Oh yes there is” they said. Cue pantomime style banter. And they were right!

Salento Parkrun had only just started five weeks before. It was a bit of a drive, 1 hour 15 minutes, but we thought we'd give it a go. Drove down there to discover that our carful was 50% of the park runners that day, four out of the eight participants. Sarah was first lady!

While we were in Italy that summer it became a regular habit: I ran and Mary power walked her way around the course talking to Luana, the Run Director's mum, tail walker and cake baker. After a couple of weeks Saverio, the Run Director, persuaded Mary to sign up so she could get a bar code and an official time which means that Salento is Mary‘s home parkrun. She sometimes volunteers there as camminatore di coda (tail walker) which means she gets to practice her Italian.

Now if we go to a UK parkrun and they ask “Any visitors?” Mary can put up her hand and say “Yes, Southern Italy!”

Now she's hooked. Wants to do the alphabet. Always checks out where the nearest parkrun is whenever we are away. When she read that February 29th 2020 was the first ever Leap Day parkrun since it began and the last until 2048 she was super keen to complete her 50th parkrun at her home location of Salento on Leap Day.

We had booked the flights, the car hire and, as a treat, a Stansted hotel for the way back because of the late landing. The coronavirus put the kybosh on that. With two ageing mothers and a weekend cottage booked with a group of friends we could not take the faintest risk of transmitting the infection nor having to self-isolate on our return. So we binned the flights and cancelled the car and hotel.

That left the question of where to do Mary's 50th if not her home event. After some discussion we decided it really had to be the "mother ship" at Bushy Park. We absolutely could not risk missing the 9 o'clock start so rather than use public transport we Uber'ed our way over.

Sporting her Italian "Arriva un parkrunner" T-shirt she power-walked her way round in a respectable 44:12.

The semi-obligatory photo frame shot.

The course is very pleasant and one giant hourglass-shaped circuit. It was a bit muddy that day but full of people from all over celebrating that they were where it all started. We met a coach party of ladies from Notts Women Runners and an RD from Gorey in Southern Ireland.

Achievement unlocked! Red 50 T-shirt earned. Now Mary was counting the Saturdays to see how quickly she could get to her 100th however COVID-19 has scuppered those plans.