Monday, December 31, 2007

Buyer beware! You're heading for the buffers

THERE’S SOMETHING about an imminent New Year that makes people do daft things. A lot of people give up drinking or smoking. Others cut back on the Findus Crispy Pancakes and Gregg’s Pasties. But some people are even weirder than that – they’re the ones who sign up to lunatic magazine part-works.

Last year we had Build Your Own Miniature Clock. This season’s belter is a weekly, piece-by-piece, build-your-own model of the 1928 Flying Scotsman.

Now it might at first look like an attractive proposition. After all, whose cocktail cabinet wouldn’t be enhanced by an O-gauge scale model of a steam engine? And look, the first issue with the first parts is only 50 pence! What a bargain!

But buyer beware. Because after that first issue, you’ll be charged £2.99 for the second one, and then – hold your breath - £4.99 for the subsequent 123 parts. Yes, 123 parts. Now even I can have a dabble on the calculator and work our that that adds up to an astonishing £617.26, not to mention 2.4 years of your life. That’s almost enough to buy a first class return to London.

So tell me, you ask, still not completely convinced that you’re being taken for a mug, how fast does it go? Err … it doesn’t. If you want an electric motor to make it go, then the piratical publishers will sell you one at a later date at a “special price”.

Now I’ve had a look on that interweb thingy and it seems that Hornby, a damn fine British company that deserves our support, will sell you a Flying Scotsman train set with passenger coaches and track for just £120. The engine on its own costs just £49.99.

As the Yanks would say, go figure.

WHILE WE’RE on about dodgy commercial affairs, there’s something just not right about the Full English Breakfast as advertised on a blackboard in the Roy’s Rolls café in Coronation Street.

The price is right at £2.95, but there’s something dreadfully amiss in the list of ingredients: Bacon, egg, sausage, beans, black pudding, tomato, toast, fried bread and a pot of tea.

Toast AND fried bread? And no mushrooms? The poor chap wouldn’t last five minutes in the Dragons’ Den with a business proposition like that. Which is a shame really, because other than that glaring error, Christmas night’s Coronation Street was 60 minutes of sheer class.

Lust, violence and lies; humour and rumour; pathos, bathos and betrayal. I don’t think I’ve seen a better-written hour of telly all year. An absolute tour de force. It’s often said that if Charles Dickens was alive today, he’d be writing for the soaps. Well on current form he’d struggle to get a job at Granada.

REMEMBER THAT story about Prince Harry slaughtering a pair of rare hen harriers on the Sandringham Estate? The one where the alleged incident was witnessed by a warden and two visitors at a nearby nature reserve? The one that led to Norfolk police finding time to interview the Prince and estate staff before sending a report to the Crown Prosecution Service? The one that could have left the royal redhead facing a £5,000 fine or six months in jail?

I said at the time that I thought it a load of nonsense. The fact that the whole thing has now disappeared without trace suggests that I was right.

But we should examine a few facts that subsequently emerged. No bodies were found, suggesting that whoever shot the hen harriers had some very smart dogs at hand. More to the point, no stray feathers were found, suggesting that whoever shot the hen harriers had access one of those portable, hand-held Dysons that look like a science fiction ray gun.

It gets dafter. There are reportedly only 20 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England, so what are the chances of 10 per cent of that population turning up in the same place at the same time? Indeed, wildlife experts say that hen harriers rarely hunt in pairs, with many bird-watchers never having seen two together in 25 years of squatting in damp bushes with a flask, a Tupperware box of lettuce sarnies and a signed picture of Bill Oddy.

So what of the so-called witnesses of this imaginary atrocity? Will Norfolk police find time to interview them in connection with possible charges of wasting police time? Don’t hold your breath. Bleating bunny-huggers are apparently immune from prosecution.

YET NOT all members of the Great British Public have had their brains dissolved by too much exposure to the Guardian and a diet of low fat tofu. When viewers of local TV news programme London Tonight viewers were asked to name a new-born lamb that featured on the show, 95 per cent all plumped for the same name.

Can you guess what it was? Yep, Mohammed. Predictably, the producers inadvertently muddled up the results and went for the name just five per cent of viewers wanted – Mistletoe.

I’D GOT so bored with turkey that I insisted that we should have goose for Christmas this year. Big mistake.

I swear I carried seven roasting trays full of fat out of the kitchen while the beast was in the oven (yes, of course you can rub it on your chest when you get a cold – if you’re certifiable), the whole house is now clad in a clammy emulsion of goose, and the damn thing didn’t really eat that well – too rich and still, unbelievably, too greasy.

Next year it’s a suckling pig. Stuffed with a duck.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Cheese made from larks' milk

IS IT just me, or is there a groundswell of thought that we’ve all had enough of the crude commercialisation of Christmas and that this year, at least, things are going to be simpler and cheaper?

Maybe it’s the ‘credit crunch’ bandied about by the newspapers that has hundreds of impoverished families thrown out of their homes and onto the streets each day. (Do you know of one? No, neither do I.)

Maybe it’s the thought of the Marks & Spencer luxury crab mousse; followed by a four bird roast with potatoes cooked in goose fat and Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and bacon; followed by a Christmas pudding containing cherries, rum, chocolate, crushed-up Toblerone, Bailey’s and heroin; topped off with cheese made from larks’ milk and cream crackers woven out of gold leaf and moistened by the tears of baby calves – maybe that’s what turns the stomach. It’s just all too much.

What’s wrong with prawn cocktail (half tomato sauce, half salad cream), a simple turkey the consistency of cardboard with a few chipolatas scattered about, soggy veg and a Tesco Value Christmas pud with a few five pence pieces stuffed in it? It really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

And don’t bring me so-called ‘luxury’ crackers containing solid silver mouse-trimmers and gold toothpicks for frogs. All I want is a decent bang, a plastic moustache and a joke: “What do you call a chicken in a shell suit? An egg.” Thank you and goodnight.

I can see this new abstinence moving into the area of present-buying as well. People are getting fed up of buying – and receiving – meaningless trifles that will lie around the house for a week or two before then migrating to the back of a cupboard and eventually ending up in the charity shop five years later. Ask yourself, does your other half really need a tin of chocolate body paint and a golf tee that glows in the dark?

And that’s why organisations like Oxfam are cleaning up by offering middle class tree-huggers the opportunity to send ‘ethical’ presents to poor people abroad. The donor gets the warm glow of self-satisfaction, the person who should have got the present gets a card telling them how wonderful they and the gift-giver are, and some poor bloke in Botswana gets a shovel and instructions on how to dig a well. I can’t imagine that they’re entirely happy about it.

“Dear Diary, it’s not been a great Christmas. Some do-gooding Guardian reader sent me two skinny goats, a Deal Or No Deal game with the £250,000 card missing, and three pairs of used spectacles. Meanwhile the woman in the mud hut next door got a Playstation 3, a radio-controlled Dalek and a Christmas pudding containing cherries, rum, chocolate, crushed-up Toblerone, Bailey’s and heroin. It’s just not fair.”

CHANGING ATTITUDES to Christmas are evident in the greetings card shops as well. (Where did they come from, anyway? They’re like candle shops. Ten years ago they didn’t exist; now they’re infesting every shopping mall from Bodmin to Bannockburn. How many stuffed Garfields and heart-shaped balloons do we need? Why can’t we just buy our greetings cards from the limited display next to the jars of sweets in the local newsagents, just like we used to do? With the price written on the back in pencil, which we always forgot to remove?)

Anyway, I was in one such shop this week when I saw a Christmas card inscribed: “To Dad and Partner”. Says a lot that, about the way we live our modern lives. There’s an understated anguish; the years of childhood angst caused by separation and divorce, made real by a bit of pink cardboard scattered with glitter.

On the surface, it’s a heartfelt sentiment. Underneath is a maelstrom of confusion, bitterness and tears. I don’t know why they just don’t be honest and make cards dedicated “To Dad and that Slut with the Loose Knickers from Number 62”.

Or, to be fair, “To Mum and the 25-year-old Somalian tribesman whose mud hut you fled to last year. Enjoy the goats. And the used spectacles.”

AND WHILE we’re talking about Oxfam, do we really need Helen Bonham Carter doing that dreadful fake laugh on their latest TV advert? It’s so obvious it’s painful. In fact, there’s more than one Christmas telly ad that’s getting my back up.

How about Alan ‘Captain Scarlet’ Hanson pretending that he always buys his Scotch at Morrisons? Stephen Fry trying to convince us that sitting in a lonely room buying stuff online is in some way festive. Nadine Baggott, Celebrity Beauty Editor, discovering something called ‘pentapepptapaedophiles’. (And what is a ‘Celebrity Beauty Editor’ anyway? Is she a celebrity who is beautiful and also happens to edit? Clearly not. And that name … it’s a bit like naming a top model Pigswill Pestilence.)

Step forward dear Lulu, enthusing about “turkey wrapped in bacon”. You don’t fool us, love. We can all see that four miserable rashers of streaky don’t equate to “wrapped”. And then there’s Davina McCall, mugging to camera and pretending to chat to her mother about her hair, when in real life the two haven’t spoken for years. And don’t even get me started on Julie Walters trying to be common with Asda employees in the most flesh-crawlingly patronising way.

FINALLY, IT’S a sad day when one of the nation’s key cultural institutions has to look to foreign shores to find a man to act as its figurehead. Was there really no Englishman who could do the job?

I mean, that Santa Claus, well he’s from Lapland, isn’t he?

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Free the ghost of poor Marley

WHAT WITH it being Christmas and all that, it’s appropriate that we should have a story about Marley’s Ghost … although in this case, the apparition isn’t the famous Dickens character but Rose West’s deceased hamster.

(You know, that’s a sentence I never expected to write.)

Poor Rose, currently incarcerated in Bronzefield Jail in Middlesex, is demanding a post mortem on her dead pet because she suspects that two other women prisoners poisoned it. Perhaps she shouldn’t feed her morning muesli to the hamster instead of eating it herself - not that I know anything about this grievous crime, officer.

Funnily enough, I never knew that people locked up in prison because of their crimes against society got to keep pets. Well, they never did in my day anyway. I suppose it’s to be expected. Hardly a week passes without the tabloids running a “prisoners live in luxury” story, detailing how the lags get free cable telly and fluffy slippers in their capacious quarters. Due anytime now is the annual “prisoners stuff their faces at Christmas” story about how the seasonal menu at Sutton Prison consists of a pigeon stuffed inside a pheasant stuffed inside a chicken stuffed inside a goose … with Ferrero Rocher chocolates left on every pillow. It won’t be: it’ll be wafer-thin institutional turkey, specially selected from birds with a sniffle, and the chef’s special four-day sprouts, four days being the time for which they’ve been boiled. But hey, that’s newspapers for you.

Anyway, back to the banged-up budgies. If prisoners are being allowed to have pets, why isn’t the RSPCA running a campaign to get them freed? Presumably Rose West’s hamster hadn’t committed any crime, so why was he doing life alongside a serial killer? It doesn’t seem fair.

Similarly, Ian Huntley’s hedgehog deserves a demonstration of do-gooders at the gates of Wakefield Prison. Mind you, in the current political climate, the jury is probably still out on Peter Sutcliffe’s pack of foxhounds.

ON WHAT must have been a very slow day, Sky News helpfully informs us that a five-year-old boy has killed a 445lb black bear in a forest in Arkansas. Now if he’d strangled it I’d have been impressed, but apparently the kid just hid up a tree and shot it.

Tre Merritt told a local TV station: “I seen the bear come out of a thicket and it was beside the road and I shot it.” (Remember that name, especially if you happen to emigrate to Arkansas and have to send your kids to the local high school in 10 years time.)

Tre was with his grandfather, who said he had whistled at the animal when it was 40 to 50 yards away, at which point it stood still long enough for the killer nipper to pull the trigger.
Seems a bit unfair to me. Couldn’t they have just locked the bear up with Rose West?
Incidentally, we don’t know the name of the bear, but we’ll have no speculation about that here if you don’t mind.

AMONGST A raft of new measures announced this week aimed at improving the lot of our children – free alcopops, table football games in classrooms, a complete ban of five-year-olds wearing thongs (or shooting bears) – was a pledge by Children’s Secretary Ed Balls to “flush out 17,000 bad teachers”.

Let’s just think about that for a minute. Why 17,000? Why not 16, 943? Why not 17,168? Who counted them, and how were they identified? Does everyone wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and carrying a copy of the Guardian count? Or are we at the other end of the spectrum, amongst the denim-wearing trendies who ask pupils to call them by their first name and then try to interfere with your daughter behind the bins at the school disco?
You see, however impressed Wee Gordie Broon wants us to be with these fantastic new measures, it just blows the whole thing apart when they come out with plainly stupid statements like that. We’re not all thickos – just those of us who passed through the education system in the past 15 years.

MORE CHRISTMAS cheer: Lollipop lady Margaret Russell has been banned from wearing seasonal fancy dress by the Health and Safety Nazis. Every Christmas for the last 20 years, Margaret has dressed up to collect money for charity while doing her job. Previous costumes have included a Christmas post box, a giant turkey, a holly bush and Santa disappearing down a chimney.

But this year’s effort – a giant gold bell – has been banned by Southampton council bosses, who insist that Margaret can only wear the traditional high visibility jacket in fluorescent yellow on health and safety grounds.

Quite right too. This attention-seeking nutter’s job is to escort children safely across the road. No parent wants her pratting about dressed as a snowman just as a mad woman in a Porsche Cayenne comes steaming down the road after a sherry too many at the Trophy Wives’ Club Christmas bash. For once the Puritans have got it right.

And I’m now going for a long lie down.

IF THE police go on strike, as threatened, over their bungled pay deal, is there any chance that former miners might be called up to keep order on the picket lines? Just a thought.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Beware the flammable angels

SO I pick the phone up the other evening and a very nice young man on the other end engages me in conversation.

So how am I today? I’m fine, thank you very much. And did I watch the football last night? I did indeed. And what did I think about Ronaldo’s booking? Funny you should ask. I happen to think that the referee was a complete idiot and if you’d care to explain to me why a player would dive when he was about to complete a hat-trick with a tap-in, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

“So,” I say, worrying that I’m being videotaped through the lounge window for some weird Picture Loans advertising campaign, “it’s very nice talking to you, but who are you and what are you selling?”

“Oh, I’m not selling anything,” he says. “It’s just that your Sky Plus box is now a year old and it’s time for you to take out the extended warranty.”

“Err ... how do you mean, it’s time to ...”

“Well,” he says, “we guarantee the box for the first year, but after that any repairs would be up to you, and it could be really expensive to replace it. It’s best just to take out the automatic warranty and then you’ll have no worries.”

“And how much is this extended warranty?” I ask. “Oh,” he says, “just £100 a year, taken out of your account in simple, monthly instalments.”

I must admit that I start to get a bit narked at this point. The bloody box is only 12 months old and already the people who sold it to me are telling me that it’s about to explode into a thousand smithereens. Unless I give them more money.

So I tell the chatty chap that I’m not interested. He’s horrified.

“Are you sure?” he asks. “Over 98 per cent of our customers see sense and sign up. You’re really not thinking this through.”

At which point I lose my rag and see him off. The poor lad is disconsolate. All that chat, all that charm, and the tight bugger on the other end of the phone won’t cough up.

I wander through to the sitting room and nervously turn on the telly. Lodged in my mind is a vision of an angry call centre worker, sitting there stroking the white cat on his lap, his finger hovering over a large red button marked “EXPLODE”.

A MAD old lady writes to complain bitterly about my decision to have Dog castrated in an attempt to calm him down, as detailed in this column a couple of weeks ago.

“There are no bad dogs,” she parrots. “Only bad owners.”

Fine. Call me a bad owner; call me a bad parent. But perhaps you’d like to stick your hand in your purse the next time the appalling beast decides to chew the corner off the 42-inch plasma telly. Which is about to be made redundant anyway by an exploding Sky Plus box.

IT’S BEEN a difficult week for bears. First we had the sad case of Mohammed the teddy, currently incarcerated in Khartoum. Then there was the controversy over the latest Turner Prize winner, a chap called Mark Wallinger, who won the art world’s premier award by dressing up as a bear and wandering around a darkened Berlin art gallery for two hours.

Now, saddest of all, we learn that pantomime stalwart Sooty has been forced by events to cancel his forthcoming tour of the Caribbean. Will nobody think of the children?

(Incidentally, I hear that supporters of jailed teacher Gillian Gibbons are complaining on her behalf that she is now jobless and has a criminal record. Point of order: she’s from Liverpool, so it’s hardly going to set her apart from the rest of the population, is it?)

SEEING AS we’re piling headlong into the festive season, we should acknowledge the enormous effort the Health and Safety Nazis are putting into making sure that we’re going to enjoy ourselves.

First stop, Paignton in Devon, where a primary school headmistress has banned children from wearing angel’s wings during their nativity concert just in case one of them goes up in flames.

Linda Mitchell says: “Last year we had wings made from cardboard and flammable material – some children got scratched. I think most parents would rather their children didn’t go up in smoke.”

Number of primary schoolchildren spontaneously combusting in Britain last year? None.

Off we go to Halesowen, in the West Midlands, but very, very slowly. There the local Rotary Club has been ordered to fit a seatbelt to Santa’s sleigh, or face a £200 increase in their annual insurance premiums.

The Rotary Club Land Rover regularly clocks up speeds of … ooh … 5mph as it tows the sleigh around the town dispensing goodwill and presents to local kids (many of whom burst into flames because they’re wearing wings).

Cases of Santa falling out of his sleigh Richard Hammond-style in recent years? Nil.

Next stop is Llandudno, in a place called Wales, where shopping centre security guards came over all Scrooge-like and banned a school choir from singing carols because they were “too loud”. Better than that, they even called the police to evict the wailing infants from the mall.

Amazingly, there was one police support officer in North Wales who wasn’t crouched behind a hedge with a speed camera, and he duly turned up to unplug the kids’ backing tape and issue ASBOs all round. Splendid stuff.

And finally, we move further down the food chain to South Wales, where another paranoid headteacher has banned homemade mince pies from his school’s annual festive sale. Apparently children regularly start foaming at the mouth and then drop dead after eating unauthorised Christmas produce.

Number of children who have started foaming at the mouth and then dropped dead after eating unauthorised Christmas produce? Nil.

I wouldn’t say that I’m depressed about all this, but I’m just off to have a paddle in my kayak. Pip, pip!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

If you go down to the woods today ...

A QUITE extraordinary thing happened to me on Wednesday. I was out shooting with a few friends and we were walking from one field to the next down a country lane when a battered old Citroen screeched to a halt, the window was wound down and a young hippyish woman stuck her head out and shouted “Murderer” at me.

I was that surprised that I looked round in case the ghost of Fred West had snuck up behind me un-noticed, but no, it was me at which her dreadlocked bile was aimed. Murderer? Well, I suppose that technically she might have been correct, especially if she was representing the late Phil the Pheasant in court, although I prefer to think of myself as a Patron of the Countryside.

I hasten to add that this took place in six-fingered, brother-cuddling-sister, rural territory. I’d expect some stick wandering through Islington carrying a 12 bore and a dead hare that had wandered into range, but not in deepest Borsetshire. And neither is our little group dressed well enough to inspire class envy. Tweed shooting suits and fat bankers in silly trousers are in short supply. A smelly old Barbour, some thorn-torn cords and a pair of supermarket wellies is the height of sartorial elegance in these parts.

And that’s the whole point. Our little shoot is a modest affair at which Courvoisier and conversation is as important as killing. It’s a million miles from the big corporate shoots with their 300-bird days and their Disneyland, three-course lunch “countryside experiences”. We’re happy to go home with a brace apiece, and the height of epicurean luxury is sharing a Kit Kat with a damp spaniel in an abandoned pig-sty.

But the fees we pay help the dairy farmer on whose land we shoot keep his head above water; the fact that he needs to provide a habitat for his mainly wild birds means that hedgerows and uncultivated strips along the borders his fields provide refuge for all sorts of wildlife. And then, once a fortnight, we come along and try to kill it, not very successfully. When I’m driving to work the next morning, the massed ranks of surviving pheasants regularly line up on the wall and mock me as I go past.

So being called a “Murderer” by a bunny-hugging, Guardian-reading, lentil-eating, benefits-claiming, pot-smoking soap-dodger with pink hair driving a polluting old car rankled somewhat. (How do I know this? I later established that the lady was part of a group of “travellers” who’d parked their caravans up by the woods at Tatchell’s Bottom. It’s OK – I’ve since called the council and had them towed away.)

I suppose what surprised me so much was the patent lack of understanding about the role shooting plays in both the economy and social life of the country. But who are we to expect townies to appreciate the nuances?

It’s the same every year when a paparazzi with a long lens catches Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II strangling a wounded pheasant at Sandringham. (And the same story does surface every year, most recently in The Sun last month. Type it into that Interweb thingy and you’ll see what I mean.) Suddenly the nation is expected to be horrified at such brazen brutality.

So the Queen acts as a “picker-up” at the shoot, collecting fallen birds, when she comes across one that is wounded but not quite Norwegian Blue. What’s she supposed to do with it? Rush it round to the bloody vets? This is a bird with a brain the size of a microbe that can’t even fly very well. Its only reason for existing is so that someone can shoot it. On the food chain, it would rank just beneath a Fourth Division footballer.

I know that if I was a mortally wounded pheasant, shot down on my own personal version of the Dresden raids, I’d rather be finished off by a Royal tweaking my neck than be left in a ditch for Mr Fox to find once night falls.

And then they wheel out some animal rights loony to accuse Her Maj of institutional cruelty. (Don’t forget – these are the same people who would dictate what you can eat in your local restaurant.)

Do they really think that? Do they really think that Lizzie sits in front of the television at Windsor Castle watching I’m A Celebrity while a be-wigged flunky stands by with a sack of partridges in case she fancies a quick strangle?

“Pass me another bird, Carruthers. That American woman is getting right up one’s nose. Oh, and put me a tenner on Biggins to win.”

The other annoying thing about some of the anti-shooting lobby is their blatant hypocrisy. At least the lentil-eaters are honest about their prejudices. The problem is the massed ranks of middle-class animal lovers who are quite content to keep cats (so content in fact that they often smell of them), yet while I’m bringing down a couple of pheasants for the pot, little Tiddles is busy wiping out the local songbird population with a Hitler-esque gusto.

And they don’t mind eating poultry that has been farmed in atrocious conditions, but pull a lemon-sucking face about the death of a game bird that has been bred in the wild, has enjoyed freedom of movement and flight, and didn’t have a clue its end was nigh until it was daft enough to hop out of a tree just as I happened to pull the trigger.

Give me that over the horrors of the slaughterhouse any day.

KIDDY PORN afficiando Chris Langham complains that his life has been ruined and that when he went to the Emirates Stadium to watch Arsenal play Wigan after his early release from jail, other supporters threw boiled sweets at him.

Hang on a minute. Giving a paedophile a ready supply of sweets? They’ve not really thought this through, have they?

LIKE YOU, I am absolutely outraged that a teddy bear has had its paws chopped off in Khartoum just because the kids in its class decided to call it Mohammed.

Let’s just hope that the British Embassy gets him home as soon as possible, and that he then receives better treatment than our wounded troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.