Thursday, 30 December 2010

Overview: Christmas Come Down (Part 1)



Over for another year, I can truthfully say that Christmas 2010 will certainly be one to remember. After a year full of Global debt crises, political upheaval and the passing of Leslie Nielsen, here is my retrospective on a fantastic festive period.

To be honest, the run up to Christmas 2010 was quite disappointing, everyone seemed to be filled with the doom and gloom of yet another fun-packed (or stress-filled) yuletide period in the grips of a recession. Where it seemed that in 2009 it was vitally important to be jolly and bright, this time around one got the impression that most people would rather not have bother. One friend even expressed a desire that they wished to work in the days proceeding Christmas Day rather than that public or office enforced holidays. Such attitudes are tantamount to treason in my view and made me even more determined that I was going to enjoy myself excessively!

I started my Christmas shopping early with a few carefully chosen Amazon presents here and a some thoughtfully purchase trinkets up in the centre of London – all of which was painless. Of course I became more and more determined as I saw the half arsed efforts shops and streets had made to get into the spirit of the season, even telling one shop to whack up the volume on their stereo so I could enjoy the fifteenth playing of ‘Driving Home for Christmas’!

So with presents bought, I made sure that I saw as many friends as possible before they became caught up by their families for that few days a year when we are all subjected to our relations after an excessive onslaught of food and alcohol. Nevertheless I was very much looking forward to it and it was with school boy-ish enthusiasm that I leapt out of bed on Christmas Eve morning in order to get down to the countryside as soon as possible.

We (my mother and myself) always spend Christmas down at my Aunt and Uncle’s who live in a pretty little village on the North Downs, and as we left London the snow on the ground, which was rather patchy in the Capital began to thicken until all around was carpeted in the white stuff. To my mind this was the first white Christmas I had ever had in my short lifetime and I was steeled even more in my quest to have a bloody good time. The car was groaning under a collection of booze, cheese, presents and the like which we happy to provide for ourselves and our relations who I’m sure were not anticipating our arrival with as much relish and gusto with which I was imagining!

Sure enough as we arrived on Christmas Eve afternoon my Aunt announced that half the guests were poorly which, to a lesser man, might have dampened the squib a little…but not me. Instead I through myself into the occasion with gusto, I have always regarded myself as something of an entertainer within the family unit and, first drink in hand (which was a nice cold 16:00 lager in this case – after a separate, boozy lunch) I started to make that witty small talk which I am famous for. Usually deaf ears seemed to warm to my banter (except for my Grandmother whose hearing aid may have need some new batteries) and soon I was feeling confident that I was starting to lift the spirits of all and sundry like a modern day ghost of Christmas present.

The hours and a few more beverages went by as the fire crackled away and the wind whipped through the skeletal frames of the oak trees outside and soon all were laughing merrily, but more I think at my comic fall on the floor mid Al-Pacino-in-Scent-of-a-Woman that provided the mirth and not my scintillating conversation.

The pop of a Champagne cork or two certainly heralded the start of something promising and Christmas Eve supper was a delightful warm up for the goodies that were waiting in store for all of us on the next day. I washed down a delicious array of cold ham (thickly sliced of course), smooth and creamy mash and some tasty Leek Sauce with an equally delicious Chateauneuf – du – Pape. The conversation sparkled (apart from poor granny whose hearing aid was still posing something of an amusing problem!) and many a fine joke was shared, more often than not at someone else’s expense!

After such a feast my uncle (who is a vicar) had to depart to conduct midnight mass (a hard task considering he dozed off and woke up with minutes to spare, I can only imagine how much he enjoyed tearing down those icy, winding roads to deliver the message of peace and goodwill to all men!) whilst I and a collection of cousins settled down to watch one of my favourite Christmas films, Die Hard and oh how we laughed, cried and marvelled at the strong yuletide message which that film really does convey.

Wending my way up to bed with a G & T and a lemon peel tisane I was filled with a great sense of anticipation for the next day and to say that I slept a wink before the night was through would be a lie! However Christmas Day comes but once a year and as such dear reader, you will have to wait but a few hours before the next instalment of this merry melody…

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas on the Box: five of the best films to maintain yuletide merriment

 There always seems to be a lull in televisual viewing in the months leading up to Christmas, as broadcasters save up their pennies to provide a deluge of quality entertainment for the ever hungry viewing public. Of course there are the usual adaptations, dramas and festive panel programmes all carving out a new angle on an old classic. For me these are all a bit throwaway and are no way in the same league as the fantastic cinemas that seems to revisit terrestrial television for a few fleeting moments each year.

Here is my pick of the best of Christmas cinema and five films that will keep everyone happy as they stare sleepily at the gogglebox after the excessive meal and booze of the celebratory lunch:


  1. Zulu, The Italian Job, Get Carter, Alfie : one might think it is strange to lump four films into one entry but one cannot turn on the television at Christmas without seeing the youthful face of everyone’s favourite cock-er-ney cheeky chappy, Michael Caine. After a while all the above films blend into one retrospective catalogue of Mr. Caine’s life but this make this annual celebration of one of the countries best loved actors all the more enjoyable. Laugh as he tell the lads that they were only meant to ‘bla the blaady doors off’, sit in suspense as he orders the troops to wait until they ‘see the whites of their eyes’ and smile wryly as he blasts away another hoodlum whilst reminding them that ‘she was only fifteen years old’.

  1. Die Hard : To many this might seems a strange choice, however, anyone who has seen this genre defining slice of gun blazing mayhem cannot but be charmed by the jolly Christmas message that underlies the violence, destruction and witty interplay between Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and his band of heavies as they take a whole building hostage during a corporation’s Chrismas party. Chuckle to yourself or with your friends as Hans (Rickman) opens the door of an elevator to find one of his henchmen shot to pieces but sporting a fetching Christmas hat, some festive bulbs and a message reading ‘I have a machine gun ho ho ho’. This is also a great film for bewildering older relations who will easily loose the thread of the plot as the loud crashing and banging plays havoc with their hearing aids!

  1. My Fair Lady : Everyone loves a musical at Christmas time and what better way to celebrate than with Loewe and Lerner’s 3½ Hour classic! Memorable tunes are interspersed with one of the worst cockney accents I have ever heard (courtesy of the ravishing Audrey Hepburn) and some of the most Chauvinistic dialogue ever to be spoken on the silver screen. Rex Harrison is in his element as the arrogant batchelor, Professor Henry Higgins, who’s task it is to take Hepburn’s spicy street urchin and pass her off as a Duchess at a royal ball. Sing along with such tunes as ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man’, ‘The Street Where You Live’, ‘The Rain in Spain’ and ‘All I want is a Room Somewhere as you marvel at Cecil Beaton’s marvellous costume and set design. This is one for the whole family and a real must for Christmas day morning.

  1. Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York : This is one that always brings a tear to my eye, for those final scenes when Catherine O Hara and Macauley Culkin are reunited in what has come to be regarded as a real Christmas classic. The late John Hughes outdoes himself with a script that balances both the sentiment of the season, some hilarious lines and a number of brilliant pitfalls and pratfalls. Joe Pesci is brilliant as the sinister but stupid villain and John Candy has a fantastic Cameo as a travelling polka player! This is one of those great film that everyone will enjoy and will have all and sundry rolling on the floor with laughter.

  1. The Great Escape : Last but by no means least come The Great Escape, usually on at some stage during Christmas Eve, this epic story of a daring break from a WW2 German prison camp will fire up everyone with patriotic fervour whilst providing some fantastic Christmas viewing. Packed with a stellar cast including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Garner and Donald Pleasance this is one great wartime pantomime encouraging the viewer to cheer the heroes and boo the villains. However it is that fantastic, iconic shot of McQueen jumping the checkpoint barriers on a motorcycle, which makes this film such a treat. It’s a long one so make sure you have the port decanter and pile of mince pies on hand to while away a leisurely afternoons viewing!

That’s your lot until Boxing day but please feel free to post some comments and perhaps some other classic viewing suggestions for the Yuletide Season. I hope that you all have a fantastic Christmas and I want to that everyone for all the support they have so far given this blog. See you Boxing Day… H

Monday, 20 December 2010

Memorable Tipple: Plum Eau-de-Vie

When thinking about what might be the most appropriate tipple for Christmas, I am always reminded of a holiday I took in Exmoor in a tent with three friends of mine where the booze flowed freely even if much of it lacked the label of quality control. I think I went a bit mad in the supermarket in the preamble that we made to the Raynes Park Tescos, buying all manner of filthy liquor including such delights as Spanish Brandy, Clan Macgegor blended scotch, limoncello and some filthy Gew├╝rztraminer...

I had also picked up a very dusty bottle of crystal clear spirit from the wine rack at home without really checking it out. My theory had been that it wasn’t being consumed, therefore would not be missed. I think when I asked, my mother waved it out of the door with relief. One look at the bottle should have give me an indication that this stuff could cause serious tunnel vision. However I was feeling impulsive and rash, as one does on holiday and packed it in with our provisions. 
One the first night, over a game of Scrabble (in which I was attempting to get away with some very dubious word combinations) I decided that the party needed a pep and produced this potent little bottle from the back of the car. When I turned with the bottle I saw some concerned looks. In my time I had subjected these particular friends to a couple of dubious spirits and they were perhaps a little apprehensive of this one! 

With a bit of persuading - rather feeble at that - I compelled them to take a sup. ‘Fuck!’ was the first response I was greeted with, followed by ‘It’s burning the back of my throat, is this the bottle you keep the white spirit in?’. I must admit, it is a bit harsh, but the beauty is in after-taste where the drinker is hit with a delicious, fragrant and slightly resionous scent of plums. I would warn drinkers that a little goes a long way as I found out the next morning when my head felt like someone had coshed it with a sledgehammer. I received little sympathy from my friends who had not quite held the same appreciation that I did for the plum eau de vie.

Ever since this drink seems to have become infamous and on boozy suppers is the topic of much mirth when recalled in the Henry Rubinstein hall of drinking excellence. It is far too overpriced in this country but if you happen to go to the Alsace where it is made for next to nothing, I recommend purchasing a bottle (around £10-15)


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Travel - Beer, Banter and Brussels! (Day 2)

...Waking up the next morning I felt like someone had coshed me around the head with a hammer made of very strong alcohol, in fact, it wouldn't surprise me if I was still drunk! But now was not the time to flake and so with highlights of the student riots in London blaring away on the television I went through my morning routine and settled down in the hotel bar with a coffee to await the ceremonious arrival of my mate and another day of pointless excess.

I think it is a quality unique to the English that when we are abroad, we feel almost invincible and accept everything another country has to offer as a challenge that needs to be surmounted. It was into this dangerous trap that I fell, and it mainly revolved around the vast amounts of food and drink that this city had to offer. Each corner we turned there seemed to be another Christmas market with stalls selling wurst, saucisson, sweetmeats, flavoured breads, mulled wine, beer and of course, belgian waffles! I was once again like a child in a sweet shop! dazzled by the huge range of eatable on offer and, like a bull in a china shop, threw myself into the fray with the abandon of a man who hasn't eaten for many days.

Of course all of this was coupled with copious amounts of alcohol. We started very soberly at a nice cafe where we had a lunch of soft cheese, black bread, cervelas sausage and white radish washed down with light blonde beer flavoured with Elderberry. As if I hadn't eaten enough, I demanded that we went to try the famous Belgian french fries and lo and behold it wasn't long before we were spoilt for choice! The smell of fried food is intoxicating at the best of times and I was drawn to a popular establishment next to the grand Brussels Stock Exchange. For a couple of Euros I was presented with a massive cone full of hand-cut fries topped with the ubiquitous Sauce Andalous (a mayonnaise flavoured with pimentos, paprika and a mild hint of curry). The chips were scalding hot and quite literally the best I have ever had!      however the large quantities of salt and starch again made me very thirsty, so once again impulse got the better of common sense and, ignoring my companions requests for a bottle of water, I marched merrily into another bar where we sank a healthy litre of another local brew!

Then began another lengthy crawl of the Brussels bar scene, starting in the Christmas market outside the stock exchange where we drank some delicious Spanish Cava (for a change) and snacked on bitsize saucisson and chorizo. Deciding to go back to the hotel we once again became sidetracked by a trendy establishment full of gorgeous ladies and smooth gentlemen on a very pretty little square. I thought I looked very cool in my Top Gun bomber jacket... but I'm sure I was the only one! deciding we needed a pre-dinner change from the beer, Campari and Sodas followed by Caipirinhas and finished off with a Bloody Mary and plenty of cigars and cigarettes resuscitated what should have been a spent appetite and we made our way to one of the finest meals I have had in a long time at Les Brassins.

Les Brassins is situated on a small backstreet just of the centre of town and was recommended to me by a good friend and former colleague of mine from my days at CCHQ. It was with one clear instruction I was sent: 'Make sure that you order the Steak on 'one side''. Usually I would not order a steak in a restaurant which had things like sweetbreads, eels, big stews and choucroute on the menu but such a good case was made for this dish that my curiosity was piqued and I realised I would have to try it.

After a few more beers at the bar we were shown to our table whence the menu and another round was brought to us as we perused through the menu. I have always had a thing for taller women being only 5'5" and our waitress was about 6'1" with one of the best pair of legs that I have ever seen! I started with a delicious dish of prawns cooked in a garlic and parsley butter with fluffy and surprisingly light black bread with which to mop up the juices. This in turn was followed by the main event, the Steak sur le face. Huge plates with the thickest piece of steak I have ever seen were brought to the table covered in a crust of mustard, onions and parsley coupled with a huge bucket of fries. I would never usually say that a steak could make one of the most interesting meals that I have ever eaten but the cooking method used was so original. Cooked on one side the top was a deliciously crisp crust giving way to a raw underside! It was bloody delicious and I think a dish that any good chap would be happy to pay for! I followed this with a superb tart tatin, coffee and a cognac!

A great end to a great meal - I am sure you will agree - and, after many more drinks another fantastic day  in Brussels!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Travel - Beer, Banter and Brussels! (Day 1)

I'm back dear blog watchers after a cheeky sojourn on the continent to what I now regard as one of Europe's best kept secrets! I apologise for the absence of any posts in just under a week as I know that a few of my readers were concerned that I had neglected my duties!

When I told a friend of mine that I was going out of the country for the first time in 2 years, I am sure they expected me to say something like Bora Bora, Barbados or Bondi Beach - somewhere exotic to contrast the chilly winter that we are currently experiencing. When I duly informed him that I was going to Brussels, I was met with a guffaw, which I now realise was grossly unfair as it turns out that the Belgic capital is an extremely vibrant and lively place!

I left London on a bleak Thursday afternoon after being thoroughly disappointed by the metallic pint of Bass that I had at the equally disappointing departure lounge at St Pancras. Never a believer in doing anything by halves and in anticipation of some heavy evenings ahead, I lined my stomach with a few carefully placed Gin and Tonics as the Train negotiated the tunnel, traversed the Norman flats and finally eased its way through the low countries. By the time I got to Brussels my appetite for adventure had returned after a long hibernation.

I was met off the train by a mate of mine and decamped to the hotel. A few drinks had rallied my spirits and as soon as I had dumped my bag on the bed I was raring to hit the town and sample the two things that Brussels is famed for... food and drink.

Brussels is by no means a beautiful city but it certainly has a real continental feel to it, and nowhere was this more true than on the central square, lit up with all the tackiness of a Northern European Christmas. There were flashing christmas trees, garish light shows and a life size nativity with real animals. All this was watched with carefree leisure from the convenient oyster tent that occupied one corner of this piazza. The champagne and oysters slipped down smoothly and although we were a good distance from the sea, Belgium is not a big country and the molluscs were as fresh as if they had just been picked from the channel with a wonderful salty taste of the sea released as they were chewed.

Following on from this little appetiser we made our way to one of the recommendations that we had been given by the brother of one of my good friends. Cafe Delirium (Impasse de la Fidelite 4A - 1000 Bruxelles), is one of the great landmarks in this city chiefly because of its vast range of Belgium's finest export, Beer! This cavernous, smoke filled beer hall is one of the best drinking establishments that I have ever been to with rows upon rows of draught taps and a bar staff by no less than 12 people, there is a fantastic atmosphere filled with the buzz of laughing people and eighties soul music (I must have heard George Benson's 'Give me the Night' about 1,000 times on this trip)! The beers however are the stars of the show and, although I cannot tell you what I consumed as we took the bartenders' suggestions throughout our time there but I can tell you that each one was a flavour experience, really putting the range of weak, piss poor blonde beers and lagers on offer in the Pubs of the UK to great shame! We emerged after four or five glasses smelling like a British Rail smoking compartment and with a hunger for some traditional Belgian fare.

After a short length of time in which a few more beers were consumed, and a number of rather touristy looking restaurants were passed, we alighted on the expensive looking but inconspicuous 'Taverne du Passage', an 82 year old Art Deco styled restaurant in the handsome King's Arcade area. On being informed that we would have to wait for an hour before a table became free we did what any British tourists would do in a foreign capital, and headed back to the bar!

It was well worth the wait, the food at Taverne du Passage was sensational! As I was only there for a couple of days I went the whole hog and dined heartily on a Mousse of Ardennes Ham, Eel in a Green Sauce (A Belgian speciality where eel is served with a thickened parsley and lemon sauce) with crisp belgian French fries and one of the most potent Baba au Rhum (A light cake soaked in a rum sauce and served with whipped cream and fruit)! All that food should have made me about ready to burst...but no, being the fool that I have been so often called by others, I headed out into the night for more drinking.

Ambitiously we decided to try all the bars recommended to us that evening, and one beer followed another until we ended up in a traditional but very convivial beer hall called 'Le Porte Noir', it was in this hot-box of a drinking den that we took the executive decision to go back to the hotel. My watch read 04:00 it had been a great evening but it was now time to hit the hay and make sure that I woke up with a splitting hangover and a mistaken feeling that a morning hair of the dog would make it all feel better...

That's all for now but stay tuned tomorrow for the second day of my crazy low-country shenanigans!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

To Catch a Cold - A Trip into Yuletide Tackiness

As a Londoner I cannot really get into the Christmas spirit until I have made a visit to a place where dreams are supposedly meant to come true, and no, I don't mean 'Toys R Us'! I am talking about a magical place where fake plastic snowmen, carved wooden trinkets, dangerously rickety rollercoasters and German cuisine light up the chill winter nights on one corner of Hyde Park. Of course I am talking of Winter Wonderland!

The phenomenal success of this market/fair is quite recent, although I can by no means call myself an old codger, when I was young the only option available was to go and visit santa's grotto - which smelt suspiciously like Napoleon brandy - to visit a man who looks like the broken Winthrop from the 1983 yuletide hit Trading Places! But no more, now we are spoilt for choice, why visit Santa's Grotto when you could visit an overpriced and neon drenched carnival?

As soon as you enter through the gateway after having negotiated the dangerous tangles of inner city motorways that constitutes Hyde Park corner, you are greeted with one of the most bizarre and sinister sites in the whole park...

The animatronic Reindeer 'Hans' is one of the creepiest things I have ever come across, not only does it give Germanic renditions of popular hits such as Driving Home for Christmas and Little Drummer Boy, it also starts flirting with all and sundry walking past! giving a little mechanical wink here and a saucy one liner there, it makes you wonder about the creators. Never mind the chill, I get a little chill up the back of my spin whenever he starts following 'ze pretty ladies' with his dull, lifeless eyes.

Turning round you suddenly see the crowning glory of the place, a huge ferris wheel flashing in the dusk with a snowflake motif, and then there's an ice rink surrounded by plastic penguins, helter skelters, shooting gallerys and all the other things that you expect from a funfair - except the carnies (there's not one in sight - if indeed they still exist!).

The sound of tourists - a lot of them German and Eastern European (which is ironic considering you would think they would be sick to death of wursts, kartofellchips and apfelsauce) - and children fills the air and consequently provides ample irritation for anyone who is trying to mind their own business. The other obvious sound, mostly made by Brits, is a scoff that always happens when something has been grossly overpriced. Men taking their partners or families for the evening can be heard everywhere incredulously asking if the watered down lager is 'really £4 a pint', of course they will pay begrudgingly and then turn to their wife and mutter how outrageous the pricing is!

However, they must be sowing something right as people keep coming back for more. I have to say that I visited last night and had a very good time, a few beers, mulled ciders, currywurst, Krakauer (smoked sausage) in a bun. It was bloody cold and I froze my bollocks but unlike so many other Christmas venues, this one has a great sense of humour and really doesn't take itself too seriously! If you want a fun evening out with friends at this time of year then I would strongly recommend this homage to all that is crass about Christmas - just make sure you wrap up very warm!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Pseudo-Intellectual: Simply having a wonderful Sunday afternoon!

I feel that I must apologise for the lax effort that I have spent on the blog over the last couple of days but, as I am sure everybody knows, every blogger  needs his weekend and some time to gather more info!

As I write I am simultaneously washing up, listening to a fantastic collection of Christmas hits and sipping from a lovely glass of twenty year old tawny port! What better way could their be to celebrate a fine winter's day other than with a novelty jumper?

I have just finished a fantastic and rare solo Sunday lunch of slow roasted rolled breast of lamb, leeks in a parmesan mornay, sauteed potato cakes and homemade gravy, and feel - as I'm sure you can imagine - suitably sated! Whilst eating and having that seldom moment to reflect on the week and the weekend, I came to thinking about the magic of a Sunday afternoon and realised that it is a time to be relished rather than spent thinking of the gloomy Monday ahead!

Although I now work for myself, I remember only too well that feeling of dread as the clock tick slowly through four, five, six and before you knew it eleven was upon you and the day was over! Well, in the run up to Christmas, I feel that we should be banishing these pre-work demons to the back of the mind and enjoy as much free time as we can at the most festive, fun and certainly drunken time of the year!

At this time of year, you realise very quickly that you are getting older! I used to scoff at my father for falling asleep in front of a Western with his glass of wine still clutched firmly in his hand around four in the afternoon. Worryingly I find myself doing the same kind of thing but in my case dozing off to the clatter and bang of a rousing war epic such as The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare or The Wild Geese (all great christmas films and one that I will cover in the 'Best of Christmas Cinema for a Bloody Good Chap' next week).

For the more active of you I suggest something like a bracing walk in the park, across the common, heath or open countryside wherever you are! The bracing chill works up both a great appetite and a general thirst and there is nothing better than returning to the pub after an hour's exertion and knocking back a few pints of ale with the obligatory Scotch or sloe gin chasers before a hearty roast dinner or a few slices of gammon and a fluffy jacket potato!

The luxuriant on their part might like to sink into a nice warm bath a la Sherlock Holmes with a book and a pot of strong coffee and a nip of brandy whilst they ponder on the intricacy of the Christmas season, the choice is entirely up to you!

Whatever you end up doing on Sunday - and I can assure you that a spell at the sink with some dirty dishes will usually feature somewhere - make sure that you are having a good time and not worrying about the next day, life's just too short... Have a good one. H

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Music - Suggestions for a festive compilation from the Rubinstein vaults!

Well, the countdown to Christmas has finally descended upon us and I have refrained until now from writing any festive posts but now that the first windows of our advent calendars have been opened and the Toys R Us advert has one again become an ITV staple, I feel that it is an appropriate time to get in the Christmas cheer.

I adore Christmas in the UK, I think it is a festival that more that anything else both unites people and also gives them another opportunity to see every film Michael Caine made during the 1960s (as well as Its a Wonderful Life, Dr Zhivago and High Society to name a few)! Of course there are the stockings, the presents, the turkey, the booze and the family - something I look forward to but that other look to with dread! But whatever your views on this annual day of mistletoe and wine we all seem to have an opinion on the upcoming Christmas Number 1.

Nowhere else in the world do they seem to care so much as who occupies the top spot as we seem to. So much is this so that last year there was a successful campaign to keep the now traditional X Factor winner's track off the top spot! There is talk that the same thing might happen this year, replacing the winning contestant's dross with four and a half minutes of silence or a canticle by the current Pope! All I say is what a wasted opportunity. As i sit here writing this blog I am listening to a compilation of Christmas No. 1's from the past 40 years and despairing that current pop acts seem to have lost the yuletide spirit - even East 17's Stay Now has a charming melody full of tubular bells, plucking violins and a video which saw the lads bedecked in woolies as CGI snow cascaded down the screen. It is obvious that such gimmickry does not appeal so much to Simon, Louis et al who mastermind the current singles which top the charts at this time of year.

Without a shadow of a doubt the great Christmas hits originally came from the 1970s and the novelty of Glam Rock: Wizzard's I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday, Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody and Mud's It'll be lonely this Christmas were all instant classics on their release and would earn their keep as they became festive staples for many a DJ and department store over the years. Of course from hear the floodgates were open and a slew of jingly, novelty records would be released over the next thirty years... some good and some bad...I certainly couldn't recommend The Spice Girl's take on the Waitresses' 1981 Christmas Wrapping, Bruce Springsteen's ill considered take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town or Tom Waits' highly Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis!

However there are some absolute chesnuts in the fire of pop history and once a year I am compelled by a feeling of good will to dust off my Christmas compilations and give them a good playing. So for the interest of you, dear reader, I will now dispense with a few of my favourite in no particular order:


1. Wonderful Christmastime - Wings - A wonderfully jolly song from 1979, with space age synthesizer, jingling bells and a video in which a be-scarfed and be-hatted McCartney bobs aroung a country pub with a guitar. There are also some cringingly bad CGI effects and an exploding present but I'll let you discover that for yourself!

2. Driving Home for Christmas - Chris Rea - The gravel voiced crooner returned to popularity by Alan Partridge is on fine form singing about a man 'top to toe' in 1988 tailback trying to get home to his family for Christmas, spending too much time singing and not really concentrating on the road! This song is like a cup of hot Ribena, sickly sweet but you always go back for more.

3. Merry Christmas Everyone - Shakin' Stevens - It's hard now to think that once upon a time Shaky was   on of the most successful acts to come out of the UK, and this record dull of wooly jumpers, snowmen, swing dancing even Father Christmas is an instant classic from a time when the whole world was at this pint sized pop star's feet.

4. I believe in Father Christmas - Greg Lake - Possibly the only Progressive Rock Christmas single ever released, Greg Lake, one of the trio ELP more used to playing fifteen minute overtures strips down the pomposity to appeal to Father Christmas to intervene in the Arab/Israeli conflict in 1973. This might be a very jolly number if the subject matter wasn't so bleak with a semi-violent video depicting partisan soldiers fighting in a desert warzone.

5. Last Christmas - Wham - What do you get when you take all the excess of the 1980s, skiing in the Alps, Hairspray and a highly contrived video which must have had people in real confusion? That's right, Wham's 1984 smash, Last Christmas. Growing up I have heard this song above all others played again and again everywhere. I used to really dislike it but, like a Steven Seagal film, it grows on you after a while until you can't really start Christmas without it!

I know I have missed many records out and many will question as to why I haven't put in such classics as Fairy Tale in New YorkBand Aids I, II & III; Rockin' around the Christmas Tree and We all Stand Together - but that is for someone else's blog!

Please feel free to comment or suggest any other songs I might like to add to my Christmas playlist and I wish you a happy start to the festive season!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Bloody Good Chap Hall of Fame: No.1 - Lord Sebastian Flyte

Lush, anarchic and doomed, Sebastian Flyte - possibly Evelyn Waugh’s finest creation is the archetypal portrait of the failed ambition, hedonism and burnt out anti-heroism that characterised the roaring twenties. 

As played by Anthony Andrews in the 1981 Granada production of Brideshead Revisited (possibly one of the finest adaptations of all time), it has inspired a number of students to adopt a particular lifestyle, even going so far as to host parties where all dress as one would in twenties Oxford and quaff champagne! Is there any more enjoyable way to spend an evening. 

Unlike his companion, the earnest Charles, Sebastian is a rioutous and louche individual, prone to both fit of manic pleasure and deep Depression.

Most memorable of all his wild antics was his lunch party, which Charles attend in way of accepting Sebastian’s apology for vomiting on the floor of his ground floor rooms at Wadham college, Oxford. Here, the spread presented, is described in exhaustive detail by the awed Charles:

The party assembled. There were three Etonian freshmen, mild, elegant, detached young  men who had all been to a dance in London the night before, and spoke of it as though it had been the funeral of a near but unloved kinsman. Each as he came into the room made first for the Plovers’ eggs, then noticed Sebastian and then myself with a polite lack of curiosity which seemed to say:’We should not dream of being so offensive as to suggest that you never met us before.’
‘The First of this year,’ they said. Where do you get them?’
'Mummy sends them from Brideshead. They always lay early for her.’ (Waugh, 1945: 33)

What a civilized party that does sound! And whilst I don’t think many of us would be able to offer our guests plovers’ eggs, I think we can substitute quails eggs with celery salt or stuffed with a lightly curried mixture of the yolks and some mayonnaise.

With and impecable cellar, fashion, appreciation of architecture and botanics one might class Sebastian as the archetype for the traditional gentleman. However he is a sad fish, doomed by his upbringing to end up as a mentally damaged invalid in a Tunisian hovel with a wounded German pilot as his implied lover. A far cry from the carefree young Oxford undergraduate who seemingly had the world at his feet! 



With wings on our heels – The rediscovery of 'Chariots of Fire'

Writer and Actor Colin Welland once famously said in an American interview for the 1982 Oscar Ceremony that ‘The British were coming!’ meaning in that year a British film would take the Best Picture award at the most prestigious film awards in the world – and he was not wrong! This touching epic centring on the will and power of the human spirit was a box office smash making the reputations of a number of young British actors and providing a fantastically nostalgic portrait of Britain in the 20’s at a time when people were still in the grips of Brideshead fever!

Taking away the awards and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, this film really is a piece of cinema magic and seems the most appropriate film recommendation to kick of this blog! No chap or chapesse can seriously count themselves amongst these rarefied ranks unless they have taken the time to sit and watch this timeless classic! If you haven’t I suggest that you stop reading this blog, go to HMV, buy a copy, sit and watch it and return to this article when you have had time to appreciate the gentle majesty of two men’s quest for the 1928 Olympic Gold.

From the first moment you hear Vangelis’ uplifting score, the first bars of the piano and the clatter of feet on the beach at St. Andrews, you know you are in for a real treat! Told from the perspective of one of the central characters, Aubrey Montague, the film plays as a wonderful paean to a lost Britain and the amateur spirit. Filled with beautiful shots of the rugged hills  of Scotland, the old colleges of Cambridge (in fact Eton as the production could not obtain permission from Cambridge), London theatreland and of course the then iconic Paris Atheletics Stadium.

The acting is fresh and na├»ve and showcases some of the finest British talent at the start of their careers supported by some of the greats of the English theatre and cinema. Ben Cross, Ian Charleson and Nigel Havers play against John Gielgud, Ian Holm, Edward Fox, Brad Davis and Cheryl Campbell to great effect and there is plenty of chemistry. You really feel the electricity that exists in the rivalry between Abrahams (Cross) and Liddell (Charleson) and find yourself routing for  both when they race either separately or against one another!

However, it is not so much the fine acting and the brilliant sets that make this film but the wonderful script and the heavy scent of patriotism that pervades throughout – this is the only film that makes me cry with joy to be British, it is wonderfully uplifting. It is this quality that seems to be lacking from modern British cinema, nowadays films are made depicting gritty inner city struggles, bleak portraits of unemployment in 1970s and 1980s Northern cities or vapid comedies which almost make you embarrassed to be British. There is something very dirty about rousing patriotism in the 2000s and 2010s and I think this is a real shame, there are plenty of other heroes like Abrahams and Liddell which would make fine films but in the current climate it seems like Chariots of Fire will stand alone as a unique depiction of a lost era.

I am not religious or dogma bound but the film does have a strong but  philosophical dilemma where man must choose between faith and glory. Liddell’s belief in the righteousness of his faith is as relevant today as it was then and his inner strength is a fine example to any chap to be resolute even when face with adversity and incredible peer pressure. Abraham’s story is one of the most iron of wills and a burning desire to win, his is a battle with external forces and his 100 Metre Gold in the Olympics is symbolic of his triumph over a society that had always sought to hold him back.

Chariots of Fire truly is the best of British, a wonderful film capturing the essence of what it is to live and care passionately about this country! Who knows, perhaps they might make something similar to complement the London 2012 Olympics featuring Mark Lewis-Francis and  Dwayne Chambers (as yet untested actors!) with a rousing score or a soaring film about the 1988 4X100 British Team who finally triumphed in Seoul…but I doubt it, films like that just aren’t fashionable any more!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Coffee and Oranges - The Breakfast of Champions

There can be nothing more enjoyable of a lazy weekend morning than giving yourself a leisurely breakfast. Some like the good old fashioned English breakfast, some like the taste of a buttery croissant and a bowl of chocolat chaud and other - more sadistic fellows than I - like to lop the top off a boiled egg and drown toasted soilders in its viscous yolk. For me there is something yet simpler, requiring none of the fuss of the former three! This would be strong black coffee and ripe Navel Oranges.

Migraine sufferer look away in envy for this is possibly the worst of all breakfasts for you as it is said that these two foodstuffs trigger off that form of splitting headache! But for all of us more fortunate chaps and chappesses coffee and oranges are a welcome treat on a cold winters morning.

No one can deny the lovely savour of a freshly brewed pot of strong black coffee (my personal favourite is Lavazza's Rosso label or for those who like it stronger their Crema e Gusto (priced around £2.50-3)). I also prefer the taste of Cafetiere Coffee to that from a Machine but feel free to make your own choice!

When making your coffee make sure that you do not add water when it has just reached boiling point otherwise you will scorch the grounds and add a very bitter note to the backtaste. Some people swear by certain flavour enhancers such as a pinch of salt, powdered mustard or lemon zest - personally I think they are a waste of time, but once again use your discrection. Wait 30 seconds and then pour the water into the pot, lid it and wait for 2-3 minutes to let the flavours infuse. Again their is much debate as to how long you should leave it but it shouldn't matter too much if you leave it is a little less or longer. Depress the plunger and you are ready to serve. If it is to be drunk with oranges then it must be black - sweetened or unsweetened as to your taste.

To get the most out of your oranges look for those with a thiner skin and which feel firm to the touch, prefereably Naval which are my favourite as they are often a little sweeter and more fragrant than their equally common Valencia counterpart. There is nothing quite like that zesty smell you get when you peel and orange and it mingles very nicely with the coffee aromas as you are preparing.

In order to get maximum flavour my recommendation is to peel the whole orange, remove the naval and slice it into discs and resting it for a minute or two so the cut surface can reabsorb the lost juices!

To finish, plate and mug up, run yourself a hot bath and languish leisurely as you indulge in what I like to think is the real Breakfast of Champions!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Recipe - A great use for leftover roast pork

Having just whipped up a improvised stir fry for my supper I thought I might share with you a cracking recipe using something which people often struggle to give a new lease of life.

Everybody likes cold roast meats in a sandwich or for a cold Ploughman's supper after a busy day at work, which can be delicious, but if you feel like something a bit different then I think you might enjoy this recipe.

Take:

Good slug of groundnut oil
2 thick slices of cold roast pork (finely sliced into strips)
1 handful of oyster mushrooms (roughly chopped)
1 handful of finely sliced savoy cabbage
1 handful of frozen petit pois pea
1 glass of dry white wine
1 green chili (roughly chopped)
1 large lump of ginger (Finely Sliced)
2 Cloves Garlic (Crushed)
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp runny honey
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Pinch dried coriander
Handful of roughly chopped fresh coriander
1 handful basmati rice
Seasoning (to taste)

Method

1. Combine chili, ginger, garlic, light soy, dark soy, honey, vinegar and dried coriander and pour over the pork and coat it using clean hands.

2. set a pan of salted water on the hob, bring to the boil and add the rice.

3. Halfway through the rice cooking (it should take about 10-15 minutes if you don't like it too mushy) start heating the oil in a large, heavy frying pan or wok on the smallest gas/electric ring.

4. When the oil becomes hot enough add the pork, the marinade and cook for 1-2 minutes before adding the white wine.

5. Burn off the alcohol (This won't take to long and you can tell by using your nose!) and add the mushrooms and the cabbage. At this point you also want to drain the rice and leave to stand for a few minutes whilst the vegetables cook.

6. Around 2 minutes before you intend to turn off the heat add the rice and the peas, stir in and cook until the peas are just heated through.

7. turn off the heat, leave to sit for a minute, serve sprinkled with chopped coriander and season to taste.

Just William - As Good a place to start as any

....As I wound my way up to London for a lunch meeting I was thrown into something of a quandary. The truth of the matter was that I had no idea of what subject I would lead off with. Tonnes of ideas whizzed through my mind as the train pulled into Waterloo and I was still no wiser after my lunch meeting! It seemed that the blog would end before it had a chance to get going!

Sauntering back through the open spaces of Trafalgar Square I thought I would pop into a nearby branch of Waterstones and see if there was anything on the shelves that might distract me from the logical block that seemed to be inhabiting my mind at that time.

Rifling through the shelves with such  titles as Germania, Penguin Book of Facts, NOMA: The Cookbook I was still having little luck until I alighted on one of our Country's most beloved fictional characters, William Brown.

William Brown is the inimitable rogue growing up in the idyllic countryside town of Marleigh during the 1940s. His childhood is one of rose tinted googles and one which I - and I am sure a great deal of now grown up men - longed for when I was about 9-10 years old. Mountains of old fashioned sweets; adventures involving pirates, cowboys and robin hood; hilarious practical jokes and misunderstanding and a love for showing off and performing are all things which form the bedrock of a healthy, if rather imaginative adulthood!

This is not to say that all of Richmal Crompton's William books were focused on stories, there is even one - essential reading/listening in my view - that encapsulates the Zen of William and is as fine and certainly the most amusing philosophy I have ever heard. It is called Home for the Holidays and it is priced at around £15 on CD, it is well worth buying!

Now I must confess that I - like I am sure a larger number of people who look at this blog - have never read Just William, I have merely listened to it. There is no doubt as to the credibility of this statement as they are read so well and with such verve by the great Martin Jarvis. I don't know about you but I can sit transfixed to one of these recordings for hours and then start all over again, they are remarkably entertaining!

When you are purchasing any Just William items, please make sure you purchase them in their physical disc form rather than as an MP3 download. Although the download from Audible and Itunes is cheaper, the sound quality is greatly inferior and you will wish you had spent that little extra in the shop!

I welcome any comments on this matter, perhaps there are some spoken word items that you think might be of relevance of perhaps you think that there are better narrators than Martin Jarvis... in any case, I would love to know!

Welcome

Dear Readers,

Welcome one and all to my new blog. For those of you who know me well then this will hardly come as a surprise! The title of the blog is taken from the working title of the Cookery book that I am now writing and, as I want my book to sell to a wide demographic then it is unlikely that I will  be able to use this witty but limiting title!

The object of this blog is to serve as an outlet for mine and others creative juices revolving around the premise of the once great amateur spirit that Britain was so renowned for. In an age where dumbing down and political correctness seems to plague the nation this blog will celebrate both the fashionable and the unfashionable alike and hopefully serve as a guide for all in how to be a bloody good chap.

I hope that this will develop into something bigger but in the meantime please let me know what you might like to see posted or ways in which I can improve the blog once it gets started. I look forward to offering some daily pearls of wisdom and as such I hope you enjoy receiving them.

Regards,

Henry