Friday, 26 December 2008

Now begin the Boxing Day Sales

So, Christmas is over, and now begin the Boxing Day sales.

But before we begin to contemplate the best sales to look out for, let me ask a question: when did the January sales become the Boxing Day sales? Both BBC and ITV news talked about 'the traditional Boxing Day sales'. Traditional? Since when? For most of my life the sales began after the January New Year holiday, and it is only in the last decade that it has crept forward slowly as people have had longer holidays that have joined up Christmas and New Year. I can remember the slightly sarcastic comments made by people about the building trade having two weeks off at Christmas, whereas for many it seems to have become the norm.

The norm, that is, unless you work in retail. Here, the trend has been reversed: longer hours and shorter holidays, to satisfy the public craving for shopping as a leisure activity. The final bastion of Sunday opening was breached in 1994, although Christmas Day and Easter Sunday Day remain excluded from the legislation. Indeed, yesterday, on the way home from church, the centre of Brighton was eerily quiet, with just a few people out and taking in the Christmas Day air.

Anyway, despite of - or perhaps because of - the current credit crunch, the retail sector has gone overboard with its 'traditional Boxing Day' sales, with the news reporting huge, excited but frustrated queues at Selfridges in Oxford Street in particular, and busy mornings at Manchester's Trafford Centre and the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.

As for me, well, I'm joining in a very different, but equally modern, post-Christmas rite: the escape to warmer climes, and the equally excitable but frustrating queues at Gatwick. Happy holidays.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

How to warm yourself up in Winter

Well, the obvious answer is to sit by the fire, but a delicious and more convivial alternative is to find a pub that does a good selection of winter ales (preferably with a real fire, as well).

For the uninitiated, Winter Ales are slightly heavier ales, designed to warm the cockles of your heart. They are often brewed with additional ingredients such as raisins, ginger and cloves to give them a stronger, more seasonal taste: some even resemble Christmas Pudding. Another favourite method is to use dark, roasted malts to give rich, chocolatey flavours.

If a seasonal ale isn't your thing, you could always choose styles such as Porters and Stouts, which are naturally richer and heavier in flavour, and which are often not brewed during the summer months.

We recently went to the Charles Dickens pub in Southwark, and they had an excellent selection of winter ales: almost like a mini beer festival (see photo). Winter ales styles included Harvey’s Christmas Ale (8.1% ABV!), Okell’s St Nick (4.5%), and Rudolph’s Ruin (4.6%). As ever, these seasonal styles have great names.

Alternatively, head for the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester, from 21st until 24th January 2009, at the New Century Hall. With a selection of 200 beers, real ales in a bottle, as well as ciders and perrys, there's bound to be something there to lift the gloom of cold January nights!

Where have all the nut roasts gone?

With Christmas fast approaching, I spent part of my week-end in Brighton looking for Nut Roast mix for the veggies on Christmas Day. Now, I know it's cheating slightly to buy a ready-made mix, but with all the other things we have to do on Christmas Day, it does make for an easier life, and also the brand I normally buy is extremely reliable (having eaten more stodgy or gritty nut roasts than I care to admit).

Now, with Brighton being one of the UK's centres of alternative lifestyles (it has the highest number of Green Party Councillors in the UK), you'd have thought buying a nut roast would be a cinch, wouldn't you? Especially before Christmas, when it's a guaranteed winner.

Alas, no. It seems to the laws of supply and demand have gone completely awry. We went first to Holland & Barrett on London Road, but were told that no longer stock it, despite having been asked eight times that day for it. (Doh! Isn't that telling you something, then? Or is it a case of Stalinist centralised control deeming that only larger branches shall stock nut roast mix?)

Next stop was Infinity Foods, one of the country's largest health food shops and a Brighton stalwart of a business, and the UK's oldest food co-operative. Alas, a similar problem: no nut roast mix, they'd run out, supplies not due in until next week, etc.

So, along I went to Holland & Barrett's main branch in the centre of town, in North Road. Actually, for a main branch it doesn't look much bigger than the one in London Road, but it does stock nut roast mix. Alas, however, they've run out. So, in vain I trekked down to Waitrose, and then across the road to the large Taj international health food supermarket. But no. Nothing. Zilch.

Oh well, looks like my old recipe, then...

Friday, 19 December 2008

A pause for thought from Rowan Williams

I'm a regular listener to BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, which has been part of my morning ritual for over a decade. A lot of the time it's just straightforward news, and at other times the political argy-bargy does get a bit tedious, but occasionally something really does cause me to listen, to pause for thought.

Yesterday, was one such occasion: Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was speaking to John Humphries about the past year as part of his Christmas message. It was a calm and measured piece, and in marked contrast to some of the rather adversarial interviews in which Humphries is involved.

The most widely reported of the Archbishop's comments were those he made about the present economic crisis and culture of greed, which he described as "a sort of reality check which is always good for us, a reminder that what some people have been calling 'fairy gold' is just that".

Many papers reported with glee his questioning of the Government's current policy of encouraging people to spend again as "a little bit like the addict returning to the drug".

But most of the discourse was actually about re-orientating society, and changing our values:

"I'd like to think that in this sort of crisis, people would be reflecting more on how we develop a volunteer culture, where people are willing to put their services at the service of the needs of others so that there can be a more active and vital civil society.

"I think there's a good chance of that and I'd like to hear more from the Government about how a volunteer society can be encouraged."

Other subjects included knotty questions about Iraq, Zimbabwe and disestablishment. After the unfortunate episode earlier in the year when his comments - clever, but naively placed - on the place of Sharia Law were widely reported out of context, Williams appeared to handle himself much more assuredly than in many previous interviews. I hope that this marks the beginning of a trend: he is too important - as well as thoughtful and wise - not to be listened to.

If you haven't heard the interview, it can be found on the BBC website.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A quieter Hammersmith

I recently went to Hammersmith to stock up on a few things, and was shocked to see how quiet it was, especially as the Christmas shopping rush is supposed to be upon us.

Now, I know it's not the most exciting or upmarket shopping centre in West London, but it does have a decent branch of M&S, a large branch of W H Smiths, several discount sports retailers and quite a few independent shops.

A few retailers I spoke to said it was largely down to the effect of the Westfield shopping centre, up the road in Shepherd's Bush. Although the range of shops there is different, there's a lot of variety, and there is still a novelty effect as the centre is so new. Coupled with the fact that Oxford Street has seen a lot of heavy discounting as well, the overall effect for smaller centres such as Hammersmith was painful, exacerbating the effects of the credit crunch and economic downturn more generally. The King's Mall had at least one large empty shop unit; I hope this is not a portent of things to come.

Of course, Westfield is in the same borough as Hammersmith, and it must have been obvious that, being so close, the new development would compete pretty directly with Hammersmith town centre. So I hope the folks at Hammersmith & Fulham Borough Council did their sums before agreeing to the Westfield proposal...

Sunday, 14 December 2008

More on weather

Serves me right.

I write a blog about the average nature of November's weather, and then we have a day like yesterday.

I suppose that, compared with the typhoons and hurricanes that happen elsewhere, we get off incredibly lightly (not that I would have provided a sympathetic ear to such comments, as we struggled through rain and strong winds when house-hunting in Brighton). But it poured and poured, and we both got thoroughly soaked, the wind more than a match for our feeble umbrellas.

Is there anything more stressful than cold, wind-driven rain?

Friday, 12 December 2008

An almost average November

Despite the fact we have had some early frosts and some parts have had November snow, the last month's weather turns out to have been pretty average - except for slightly higher temperatures.

This is all according to the Met Office's website, which records monthly weather statistics against the average for years between 1961 and 1990. The statistics are impressive: overall, in November the UK had 92% of the average rainfall; 98% of average sun; and only the temperatures showed much variation, provisionally being the coldest November for maximum temperatures since 1998, but with minimum temperatures being about 1.0 °C higher than average - the month as a whole was 0.6 °C above the 1961-1990 mean. (Sorry if that takes several goes at reading it.)

Of course, as ever, such averages hide a lot of regional differences: Scotland had near-average figures, whereas England was a little warmer. And rainfall patterns were more variable: Wales had only 86% of its normal rain. But that's pretty good given the vagaries of our climate - even before allowing for any spice that may be added by Climate Change.

In all, it's a great website for those who (like me) like facts and information. As well as monthly, seasonal and annual averages, they show the data from 1914, so you can see how the climate has changed over that time. It's particularly reassuring to confirm that we really have had a very wet year: against the 1971-2000 average, Spring rainfall was up by 10%, and summer rainfall up a whopping 44%. Autumn (Sept-Nov) has continued the trend, up 9%, although it's been spot on the average for temperatures, and the coldest since 1993.

One trend that is definitely noticeable, though - even without sophisticated data analysis - is the slow and gradual rise in mean temperatures: OK they bounce up and down a bit, but almost always at or above the average over the longer period. From 1914 until the 1990s, the annual average temperatures tended to be between 7 °C and 9 °C, whereas it's now been above 9 °C every year since 1997, with 2006 the warmest year on record, at 9.74 °C.

If that seems a little cool, don't forget it includes temperatures at night, when most of us are tucked up in bed. The average this November was 6.2 °C - not bad when you consider that the coldest November recorded was 1919, when the average was a wintry 2.3 °C - more like February, and one of the factors which may have worsened the effects of that great influenza epidemic which swept Europe after the First World War.

Clearly, if you've a mind for statistics, this is one website that can provide hours of fun. If not, then just enjoy our currently dry and sunny December!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

No more Clangers

I seem to be writing a lot about obituaries, but I saw one yesterday that I could not let pass: the death of Oliver Postgate, aged 83, the creator of children's BBC TV favourites Bagpuss, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Pogle's Wood and Ivor the Engine.

- the tales of a rather portly, pink, cuddly cat - recently won a TV poll for the best children''s character of all time. I don't recall that particularly, but I was a great fan of Noggin the Nog (and his arch-nemesis, Nogbad the Bad), Pogle's Wood and particularly The Clangers. One of my student turns (after a suitable quantity of liquid lubrication) was to do an impression of the Soup Dragon - despite her name, a friendly character who provided the nourishment needed by the Clangers on their quaint, little round planet.

The creations were brilliant for their simple inventiveness, as well as having a very British, comforting warmth to the story lines and eccentric but loveable characters. The Smallfilms company he set up with his business partner, artist and puppeteer Peter Firmin, made many of the productions in a studio converted from a disused cowshed in Kent, often using home-made equipment.

According to the BBC, Postgate stopped making films in 1987 when he said the children's TV commissioners no longer wanted what he had to offer. More fool them. An entire generation of British children - now middle-aged adults - begs to differ!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A new future for Warwick Road

One of my neighbours recently alerted me to the existence of an innocuous-sounding document entitled the "Warwick Road Planning Brief". Adopted by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea earlier this year, this is essentially a master plan for the redevelopment of what, in central London terms, is a huge site along the Warwick Road, between the Tesco on Cromwell Road and Kensington High Street, close to Kensington Olympia station.

It's quite interesting to read how the planners see the possible future of the site: although it is actually four separate parcels of land, the brief tries to foresee what it might look like if it was developed to a unified plan to create a sort of 'urban village' of over 600 homes.

The good news is that it is intended to be residential, with a few local shops, although quite what will happen now with the credit crunch in full swing is anybody's guess. One building which may or may not survive - and the plan says it would welcome its demolition and replacement - is the quirky Homebase store, opposite the Warwick Arms pub.

Of course, the southern end closest to Tesco has already been redeveloped; first came the new Tesco; then the huge bulk of the appropriately-named Warren House, adjacent to Homebase; and now the former petrol station between the two has been demolished, with a new building rising rapidly in its place. But from Warren House northwards, the west side of the road looks rather forlorn - though the faux-Eqyptian decoration on Homebase, which the brief rather generously describes as 'Post-modern', does provide a little light relief.

The brief envisages the demolition of all the buildings from Homebase northwards, from the huge Charles House on Kensington High Street to the derelict-looking old telephone exchange, and also Homebase itself. The only part I would be sad to see go is the Radnor Arms. Closed over two years ago, it is in a very forlorn condition now, but the adjacent lane is still cobbled, and it provides a small patch of historic interest along what otherwise feels a bit like an urban motorway.

Still, as I said, the current credit crunch and accompanying recession looks rather set to slow down the pace of new developments, which may be no bad thing: time for the brief to gain a wider audience, and for the locals to think about what they'd like to see along this site.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

An Icon of Architecture

Saturday was a sad day for world architecture with the death of the Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House. The great sails were dimmed on Sunday as a tribute and mark of respect.

The Opera House remains one of the most iconic examples of architecture, and is perhaps the most internationally recognisable building of the 20th Century. At a time when modern architecture has acquired a very mixed reputation in the eyes of the public, from the problems of post-war system building to the 'carbuncle' accusations of the Prince of Wales, here is a building which has not just been admired, but taken to heart by many.

And yet its construction (which lasted nearly 15 years) was equally legendary for its technical problems, cost overruns and off-site rows, which ultimately led to Utzon's resignation. It's still not entirely clear who was to blame, although - with hindsight - it's probably fair to say that no-one realised at the time quite what a ground-breaking and complex design it was. But there can be no doubt that it graces its waterside location perfectly and, alongside the adjacent Harbour bridge, has become the very image of modern Sydney - as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Utzon never visited the finished structure, but was said not have held a grudge over the episode: perhaps the greatest tribute to his talent is that all three of his children have since become architects.