The Great Christmas Pudding Wars
With Christmas day barely a month away, celebrity chefs and supermarket chains here in the UK are already sparring with each other for the consumer’s hard earned UK pound. Now read on…
“A rare Heston Blumenthal Christmas pudding for Waitrose is open for bids on eBay, but it’s not the only supermarket Christmas fare that’s whetting gastronomes’ appetites.
Every year there’s something, isn’t there? A decade ago it was Delia Smith, boldly introducing the nation, Walter Raleigh-like; to the notion of fresh cranberries in a sauce we could make ourselves rather than buy in a jar. Sales of the acidic dark-red fruit promptly trebled, triggering shortages up and down the land.
Five years later, it was Nigella Lawson. She praised goose fat as essential for perfect roast potatoes. A fortnight afterwards, Tesco and Waitrose said sales had doubled, while Sainsbury’s and ASDA reported mere 70% spikes.
Logically, as we slide ever further down the celebrity-endorsed slope, this time around it’s not an ingredient but a product baring Heston Blumenthal’s name. “The must-have pudding for 2011. Sold out in 99.9% of stores. In original sealed box.”. Time left: 9 days.” As G2 went to press, the bidding stood at £77.
Admittedly, this prince among puddings serves 10-12 people. And it is, if we believe its creator, “very special . . . As it cooks, the essential oils from the orange peel infuse the nuts and fruit from the inside out.” But £77, you’ll agree, is a lot to pay for something that retailed at £13.99 (already a pretty penny to pay for a pudding).
“We’ve sold tens of thousands,” says the supermarket, adding that while there were “around 2,000” in stores at the start of the weekend, “they’re being snapped up very quickly. We always thought it would do well; it’s a modern twist on an old favourite, from one of our food ambassadors. But even we have been slightly surprised.”
Delia, Waitrose’s other “food ambassador”, is doing all right too. Her £10 DIY Christmas cake kit “perfect for first-time bakers who don’t want a cupboard full of half-used jars, and enjoy baking but don’t have the time” – is currently flying off the shelf every seven seconds. It can only be days before it shows up on eBay too – maybe for £26, which is what the ingredients would cost individually.)
The moral of all this, of course, is that we really, really care about our Christmas dinner. Also, some of us are gullible enough to swallow anything. If you’re in the former category but not the latter, a tip: the Christmas pudding that won this year’s ‘Which’ magazine’s taste test comes from Lidl. And it costs £2.99.”
Whatever happened to the family tradition of all gathering round, helping your mother stir the mixture, with tiny hands adding the ingredients and the odd few silver coins before your mother put the delicious concoction away to mature. Remember the joy you all felt when she triumphantly brought it out on Christmas day for the family meal to the applause of all seated around the table and when your father lit the alcohol? Remember that wonderful sight of the blue flames licking their way around and down the sides of the pudding? I do.
Happy Christmas to one and all…

Guardian of the Sky RealmsGuardian of the Sky Realms by Gerry Huntman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had the privilege of reading an advanced copy of Gerry Huntman’s YA novel “Guardian of the Sky Realms” earlier this month. Gerry is not only my good friend but also my editor at IFWG Publishing. Despite the fact that fantasy is not normally my preferred reading, with the exception of J.R.R Tolkien’s timeless tales, I loved reading this wonderfully crafted tale. Well done my friend and congratulations. Sky Realms has been a long time coming… 

View all my reviews

Are we happy Mr Prime Minister – no?
With all that has happened here in the UK in the last several weeks I begin to ask myself the question – are we really in a recession, or are we being conned? Are we being dragged back to a time when the average human being in this country was required to doff his cap or touch his forelock whenever an upper class twit entered the room? This is the twenty-first century Mr Prime Minister, not the nineteenth! 
Our government has managed to get its hands on a few billion to help bail out Ireland. While it breaks every election promise it made concerning the elderly and the poor, when they clearly promised to look after those self same people.
And now you Mr Prime Minister want to spend a few million on a nationwide survey asking the populace whether or not we are happy??? 
Prices for practically everything on offer to the consumer are rising steadily and are set to rise even more next year when VAT increases. 
Students are rioting over the massive hike in tuition fees being proposed for next year and who can blame them. If, and when the new crop of students graduate, on average, most will be saddled with a massive debt of approximately £40,000!
Regarding those among the population who are unemployed for various reasons Mr Prime Minister, instead of making their existence even worse than it is at present, why not forcibly encourage the businesses of this land to create worthwhile and financially rewarding jobs before directing the unemployed to seek demeaning below minimum wage labouring jobs, merely to make the government statics on employment look good to the world at large. 
One final thing Mr Prime Minister, please, please don’t emasculate this nation’s vital armed services. What use is a modern navy without a fully functional aircraft carrier complete with its fighter aircraft ready for action at a moment’s notice wherever it may be needed to help defend the realm? Plus, what use in an airforce without its jets and the bases to operate them from or an army without adequate, up to date weapons and body armour? 
Plus, think of the thousands of people and their families whose livelihoods depend on those armed forces bases and the personnel running them, who, if your insanity is allowed to become law, will join the ranks of the unemployed. 
The answer to your question about the nations happiness Mr Prime Minister is quite frankly no, we are not happy when your target the defenceless old and poor, and place our countries defences in a precarious state while kowtowing to the very people who caused all of the financial problems in the first place – the bankers!
Personally I am now firmly of the opinion that the inmates are running the asylum…  

Bullying in our schools and on our streets, an age old problem…
In an article published today (see below) November 22nd, which I have just read online in the Malta Times, the age old problem of children being bullied on the way to and from school out of sight of the teachers, has once more raised its ugly head.
 In an age where corporal punishment in schools has been done away with and people fear retribution if they intercede to protect a child from being bullied in case they are branded at best as an interfering busy body, or worse, to be targeted, often violently, by the parents of the bully in question as a potential paedophile, what can the average ‘caring’ individual do?
Bullying sadly is a sign of the times we live in. Daily I read reports in the newspapers of the elderly and the very young being subjected to muggings and verbal abuse, usually followed by some form of physical attack.
Our police departments are facing massive losses of serving police officers in an effort to cut back the cost of policing in the country. Indeed the government minister in charge of the police here in the UK, made a facile comment declaring that there was no correlation between the number of police currently pounding the beat and the fall in crime across the UK. With out of touch fools in charge, what hope have we of living in a law abiding safe society? 
If the number of policemen and women patrolling our streets is cut, the crime figures will rise. 
I place bullying in the category of crime. 
Most parents these days do not accompany their child to and from school because of financial reasons, namely, both parents need to be bringing home a wage to support their families.
Children, whether travelling by bus, train, or simply walking to and from school need to be and feel safe. But when a lowlife bully is waiting for them to cross his or her path, what chance do they have?
Bullying must end! And people witnessing such attacks on our streets, buses and trains, must intervene, or at the very least report the incident to the police. 
Naming and shaming the bullies, making them social pariahs in their communities needs to be achieved. 
Now read on…
“School run bullying in UK goes unreported – research
Raf Sanchez, PA
Nearly half of all 11 to 16-year-olds see bullying on the way to or from school, according to new research.
Around 43 per cent of those surveyed said they saw bullying on the school run but only half of those reported it, a study by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) found.
The research found that 47 per cent of those who witnessed bullying did not report it, with 50 per cent of 13 to 16-year-olds failing to do so.
Of the young people who did not report bullying incidents, 44 per cent said it was none of their business and 10 per cent said they did not know who to tell.
ABA chairman Ross Hendry said: “This research shows us that a significant number of children and young people in England are suffering from bullying on their school journey.
“Whether they travel by bus, car, public transport of if they walk to school we need to make sure they are protected. It’s of great concern that nearly half of young people who see others being bullied do not report it and that such a large proportion don’t think it’s any of their business to do so.
The report was released as Beatbullying, a separate anti-bullying charity, prepared to launch a “digital demonstration” in support of children’s rights.
More than 750,000 people, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pop star Alesha Dixon and singing group JLS, have created virtual avatars that were to “march” across around 60 partner websites against bullying.
Katherine Rake, chief executive officer of the Family and Parenting Institute, said that greater interaction between parents and teachers could help protect children from bullying, but added that this was less common at secondary schools than primaries.
In 2008, 51 per cent of parents said they felt very involved in their child’s school life, compared to just 29 per cent in 2001.”

Regarding Dwarfs, Elves, Goblins, Trolls and my Little Grey Cells
I previously wrote: 

“For the last several days, I have been occupied with a short story about Dwarfs, Elves, Goblins and Trolls. Unlike most stories which escape from my mind, this one is taking its own precious time extracting itself. 

I recently read Derek Haines’ latest blog post on his blog (Derek’s Vandalism of Words) about losing the plot, forgetting things, short term memory loss etc. Well in that regard, I seem to be having a problem with the plot of this particular story.

While I have successfully negotiated my way through the ‘back story’ leading up to the action, so far I’ve started the nitty gritty of the story no less than twenty times. 

Where is J.R.R. Tolkien when I need him?”

I am now happy to report that the storyline is at long last now unfolding before my eyes. At long last my ‘Little Grey Cells’ are fully functional one more…

The Rise and Fall of Standards in the English Language
The following article demonstrates yet again what can and does happen when ‘dumbing down’ becomes acceptable within our education system here in the UK, and what our current Conservative led coalition government proposes to do about it. It clearly highlights the appalling standard of the English language in this country at present, and this time the focus is on written English.
“Teenagers will lose up to five per cent of marks in GCSE examinations if they fail to display high standards of written English.
The rules, which are likely to apply to all subjects, including mathematics and science, follow claims that thousands of children leave school without being able to compose a sentence, spell difficult words or write a coherent letter or email.
The move, to be outlined in an education White Paper next week, would reverse a Labour decision seven years ago to scrap rewards for good literacy.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said the building blocks of English had been “demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning”. Business leaders such as Sir Stuart Rose, the Marks & Spencer chairman, have complained that too many young people leave school “not fit for work”.
Last night, the change was backed by educationalists who suggested it would give schools a greater incentive to train pupils in the basics of spelling and grammar. The written English requirements will be among a string of radical reforms designed to restore rigour to the examination system in England and promote the study of traditional subjects.
Next week’s White Paper will also propose:
  • A return to traditional A-levels by moving away from bite-sized “modular” courses in some subjects in favour of tests at the end of two years of study.
  • Allowing universities to script A-level exams and syllabuses to ensure sixth-form courses act as a better preparation for a degree.
  • The introduction of an “English Baccalaureate” that rewards pupils for gaining five good GCSEs in English, maths, science, foreign languages and a humanities subject.
  • A ban on schools using vocational courses as “equivalent” qualifications to boost their ranking in GCSE league tables.
  • A review of the National Curriculum to outline the key “bodies of knowledge” that children should master at each stage of their education.
  • A reading test for all six year-olds to identify those struggling the most after a year of school, ensuring they receive extra tuition.
The Coalition reforms are being billed as an attempt to reverse 13 years of “dumbing down” by Labour. Mr Gove has been critical of changes to the exams system which he claimed had widened the gulf between independent and state schools. Many fee-paying schools have shifted pupils towards alternative exams following claims that mainstream tests are too easy.
In a speech, Mr Gove attacked Labour’s decision to abandon requirements for pupils to spell correctly and use proper punctuation and grammar in GCSE exams.
In the past, five per cent of marks in all GCSE exams were ring-fenced for high standards of written English. But the rules were scrapped in 2003.
Good spelling and punctuation is still rewarded in some exams, but the number of marks available differs between subjects and often candidates are only rewarded for good English in certain questions. They are usually told which questions these are.
Mr Gove said: “Thousands of children – including some of our very brightest – leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar, incapable of writing a clear and accurate letter.
“And it’s not surprising when the last government explicitly removed the requirement to award a set number of marks for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in examinations.
“The basic building blocks of English were demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning.
“Under this Government we will insist that our exams, once more, take proper account of the need to spell, punctuate and write a grammatical sentence.”
The move, which will not at first apply to A-levels, was given a cautious welcome by examiners. Jim Sinclair, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said: “The previous system fell into disrepute because of cases where candidates were writing competently, spelling flawlessly and using correct grammar – therefore picking up the five per cent – but the subject content of their answers was rubbish.”
He added: “I wholeheartedly support the desire to ensure that when young people leave formal education that they are functionally literate and numerate but I would caution against using crude instruments to disproportionately reward spelling, punctuation and grammar.”
Prof Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: “Clear expression is evidence of clear thought. It is reasonable to expect accurate spelling and good use of grammar in an exam. “The results mean less if the examiner is trying to project on to a poorly written answer what he or she thinks the candidate was attempting to say.” 
Like all commonsense approaches to a problem, I suspect this one will be bitterly fought against by the teachers, headmasters and school boards who condone ‘dumbing down’ in their blinkered belief that school ‘League Tables’ mean more to them than the education of the children in their charge, as at every level, Mr Gove struggles to get it through parliament and into law…  

Dwarfs, Elves, Goblins, Trolls and my Little Grey Cells
For the last several days, I have been occupied with a short story about Dwarfs, Elves, Goblins and Trolls. Unlike most stories which escape from my mind, this one is taking its own precious time extracting itself. 
I recently read Derek Haines’ latest blog post on his blog (Derek’s Vandalism of Words) about losing the plot, forgetting things, short term memory loss etc. Well in that regard, I seem to be having a problem with the plot of this particular story.
While I have successfully negotiated my way through the ‘back story’ leading up to the action, so far I’ve started the nitty gritty of the story no less than twenty times. 
Where is J.R.R. Tolkien when I need him?

Can we truly afford party politics anymore?
The older I get, the more I firmly believe that the world at large can no longer afford party politics in this day and age. To my way of thinking, party politics has not only reached, but bumbled its way well beyond its ‘use by date’.
No country these days, it seems to me, can now afford party driven and controlled politicians. What use are they in this modern world we now find ourselves in? 
While it is an unfortunate fact that politicians in general are only there in our various countries governments to line their own pockets and to feed their own pathetic needs to achieve power over the ordinary men and women of their countries at the expense of the people who elected them into power, do we, or should I say, can we afford them any longer?
Surely the time is now long overdue for non party elected representatives from each area to promote and look after the interests of his/her constituency without being constrained by the current party viewpoint, which sadly stands as a major stumbling block to common sense and the very real needs of the people.
No matter what went before in the murky world of politics – be it as a conservative, labour, liberal-democrat, communist/socialist political point of view, imposing party political beliefs over and above the very real needs of the men, women, children, pensioners and youth of this once great nation in order to stay in power, the time has now arrived when the greedy and selfish among us, who believe it is their god given right to rule over the rest, be stood aside and banished into the dusty realms of our history.
This country and others across the western world can no longer afford politicians in their present incarnation. To do so is to continue promoting the age old unacceptability that is class division, and all that it sadly represents…

Armistice Day – Lest We Forget…

Runner’s gauntlet
Albert Johnstone and his pal Dick Madison had both enlisted at the same time barely twelve weeks after war had been declared in 1914. At the time, Dick was nineteen and Albert was barely eighteen. Since then three long and bitterly hard fought years had passed in the ‘war to end all wars’. It was now 1917 and by sheer good fortune more than anything else in the corner of hell they called home, Albert and Dick were now the only two left alive from the newly formed ‘pals regiment’ that had marched to war in that first year. 
To any newcomer to their section, both men seemed much older than they actually were. The last five weeks of constant barrage by the Hun artillery plus the filth, trench foot, body lice and chronic levels of disease which daily lived side by side with the Tommy’s in this small section of the rat infested stinking quagmire of a trench – the remainder of their regiment called home – had prematurely aged both men here in the thick of the worst fighting on the Western Front.
“Bert, give us a fag mate?”
“Ain’t got any left Dickie,” Albert replied.
Dick lifted his Lee Enfield’s muzzle to his eye to check the cleanliness of its barrel. The section Corporal, Charlie Hobbs, had just threatened to put him on a fizzer if he didn’t do something and ‘bleedin’ sharpish’ about the state of his filthy weapon. 
“Bleedin’ stripes on his arm have gone to his bleedin’ head,” Dick mumbled to himself.
“Go on Bert mate, give us a fag,” he pleaded once more, as he yanked on the string of his rifle pull-through yet again, “You can have my extra tin of Bully for a fag, go on give us one.” 
Dick knew that his best mate Albert always had some spare cigarettes stashed away somewhere deep inside the filthy confines of his clothing, competing for space against his skin with the thousands of body lice that constantly plagued him, like of all the Tommy’s in the line, which he reserved for those quiet moments during ‘stand to’ at night when they took turns on watch from the trenches’ firing step.
“Privates Johnstone and Madison, over here, quickly now – jump to it my lucky lads!” 
Albert and Dick waded through the stinking fetid water that sat in the bottom of the trench, hiding the wooden duckboards along its length, dodging the huge rats that were swimming along looking for scraps of food or to feed on the unburied human remains that lay wherever they had been shot. 
“Bleedin’ furry cannibals!” Albert muttered as he smashed the butt of his rifle into one of the rats.

Eventually both men stopped in front of Sergeant ‘Bull’ Thomas.
“Got a job for you me lucky lads,” Bull grinned. 
“Bloody hell Sarge not again; why us?  Why not someone else?” Dick muttered out loud. 
“Now then Madison, now then; Corporal Hobbs tells me you’re a filthy little bleeder my son. So pin your bleedin’ lugholes back and shut yer trap unless you want that bleedin’ fizzer he’s already threatened you with to bleedin’ multiply!” 
Despite all of his bluster and effing and blinding, Sergeant Thomas had a soft spot for his two most experienced soldiers. Like Albert and Dick, he had been here in the hell of the Western Front since it first began, and like them, somehow he had survived when so many thousands of their fellow Tommies had not.
“Now then me lads; as I was saying, I’ve got a job for you. The major needs a couple of runners to take a very important message back to HQ see, because the bleedin’ telephone lines is broke again after the last bleedin’ barrage and there is no one to repair it again. I knows just the very lads for the job, sir, I says to him; privates Johnstone and Madison I says. So my lucky lads, there it is.”
            Albert and Dick’s faces, despite the thick layer of ingrained grime and dirt that plastered their skin, giving them the appearance of two men in late middle age, betrayed their natural lack of enthusiasm for being volunteered for something that was dangerous to their health. “Like I said Sarge, why us when there’s plenty of new replacements to detail off as bleedin’ runners?” 
            “The major says that this particular message is far too important to be trusted to a newcomer, lad. Besides, none of them have your survival instincts. The route you will have to take is perishin’ close to the Hun’s front line as you know, lads.” Bull sighed, realizing exactly what he was asking of them; everyone knew that anyone who tried to get through the runner’s gauntlet had less than a ten percent chance of making it through alive. 
‘Death alley’, as the way back to the HQ dugout was equally known by both sides of the stagnant frontline, was looked upon as the real life version of the popular fair-ground shooting galleries before the war.
When the frontline trenches had first been dug into the muddy soil two years earlier, the zigzag nature of the British frontline trench combined with the depth it had been dug made it relatively safe. But since then, constant barrages by both sides had reshaped it into a series of short intact trench sections and gaps filled with hundreds of shell craters.
Twenty yards beyond where the three men now stood was the end of the trench proper, and the beginning of the heavily damaged sector. The German snipers loved it. Whenever a Tommy runner tried to cross it, the German snipers took bets among themselves over which one of them would send the runner to oblivion…
            Bull thrust the message into Dick’s tunic top pocket and buttoned it up before shaking both their hands; there was no sense in wishing them good luck – doing it might bring them bad luck. The pair moved off silently to the end of the trench. 
Albert carefully lifted the trench periscope just above the remains of the sand bags on top of the trench.
Dick released his Lee Enfield’s safety catch in readiness. 
“Two snipers mate, one behind the wall of the church and one behind the old iron gate,” Albert reported.
“Wall first mate,” Dick said quietly as the muzzle of his rifle slowly poked through the gap between two sandbags.
Albert brought his sniper rifle up in readiness.
            “Ok Dickie, get the bleeder’s attention,” he said, as he shifted his telescopic sight in readiness. 
Dick placed his tin hat over the back sight of his rifle and ducked down seconds before a round from the German sniper’s rifle drove a neat hole slap bang in the centre of it, sending it flying behind him. At the same moment Albert squeezed his trigger and stayed only long enough to see the German sniper’s head explode before ducking down alongside Dick.
“Gotcha you bleeder,” he muttered grinning with satisfaction.
Now there was only one more sniper to contend with. “Ready?” Dick asked. 
“After you mate,” Albert winked as he stood up with his trusty rifle ready for action. “Go!” 
Dick jumped and rolled over the edge of the first shell hole, flattening himself at its soggy base.
Albert corrected his telescopic sight’s aim as he briefly saw movement behind the church’s old iron gate. “Go!” he shouted.
Dick sprang to his feet once more and jumped and rolled into the next shell hole as a bullet from the German sniper’s rifle kicked up mud behind the sole of his rapidly disappearing boot when he dived for cover again.
“Gotcha,” Albert said with satisfaction as he watched the second sniper crumple lifelessly to the ground behind the iron gate.
With no more snipers to contend with for the moment, they crossed the rest of the pock-marked muddy landscape, shell hole by shell hole, until they were back in the relative safety of the next section of trench. The two friends sat for a few minutes savouring the exquisite delight of one of Albert’s precious stock of cigarettes, laughing when the body of one of Alfred’s body lice, which had hidden itself in the cigarette’s tobacco, exploded as the cigarette burned down, before they navigated the trench system to the HQ.
The colonel in charge studied the major’s message before dismissing Albert and Dick, telling them to go to the cook house for a meal before reporting back to him in an hour’s time.
On their return the colonel handed them his reply to take back with them along with a new roll of field telephone wire to pay out as they went. 
“Bleedin’ hell mate,” Dick grumbled, “now all we have to do is get back home with this lot.”
 “Like they say Dickie – be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” Albert laughed. 
“Ready mate, let’s go home,” Albert said as he patted his sniper rifle, prepared for what lay ahead…

I’m just having yet another senior moment.

This morning soon after I awoke, my usual morning routine took over. I pulled open the curtains, turned on the television to watch the news, then went into the kitchen to fill the water jug (kettle to the English among you), popped a generous spoonful of coffee into the plunger, then retired to the living room and the television while I waited until the jug boiled; In due time I heard the jug switch itself off, so I went back to the kitchen to make my daily coffee quota. 
Clearing up the plates from the night before, I found that I had misplaced the plate I had used for a sandwich last night. I searched both the living room and the kitchen but found nothing. So I finished washing the dirty dishes and cutlery before heading back into the living room to watch the news. 
Several items of interest completely took over my full attention for the next few minutes, then during an add break I reached out for the coffee plunger, only to realise I had left it in the kitchen. So cursing to myself off I went to collect it. 
On entering the kitchen, my coffee plunger had vanished! I retraced my path back into the living room to reassure myself that it wasn’t there – nothing. So back to the kitchen I went in search of the elusive plunger filled to the brim with piping hot black coffee.
At moments like this I usually mutter to myself about getting old before retreating to my favourite chair for a while to figure out my movements, hoping to solve the problem like Sherlock Holmes – eliminate all of the clues in front of you and whatever is left etc, etc; nothing doing in that department either.
Mother nature made her daily demand on me, so off I went to the bathroom, only to be confronted by the missing sandwich plate!
As I was washing the plate, my attention was drawn to the refrigerator. For some reason it appeared to be working harder than normal. Not thinking much of it as I dried the freshly washed plate, I was on the point of giving up the whole idea of having a cup of coffee up as a bad job when hunger took over.
I opened the fridge to get the loaf of bread and the butter out for some toast. Guess what was staring me in the face? You right – my coffee plunger sitting there amidst a cloud of steam…