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"

Saturday, 17 December 2016

A Christmas Story

As Christmas is almost here, I thought that you might enjoy a sneak preview from my latest time travel novel, Rock Bottom, which is set during the festive season.

I must make one small disclaimer. Although I have now completed the novel and been over it several times, this snippet is not quite the final version. The final draft is currently with the editor and proofreader, therefore please forgive me if you find any grammatical errors or typos in the sample below. These will be corrected before the final version is released.

This is the opening chapter, which properly introduces the lead character of Kay, who previously had a minor role in my novel, Midlife Crisis. As you'll see. she is somewhat down on her luck, hence the title of Rock Bottom. All I can say is, things do get better as the book progresses!

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

Chapter One

December 2018

Kay was so drunk that she practically fell out of the front door of the pub. Just about managing to stay upright, she instinctively clutched at the clasp of her small, black, leather bag, desperate for a smoke.

It was chucking out time at The Red Lion on a bitterly cold December night. The wind was howling all around her as she tottered around on her cheap, high heels in a forlorn attempt to light her cigarette.

Cursing as the wind extinguished each attempt in a fraction of a second, she made for the doorway of the shop next door to seek some shelter. Cupping her hands around her mouth as she leant into the doorway, she finally managed to get the damned thing lit at the ninth time of asking.

Turning, she began to make her way along the town’s main street, brightly lit by the same gaudy old Christmas lights that the council put up every year. There were drunken revellers everywhere, celebrating finishing work for the holidays. It was the last Friday night before Christmas, a night that she had heard the landlord of the pub refer to earlier in the evening as “Mad Friday.”

A group of sexy, young women dressed up in Santa outfits passed her by, laughing, followed by a group of young men, clearly hopeful of some action. They would all doubtless be heading for the town’s only nightclub, keen to continue the festivities, but Kay had had enough. She had suffered enough humiliation for one night already.

 Things had not gone well in her attempts to chat up various men in the pub and she couldn’t face the likelihood of more rejection in the club commonly referred to by the locals as the “last chance saloon.” It was said that if you couldn’t pull in there, you couldn’t pull anywhere and failure would be the final nail in the coffin of her already fragile confidence. Besides, she had work in the morning. Whatever else had gone wrong in her life lately, at least she still had a job.

Kay was so lonely that she had sunk to the stage where she would give herself to anyone who wanted to take her home. She did it in the hope that they would make her feel wanted for a few hours and with a vague hope that it might lead on to something more.

In reality, these liaisons rarely extended to even a few hours. Most of the men she managed to entice back to her flat were in and out in a matter of minutes. As soon as the deed was done, they were off back to their wives and girlfriends, satisfied now they had enjoyed their little bit of extra-curricular fun.

Her conquests, if she could call them that, were hardly trophies she could proudly display on the mantelpiece. They were pretty sad characters for the most part, fat and ugly middle-aged men who were only interested in her because they couldn’t pull anyone else. Aware of her rapidly growing reputation as the “pub bike”, they were drawn to her not for her fading looks but because they knew she was an easy lay.

She was just as aware of this as they were but her self-esteem was so low she still allowed it to happen. The whole sorry situation had been going on for months.

But now, the offers were drying up. Kay knew she had let herself go to the point where even the desperadoes were looking elsewhere. She was forty-three years old but looked at least fifty. Years of excessive alcohol consumption to help her get through her miserable marriage had taken its toll. She had also taken up chain smoking again since her husband had kicked her out, after nearly two decades of being smoke free.

Living alone, she had seen her diet go rapidly downhill. With no motivation to cook any longer, most of her meals were takeaways and she couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten any fresh fruit or vegetables. All of these things had contributed to a rapid and premature aging process. Her skin was blotchy and looked unhealthy while her body was overweight and sagging in all the wrong places.

These were just the physical signs, but a lack of grooming and personal care had also contributed to the downward slide in her appearance. Things she had once taken for granted like having her nails done or a trip to the hairdressers were now things of the past. She couldn’t even afford to dye her hair anymore to keep the ravages of time at bay. Consequently, in a very short time her once beautiful blonde locks had become unkempt and greying.

She could see all this every time she looked in the mirror but tried to at justify it to herself as being down to the inevitability of aging. She couldn’t say the same for the state of her teeth, however. She had been meticulous in looking after them over the course of her life, with electric toothbrushes, regular dentist visits and lots of flossing. She had prided herself on reaching her forties without ever having to have as much as a filling.

Sadly, no amount of care could have prepared them for an extremely unpleasant incident that had taken place a couple of months ago. The wife of a man she’d taken home for a one night stand had turned up the following day, hammering on the door of her flat.

When Kay hadn’t answered, the woman kicked the front door in, easily shattering the flimsy lock, and then proceeded to beat the crap out of her, screaming obscenities as she went. Kay had no chance to explain that she hadn’t known the man was married before the woman attacked her.

The man had conveniently forgotten to mention that he had a wife, but then they rarely did. Kay doubted that even if she had been given time to protest her innocence that the woman would have taken any notice. Saying she didn’t know was a pretty flimsy excuse after all.

By the time her assailant had mercifully departed, she had left Kay minus most of her front teeth. With no money for dental treatment in her impoverished state, she now had no choice but to go around looking like some horrible, toothless old crone. To top it all, her landlord, despite witnessing the woman smashing in the door downstairs, still made Kay pay for a new lock.

Since she had lost the teeth, she had found men very hard to come by. Perhaps that in itself wasn’t such a bad thing. Deep down, she felt quite disgusted with herself for taking men home with her to the extent that she had. There had been at least a dozen in the past eight months and none of them had satisfied her need to feel wanted in any way. All they had done was selfishly and emotionlessly thrust away inside her with not the slightest consideration for her needs.

They had been using her and she had been letting them do it. Kay knew things had to change, but she didn’t know how. She was stuck in a rut and seemed incapable of breaking out of it. Most days she started with good intentions but nothing ever seemed to go her way. When every night was spent in the pub with the same old people, one day just merged into the next in one long cycle going round and round again. After a few drinks any good intentions soon went out of the window.

For the past six months she had been working in the town centre for a branch of a high street chain of stores. She had started out on the tills but she had been moved into the stock room not long after she had lost her teeth. Her job now consisted primarily of locating and bringing out items that customers had ordered. Her manager had said she had been reassigned due to a reorganisation but nobody else had been moved.

One day she was out of sight behind the back door on a cigarette break when she heard a couple of the other girls gossiping about her. They were joking that she wasn’t allowed on the tills anymore because she was frightening the children. This had been incredibly hurtful but she didn’t let on that she had heard them. She just wept quietly on the inside and got on with her work. She had thought the two girls were her friends, as they were always as nice as pie to her face, but it just went to show that she couldn’t trust anyone.

Ever since then she had felt paranoid about what people might be saying about her, leading her to live an increasingly reclusive lifestyle. She went to work and she went to the pub and that was the sum of her life. The first she had to go to or she would starve, the second was the only public place she felt comfortable in, and even then it took several vodkas before she could truly relax. At least in the pub she was among those of a similar ilk, other losers and alcoholics, all drowning their souls together. If not exactly friends, at least she knew where she was with them.

Her job was minimum wage, soulless work, which barely paid her rent, let alone anything else. Unable to face the world, on her days off she spent most of the day holed up in her flat until it was time to go to the pub. Recently, most nights had ended alone with her crying herself to sleep trying to figure out how and why her life had gone so wrong.

When she was eighteen, she had seemingly had it all. She was one of the brightest girls in her class and put it to good use in her exams, achieving three straight A’s in her A levels. She had stunning looks too, having been blessed with a natural beauty and a lovely, hourglass figure.

Not only did she have brains and looks, she had an easy-going, bubbly personality too. It was rare for people to have all three of these things in abundance and it didn’t go unnoticed. She was popular among the girls at school, all of whom wanted to hang out with her, but never abused that popularity by acting like some sort of queen bee.

As for the boys, they were swarming all over her in her later years of school. Most would have walked over hot coals if it had given them a chance to be her boyfriend. She resisted all offers, though, wanting to wait for the right one.

With offers from both Oxford and Cambridge she seemingly had a glittering future ahead of her, but she wasn’t in any hurry. Before leaving school she had already decided to put off going to university for a year to fulfil a desire to go travelling. Not only was this going to be an amazing adventure that would broaden her horizons, it also fitted in nicely with her long term plans. Unlike many her age she had very clear ideas about what she wanted to do with her life and how she was going to make it happen.

She was going to travel the world, then return to do a degree in media studies. That wasn’t something Oxford or Cambridge specialised in, but she had no qualms about going elsewhere in order to get the degree she wanted, even if those other universities didn’t quite have the same prestige. She wasn’t one for standing on ceremony.

She planned to work hard and make sure she graduated with the top honours. Afterwards, she would forge a career in television, making and presenting travel documentaries around the world.

She could have undoubtedly achieved all of this had it not been for one fatal flaw in her character. Despite her high intellect, common sense and clear ambitions she had a blind spot when it came to men. Waiting for the right one to come along had not worked out for her, and eventually her hormones overcame those good intentions. From that point onwards her judgement in that area had been terrible, and she knew it.

Looking back, she could pinpoint the precise moment it had all started to go wrong. A bad choice of date for her end-of-term school ball had set in place a chain of events that had led to her being married with a baby by the time she was twenty-three.

Even that she could have overcome and still forged that career later if she married the right man, but she hadn’t. Her choice of ball date had been unwise, but she didn’t learn from that mistake. Her subsequent choice of husband had been nothing short of disastrous.

Dark, despairing thoughts swirled around in her mind as she struggled up the street, just like the few, final, stray autumn leaves blowing around her ankles. The wind was from the east and directly in her face as she battled on through the bitter cold. Her attire of short red skirt and skimpy leopard skin top provided scant protection against the elements. She had bought both cheaply in a charity shop, items that less than a year ago she would never have dreamed of wearing. They made her look like a slag and she knew it, but then everyone thought she was one anyway so why bother to hide it?

 The plastic advertising board for the local paper outside the newsagents was being severely buffeted in the wind and looked like it might blow over at any moment. “CHRISTMAS KILLER STRIKES AGAIN” screamed out at her from the board.

She passed a police van, the occupants uneasily keeping an eye on the noisy crowds emerging from Ye Olde Chapel, a chain pub at the other end of the town. From there it was only another couple of hundred yards, past a rocker’s pub and an old man’s pub, to the chip shop, above which lay her home of the past nine months.

The thought of yet another night ahead in the grubby little flat with its yellow-stained walls and constant stench of fish filled her with gloom. The flat had been intended as a temporary stop gap but there didn’t seem to be any hope of her finding anywhere better any time soon. Not with the way her estranged husband was deliberately dragging his heels over the divorce.

Although she had long reverted to her maiden name and referred to herself as a divorcee to anyone who might ask, she was technically still married. Her ex was making things as difficult for her as he possibly could, even by his standards.

The divorce proceedings which she had instigated several months before were dragging on and on. He had painted a very convincing picture of her being an unfit mother during the negotiations, not only to his brief, but also to their daughter. He had even gone to the extent of having a private detective follow her to rake up mud. Despite their separation, he was still making her life just as much a misery as he had when they had lived together.

Her heart sank when she saw how busy the chip shop was. There must have been at least twenty people packed into the relatively narrow customer area. There was no external entry to her flat – she had to go through to the back of the shop to a door marked “Private”, the very door that her enraged assailant had kicked in before removing Kay’s teeth.

Thankfully there was no sign of the owner, her hideous, obese and slug-like landlord, Mr McVie. His fish and chip empire stretched to two shops in the town and three others between here and Oxford. Mercifully he must be at one of the others tonight.

She had no desire to run into him. On top of her other woes, she was suffering serious financial problems, made worse by the extortionate amount of rent he charged her. She knew for a fact that there hadn’t been enough money in her account this month to pay it and it had been due three days ago.

She entered the brightly lit shop, relieved to be out of the cold, and started to make her way through the groups of revellers who were eagerly clamouring for fat laden protein and carbohydrates to soak up the alcohol they had drunk.

From the front door she had to go all the way to the far end of the customer area, which took up the whole of the right hand side of the shop. There were two doors at the end – the right hand one of which led up to her flat.

The counter ran the whole length of the left hand side of the shop. Kay herself felt hungry after her nightly skinful of booze, but the food in the glass displays didn’t look particularly appetising. There were a couple of dried up fishcakes that had probably been there for hours, a couple of battered sausages and a single, crusty, old pie.

Behind the counter, two or three young men busied themselves serving the drunken customers with their orders. Most were ordering kebabs which were always popular at this time of night. One of the men was busy slicing meat off what Kay always thought looked like a slowly rotating giraffe’s neck. Another was taking a Hawaiian out of the pizza oven. It wasn’t just a fish and chip shop. You could get almost every sort of fast food you could ever want in McVie’s.

She had almost made it across to the back of the shop when she stumbled slightly, right in front of a group of rough-looking lads. Fearful of falling, she grabbed one of them for support but far from being helpful, the lads cheered at her clumsiness. They were five or six of them, all in their mid-twenties. As she looked up at the face of the one she had grabbed hold of she recognised the face. She had spoken to him earlier at the bar in The Red Lion.

One of his mates, a tall lad with spiky blond hair and an earring laughed and said “Hey, Dave, isn’t this that old slapper you were trying to chat up in the pub earlier?”

Dave, a fit, muscular looking guy who looked as if he seriously worked out, looked embarrassed. “Err, no I don’t think so…” he said.

His denial didn’t do a lot for Kay’s self-esteem.

“Don’t fancy yours much, Dave” shouted another one of the group.

The others all chortled, as Kay fumbled in her bag for the key to the newly installed Yale lock on the door. There was no way she wanted to get any food now; she just needed to get out of here. But the lads were blocking her way.

“Do you mind?” protested Kay. “I’m trying to get to my flat”

“So that’s what the fishy smell was in the pub earlier”, said the blond man. “Dave here said he thought it was your fanny.”

“Go on Dave, give her one”, shouted out another of the horrible men. “Maybe you’ll get crabs – this is a fish and chip shop after all.”

“Why don’t you get her to give you a blowie, Dave?” shouted out yet another. “She’ll probably be really good at it with no teeth to get in the way. I can’t stand a woman that bites, can you?”

Laughter rang out all around, and not just from the men. The other customers were joining in too. Her humiliation had been was well and truly complete. Finally locating her key, she forced her way through them and with relief managed to get the key to turn in the lock.

“The dentist isn’t that way, love” said the blond man. “They’re two doors down.”

Everyone was laughing now, even the workers behind the counter. Not a single person in the shop had stood up for her. They had been like a baying pack of wolves, picking on the weakest.

She opened the door and rapidly closed it behind her. Then she staggered up the stairs, desperate to put distance between her and the sound of the men’s laughter, still ringing in her ears. Entering the one-room bedsit, Kay sank down on her bed and wept. How could the men have been so cruel? How could her life have gone so wrong? She had never felt so alone.

She reached for the half-empty vodka bottle by her bed and took a swig. It was the only way she knew to blot out the misery.

Later, drugged by the massive amount of alcohol she had consumed, she slept. It was poor quality sleep that would only leave her feeling worse in the morning.

She may have felt alone, but she was not unobserved. As she slept, there was a presence in the room, unseen and undetected by her. A spirit, one that another of the town’s residents had once called an angel, had been watching over her.

Kay needed help, and the following day her angel would be waiting to start her on the road to recovery.

Rock Bottom will be released on 27th January 2017 and you can pre-order it here: Rock Bottom

It is a sequel to the novel Midlife Crisis, which was released in July and can be found here: Midlife Crisis