Saturday, 28 February 2009

A view of the sea

Sometimes I take a photograph on the spur of the moment that I just like. This is one of them.

I know it's not technically very competent, but I liked the view of the ship moored out to sea and the couple walking on the edge of the shore.

It was taken from the seafront in Vilanova i la Geltru in Catalonia.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Fisherman's Friends

I'm not normally one for plugging a product, but this is one I feel needs comment - if only because it seems harder and harder to find stores that sell them.

By way of explanation, I'm one of those people for whom winters mean catarrh, an itchy throat, and either a blocked or runny nose. In those circumstances, the potent lozenges from Lofthouse's in Fleetwood are a real life saver: in particular, on the cough-incubator that is the London Underground, they really seem to help ward off infection.

Now I realise that, like Marmite, they are something you either love or hate: the intense combination of menthol and eucalyptus is unrelieved by the sugar you find in other cough sweets, and they are famed for being the strongest lozenges available. I don't exactly love the flavour, and admit that drinking a pint of beer afterwards makes for a weird sensation, but they don't half work: a clear nose and soothed throat are almost guaranteed.

And as far as I am concerned, the other brands of lozenges and sweets simply don't cut it - they might be nicer to suck or chew, but they are child's play in comparison (and those sticky, sugary concoctions can't be good for your teeth, either). Lofthouse have to be doing something right: their product has been going now since 1865.

My only gripe is that they seem to be harder and harder to find. I forget how many stores I have been into, to find they don't sell them - or, worse still, don't even know what I'm on about. (Part of the problem here is London's cosmopolitan workforce: asking for a 'Fisherman's Friend' from someone for whom English is a second language doesn't half get you some strange looks sometimes. By way of example, I discovered today that neither Sainsbury's nor Boots the Chemist in Holborn stock them.

Perhaps I ought to write a guide: 'Where to buy Fisherman's Friends in central London?'

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


One of the best known features of Spain is its passion for the fiesta, a tradition kept alive and well even in the face of modern communications and globalisation. Every town has its annual highlight – celebrating a saint’s day, or a political or historic event.

The highlight of Vilanova’s fiesta calendar is the Carnaval, held over a week in the run up to Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday – otherwise known as Mardi Gras.

Whilst its neighbour, Sitges, is internationally known for its camp parades of carnival kings, queens and drag queens, attracting an international tourist crowd, Vilanova’s is a much more homely (but still impressive) spectacle. Events over the week include a parade of floats, a children’s parade, a battle of the meringues (think: a street fight of all ages with wet meringue instead of custard pies), and a masqued ball. Everyone seems to get into the spirit of things, with whole families adopting a theme for their fancy dress.

The week finishes with a parade and ceremony of the ‘Burial of the Sardine’ on Ash Wednesday, when a large model sardine is buried on the beach. This is a healthy snub to the church authorities of yesteryear, when the sardine ceremony parodied the pre-Lenten ‘burying of the fat’ performed by the church.

But the highlight is the Sunday Celebration of the ‘Guerra de los Caramellos’, literally the ‘battle of the sweets’. For this, seemingly the whole town turns out, to watch the various carnival groups (of which there are dozens), each in their own distinctive costumes and with their own brass band, parade around the town. Every square in the centre is taken over, with the whole town in party mood.

But the most distinctive feature are the sweets, carried in huge shoulder bags and, at various stages, thrown into the air with great gusto. And we are talking lots and lots of sweets here: around 20 tons, to be precise; the pavements and squares become a colourful, not to say crunchy, mosaic of colourful sweet wrappers and boiled sweets. No-one seems to bother collecting any to eat; they just get trodden down, until the soles of your shoes become crackly and sticky.

It's all great fun, and immensely colourful. The pavements and drains are covered with the cellophane-wrapped debris and are sticky for days afterwards – a reminder of what you should have given up for Lent…

Friday, 6 February 2009

Lost property

I'm in mourning for a pair of lost gloves. It sounds pathetic, I know, but these were the best fitting, comfiest and nicest gloves I possessed, and like an idiot I left them on a train. (I'd just had a lousy journey thanks to tube disruption, and left them on an overground train while still nursing my grievance).

Of course, I've telephoned the lost property office, but past experience doesn't lead me to have much faith in the system. I lost a cap earlier in the year, and reported that, to no avail.

Now I might hear you saying that I can easily get another pair of gloves. Wrong. It took me ages to find these: they are black leather, but fit very closely, and have a button fastener. I recall them being hard to find when I bought them ten years ago: my main problem is that I have small hands for a man, somewhere between a size seven and seven-and-a-half. Ordinary 'medium' sized gloves end up having an irritating empty bit at the tips of the fingers, and that just won't do. I've visited John Lewis, Peter Jones, House of Fraser, Liberty - you name it - but to no avail.

Next time I'm putting nothing in the luggage rack above or behind the fold-up table in front...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

After the snow, I suspect every other blog will about the weather this week, either carping on about how a few inches brings everything in the UK to a standstill, or how wonderful it is to have a day off.

I'm firmly with the latter. We've had a good six inches here in West London, falling all in one night, and it's the worst single snowfall for as long as I have lived here. So we can't be expected to gear up for it: the cost of all those snowploughs sitting doing nothing for years on end would be something to grumble about in its own right. And one day off every ten years is hardly a disaster (especially when most of us do loads of unpaid overtime). Clearly, places like hospitals have a torrid time, with ambulances struggling through snow-bound side roads, and wards being short-staffed just as there's a surge of broken bones and twisted ankles from people slipping over, but for the most part we catch up pretty quickly.

Actually, not everything did grind to a standstill, despite what the news media would have you believe: I travelled yesterday morning from Barry in South Wales back to Kensington, and the journey was pretty smooth: OK, my train from Cardiff was cancelled, but another one (from Swansea) turned up around the same time, and made it to London Paddington, taking only five minutes longer than usual. There was no District Line south, but by a combination of the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines I was still home in half an hour. The worst bit was the last few hundreds yards from the Underground station, as the pavements were snowy. But, as you can see from the photo, it did look glorious, and a succession of charmingly eccentric snowmen have been built in the gardens over the last 24 hours.

There were a few surprises in what kept going and what did not: the Heathrow Express was suspended, despite the rest of the Great Western main line working normally, and despite the fact that the Piccadilly Line - with its vulnerable ground-level electric rails - was operating normally through to Heathrow. Apparently, trains cancellations were caused as much by the fact the staff couldn't get to work, as by snow on the line.

Still, things around here seem to be back pretty much to normal, so roll on spring!