Friday, 29 December 2017

Gift Vouchers - the gifts that keep on giving...(grief).

I am sure I am not the only one sitting around post-Christmas with a stack of gift cards wondering how/ what to spend them on.

Before I commence the inevitable rant, let me just qualify that I am in no way having a go at the kindly folk who give gift cards as presents. After all, in principle, they are a good idea. They are the perfect half-way house between gifts and cash.

The problem with gifts? How do you really know what to get someone? It applies to people of all ages. Grandad likes his allotment so let's buy him a trowel. Even though he's got a perfectly good one already. The kids were into Lego last we heard so let's buy them some of that. No - that's no good - Lego is old hat now and has been superceded by Minecraft. What about a nice bottle of wine for Dad? What? He doesn't like Malbec? Well how were we to know? Fussy, ungrateful bastard!

And so on and so forth...

What about cash? Well it seems a bit crass doesn't it. Besides how do we know they won't spend it all on sweets (kids), or drugs, fags and booze (grown-ups)? Or just paying next month's credit card off after the Christmas excesses? We don't.

So that leaves that old standby - gift vouchers/ cards. Like I said, a good idea in principle but why do the retailers make it so hard to spend them? They of course love them because it's as good as money in the till. In fact, it is money in the till, money that might never be redeemed, particularly if today's experience is anything to go by.

In the past, I've had vouchers and cards that have gone out of date, a real bone of contention. I recall getting some many years ago for some clothing retailer and by the time I went to spend them, only a year or so later, they had expired! That's money straight in the coffers for the retailer. And then of course you have to hope the retailer in question doesn't go bust before you get round to visiting them, a real possibility on Britain's beleaguered high streets these days.

Vouchers for some places are better than others. For example, this Christmas we had some for Argos and for Gap. Now Argos, I don't have a problem with. Why? Because you can get a huge range of things at Argos as everyone knows. Sooner or later, there's bound to be something I need, so off I pop and get it - very handy. Plus there are Argos stores everywhere so you don't have to travel far.

Gap? Now there's a problem and here is where my tale of woe begins in earnest. I don't mind Gap clothing - like every man, woman and their dogs I walked around in a Gap hoodie back in 1999 or thereabouts. I don't really need any new clothes right now, but I figured Gap would probably have something I could use.

So off I trotted to their website to see what I could find. Thankfully I could find some clothes to fit, being a somewhat larger gentleman at the top end of what major retailers offer, particularly after the annual Christmas overindulgence. Fortunately online clothes retailers seem to cater for us bigger chaps rather better than the actual stores which don't appear to offer much in the XL+ or 38+ waist jeans range. I can only assume this is because they don't want fat people blocking the aisles in their shops and putting other customers off. Either that or it's because they haven't kept up with Britain's fashionable obesity trend and have drastically under-stocked on all the 40 inch waist trousers and XXL shirts causing them to sell out.

Not a problem for me - being someone who basically hates setting foot in a clothes shop I just buy all my clothes online. But what's this I find in the small print? My Gap gift card can't be used online. I have to go into a store. A sense of impending doom began to wash over me at that point. I had already clocked that the items I liked on their website were marked "online exclusive".

I discovered that my nearest store is in Cheltenham, fifteen miles away and scheduled in a visit as part of my day travelling around visiting family etc. By the time we got to Cheltenham and finished queuing for the multi-storey car park, it was almost dark. And bloody freezing. Eventually, after much wandering around slipping on the snow, I managed to find the store.

And the result? Nothing. I can't find hardly anything in my size, and what I do find I don't like. Gap's not a patch on the store I remember last time I set foot in it about fifteen years ago. By now I'm getting seriously hacked off. The wife has already had exactly the same problem trying to spend her  River Island vouchers. In the end we give up and go and have a large KFC to get over it, in the process pushing me ever further away from high street waist sizes. It's a vicious circle, I can tell you.

I'm moaning constantly on the way to KFC so eventually she buys the gift card off me to shut me up, saying she'll use it "at some point". I pay for the KFC as a thank-you, even offering to go large - well it's the least I can do, and we both sit there in moody frames of mind at our failed (and frankly unnecessary shopping trip). I make a mental note that however well husbands and wives get on most of the time, they should never be allowed to go clothes shopping together.

We can't go anywhere else because the shops are all closing so we drive back to Evesham in the dark reflecting on a job badly done. Thank goodness I stocked up on wine this morning is all I can say.

A couple of glasses of wine later and it's all better. Now I just have to hope that the relative who bought the Gap vouchers doesn't read this...and if they do, can I have Argos next year? You never know when the toaster's going to blow up!

Jason Ayres is a former Oxford Mail columnist and the author of the bestselling Time Bubble series and numerous other novels. His New Year's resolution is to give up clothes shopping.

Monday, 16 October 2017


The subject of today's blog entry, as the title suggests, is the humble potato. At first glance this might appear a somewhat mundane topic. What on earth can he say about potatoes to fill a few hundred words, I hear you ask? Well, quite a lot. believe me!

As a member of the potato buying public, I have become increasingly frustrated of late by the ever declining size and quality of my potatoes. As an old-fashioned chap at heart, I like to keep a lot of the traditions I grew up with alive and one of those is cooking the great British Sunday roast.

Sundays aren't what they were when I was a lad. Much of what made Sunday special has now gone. You can't even listen to the Top 40 any more - not that you would want to considering the crap that's in it these days. Radio One in their infinite wisdom have moved it to Fridays. Bit that's another story.

But no-one can stop me making my Sunday roast. Except when we have it on Monday, which is quite often, because Claire often works Sundays. But I still call it Sunday dinner, regardless. This caused the kids a bit of confusion when they were younger and learning their days of the week, but they've figured it out now. I don't see a problem. Munich have their Oktoberfest in September and no-one complains about that.

One of the key ingredients of a Sunday (or Monday) dinner is of course the roast potatoes. 26 years after leaving home, I feel I've pretty much got them down to a tee. At least I had until the supermarkets started making things difficult for me.

The first issue I have is that the potatoes seem to be getting smaller. My preferred choice of potato is Maris Piper, which is widely sold by most supermarkets. They are generally sold in 2.5kg bags which I find is enough for two meals - a roast on Sunday/ Monday followed by some home-made chips later in the week. Back in the day you might get around 12 decent sized potatoes in a bag which was great - peel them, cut them up, job done.

Now, I get incredibly frustrated rummaging around the bags in Tesco to discover there are as many as thirty potatoes in a bag and most of them are way too small. To make decent roast spuds you need to cut them in half so you've got a flat surface. They are never as good if you do them whole, but some of these potatoes are so small it's not worth cutting them. They look more like new potatoes. Why are the farms that produce them digging them up so early? Let them grow to a decent size for goodness sake!

A typical modern day bag of potatoes,
which I argue, are too small.

Not only do you waste more by peeling (the smaller they are, the more you cut out), but it also takes bloody ages. It's a hell of a lot quicker to peel six big spuds than twelve small ones and peeling spuds is bloody boring, to be honest, even if the end result is worth it.

The second problem? The quality of the produce which at the moment is the worst it's ever been. When I peel a potato I expect to find some nice white flesh underneath, the odd eye perhaps that needs to be cut out, but generally a decent, fresh potato. I accept that I am bound to get the odd dodgy one, that's part and parcel of buying fresh produce, but recently it's been far more than that. Among the problems I have been encountering constantly are:

a) Horrible brown mottling all over the potato, so you have to peel each area two or three times to get beneath it.

b) Eyes/ yucky bits deep inside the potatoes where it looks like a collections of grubs have buried their way in and set up home.

c) Whole rotten areas extending right through the middle of the potato, leaving me having to cut at least half of it away or in many cases, abandon the whole potato.

These problems have been getting steadily worse for months now and reached a peak these past two weekends when I have had the two worst bags of potatoes ever. They came from two different shops (Aldi and Tesco) and were two different types (Maris Piper and Tesco own brand) so can't just be one bad batch. Last weekend I had to throw over half the bag away. There was barely enough to eek out a Sunday dinner for four and it meant I also missed out on my midweek chips. This Sunday it was just as bad. I would have taken some photos but the whole lot is in the bin and I'm not rummaging around in there now, you'll just have to take my word for it.

So what is going on? Is there a particularly bad crop this year or some sort of blight we don't know about? Are supermarkets cutting corners, not storing stuff properly or leaving it in warehouses for months? The public needs to know. Or I need to know anyway. When I used Google to find out if anyone else was having these problems, I found absolutely nothing. This means this is either just a problem I have by being incredibly unlucky or fussy and I need to get a life, or I'm the first to champion a cause that needs highlighting.

Either that or something even more sinister is going on and there really is some sort of evil blight infecting our potatoes but somehow the superpowers of the potato world are managing to suppress the information. I can imagine the following scene at an emergency meeting in Downing Street:

"We can't let the public know the potatoes are all ruined Mrs May. Never mind all your other cock-ups, if the great British public thinks they aren't going to get their chips for tea, this Government will be doomed!"

Maybe this is all in my mind. I do hope it's not. If just one person that reads this blog comments "Yes, I've been having the same problem" then I'll feel reassured.

What's the solution? Try another shop? They all seem as bad as each other. Grow my own? Nice idea in principle but they won't be ready by next Sunday and the kids might protest if I dug up the lawn and turned it into a vegetable patch. I could try the greengrocers in town - they always say we should buy local and at least they'll be fresh. The one thing I absolutely refuse to do is go down the convenience route and start buying Aunt Bessie's or any of that rubbish. I tried them once in an emergency and they were horrible.

Anyone out there got any other ideas/ solutions? Cheers.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Blog 101

Panel shows aren't always my thing (especially if they involve Jimmy Carr) but you can't go wrong with Frank Skinner. Consequently, I'm a big fan of Room 101, currently airing on BBC1 on Friday nights. So much so, that I've been thinking about what topic I might choose in the unlikely event I ever find myself invited to take part in an episode.

As someone hurtling at high speed towards the Victor Meldrew phase of life, I find there are no shortage of things to irritate me on a daily basis. However there is one thing that is currently irking me more than everything else and so here we go.

My topic is...Downsizing

I don't mean making people redundant. Although undoubtedly an unpleasant experience for many, in my case it was a completely liberating one. No, I'm talking about the disgraceful habit of manufacturers of sneakily reducing the sizes of their food products and hoping we won't notice.

We've got 10 Jaffa cakes in a pack instead of 12. Multipack Crisps and snacks that were once 25g now at 18g with "only 88 calories per bag" proudly displayed on the front. Well that's not going to solve Britain's obesity crisis if everyone now has to eat two bags because one isn't enough.

Then there are chocolate bars are laughably small. Kit-Kat Chunky? Going by the ones in the last 4 pack I bought that title is a complete misnomer. Kit-Kat Dinky would be a more appropriate name.

Honey, I shrunk the pineapple!

Tropicana litre bottles are now 850ml, Toblerone have put bigger gaps between the mountains and the next time you find yourself on the bog with not enough paper left to wipe your arse properly you can blame Andrex. You no longer get 240 sheets per roll - it's now 221.

You could hop between peaks before.
Now some sort of mountaineering equipment is probably in order.

As for an old favourite of mine, Peperami, well they've been well and truly hammered. At one time the length of a standard Peperami would have measured up favourably alongside the dong of your average porn star. As for the current pathetic offering, well all I can say is they even make me feel well-endowed.

What annoys me is the surreptitious nature these manufacturers go about this. In the old days they just used to put the price up - fair enough, it was annoying but inflation is a fact of life we are all accustomed to. Prices go up - we live with it. So man up grow a pair and put the prices up. Don't try and treat us like mugs, shrinking your products and hoping we won't notice - we do!

This needs nipping in the bud now before everyone starts doing it. Before long it'll be three-quarters of a pint in the pub, pizzas the size of CD's and movies at the cinema that only last 55 minutes, with a scaled down box of popcorn to fit the running time. Is that what we want? Because that's what'll happen...

So Frank, please put downsizing (or shrinkflation as it has been dubbed by the media) into Room 101.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Life in a new town

Here I am in Evesham. Yes, I've finally taken the plunge and left Bicester after 26 years.

I've been here just a week and have so much to talk about, I hardly know where to start.

Let's talk about the town first. What a lovely place it has proven to be! First of all there is the river. It runs in a horseshoe shape through the town and you can walk all the way alongside it, as I have done so three times during the first week. The day after we arrived, we walked all the way along on what was a beautiful late summer's evening.

I was reminded more than a little of walking along the river in Oxford, from the Head Of The River pub, with rowers everywhere. The path alongside the river is sandy and lined with mature trees, similar to the main path through Christchurch Meadows. There are various play parks, tennis courts, a cricket pitch and all sorts of other things along the way. Each time I have been along there it has been a hive of activity, with people everywhere enjoying themselves. It's no surprise, experiencing this, that Wychavon (this corner of Worcestershire) was named the second happiest place to live in the UK recently (after the Orkney Islands).

And so in to the town. The main street reminds me a little of Sheep Street in Bicester before it was pedestrianised. It's lively and full of local businesses. There is also a pedestrianised street leading off and all the high street stores are here - including those that no longer exist in Bicester town centre, such as Clarks and Edinburgh Woollen Mills. The main square, surrounded by ancient Tudor buildings, is full of cafes where you can sit outside and enjoy a coffee.

Don't get me wrong - I am not attempting to score points against Bicester here - I'm merely comparing the two and liking what I see.

Shoppers are spoiled here. There are edge of town shopping centres that contain big retailer such as M&S, Next, Currys/ PC World and many more. There is also a Frankie & Benny's and a McDonalds within walking distance of my house. The choice of shops is just amazing - and all of this in a town that has a population only around two-thirds that of Bicester.

What it doesn't have is anything like Bicester Village and I hope it never will.

Speaking of things being two-thirds the size of Bicester, go on to Rightmove and have a look at the house prices. It really is quite unbelievable. I'm sitting here in a 4/5 bedroom house that has room to swing several cats, the price of which you might just about get a two bed for in Bicester. Why? Well it's not because we're in some scummy area, that's for sure. I think it's purely down to proximity to London. We're out of the commuter belt here which makes a huge difference. The number of houses up for private rent here is tiny compared to Bicester. That's because the locals can actually afford to buy them. Good, solid, well-built houses, not overpriced boxes chucked up on new estates for landlords to buy up as an investment which they then let out for astronomic sums. Sorry if I sound like I have a bee in my bonnet about this, but I don't think that helps a community at all.

What else? The pubs are fantastic - proper traditional places. We found one called Ye Olde Horse and had a couple of pints (also at a lower percentage) and some food there. It was a family run, traditional pub and the food was amazing. Claire had a home made burger and I had a steak - both of which were among the best we've ever had. The landlady cooked them and came out to chat to us too, as did many of the locals.

Since then we've explored further, enjoying this happy, prosperous little town where it seems there is always something going on. There are flowers everywhere (Britain in Bloom winners), and all sorts of events. The town even has it's own tourist office where we were welcomed as new residents and given all sorts of information about the many festivals and celebrations that go on around this town and the local area all year long. The locals here are proud of their town and it shows.

I honestly did wonder if I would ever manage to make the break from Bicester. It was a brave move to leave, but I've never shied away from these sort of decisions as you know. I may have been here only a week but already I believe this move is one of the best decisions I've ever made. It's just 40 miles away but it's another world.

But don't just take my word for it - come over for a visit! Just don't look in any estate agent's windows, you might be tempted to stay! I wouldn't mind if you did. The one thing that would make this town complete would be if I could uproot all my Bicester friends and plant you all back down here.

Down by the river in Evesham

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Bye bye Bicester

Next Wednesday will be a landmark moment in my life. For it marks the day, some 26 years after my arrival in Bicester, that I make my departure.

Looking at it another way, that's precisely 9,595 days. I found a website to calculate that for me in case you think I was sitting there like some saddo with a spreadsheet or calculator working out. Which I probably would have been if it hadn't been for the website.

9,595 days sounds huge and it certainly has been a long time. I was 21 then, I'm 47 now. Frank Sinatra sang that when he was 21 it was a very good year. For me it certainly was, as 47 is shaping up to be. The years between have varied in quality but there can be no denying there have been a lot of them. Suddenly I appear to be nudging middle-age.

Here's what Bicester looked like when I arrived...has it really been that long?

We've established, then, that I've given Bicester the best years of my life. So what has Bicester given me?

It has given me a place to live and a place to grow and I don't just mean my waistline. I thought I was all big and clever at 21, but looking back now, quite honestly I was practically still a kid. It seems crazy to think I was buying a house at 21, but the world has changed since then. Less people went to university so more were earning earlier. In fact people did everything earlier in those days - including getting married and starting families. Any couple holding down two average jobs could afford to buy a place back then. We called it settling down, but it wasn't a good idea in my case. I wasn't ready for it. I may have been earning a decent wage, but, well I was 21 and not that big on responsibility. More money was spent in the pub than on the mortgage.

Bicester was cheaper to buy in than elsewhere in Oxfordshire at that time. The M40 had only just opened, as had big Tesco's (mark 1). The road to the M40 was just a single carriageway each way and rarely got clogged up. But of course, there was no Bicester Village then (I'll come on to that later).

Bicester not only gave me a house to live in, but also a place where I felt at home, right from the first day. After unpacking my meagre possessions (mostly records and books), I wandered into town with my girlfriend of the time. We ate chips from the Lemon Plaice on a wall by the church and then went into The Six Bells which we found to be a happy, friendly sort of place. Soon after I found The White Horse, full of salt-of-the-earth, locals, who were only too willing to welcome a newcomer into their midst. In the years ahead, my local changed, to The Plough, The Bell, and The White Hart, making friends wherever I went.

So why leave now, after all these years? Well there are all sorts of reasons behind it, but the primary motivator is financial. I want to buy a decent sized family home for my children and due to the over-inflated property prices in Bicester, it's not possible. We are no longer the sleepy little market town where you could buy a starter home for 3x your salary with ease a quarter of a century ago. We are now firmly in the London commuter belt, something that can be seen on the billboards of many new building sites which scream out "Only 45 minutes from Marleybone", one of their key selling points it seems. There are no prizes for identifying their target market.

Then there's Bicester Village which we are told has put Bicester on the map. Now I've waxed lyrical on Bicester Village many times in the past and I'm not going to regurgitate it all again here. Suffice to say that my personal view is that it has been detrimental to the town for all manner of reasons.

Moving hadn't really been an option for me until recently. I was tied to a career in Oxford for my first 15 years here, then I had my local DJ business for several years after that. But switching to writing has opened up new possibilities - I can now work anywhere.

But where? Well, it took a long time to decide. We went all over the country looking for somewhere to lay down some new roots but nowhere seemed quite right. Then, we found the perfect place in Evesham. It's less than forty miles away but what a world of difference in house prices! Having spent some time there now, it sort of reminds me of how Bicester used to be. It's about 2/3 the size of Bicester currently, but has lots of facilities we don't have here. I have a McDonalds within walking distance of my new house for a start. That's something Bicester folk have been crying out for since I got here, to no avail. It's almost become a standing joke now on the Bicester Chat page on Facebook.

Just five days to go then until an exciting and fresh start for me in a new place. I've never had much difficulty making friends so I think I will be able to make the most of the opportunity. Even so, it goes without saying that I'm going to miss all of you back here awfully. I have made so many amazing friends here in Bicester that it is going to be a huge wrench knowing I'm not going to see you regularly any more. I'm not quite sure how Bicester feels about my departure, I would imagine there would be a range of reactions all the way down from "Bicester's just not going to be the same without him" to "Great, we've finally got rid of the bastard!"

You haven't completely got rid of me as I plan to pop back for occasional nights out, probably on a Sunday, since those of you who remember my karaoke nights will know that it has always been my night. It seems appropriate that I'll be saying goodnight this Sunday at the karaoke night I started at The White Hart nine years ago. It's still thriving four years after my retirement under the wonderful Charlee. If you want a last chance to share a pint with me, or even just the chance to tell me to piss off before I go, this is your chance.

When I think about what I'm really going to miss about this place, there's really only one answer. It's not the place at all - it's the people.

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


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