Monday 17 October 2016

The Queen's Marmite

   And so it arrives, all too soon, those longer nights of wood smoke, indoor cooking and crap-all on TV. As ever, we get drawn into the Great Ridiculous Menu in yet another campaign to annoy the hell out of everyone who has so much as overly hard boiled an egg or burnt some toast. This time they are cooking for the Queen's 90th birthday. Now I have met a few Royals over my time and one thing that struck me about most of them is that they appear to enjoy proper food, served on a bl**dy plate! So why does Donny, head chef at the Hedgehog and Ferret in Hartlepool insist on cooking beetroot, marmite and micro-tarragon in a water-bath, then setting fire to it with a welding torch and serving in an up-turned children's cycle helmet full of liquid nitrogen and decorated with deli-boppers? Does he wholeheartedly believe that his efforts would impress anyone other than a few smug TV chefs? Would Elizabeth R really enjoy a new take on Coronation chicken after all these years, now reduced to a hen's feet and beak, topped with a pile of feathers and a toy crown? I think not. One only hopes she watches the programme so she can phone up the beeb and wield her verbal mace, demanding meat and two veg served on Royal Worcester at her party, as well she deserves. And while she is at it, maybe she can ask them politely to return Countryfile to a programme that represents ordinary rural folk, rather than lefty-hippy-suburban-vegan-lesbians  - or better still, get all its presenters beheaded!
    While on that subject of food, when I was young Marmite was known as the 'Growing up spread'. So why is it now that a bunch of over-grown children are squabbling over it? Well it appears that the 'Brexiteers' (noun: person or persons eligible to vote on serious issues while blindfolded) have now been rewarded for their electoral efforts by the price of food in their shops being hiked up in an almost-convincing piece of manipulation by executives who are much cleverer than they are.  Hence a product made from yeast extract and manufactured somewhere in Derbyshire that, in my opinion, tasting like seagull droppings, is central to a huge week-long media splash, as its cost goes up by 2p? Answer: because between its supplier and some major retailers, they have managed to carve out some excellent free advertising over what is a normal annual price negotiation. Let's face it, it is a perfectly feasible price rise in foodstuffs, as has happened every year since eternity. But it wouldn’t be half as much fun if we couldn’t blame half the UK's population though, would it? Anyway, as far as I am concerned, they could give Marmite away and I still wouldn’t go within a 2 quid bus-ride of it.
    Anyway, in an effort to escape early evening TV, last week we took our new 'camping-car' - which is what the French call it, the word 'van' being far too vulgar - down to the South West coast. Arriving on a sunny Friday afternoon right next to our favourite beach near Biarritz, we had a couple of chardonnay's under clear blue skies and enjoyed the setting sun from the terrace of a very nice fish restaurant (on a plate), followed by a run on the sand with the dogs. This time of year, apart from a few die-hard surfers, this beach is normally deserted, as we lay our heads for the night. Next morning I was quite surprised to open the curtains to more blue sky and sea, only to find a hairy biker looking back at me. Within minutes he was joined by another and more, until, within half an hour, upwards of 200 bikes arrived on the shore car-park ranging from everything from a Honda SS 50 (remember those?) through Ducati F1 bikes to 10 decades of Harley Davidson. I have to admit, once I got over the shock and covered my manhood, I found the spectacle most interesting and was soon taking photos. It transpired that they were just a bunch of local bike enthusiasts off for a 200kms jaunt around the Pyrenees before returning for a late-night beach party. By the looks of the age of some of them, a comfy seat by the fire might have also been welcome. We didn’t stay for the festivity, instead heading to Bayonne, a town we had never visited and one we were suitably impressed by, with its 5 story riverside Basque houses and wide variety of local food. Our trip here was to take in a rugby match against those wiry old Midlanders, Gloucester. It was quite amusing sitting in the local market watching portly men in cherry and white shirts wandering around like proverbial fish out of water and shaking their heads at Les Escargot. The game was a bit lack-lustre but Glos did manage a narrow win and a few celebratory pints of Heineken were had.  

   Our plan had been to continue on to Bordeaux for another match the next day but unfortunately I succumbed to a dose of the flu, something I had contracted in Scotland which I believed I had shaken off the week before. Oh well, a sign of winter setting in, I suppose. Wrap up warm, folks. 

Monday 10 October 2016

Corduroy campers

I am writing this one handed while the other waves goodbye to Poole Harbour, my digits having developed a habit all of their own. As we leave UK shores once more for France, thankfully the channel is calm today – I’m not great on ferries – especially compared to the couple of nights we spent rocking in a gale on the North Devon coast. We had an interesting few days in Britain, mainly because we have just joined that exclusive club of ‘campervan owners’ and now have hundreds of new friends. I say friends, in the same way that I have a thousand ‘friends’ on social media, as the driver of each and every one feels compelled to wave to each other as though we are all mates. To start with I was rather concerned and initially wondered if we had a flat tyre or some other significant problem they were alerting me too.  But no, it is just another one of those bizarre customs that people have adopted for no apparent reason. Naturally I felt obliged to wave back, in the same way that if someone puts out a hand to shake, you take it, irrespective of whether you know or like that person. And so it is that I have developed something between a nervous twitch and a mild case of St Vitus Dance whenever I so much as spot a motorised caravan from the corner of my eye! In an attempt to adopt some individual style, I have tested out a few different ‘waves’ in front of the mirror, perfecting my art. Evolving through an entire spectrum, from a smart military gesture to just some casual finger wiggling, eventually, as our vehicle is of German origin, I have settled on a sort of Bellamy salute which often incurs me bashing my fingers on the windscreen in the process. It does spark some strange reactions though, for some reason.
Anyway, prior to collecting the nearly-new vehicle I had to insure it, by means of a phone call for which I was on hold for 20 minutes. It still beggars belief that companies cannot employ enough staff to handle sales calls more efficiently, instead of p+ssing customers off with popular 70s classics played on a Hammond organ, interspersed with a cynical recorded voice telling me that they are experienced an unusually high number of calls today.  This statement in itself rings alarm bells with me. Why the extra number of calls on this particular day, I hear myself asking? Why on the day when I am calling instead of yesterday, or tomorrow? That gets my bored mind around to debating that maybe they don’t get many calls at all on other days, and thus only have one sales operative, and that perhaps their services aren’t very good. Eventually Danny answers the phone, all upbeat and chatty while I call him and his company rude names in my frustrated ferocity. Oh how he must love his job.  Yet there is worse to come. I am then bombarded with a set list of questions about my driving habits, vehicle storage, dress sense etc which all goes swimmingly well until I am asked my occupation. In the past I have often admitted to being a nun - as in occupation? None!? But this time, with a new novel of mine about to hit the shelves in Waterstones, I came clean and said I was an author. This usually evokes a comment of ‘oh, anything I would have heard of?’ To which my answer is yes, if you are an enthusiast of certain breeds of cow, or one of the twenty folks who read the Rock and District News. However, this time the reaction was totally different as Danny went so quiet that I had to check my phone reception hadn’t gone off. Did I say something wrong? Did I accidentally say I was a mass-murderer or, worse still, Jeremy Corbyn? ‘I am sorry Mr Frazier, but we cannot insure authors to drive campervans,’ says my man. WTF?  ‘Authors are on a list of exceptions with regards to occupation.’ And why would that be, Danny? Is there evidence to suggest that we purveyors of words drive around blindfolded? Danny had no answer to this, in fact he had no idea, but it was the rules. I would have hung up, were it not for the pain I had already undergone getting thus far. Oh dear. OK, let’s try another one then, ask me the question again. This time I settle on ‘property developer’, a nice sensible profession and one of my varied pastimes. ‘Sorry sir, you have already told me you are an author, and you can’t untell me something you already told me.’ Just as well I hadn’t told him I was Jeremy Corbyn then, or else I would be him forever and then where would I be with all that corduroy! Eventually we reached an agreement that I could be insured but would indignantly have to pay a 90 quid premium due to my being writer. Have you ever heard such a load of codswalloping hogswash? Remind me to ask the editor for a raise.
Right, this P&O floating toilet is coming into port, so it’s goodbye rainy Britain and hello sunny Brittany for a few more days before we wend our way back home to collect the dogs from their 5 star boarding hotel. In fact, this time, it’s not only the dogs in kennels but the kittens as well, at a combined cost of 50 euros per night. Would be cheaper to put them up at an Ibis! Oh well, at least they can travel with us on our next trip in our 4 bedder. Ideal really, one each for the animals while we sleep in the awning.  I wonder if the French camping-car drivers will wave to me as well. Je ne pense pas!

Olympic kittens

I am happy to announce that, since we lost our ginger yearling cat on the road last month, we now have two new young tykes in the house, both of whom seem to think it fun to help me write this piece.  I suppose, in the life of a kitten, pretty much everything is fun really. As well as constantly attacking Louis’ wagging tail and chasing butterflies, getting stuck up trees and on the roof are all in a day’s work when you are that age and size. Hopefully they will soon discover rodents and earn their keep.
Over the last month we have had a number of guests staying as the usual summer shenanigans ensued. One nameless visitor might not be rushing back anytime soon after I picked up the mozzie repellent one evening and, in a friendly gesture, liberally sprayed her bare arms and legs only to later realise it was actually a tin of WD40! Oh well, I am sure she managed to slide into bed effortlessly that night!
As the summer temperatures soared (don’t you love the way weather presenters express themselves with words like soaring and plummeting. I guess they must learn excessive weather-speak in their degrees in degrees!) Anyway, during this scorching time of year, my winter fuel arrives, all ten tons of it dumped on the driveway in an awkward pile. There is an old saying that goes ‘firewood warms you twice’. Well I certainly hope I will feel as warm a glow from the log burner during the colder February nights as I did hauling it into an orderly stack by the back door in 35 centigrade. I did nick a few barrow loads to fire the pizza oven last week though, when a dozen or more random Irish strangers turned up for tea. Never being one to turn away friends of friends, it actually turned into a great night as 5 or 6 of them brought musical instruments and we all joined in some quite commendable renditions of everything from Irish folk songs to a few of my old classic Welsh rugby songs. Duw it was hard!
Anyway, the majority of the last four weeks have been taken up by listening to, watching, talking about and shouting at the Olympic Games. Like everyone else in UK I was overawed by the British efforts and their haul of neck ware. One thing that does tickle me in a global assembly of natives such as this is the way so many people are blessed with place-names as surnames. In one race, Mark English (from Ireland), David Rhodesia (from Kenya) , and Kirsty Coventry (Refugee team) all completed. OK, I jest, the latter isn’t in the refugee team although, if I lived in Coventry, I would certainly consider becoming one! And then the local town of Kidderminster made it onto the world map by producing a champion archer which, let’s face it, would come in quite handy from a self defence point of view at midnight on Comberton Hill. Rumour that contestants in ‘window breaking’, ‘drunken brawling’ and ‘dole queuing’ are being entered from the town in the next Olympics are totally unfounded!
Right, moving swiftly on with my head down, we are indecisive about to do with our winter this year. Obviously, after my previous comments, the British Midlands aren’t a safe destination, and we seem to have our holiday home in Scotland booked out for much of the time. So a recent suggestion has been to get mobile and head south. I have had a few experiences in a campervan in the past, once with a group of 6 sweaty rugby enthusiasts touring New Zealand – an odour I will ne’er forget - and again with Wendy making a trip to a rugby game. The idea of seeing the Mediterranean out of tourist season quite attracts me, with the freedom to pitch up for a day or two wherever seems idyllic, maybe cycling a few miles along the leafy canals or gathering driftwood with the dogs and cozying around a bbq on the beach in the evening sea breeze.  However, on the understanding that the success of our perpetual harmony is enhanced by us habiting in an expansive farmhouse here, with 3 or 4 terraces for us both to get some me-time, I am not totally so sure we can spend a few months couped up together, along with the dogs, (and possibly 2 kittens) within a few musty cubic metres.  Not only that, but we both have jobs to keep and work to do which relies heavily on a decent internet connection.  But the dilemma goes even deeper than that, in the fact that while on the move we may not be able to pick up a British TV signal for a couple of months, and thus my wife missing an entire season of Strictly Come Prancing!

What’s that? Ah yes, a nice little 4 berth Hymer will do nicely, thank you! See you in St Tropez for Xmas!