Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Goulash of Doom

That'll teach me. I should have realised it was too good to be true. I could have read the signs. They were all there.

I'd needed something quick and easy as I was going out not long after coming home. And microwave ready-meals really aren't that bad, these days, are they? They normally fall into two categories, as far as I'm concerned
  • Type 1 - simple. Stick it in, dial a number and nuke it.
  • Type 2 - complex. As per type 1, but requiring you to stop halfway, lift up the cellophane and stir.
I'm vaguely aware that there is a Type 3 that requires you to do things like sprinkle water over rice, etc, but I'm sorry, that's Gordon Ramsay territory. Before you know it I'd be getting all sweary with sous-chefs and that's just too much hassle.

The ready meal in question was an Aldi Hungarian goulash, from their 'Around the World' range. The bright packaging tantalised me; I was ready for the rich beef stew, herbs and fluffy dumplings. Quick check, yes it's a Type 1, and all for less than two quid. Bish bash, and, as they say, bosh.

After eight minutes irradiation I peeled back the plastic, ready for the waves of paprika to wash over me. Hmm. This wasn't looking quite like the pack shot. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, what I had here was essentially a dirty protest in a plastic tub.

Manfully, I proceeded. After all, lots of food can be great even if it looks bad. I've eaten plenty of baltis that prove this point. The goulash slid onto the plate like so much East European ectoplasm. I could sense the entire Hungarian nation eyeing me disapprovingly, asking: "Ön nem haladó eszik amit?"*


I took a forkful. There was what food critics call 'mouthfeel'. At least I think that's what they call it, assuming they're in the habit of consuming beef-flavoured frogspawn.

Maybe a dumpling instead?

When seas have risen and governments have crumbled, I'll still be chewing my way through that dumpling. I'll be at it when I'm old and grey. "Christ on a bike," I thought, "this isn't food, this is something Amnesty International would campaign against. "

Be afraid, good people. There's a bad meal out there. Hear my warnings. It's a service I like to offer.

*("You're not going to eat that, are you?")

Saturday, 26 September 2009

What's occurring?

I've not posted for a week because I haven't been around. Which is a good reason for not posting.

We've been once again to our favourite corner of Wales. We've been going there for something like 13 years now. It saves buying maps, I suppose.

Anyway, this year we were joined by Brother no.1 and his wife, which placed a whole new dimension on proceedings. Brother no. 1 is the oldest, most sensible of us all. As a result, we should have expected a certain degree of responsibility and good behaviour.

How quickly the expectations were to be cruelly dashed.

This, for instance, was the view from the steep hill - no, the Steep Hill - he decided two of us were going to climb.

Katie and Brother no. 1's wife decided, sensibly to stay at ground level. Mind you, the views were good:

My brother and I have over 80 years between us. We have mortgages and other grown-up appendages. We could easily have discussions about human rights, macroeconomic policy and the arts. Instead we chose to complain to our long-suffering wives, over pints of Brains*, about jetpacks and the lack thereof.

"Look," said B#1. "A stream! Let's play Pooh Sticks. I've already got a stick."

And he did. Big brothers are pretty handy like that. Although I'm pretty certain the game of Pooh Sticks requires more than one Stick - the clue's in the name, after all.

Nevertheless, we stood and played Pooh Stick. Our Stick got Stuck, so we threw stones at it to clear it. As it drifted onwards, we celebrated. "On, on it goes! To the ocean, the spiritual home of all Pooh Sticks!" It's probably best that our wives weren't there to witness this regression.

One more thing. Wales in late September, yet we had warm sunshine for a week. Proof?

That's B#1 at the start and end of the video, fiddling with his phone. The things some people will do to get a decent signal.

*(Brains is a Welsh brewer. We hadn't actually been transformed into Zombies).

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Bulbgate continues

A few weeks ago I published a complaint letter I'd sent to DIY chain store company, B&Q. And I thought that was it. Until they sent a response that told me they had missed the point somewhat.

In fact, it would appear that they couldn't even find the point with SatNav, a map, co-ordinates and a sherpa guide. But, Good News! It means I get to write to them all over again, and share it all with you. Aren't you lucky people? Anyway:

Dear Ms W

Thank you for your letter of 8 September in response to mine of 18 August.

I was intrigued to learn, from the first sentence of your letter, that my original complaint had apparently been about your self-service tills. I was very interested by your subsequent paragraph that told me how B&Q decided to install such checkouts to give customers additional choice, how customers had told you in surveys that they were the third most important service factor, and about how you had rolled them out over 220 of your stores.

All fascinating stuff indeed. There’s just one problem.

I wasn’t complaining about your self-service tills.

Allow me to remind you. One of your members of staff had been surly, incompetent, inflexible and laughably indifferent to the whole concept of customer service. (Incidentally, where did “Employing pleasant staff” feature in your customer survey?) The fact that this comedy of errors was performed adjacent to one of your self-service tills is somewhat irrelevant, wouldn’t you agree? Were I to have an argument with a B&Q employee by the paint-mixing machine, would my subsequent complaint be classed by you as “Didn’t like the paint-mixing machine?”

I actually went to some trouble – three pages worth – to set out what had happened, why I was upset and what I thought B&Q should do in response. Not only did you take three weeks to respond to my letter, you took three weeks to not actually read it before responding.

The irony is that a week or so earlier I’d had a good long chat with the local B&Q manager. And he got it. He completely understood. He recognised what had gone wrong, apologised genuinely and assured me that steps would be taken to prevent it happening again. I believed him. You may be interested to know that we didn’t discuss self-service tills at all.

So for a while I was thinking nice things about B&Q. Then your letter arrived to bring me a much-needed dose of reality. I suspect that wasn’t your intention, but it was the unfortunate outcome.

You state in your letter, in a suspiciously copied-and-pasted section, that “B&Q constantly strive to provide our customers with an excellent level of service”. What does this mean in practice? Does B&Q constantly misread complaint letters directed to your CEO? Does B&Q strive to miss the point when someone takes the trouble to raise an issue?

When I write a complaint letter (and I really don’t write many, despite appearances to the contrary) I have relatively simple expectations. I expect that someone suitably empowered to do so will look at my complaint and come back to me in good time with some form of explanation and, where necessary, an apology.

However, while I would dearly love to accept the apparently sincere apologies expressed in your letter, I’m struggling to do so. I have read it closely – I think at least one of us should take this radical approach to correspondence – but I just can’t see any evidence that you have understood what I was complaining about in the first place.

I remain open to surprises and therefore look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely


Tuesday, 15 September 2009

A message from our sponsor

We appear to be on a slippery slope, some say. Yesterday we were told that there are plans to introduce product placement to British TV. As a result we can expect to see our favourite telly programmes interspersed with conveniently-placed brand names.

I'm surprised. As I sit here, typing on my Acer laptop, I'm shocked to the soles of my M&S sock-clad feet. It's almost enough to put me off my PG Tips.

Never mind. Apparently I'm worth it.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Two tribes

Oh, bloody hell, this is ridiculous. I don't even like football that much.

Growing up, I was a bit of an oddity. At my first school, between the ages of four and seven, I was regarded with suspicion and awe. Well, as much suspicion and awe as a group of four-year-olds can muster, I suppose. Quite frankly, when your head is mainly filled with concern about the Daleks invading or whether you're going to get KerPlunk for Christmas, there isn't much room for the deeper emotions.

But I was an odd fish. There I was, a young boy growing up in the English suburban seventies. And I didn't like football. By all accounts this was unheard of. If you were that age, at that time, and in full possession of male genes, you followed football. You watched it, you spoke it, you played it. It was like the tides or the phases of the moon.

I outed myself early on, when asked the archetypal question, "Are you blue, or claret-and-blue?" This may have been on my first day of school, so important was the issue. Yet when I claimed not to like football, my scrutineer was puzzled. This just did not compute. I had to belong to a team.

I should explain. In the city of my birth there are two football teams, Aston Villa and Birmingham City. Aston Villa has been (at least for as long as I can remember) the successful one. They maintain a position in the Premier league, occasionally entering European competition, through the plainly unusual strategy of being able to play football reasonably well.

This approach frustrates and fascinates Birmingham City fans in equal measure. The Blues, as they are known, have not shared the success of their near-neighbours for a long time. Their all-too-brief forays into the upper echelons of the English game are usually interspersed by years out in the wilderness.

As a result we have that whole Montague/Capulet thing going on in my hometown. It doesn't matter if you like the game or not. It's a little like that story of Oscar Wilde admitting, to an audience in Northern Ireland, to being an atheist. "That's nice, dear," replied an old lady, "but is it the god of the Catholics or the god of the Protestants in which you don't believe?"

Regardless of your prediliction for the game, it's important to know whose tribe you're in. So on that fateful day, all those years ago, I went home and asked my parents. "Am I Villa or am I Blues?"

"Son," they said, "this is a Blues house." Had we been having this conversation in New Orleans that response would have been rather cool. But this was Kings Heath in 1975 and I had spaghetti hoops for tea.

And so the die was cast. They bought me the penguin strip, royal blue with a broad white stripe up the front. I was made to disconsolately boot a football around the garden. My older brother tried to get me interested in memorising the home grounds of all 92 league teams. It was never going to happen.

Even now, people will have conversations with me about the game, assuming that I have the faintest idea what they're talking about. "Well, Liverpool are looking strong, as with Gerrard they can play with 4-5-1 and move to 4-4-2 on the break when they get possession." They may as well be describing quantum physics to me. In Albanian.

So what is it that caused me to be so frustrated at the beginning of this post? Lunchtime today found me furiously pressing 'refresh' on the BBC homepage as they gave the text commentary on the Birmingham/Villa local derby. Let me remind you. I don't actually like football.

However, when things are tribal, it gets instinctive.

(PS - for those who are interested, the score was: Birmingham City 0 - Aston Villa 1. Some things are clearly pre-determined).

Saturday, 5 September 2009

"Carpe Diem" does not mean "God's Fish"

I have no vested interest to declare. I am not a schoolteacher. I don't know many teachers. And I don't have any children in education at the moment.

Nevertherless, I found this story scary. Apparently the General Teaching Council wants teachers across the country to sign up to Code of Conduct that will require them to watch what they do outside of school. It's been theorised that this would mean teachers being banned from getting drunk at the weekend.

As I said above, I have very little knowledge of teachers and teaching. But if I had to spend five days a week dealing with today's kids, I think I might drink to forget. Plus there's the creeping nature of this type of thinking, which is a little worrying. Where does it end? "First they came for the teachers, but I did not speak up, as I did not have corduroy elbow-patches on my jackets...."

But it got me thinking about my own school days, ohmygod years ago. I went to what could have generously been described as a traditional school. Here is one-quarter of us, sitting down for the obligatory photo to mark the school's centenary year in 1983:

I've only been able to include one quarter of the final picture as I've assumed you're not reading this blog in Panavision. But you get the idea. Yes, we were Nerd Central. And it was Dickensian in tooth and claw. At my school, Goodbye, Mr Chips was seen as a documentary.

And so it was with the teachers. One of my Latin teachers, Mr Bennewith, was a case in point. I realise that previous sentence is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Yes, I took Latin. My school had more than one person responsible for the subject. And there was none of this 'call me by my first name' nonsense, either. We went through our entire school career singularly unaware of our teachers' first names. To do otherwise would have been unthinkable.

Given that I don't get to speak to that many ancient Romans these days, I wonder why I took Latin in the first place. I've forgotten most of it, 25 years later, but I wouldn't have missed the Bennewith experience for all the olives in Herculaneum.

Mr Bennewith came from a generation where teachers were schoolmasters. He still wore the flowing black cape on a daily basis; I suspect he'd only just been weaned off the mortarboard. I think he still considered it most unfair that he wasn't allowed to use the cane on the pupils under his charge, relying instead on a withering glare and verbal intimidation. But being somewhat Wodehousian in his approach, referring to younger boys as 'squeakers' and older ones as 'bounders' perhaps never quite had the effect he intended.

One example: in the middle of our ablative verb conjugations, one pupil farted quite noticeably. Being 14-year-olds we predictably found this hilarious. Without breaking his stride, Mr Bennewith raised his eyes to to perpetrator. "Sir," he harrumphed, "kindly take your launchpad somewhere else."

I know he retired many years back. Even so, the thought of teachers like Mr Bennewith being denied their nightly claret simply does not compute.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Incandescent with rage

Timeline: 1st September 1909

The Government's plans to transform the way we light our homes and offices took a new step today, with the announcement that the sale and import of gas mantles is to be banned.

For several years, the so-called "light bulbs", originally patented by Messrs Edison and Swann, have been gaining in popularity. Proponents of electrical lighting have claimed that the new technology provides safe and efficient light, free from the fumes and soot associated with gaslights and candles.

However, these is some resistance to the spread of electrical lighting. "The light is too sudden," claims a Mr Hughes, a farrier from Hampstead. "One activates the switching mechanism and suddenly the room is flooded with white light. I much prefer the gradual increase in illumination to be experienced with the gas mantle. And as for the price - I understand the Maxim company will be charging a half-shilling per bulb. It will never catch on, mark my words."

It appears that these fears will not be easily allayed, however. A spokesman for the London Electric Company commented thus: "We need to progress finally into the 20th century. There must be no delay. The incandescent light bulb is our future. And, once we have moved to safe, clean electric light, I see no reason why we would ever need to change."


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