Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Alternate Realities

August is shaping up to be a busy month. Not only is it the school holidays but we are also moving house at the end of the month. I'm not sure of the exact date - we are still waiting on an exchange of contracts which should have happened last week. More on that when I have it.

In addition, I release a new book at the end of this month so thought this would be an ideal opportunity to let you know how I came up with the idea.

Having written three spin-offs over the past couple of years, I sat down at the start of this year with the feeling it was time for a new Time Bubble book. If you've read the first three you'll recall that the third book tied up most of the loose ends and brought what was intended to be a trilogy to a close.

But the spin-offs raised new questions, plus there were some things at the end of the third book that I still felt needed exploring. I want to avoid spoilers here so all I will say is that at the end of the third book a major change occurred to the timeline. This led me to think about what the effects of that on the people involved might be?

What if both universes were now in existence - the one where the character died and the one where he/she didn't? What if the one who lived could subconsciously dream at night about the other reality? My own personal experience came into play here, because I have this strange recurring dream that has bugged me for years.

Back in 2005 I took the decision to take voluntary redundancy from my job at Nielsen. This was undoubtedly one of the biggest decisions of my life which led me to where I am today. But strangely, ever since I left, I frequently dream at night that I am still there, going off to client presentations, dealing with 'Watty' (the boss) and interacting with my old colleagues. There are other oddities too - in this strange alter ego of a universe I park my car at Pitt Rivers Museum every morning and cycle up to the office in Headington. Which is a bit random, to say the least.

The only two explanations I can come up with are as follows. Firstly, somewhere in my subconscious mind I feel guilty that I left my career behind to pursue other interests because it's going against convention. Perhaps deep down I feel that I should have played the game according to the rules, been a good little office bod, built a career and now be approaching middle age with a highly paid job, mortgage paid off and holidaying in the Caribbean every year. (Except it probably wouldn't be the Caribbean because I don't like injections).

The bit about cycling might be some sort of guilt over my middle-aged spread and lack of fitness, a common affliction for men of my age but not an insurmountable one given sufficient willpower and time, which I seem to lack.

But the reality is that I don't feel this way in my waking hours at all. Leaving Nielsen has brought me new experiences, a family and a whole new way of life. Yes, I may not be wealthy but the thought that I might have spent the last 12 years still sitting in the office and all that goes with it horrifies me.

The second explanation is that there really is another universe where I didn't take redundancy and the other me is still living that life. The movie, Sliding Doors, springs to mind. My dreams are quite detailed and one major difference is that in that universe I never settled down and never had children. That alone is not a good advert as no amount of money or status can ever substitute for my family.

Whatever the true reason for all of this, it provided a good starting point for my new novel. In the first third of the book we meet all the old characters as they get together and the story of one of the affected character's dreams comes out. This piques the interest of Josh, the main protagonist this time, who sets out to prove the existence of these other worlds. Extending his time travel experiments, he eventually discovers a way to travel between them.

Unfortunately at this point things go a bit pear-shaped and he finds his means of getting back damaged. Travelling back in time each time, he finds himself jumping from one alternate world to another, and this is where the story really gets going.

I really had quite a lot of fun with this, exploring many different possibilities of the "What if?" variety. So Josh ends up visiting worlds where his life took a different path, where the whole world took a different path after the Battle of Hastings, and where contemporary events involving Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un and ISIS create some very scary situations indeed.

The thing I really loved about writing this was it gave me several different blank sheets of paper to indulge my imagination in any way I liked. I'm hoping you'll enjoy the final outcome.


Splinters In Time will be released on 31st August 2017. You can pre-order it using the links below:

For the UK, click here        For the USA, click here

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Sauce for the goose

Here's a thing that's been bugging me for a while now.

I've got a pretty decent size fridge in my place. Yet the space within is constantly at a premium. I get back from Sainsbury's and I'm struggling to squeeze everything in.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you thinking, he loves his meat and cheese etc, he shouldn't buy so much. Thing is, it's not those things that are crowding out the fridge. My problem is that I'm a permanent shelf down before I've even started.

There is just no room whatsoever on the top shelf of the fridge, and I'll tell you why. It's because of all of the sauces.

Now I'm not just talking about the standard sauces we all have. Most of us have a bottle of ketchup in there and a bottle of salad cream. My kids adore ketchup and it doesn't take long to get through a bottle. No, the problem is all the other stuff.

Take mayonnaise for example. How many different types of that have we ended up with? There's standard Hellmans, Sainsbury's French Mayo, Garlic Mayo, and some other fancy version in a pretty jar I was seduced into buying for £3 off the French market last time it came to Bicester. Never gonna use it.

The list goes on. Brown Sauce, Mustard, various condiments for Sunday dinners e.g. Horseradish, Apple Sauce, Cranberry Sauce. Plus others bought for one off occasions like Barbecues e.g. Burger Sauce, Smoky Texan BBQ sauce, and many many more. I wish I could show you a picture but I'm away from home so can't at the moment. Still, just look in your own fridge, I'm sure it's a similar story.

Some of these sauces have been in there for months if not years. Every now and again I have a clear out. This is the point I discover that the Texan BBQ sauce, opened back on a distant hot August afternoon the best part of a year ago, has "Once opened, refrigerate and consume within four weeks". In the bin it goes, 95% of its contents unused. What a waste!

I'm up in Wales on holiday this week in a self-catering flat. As we're out and about most days, we've been making sandwiches to have on the beach or wherever we go. This required doing a big shop at Asda in Pwllheli on the day we arrived. And once again, my sauce problems struck.

We all like different stuff in our sandwiches. But do I really want to buy a jar of salad cream, mayo, mustard etc for just one week? Sure I can take the unused remainder home with me, but then it'll just add to the ones in the fridge at home. I could have brought some up with me, but am loathe to do that after an incident with a mayonnaise bottle a few years ago that led to embarrassing stains all over my holiday wardrobe.

Therefore I left Asda empty handed, deciding it would have to be plain sandwiches for the week. Later we went out for an evening meal and lo and behold, the answer to all my sauce woes was there, right in front of me staring me in the face. A lovely little holder, full of single serve sachets of sauces. Sadly I didn't photograph it, but it had about every type of sauce known to man in it. Here's one from this evening, slightly less choice, but pretty decent nonetheless:

Single serve sauces - where are you when I need you?

Now I know, what you're thinking. Why not scoop up the whole jar, about twenty mixed sachets and take them home - that's your sauces sorted for the week. It's not stealing, after all is it? They gave you the sauces with your meal, you're entitled to them, right?

Well, no, not really. After all they gave me the cutlery, plate and a glass too, but I wouldn't expect to waltz out with them. I guess most of us would probably admit to taking the odd pint glass from a pub in our younger days, so I imagine the odd sachet here or there (not the whole bowl) isn't seen as a hanging offence, but it still sits a little uncomfortably with me. I'm not going to confess here that I took a sachet of mustard for my ham roll tomorrow, but I guess one could have accidentally fallen into my bag. But in my defence I could say that I went without ketchup during the meal to balance it out. Conscience clear?

Just six in this restaurant, but have had many more in others.

I'm sure I'm not the only one that has this problem, so why oh why can't shops sell these single serve sachets? When I said this to my wife, she said, "yes, but you can get them in Bookers". Unfortunately that's not much good to the average person. Even if you've got a cash and carry in your town, you still need some sort of card to get in and they don't hand them out like Tesco Clubcards. Besides, you have to buy a big box of about 100 sachets at a time so you're still going to run into sell by date problems if you want a sachet of Mint Sauce perhaps four times a year.

So I repeat - why don't shops sell them? I wouldn't mind paying over the odds, volume wise, for a single use sachet. I'd rather pay 10p for 10ml of something than £1 for 250ml of something that I'm going to throw most of away. Supermarkets - you are missing a trick here. Sell us some single serve sachets! Or is this all part of your strategy to make us spend more and throw away food we don't need? If so, shame on you!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

"Ken Barlow" of Bicester in shock exit

Soap fans were up in arms last night at the news that popular character, Jason Ayres, is to be sensationally axed from long-running ITV show, Bicester.

Jason Ayres has played the role since the very first episode, and is the only original character left from when it began in May 1991. Dubbed the "Ken Barlow" of Bicester due to his longevity in the role, it seems inconceivable that the show's producers would want to get rid of him.

Ayres has come a long way since he first burst on to our screens as a fresh-faced, idealistic 21-year-old, back on that balmy spring day when Cher was at No. 1 with The Shoop Shoop Song. At the centre of many of the show's most famous storylines since, the character has been involved in all sorts of drams and scandals. But now, it seems that his story has run it's course.

Producers say they are looking for fresh blood in the show and that Ayres had become "tired" in the role. But Ayres hit back at those comments, blaming the writers for a lack of imagination.

"It's not my fault viewers are bored with my character these days" he said. "It's all down to the writers. Back in the day, they had me getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. But in the last few years, all you ever see me  doing is sitting on the sofa, eating crisps and watching telly, or rummaging around for the cheapest packet of cheese on the deli counter in Sainsbury's. It's ages since I've done anything interesting".

Ayres has already filmed his final scenes, and will leave the show at the end of August. He is also not happy with the manner of his departure.

"I was hoping to go out on some explosive storyline - like maybe getting involved with the local mafia and perishing in a spectacular shootout by the traffic lights on the Middleton Stoney Road. Or perhaps I could have saved lots of people from Bicester Village after a Jumbo Jet crashed on it, dying heroically in a touching final scene where I sacrifice myself so that others might live.

Instead, all they've got is me helping load up a removal lorry, saying cheerio to the bloke next door, and then getting in a car and driving off. It's completely unfair. Even falling into the sea, Harold Bishop style, leaving my glasses on a rock would have been better than this".

It is not all doom and gloom for Ayres, who reports he is in negotiations with the BBC for a Last Of The Summer Wine style sitcom, set in Evesham.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Pointless

For as long as I can remember, I've loved quiz shows. When I was a kid it was Sale of the Century and Winner Takes All. I loved the gambling element of the latter, with it's betting odds on the answers. As a teenager it was Going For Gold at with Henry Kelly, which I used to watch on my lunch break when I worked for Martins.

There have been hundreds of different formats over the years, the nature of which vary considerably, There are those where knowledge is everything e.g. Who Wants to be a Millionaire, to those where the questions play only a minor part in what is largely a game of chance. The dreadful, Babushka, recently broadcast on ITV, is a good example of the latter. I've been around a long time, but I am in no way exaggerating in saying this is the worst "quiz" show I have ever seen. And there have been some shockers.

Some don't even bother with questions at all, a prime example being Deal or no Deal. That was quite an interesting concept when it started, but it got boring really quickly. I'd had enough after the first week, and that wasn't just down to it being presented by the dreaded Edmonds. Even Brucie couldn't have rescued this one. It's basically just people opening boxes - yet somehow this garbage managed to run for over a decade.

Question free game shows can be fun, though. I loved Goldenballs, but that had Jasper Carrott at the helm, and you can't go wrong with Carrott.

Where is all this leading? Well, quite simply, I really, really want to go on a quiz show! As it happens, I have applied for two so far, but failed to get on either.

On both occasions, I passed the initial tests, and then got invited to an audition. The first was for The Weakest Link, some years ago. I won the practice game we played, but didn't get invited back. More recently, I applied for Tipping Point, again getting called in for a screen test but failing to get on, despite seemingly flying through the audition with flying colours.

I thought I had done really well and had a good chance of getting on. This was in February, but the phone didn't ring. They said if I hadn't heard anything by the end of May that I probably wouldn't have been picked. It's now June 3rd, so I guess that's the end of that. Pity, as I reckon I would have done well at that. My old gran was demon at those penny falls machines in the arcades, and I reckon I could have done her proud with the skills she passed on.

I'm not sure why I didn't get on. At first, I thought perhaps they didn't want ugly middle-aged fat blokes, but then I looked at the contestants they had on last week and concluded it couldn't have been that. Oh well, I wasn't that enamored of Tipping Point anyway, I only applied for it because I thought it would be easy to win.

The show I really love, and would like to go on above all others, is Pointless. Why do I love this show so much? Because it's not just about right and wrong answers. It's about getting the more obscure answers. As someone who has spent a whole lifetime memorising trivia, from pop charts to winners of major sporting events, the invention of this show is manna from heaven for me. So if the category was something like "Artists who had a number one hit in 1985", I'd be all over it with Paul Hardcastle and Phyliss Nelson whilst my rivals would be going for the more obvious like Madonna and Wham!

Hopefully I can do a little better than this lot!

I watch most days now, timing the cooking so tea will be ready around quarter past five. There are old episodes on Challenge too, though you have to be a little careful with your answers on those due to the age of the show. It's no good picking Max Verstappen as the name of a Grand Prix winner when he was still in short trousers when the episode was made. To gauge how old the episode is, I usually go by the size of Alexander Armstrong's bald patch which is a pretty accurate yardstick.

Over the course of the show, I do pretty well, but that's no guarantee of success. You've only got to get the wrong category or type of question on this show and you're sunk. For example - I am terrible with films. I rarely watch them. I have always having preferred TV series, digestible in lots of small chunks over a long period of time. I also find photo rounds really hard, I don't know why, but I have always found identifying faces incredibly hard - as opposed to identifying voices which I'm much better at.

Everything about this show is great. The banter between the hosts and relaxed atmosphere makes it one that I would love to go on. I think that Richard Osman has possibly my dream job in television. I would love to sit at his desk, spouting facts and figures to an enthralled audience. I have spent some years of my own life attempting to dispense such information in the pub to a less enthusiastic reception. Sadly it has always fallen on deaf ears due to my drinking companions always having more interest in earthly matters, such as whether or not the barmaid is "up for it".

So, I am determined to get on Pointless. I don't seem to have had much luck in my other auditions, so what I really need is someone to come on with me who can dazzle the gatekeepers who decide who can can can't come on daytime TV. The more glamorous the better. If you're clever as well, even better, but if not, just memorise the periodic table, flags of the world and the entire IMDB database. I'll try and cover the rest.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The joy of walks

When I was a kid, I would recoil in horror if going for a walk in the countryside was ever suggested. Such an activity was filed firmly under the category of "boring" and something that old people did. Old at that time meaning anyone over the age of forty, a milestone considered truly ancient to a eleven-year-old.

My perception was not helped by being hauled off on a twenty-mile walk around the Lake District in my formative years. This is not what you call easing someone gently into the joys of walking. It seriously put me off the whole idea for about three decades. Other than a brief interest in cornfields, during a period of amorous exploration in my late teens, the countryside hasn't held much appeal to me until recently.

However, since some trips to the Lake District and other places in recent years, my interest has been rekindled. And fortunately for me. the kids are not averse to walks in the country, as I have eased them gently into the world of public footpaths and circular walks over time. What's brought me back to the countryside? Well a number of things really:

1) Money. It's half-term this week, which means filling the days up with activities and things to do. Much as I'd love to be taking the kids off to places like Legoland every day, such trips are prohibitively expensive. Even going to places like Cutteslowe Park is expensive when you have to pay to park (no change given from the machine, of course)  As for the Crazy Golf - £6 for adults and £4 for kids for something that takes about five minutes to do? You're taking this piss...

2) Physical Health. If I let them, the kids could quite easily spend the entire day on Minecraft while I just potter around the house, whiling away the day. That's not good for them, and it's certainly not good for me. Since having kids and switching to writing at home for a living, I've seriously struggled to keep fit. I use the hours when they are at school to do my writing, then I am at home most of the the rest of the time looking after them. At my age (47) this leads to a serious battle with the waistline.

3) Mental health: Working at home has it's benefits, but interaction with the world is not one of them. There's something about being outside in nature that refreshes the mind, I'm sure of that. When we are out walking through fields and woods, we're talking, looking at things, and having a laugh about everything from dodging stinging nettle to horse poo. There's no phones or screens in sight, except when I got my phone out to take a photo. It's just the simple pleasure of quality family time without distractions and I love it. When we get back, I always feel that I've done something worthwhile with my day.

Where did we go today? Well I have found this great little website called Walking in England which contains hundreds of circular walks, all over the country. I try and find ones that are around the right length for me and the boys (aged six and nine). Today, we took one which was three miles in length, starting and finishing in Aynho, Northants. It took us about two hours including a lengthy stop in Souldern Church to shelter from a rainstorm. It took in footpaths, bridleways, fields, woods, stiles and even a ford. We took all our own food and drink with us, so the outing, other than the petrol to get us to Aynho, was nothing.

Crossing the ford between Aynho and Souldern

It's so easy to forget how much there is to see out there, right on our doorsteps. Back at home now, my feet are a little sore, and I feel somewhat knackered, but I know it's done me some good and there's a real feeling of having achieved something with my day. I am working really hard at the moment to regain some of the fitness I've lost and lose some of the weight I've gained during my forties.It's tough going - apparently our bodies need less calories every year as we age, but I'm determined to stick at it.

This is the first blog entry I have written for some time - my apologies for that, but I have been hard at work on the fourth book in The Time Bubble series (and seventh overall in The Time Bubble universe). I am hoping to have it finished for the end of the summer, pending our forthcoming house move, which I will cover in my next blog entry - hopefully later on this week.

Jason Ayres is a newspaper columnist, freelance writer and author of a range of bestselling time travel novels. You can find all of his books here: Jason Ayres - Author Page

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Mince Pie Round-up

I think we must get better quality electricity up here on Kingsmere than we did at Chapel Street, as I have noticed something very unusual this year whilst heating up my mince pies.

At the old house, in order to get my mince pies to the optimum temperature - nice and hot but not enough to burn my tongue, I used to have to do them for about 21 seconds in the microwave.

Here, 15 seconds is more than enough to nuke them and I have burnt the aforementioned tongue on more than one occasion in recent weeks.

Now on to the mince pies. As I believe I mentioned on Facebook, I have a free hand in this house to consume as many mince pies as I like. This is because none of the other gannets around here, who eat everything else in sight, like them. Therefore I have had free rein to sample a few different ones to see what's best this year.

It's important to do this every year, as I reckon they change the recipes every year. It's a bit like drinking fine wines. The 2016 vintage may not be a patch on 2015's offering, so it's a case of starting from scratch each time.

What have we got then, let's see...

1) Sainsbury - 6 Deep Filled Mince Pies.

Described as deep filled, as if there were any other kind. Anyone ever heard of shallow filled? I digress.These are pretty decent. Pastry is a bit flaky in places but the filling's good. Only a quid for a box of six, so no complaints there.

Does what it says on the tin, or should I say box?

2) Aldi Specially Selected 6 Crumbly All Butter Mince Pies

I suppose I should have heeded the warning in the description. Crumbly is the optimum word and it's virtually impossible to eat these without them falling to pieces somewhere between hand and mouth, distributing crumbs far and wide. I wouldn't have minded so much, but I'd just done the hoovering after Jamie had dropped crumbs all over the carpet so I had to do it again. So be warned, if you can eat one of these without dropping at least 25% of it on the floor, you'll be doing better than me.

Create your own Christmas snow scene by eating one of these

3) Tesco Finest All Butter Blah Blah Blah...

Actually not bad considering they are Tesco's but a bit pricey at £2 a pop. Their standard ones for a quid are just as good, though, I'd stick with them and spend the other quid on some crisps or something.

Bah, humbug. 7 out of 10 is all you are getting Tesco, due to your past sins.


4) Sainsbury's Gala Pie.

This isn't actually a mince pie at all but a pork pie with some egg in the middle. I included it as I was walking past the deli counter while I was shopping for my mince pies, spotted this was half price and decided to buy some. Absolutely delicious, so much so that I've decided to make it this year's winner. I still don't know how they get the egg in the middle, though.

Jason Ayres Mince Pie Gold Award Winner 2016

So, that's all for this year's round up. Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, 18 December 2016

I'm dreaming of a grey Christmas

It falls in every Christmas movie you've ever seen, is in every TV Christmas special and advert. It's all over Christmas cards. We sing songs about it and even spray fake stuff all over the windows.

But as I approach my 47th Christmas, there is one burning and ever more desperate question on my lips.

Where the **** is the snow?

A ridiculously over optimistic Christmas card scene

Quite honestly, I have never ever seen what I would class as a White Christmas.

I don't know what you call a White Christmas but I don't agree with the bookies definition, which is a single snowflake falling on the roof of the weather centre in London on Christmas Day. Sorry, one snowflake does not a Snowman make. A few bits of left over grey slush by the side of the road from a snowfall a few days earlier also doesn't count.

For me, a proper White Christmas, like the ones you get in the movies, happens when snow starts falling after it gets dark on Christmas Eve so you wake up to a huge blanket of snow on Christmas Day.

You would think, with the law of averages this would be bound to happen sooner or later. A few years ago, things looked good. Remember that run of snowy winters we had between 2009 and 2012? Oh, we came close, really close in 2010. I remember, because I was working as a DJ then, and had jobs on the Friday and Sunday nights the weekend before Christmas.

I drove, or rather slid home from Buckingham on the Friday night in temperatures of -12c. It had been an incredibly cold autumn that year and the coldest December I can ever remember. On Saturday morning, the 18th December, it was clear that a massive snowfall was imminent. I drove round to the White Hart and dropped off all my DJ equipment, ready for Sunday night. It was a good job I did, because shortly afterwards we had one of the biggest snowfalls I have ever seen, about a foot deep in places. I couldn't move my car for nearly a week afterwards.

But it was all a week too early. Despite remaining cold, what snow was left by Christmas Day was old and dirty.

In the last three winters we have had no snow at all, let alone at Christmas. My six-year-old, Jamie, said to me the other day he was sad because he had never seen snow and he wanted to build a snowman. Short of flying him to Scandinavia, there's not a lot I can do about that.

You'll be lucky, mate

Don't take any notice of Granny at Christmas if she tells you "when I was young, it snowed at Christmas every year. because that's bollocks". And you can tell her that, though perhaps don't use the word "bollocks" as she might be offended. I did look back into history as research for this blog (you see how much I do for you people!) and as far as the last 100 years go, this is as good as it gets:

1927 was amazing - a massive snowstorm swept the country on Christmas Day. If your granny is very ancient she might remember that one.

1956 was also a true White Christmas, with snow falling across the whole of the UK between the 23rd and 26th. That's probably the one Gran remembers that happened every year!

And that's about it really, apart from lots of near misses. 1981 was another with a snowy December, but the snow all fell a few days before. And lots of people bang on about the winter of 1962-63 but that didn't start until Boxing Day.

I blame pop stars as well. I don't know where you were Shaky when snow was falling all around you in 1985 but it certainly wasn't England.

One of many Christmas singles that I would
 class as "meteorologically inaccurate"

And this year? At the moment the BBC are predicting most likely mostly wet and windy, but a few computer models say it might snow. Can't say I'm confident.

I am beginning to despair of seeing either a White Christmas or an England World Cup victory before I die. It's not looking promising on either front, even if I get my telegram from the Queen. Which will be remarkable in itself, as Her Majesty will be 143 by then.

R.I.P. Greg Lake, the only musician who was honest with us about Christmas in his yuletide offering...

"They said there'll be snow at Christmas / They said there'll be peace on earth / But instead it just kept on raining"