Monday, October 27, 2008


Back in May, shortly after we got our BT Vision box, I recorded The Station Agent. Painting, cats, gardening meant that I didn't get round to watching it until this evening -- only to discover that the recording cut off before the end. Argh! I was really enjoying this and will now need to order it from Amazon to find out what happens!!

I hate recording from the BBC; running late rarely happens on commercial channels -- too many ads to show. Grrr.

Spotted, on the way up to Heathrow

Some contributions to Clive's SCB (stupid corporate branding) series:

Burnt Tree Vehicle Solutions (it's a car hire firm -- why would they use "vehicle solutions"?)
Caring for Tomorrow! (a parcel delivery firm -- don't they know that tomorrow never comes, or is that code for saying that they don't deliver on time?)

But, we did see a great tagline on a biscuit company lorry -- Bite Me! There is hope.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Here, have some samples"

Remember: The first taste is always free. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about class A drugs or upmarket pet food, someone, somewhere wants to get you (or your pets) hooked. Our pusher looked nice enough. Sure, he'd given us a lecture on feeding the girls right; he'd warned us against giving them those lesser (read: cheaper) cat foods, as they contained low levels of meat and lots of lovely salt and sugar. Hills was the best stuff, the right stuff. More than 60% meat, low in salt and sugar, lots of vitamins for a shiny coat. If you were a cat, he seemed to imply, you'd want to be eating Hills, too. If we didn't, our girls would be at risk of tooth decay, diabetes, and heart disease -- and we didn't want that, did we?

"Here, have some samples."

So, we gave them the free samples -- they were free, and we're tight-fisted! What harm could it do? Up until that point, they'd been happy with Felix and Waitrose own brand, but they adored Hills! Wolfed it down, leaving shiny clean dishes behind. Nothing to throw out -- great! They were happy, so I was happy. But then they refused to finish up the Waitrose own brand (I gave the rest to Fat Bob); only Shin would eat the Felix, because she's greedy. And then I discovered how much Hills cost. Twice the price of any "bad" cat food and not available in supermarkets! No, you have to go to "specialist" pet stores, like Pets R Pricey. Start them on Hills and you'll find yourself cruising around small industrial parks at 7 p.m., desperately trying to find their next fix. And when you discover a special offer -- such as today, hurrah! -- you start stockpiling boxes. We now have 7 boxes (all that Pets R Pricey had on the shelves), each containing 12 pouches -- that's 84 pouches! Enough to see us through till, oooh, mid-December. After that, it's back to scouring the InterWebs for more special deals while watching our bank balance drop like stocks on Wall Street and cursing the day that we ever accepted those samples.

Hills: Pet owners' ruin.


They just don't care about the credit crunch ...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Same old, same old

A batch of redirected mail arrives today -- largely from the Netherlands. It contains:
1. A bill from Waternet for 105 euros.
2. A WOZ statement (property tax bill) from the Gemeente Amsterdam for 2008.

As should be perfectly clear by now, we don't own a property in the Netherlands. We haven't done so for 18 months. We de-registered at the Gemeente like good little Dutchies when we left, and we even sent in a statement, complete with land registry certificate, to show that we had sold the property. Of course, none of this trumps the fact that the woman who purchased our flat is primarily based in the UK and has no incentive to register with the Gemeente, which means they think we still own the flat -- despite the fact that the bill itself shows that we sold it last year.

I phone the Gemeente. The woman who answers tells me that if we owned the flat on January 1, 2007 we would owe taxes on it for 2007. I pointed out that the WOZ was for 2008. She said we'd have to submit the statement blah blah blah. I pointed out that we'd done that. "Have you had a reply?" Clearly not. "Oh, well you will have to wait for the assessment." What assessment? What is there to assess? The fact that we clearly do not own the property? I somehow fail to mention that we have moved from our previous UK address -- although we have also filled in a form to tell the Gemeente, who have clearly not processed that either -- and figure that this is probably the last time we'll receive anything, our various forms having disappeared into the morass that is Dutch bureaucracy.*

I phone Waternet. Despite the fact that the only date on the bill is August 2008, it is for the first three months of 2007. I point out that I had already paid a 2007 bill in June. Oh no, that was the "Owner's bill" -- this one is for actual water usage, with an extra charge for January, as apparently we all use far more water in January than in any other month. Must be all those baths we take to keep warm. I tell him I'll pay and then ask him to promise that he won't send me any more bills. He laughs and agrees. I, once again, fail to notify him of our change of UK address. The thought of spelling out Otterbourne is too much. Good luck trying to find us, Waternet! (This is what is known as the "Savage" method of repatriating from NL to the UK -- just disappear and don't tell anyone anything.)

Once again, I give thanks that we are no longer living in the Netherlands. Sorting out the great Winchester versus Eastleigh council tax debate was a doddle compared with trying to convince the Dutch authorities that we have, indeed, sold our flat. The swine.

*Of course, I realize now that we should have sent all the forms to the Gemeente in Amsterdam by registered post -- if such a thing exists for international mail. I am such a dolt!

Monday, October 20, 2008

One helluva book

On returning home, we were greeted by a veritable mountail of mail. In amongst the credit offers and un-redirected mail for the previous occupants was a gem: a copy of "Clint: The Man With No Legs" by this author. I'm not sure what I was most impressed with: the clever and funny cartoons, the professionalism of the publishing, or the canny use of the corporate mailroom to distribute these items to friends and family.

I particularly liked: "At the park, Clint feeds the pigeons ... wisdom."

Thank you!

Reading is glorious!

Actually, that should read "reading is glorious but Reading is ... not so bad." We spent 48 hours there, quite a few of them asleep, and the best thing I could find to take a photo of was the lifts in the John Lewis department store. To whit:

It's a wonderful lift! Look at the curves and chrome!

This is a little unfair. Reading is a perfectly pleasant small city. However, its historic heart has largely been obliterated by a 1990s mall and its recent replacement, The Oracle; this is identical to the new Norwich mall, complete with House of Fraser at one end and a World of Sports (note: no actual sports equipment sold) at the other. There are a few nice streets and buildings -- with a particular shoutout to the quaint Merchant's Arcade and its secondhand bookshop, collectors' store, and brand-new sweet shop -- but you can't get anywhere near the prison, and the abbey ruins are closed. As with most other UK cities, corporate buildings and small apartments are being thrown up, but it remains to be seen whether they're ever occupied. It also has a fiendish one-way system that seemed determined to stop us from reaching our hotel and led to angsty three-point turns.

However, we managed to have a rather nice weekend. Scarily, it was my first night away since we moved into our new home ... back in April! The weather was good, and our parking was free, thanks to NCP's credit card payments system not working on Sunday morning. The kittens got to spend their first nights in a cattery and appear to have survived -- although they've been quite mouthy since getting back from pokey this morning. We had a lovely meal at the Malmaison Brasserie and even managed to find me a winter coat and jacket, courtesy of Ben Sherman (in the aforementioned mall). Best of all, we met up with friends, both for coffee and cake on Saturday afternoon at Picnic, one of the few independent coffee shops near the main shopping area, and then at a noisy, sweaty 40th birthday party at Afroba on Saturday evening. And at the end of the day, that's what really counts -- not buildings.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Barn owls

I make my first, tentative foray into village life, attending the local conservation group's meeting in the village hall. I was approximately half the average age of the other attendees, but no matter. I met several of my neighbours and won a prize in the raffle! We had a very entertaining talk on the recolonisation of the Test Valley with barn owls, complete with some truly stunning photographs. Apparently, barn owls are under threat from lots of things: hurricanes and lightning destroying nesting trees; jackdaws and rooks evicting the owls from their new, human-made nesting boxes; cattle troughs in which the mothers drown; a lack of fence posts for the owls to perch on; and the over-manicuring of riverbanks so that wealthy fishermen don't have to cast their lines out over rank vegetation during their "10 days for 3 grand" fishing extravaganzas on the Test. However, one of the biggest problems is agribusiness: Unless farmers are paid to leave strips of land uncultivated around their fields, there are no insects, no voles, and thus no food for the barn owl -- or many other species.

I blame Thatcher. Obviously.

However, in an example of political correctness gone mad, the conservation group has had to put on hold its plans to take part in a "Tidy Up Britain" campaign -- because it would be required to take out insurance and provide stout gloves
for everyone taking part. And, if we want young offenders to tidy up the local churchyard, we have to pay their travel expenses, as the probation service has run out of money. Unbelievable!

Next stop: the Save the Children coffee morning tomorrow!

Honey fungus

It sounds so pretty, doesn't it? As if it ought to attract bees and have a sweet scent. Only it's a huge, clumpy toadstool that collapses back in on itself in a steaming, sweaty mass -- oh, and kills hedges, too. Not the ivy/bramble evil hedge, of course, but the relatively well-behaved beech hedge. And there's nothing we can do about it, apparently. The spores feed on the deadish tree roots that are only an inch or so under the surface of our lawn, and you can't kill them. You have to wait for the decaying organic matter to fully decay. And even then, the spores might still infect the soil.

But we could put concrete over them . . .

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The lawn is broken, too

All my gardening books and Gardener's World -- now "must-see TV" on Friday evenings -- tell me that I must work with the conditions that exist in my garden, rather than fighting them. There's no point trying to grow acidic-soil-loving plants in chalky soil, and if you have lots of clover in your lawn, have a clover lawn -- helpful stuff like that. Unless, of course, your lawn is made up of 50% moss, 20% ivy, 10% clover, 10% mushrooms, and 10% actual grass/weeds. We have at least three different varieties of fungi in the lawn at the moment, and I've spotted several other specimins during the past month. So while a camomile lawn or a clover lawn or even a daisy-strewn lawn all sound delightfully English, a "fungal" lawn isn't quite so appealing. Worse yet, I can't identify whether the damn things are edible or not, so it's not even as I can use them in a risotto.

To top it all off quite literally, what little grass there is is buried under a 2-inch thick layer of pine needles, courtesy of the large Scots Pine at the bottom of the garden. I keep raking them up and more keep falling, along with hundreds of pine cones. And the tree casts a shadow over the lawn in the winter sun, which means it stays dark and damp -- just right for promoting mushroom growth. Sure, it's a beautiful tree, a feature of the lane even -- but if it weren't here, I wouldn't miss it. In fact, I'd welcome its removal. (Ssh! You're not allowed to say things like that around here.) Perhaps it's time to crack open the BBQ for one final -- and incendiary -- farewell to summer and to the tree ...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The BT Vision box is broken

We had an electrician in yesterday morning to replace our outdated, non-compliant wire fuse box held together with bits of string with something more 21st century -- it's all gleaming switches encased in shiny plastic with circuit breakers in case the shower pump goes crazy. As a result, the power was off all morning, and when I plugged the BT Vision box back in, the power light on the front just flashed away sadly but didn't actually do anything. After a few frantic emails and texts to Istanbul (PJ's current location), we determined that it wasn't working. I cycled the power, checked the Ethernet cable, and finally discovered an on-screen message that told me to call the BT Vision help desk.

Now, one of the joys of living with a tech geek is that you are never allowed to call a service provider help desk. This is on a par with asking for directions and is seen as a full-frontal assault on his masculinity and technical abilities. Given that he doesn't get back from Istanbul till later today, I was thrown back onto dodgy terrestrial TV -- and we only appear to get BBCs 1 and 2. I'm allergic to BBC1, so was forced to watch Twiggy's Frock Exchange and Britain's Style Genius.

The former reinforced the stereotype that women are grinning Sex and the City-esque idiots who will squeal when shown a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes -- even ones that are decorated with cheap gold coins, just like the sandals that you buy when holidaying on a Greek island and then consign to the back of the cupboard when you return home and to your senses. The latter was all about how wonderful the British High Street was, despite the fact that most British women clearly can't find anything in it that is well-made, flattering, and well-fitting. Just because Kate Moss looks good in a furry jumper and fringed gold jacket doesn't mean that anyone else will. And why would you want to?

I'm blaming Mary Quant, Biba, and the 1960s in general. Bring back proper tailoring and clothing for proper women! And bring back the service on my BT Vision box -- and quickly!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"It's like polenta, only tasty!"

I clearly have a thing for food that you can eat with a spoon: mashed potatoes, soups, soupy stews, rice pudding -- and now sweetcorn polenta. This was another Grauniad weekend magazine recipe, this time courtesy of Yotam Ottolenghi. It is pretty simple, although you do need a food processor.

Take 6 ears of sweetcorn and shave off the kernels. Doing this into a large bowl stops the little blighters from flying everywhere. You need about 560 grams. Then, place them in a saucepan with 500 ml of water and 20 grams of butter. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 12 minutes. Put the kernels and a little bit of the water into a food processor (leave the rest of the water in the pan) and process the hell out of the kernels -- it takes about 3-4 minutes to get them really smooth. You may have to scrape down the sides of the bowl and add a little more water.

Return the paste to the pan with the water and cook on a low heat for about 10-15 minutes, stirring all the time, until it thickens. Then stir in 20 grams of butter, 200 grams of crumbled feta cheese, 1/2 tsp of salt and some black pepper. Keep stirring for another 2 minutes and then serve, preferably with some sort of tomato/veg sauce on top.

Now, I don't mind ordinary polenta but PJ's not so keen -- hence the quote that's the title of this post. But this stuff knocks ordinary polenta into a cocked hat! It's bright yellow summer on a plate -- just right for a cold, dark September evening. Again, no pics; it got eaten far too quickly for that.

As the skies get greyer and the temperatures drop

It's time for some pictures of some of the gorgeous flowers in the allotments behind our house.

We were so lucky with the weather in September; we were able to actually spend some time out in the garden, rather than just watching the sodden lawn and plants from the shelter of the conservatory. In addition, we've found new walks nearby, most notably across a semi-private motorway bridge to the Chamberlayne estate between Otterbourne and Hursley -- which also makes an excellent (and thankfully level) running route. On Sunday, we headed off to the Michaelmas Fair at Weyhill near Andover, and then on for a pub lunch at the Cross Keys at Upper Chute; again, like the Meons the previous weekend, a slice of classic English countryside.