Lifestyle, Opinion

Dating in the Digital Age: Reflex rather than Reason

As a (borderline) millennial, my dating experience has been largely shaped by the digital age. For all the technological advances of the 21st century I imagine dating was a lot simpler without mobile phones and the internet. Without the hassle of apps, profiles and algorithms you’d know if you liked someone by more organic means. The way someone made you feel by how they behaved and what they said. Now that route is getting lost behind a seemingly unassailable quest for perfection and decisions made by reflex rather than reason.

We now have to stand out just to remain competitive. How we look and what we say are now held up for the wider community to judge rather than just limited to your peers outside in the real world. There’s a lot to be said about the corrosive effects of Love Island yet that desire to be a perfect physical specimen (a snack, apparently) has been adopted online. While that toning competitiveness sates the needs of the contestants and the public watching at home, we all do it when we pick and choose on an app. Abs, tan lines, white teeth and height all seem essential requirements to get anywhere these days. Fail on just one of those criterion and it’s curtains.

Are they sociable? Do they holiday in the right places? Have they got a dazzling smile? Are they adventurous? Do they prefer bars or clubs? Do they work out? Are they good with kids? Do they spend way too much time with their pets? Do they like football? You can only gauge so much from a set of six photos and even then that’s a stylised, choreographed glimpse into someone’s life. A picture can speak a thousand words but two seconds in someone’s company will likely tell you so much more.

Choosing the right photos is only half the trouble as you then have to choose the right words. There seems to be a thin tightrope between sounding cheeky and borderline creepy. A little about me can be make or break and what emojis you pick can go a long way. Quotes can be inspired and insipid. Chat-up lines fixed and foolish. Lists demanding and divisive. Whatever you do type will be judged, pored over and scrutinised all in a couple of seconds.

Then there’s the question of which photos and which words to use on which apps. Should you be more considered on Bumble because the girl gets to choose? More flirtatious on Tinder to aim for the Saturday night crowd? More opinionated on OKCupid to suit their algorithms? That’s even before considering whether to pay on Eharmony.

This is where the Paradox of Choice comes into play. If you limit yourself to a handful of options at least you’ll have a good idea of what you like, at least you can reason with what’s available instead of acting on reflex with the options you see. Much like grocery shopping, instead of doing your perusing online and deliberating over which grade of asparagus you want actually take a tote bag to your local greengrocer. Shopping is a lot easier when you can see with your own eyes and judge what’s put in front of you.

With so many apps to choose from and so many profiles to consider some of us seem blinded by choice, crippled by so many options and helpless to take a chance. To know so many people match what you’re looking for can raise hopes yet it all seems so temporary and even cheap when there’s such a plethora of options. Let’s put it this way. If you went to the pub and were introduced to someone who wasn’t your ‘type’ but you still hit it off, are you more likely to go out with them rather than the absolute snack who can’t hold a meaningful conversation?

Dating apps now fill a gap of convenience. While we were once limited to the people we’d physically come into contact with, now our eyes have been widened to people we might not even cross paths with, all in the palm of our hands at a moment’s notice. People we can judge in an instant despite never sharing the same space. There’s something inherently wrong about that; a quick cynicism we’d all do well to avoid. That your hopes of a match can be dashed because someone doesn’t like your haircut in a particular photo, or disagrees with your top five films, or thinks you could lose a few pounds. Things you’d gloss over in public are now the be all and end all online.

At least in the real world you can usually tell if someone likes you with a glance. Ghosting doesn’t happen because you can simply be polite and make your exit. Rejection can be a forced smile and a dignified response. Few people nail first dates as easily as they do online dating, therein lies the concern. We can all parade our best selves online yet when it comes to nailing a first impression and holding a conversation isn’t that where the focus should be?

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Opinion, Podcasts, Politics, TV

The Final Things I Wanted To See In Game of Thrones

After eight years and 73 episodes, the final end credits have played out on Game of Thrones. Today is the first Monday after the end and I’m not entirely sure what to do with myself. I’m not even sure whether or not I’m content with how the whole shebang finished. Certainly, the amount of debate that the ending has brought suggests that while some, like me, are satisifed there will be thousands of avid fans who wanted so much more. For the record, no, I have not signed the petition to remake season eight. As much as I sense that the season was rushed, it’s insulting to so many people involved in the show’s production. If you’re not happy with how something ended, take the effort to create something yourself. Having said that, here’s a list of the things I wanted to see.

  1. Closure. Jon became Queenslayer, the wheel was broken and Bran was crowned the new King. Who’d have thunk it? If those were the bullet points around the show’s ending, there was a nod to John Hughes in how the second half of the finale went of tying up loose ends. Bronn got Highgarden, though it would have been nice to see him lord it up. Tyrion became Hand to The King, more as a penance than a reward. Similarly, Jon returned to The Night’s Watch to spend his life sentence with Tormund and Ghost. His arc now resembles that of Aemon Targaryen; being a potential heir to the throne yet finding himself protecting the realms of men with duty presiding over love. Sansa became Queen of The North, evoking Elisabeth I in ruling alone and forgoing children. Her sister became Arya The Explorer. Brienne joined The Kingsguard, Pod was knighted and Sam became Grand Maester, (though does that mean he’s left Gilly, Lil Sam and even Lil’r Sam in Horn Hill?). It was all a bit… cosy, part of me wanted a truly ambiguous ending to keep me guessing. One suggestion doing the rounds is Drogon landing in Volantis to leave Dany’s body with a Red Priestess with the final shot being her gasping for breath after her resurrection. Would have been… interesting.
  2. A New Power Structure. For all the expectancy around The Mad Queen’s demise, it was Drogon that took the decisive step. Having realised that Jon wasn’t responsible for her death, rather her power crazed quest for The Iron Throne was, he turned his heartbroken fury and fire to the seat that is now a molten puddle. Quite what Drogon appreciates of politics is anyone’s guess yet you’d hope they’d spent some time extrapolating the extent of a dragon’s intelligence. Maybe a bit more time for Dany to explain to Jon her almost telepathic link with her dragons in an effort to add some meat to Jon as Aegon Targaryen so it didn’t look like such a pointless reveal too. In any case, the feudal system is over and rulers will now be chosen in The Dragonpit, which calls into question why so much was made of Cersei’s pregnancy/courting of Euron and Dany’s infertility/courting of Jon as none of it mattered in the end. The King was picked and he couldn’t even bear children. I was close with my prediction of a new council though the show failed to explain how The Dothraki would have taken the news of Dany’s death. Would they have casually returned to Vaes Dothrak? What about how the rest of the Six Kingdoms would have taken it? For all the lolz that Sam’s suggestion of democracy brought, there was a point to be made of how the masses would have taken the news. Aside from some Northern folk and the ashen remains of King’s Landing we only truly saw the main players. We didn’t even find out how followers of the Faith of the Seven took the destruction of The Sept of Baelor. Did they revolt? Did they rejoice? Did King’s Landing become a totalitarian state ruled by fear? The council that did get to decide the fate of Westeros had a mismatch look to it; less who was worthy to sit on it but who, of even minor importance, was left. Even Ser Davos didn’t think himself worthy, Edmure Tully laughably didn’t and we didn’t even see how Gendry would behave as a Lord. At least we got to see the benefits of titty milk to Robin Arryn.
  3. Gendry to land a telling blow with his warhammer.Two battles and not a single warhammer in sight. Disappointing.
  4. Revealed: Tyrion is also a Targaryen.He’s not even important enough to be in the official account so no-one really cared, even if he did get to decide the next ruler, while in chains.
  5. Revealed: The identity and motive of The Night King.Likely to be included in the Bloodmoon prequel which is under development.
  6. The Valonqar prophecy comes true.  Maybe this’ll come out in the books. One of the aspects of the final season that should be noted, and the TV show in general, is how it’s steered away from the eccentric, magical theories in the books to centre on the characters. No Dragonbinder, no ‘Feagon’ and no Lady Stoneheart. If you did want to hear some in-depth discussion of what’s been missed from the books I’d recommend listening to the SpoiLore Editions of the Game of Thrones podcast by Baldmove.com
  7. Arya ticks off her kill list. The theory that she would kill Dany after face-swapping proved to be just that. In any case, her ninja skills would have to get her past Drogon.
  8. Happy Endings.There were certainly some happy endings for many of the supporting cast, perhaps they were too happy for many.
  9. Bran warging.Strangely we didn’t get much warging, or did we? There is a truly staggering theory that suggests that Bran has been planning this from more or less the start. I imagine if you rewatch the show from the beginning knowing he ends up on the throne, every decision works in his favour. Bran always seemed to know where everyone needed to be. Like the ultimate tactician, was he playing the Game of Thrones the entire time? Did he warg into Dany when she laid waste to King’s Landing and did he warg into Jon when he killed her? Did he ensure her closest advisers and one of her children died in front of her to push her to the edge? Did he ensure Sam told Jon at just the right moment to raise the stakes?
  10. Samwell Tarly becomes George R.R. Martin.Talking of Sam, in a truly meta moment we saw him present A Story of Fire and Ice.
  11. The Prince That Was Promised.Another for the books as the show couldn’t be bothered with it.

 

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Lifestyle, Music, Opinion

Seven lessons learned from Fyre Festival

As the title to the Netflix film goes, Fyre Festival really was ‘the greatest party that never happened’. The promotional material depicted supermodels in their natural habitat of sun, sea and… swimming pigs. There was supposed to be Michelin starred chefs, luxury villas and extravagant cocktails. This was supposed to be the festival that only those rich enough to afford it and those shallow enough to enjoy it would attend.

Day tickets were priced from $500 to $1,500 with VIP packages including airfare and luxury tent accommodations for $12,000. The marketing campaign worked a charm as supermodels and Instagram influencers posted a photo of a blood orange square to cries of ‘but what does it all mean!?’ Occasionally they would even hashtag the festival they were being paid to promote. Tickets sold out and that’s when the trouble started.

That the founder, Billy McFarland, is currently serving a sentence of six years behind bars for fraud should tell you that the festival truly went tits up. But what lessons can be learned from the most infamous of festivals?

  1. Prioritise toilets over models

Supermodels and Instagram influencers were paid to sell the dream of icing sugar beaches, cocktails and cute swimming pigs. The harsh reality was that people would still need toilets and one of the few sensible voices on the documentary belonged to a pilot; Keith van der Linde. Having learned how to fly on Microsoft Flight Simulator he understood the concept of failing to plan is planning to fail. The pilot would insist on toilets, argue against tents and was roundly ignored. He and the festival planner were gone with less than eight weeks to go. Panic stations.

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  1. Pay your staff

There was one happy ending thanks to the documentary when a GoFundMe was set up to ensure that festival staff were paid. This included Maryann Rolle who lost her life savings through the fiasco after entertaining revelers out of her own pocket. Things could have gotten a whole lot worse as Bahamian workers threatened to kidnap the well-to-do attendees and even take out hits on the organisers.

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  1. Ensure you have an adequate stock of clean water

A particularly grim anecdote comes from Andy King, a gay New York City event production planner and associate of McFarland’s. With four trucks loaded with Evian held by customs, McFarland ordered King to bribe officials with fellatio. No joke. In the end the extreme measure was unnecessary yet without clean water the festival could have descended into carnage. Thirsty American revelers can soon turn violent as seen with Woodstock ‘99 where inflated charges for a bottle of water became the tipping point for a riot after a toxic concoction of neglected staff, a lack of toilets and inadequate shade spots.

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  1. Confirm the festival site well in advance

Plans to host the shebang on Norman’s Cay were scuppered when promotional material advertised that the innocently named island was formerly owned by one Pablo Escobar. With weeks to go, Roker Point on the island of Great Exuma was being readied by installing swing sets then throwing sand over rocks and hoping no-one noticed. McFarland really should have checked the a calendar as The National Family Island Regatta was held on the same weekend in late April. Not only was the site close to uninhabitable, there were no available hotel rooms on the island.

  1. Disaster relief tents are not ‘luxury accommodation’

Then there was the accommodation. After guests had been plied with free tequila the looming sight of dozens of FEMA tents should have been enough to sober them up. Akin to a scene from Lost, luxury villas they were not and a stampede for tents and sodden mattresses meant this was closer to the Hunger Games than an uber-exclusive music festival.

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  1. Secure your caterer well in advance too

The abiding image for Fyre Festival is not of supermodels frolicking in the sand nor of Ja Rule smoking a cigar. Despite the outlandish promotional material, it was one hastily taken photo of the food on offer that really got the public’s attention. Two slices of brown bread, two sweaty cheese slices accompanied by some meagre lettuce and tomato in a sad polystyrene box. To be fair, to offer no salad dressing is an absolute scandal. That’s what happens when a $6m catering budget is reduced to $1m and that one image went viral. Fyre Festival effectively became a laughing stock within a matter of seconds.

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  1. Don’t invite cameras if you plan on committing fraud

In legal parlance, there is such a term as a ‘slam-dunk’, a case with overwhelming evidence for a conviction. With McFarland out on bail he decided that defrauding hundreds of paying customers once was not enough, he tried to again in a ticket selling scam. Those who had bought tickets to the festival were now receiving emails from ‘NYC VIP Access’ and offered tickets to Coachella and seats at the Met Gala (alas, only those deemed worthy by Anna Wintour are allowed in to the fashion event). To the delight of the prosecution, McFarland had been filmed by an artist named Kindo. Slam. Dunk.

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Travel, TV

Visit Seville and imagine yourself in the exotic locations of Dorne and Meereen from Game of Thrones

With its blissful warm climate, strategic history and regal architecture, Seville looks fit for the big screen. Throw in some real world tribulations having been founded by the Romans, conquered by the Muslims then enduring the Spanish Civil War and it seems reality mirrored fiction when the city was selected to film the more exotic locations in Game of Thrones.

The city still carries an air of pride and importance, in fact Spanish royalty still have a residence at Real Alcázar which is the Royal Palace and Gardens and should be your first stop too. The site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and the palace’s walls faithfully depicts its myriad of monarchs and influences. From its Arabic occupancy to late Middle Ages Mudéjar then jumping to the Renaissance, Baroque and the 19th century in it’s very own Game of Thrones. Oh, and have you heard of the executed royal? The alleged brutal murder of Muhammed VI, with his blood told to stain the palace’s marble floor to this day, is the sort of backstabbing that George R.R. Martin could have used for inspiration and makes it perfect to masquerade as the Kingdom of Dorne.

Inside the palaces at Real Alcázar

Inside the palaces at Real Alcázar

Even the climate is a natural fit. With average summer high temperatures of above 35c Seville is considered the hottest city in Europe which makes it ideal for Dorne as the southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms. Granted, the plotlines may have been somewhat tedious but the Kingdom of Dorne always appeared the most opulent in the medieval-era world, Dornish outfits were majestically coloured and the surroundings had a brilliant exotic, indulgent charm. Most of that extravagance has been garnered over centuries and centred on Real Alcázar which played the Water Gardens of Dorne, the private estate of the House of Martell during series five.

The fountain in Real Alcázar Gardens where Myrcella and Trystane are filmed strolling

The fountain in Real Alcázar Gardens where Myrcella and Trystane are filmed strolling

The fountain as depicted in the show

The fountain as depicted in the show

The show first visits the Martells in episode two after Trystane has been betrothed to Myrcella Baratheon. The pair are playing in the gardens below as Prince Doran Martell has a feisty chat with Ellaria Sand on the terrace overlooking Mercury’s Pool. The terrace itself is outside King Pedro’s Palace and out of bounds to the general public though the gardens, including the Italian ‘Grutesco Gallery’, are well worth exploring.

Mercury's Pool in the Real Alcázar Gardens

Mercury’s Pool in the Real Alcázar Gardens

In episode five Jamie Lannister arrives to attempt to retrieve Myrcella from her beloved Trystane and runs into Ellaria Sand’s daughters; the Sand Snakes, in the gardens next to Pavilion of Carlos V before all of them are apprehended by Martell soldiers. Another elaborate location is the beautifully lit domes of Maria de Padilla’s Baths where Ellaria secretly convened with the Sand Snakes to plot revenge for Prince Oberyn’s death. While the Martells were known for their promiscuity, fittingly Maria de Padilla was caught up in her own Thrones-esque plot as King Pedro’s mistress.

Maria De Padilla Baths

Maria De Padilla Baths

The baths as depicted in the show

The baths as depicted in the show

Episode nine featured The Ambassador’s Hall where Prince Doran received Jaime along with Myrcella, Trystane and Ellaria, though the star of the show is the hall’s gorgeous gold ceiling. The palace must have been manna from above for the producers as such glorious elegance would have been impractical to reproduce. From the Arabic three arches to the domed ceiling, ornate furniture, exquisite plasterwork and coloured Moorish ceramic tiles, all they had to was shoot as the backdrop was so sublime. Later on the in the same episode, Ellaria finally swore allegiance to Prince Doran with the paved courtyard of the Patio de las Doncellas in the background.

The Ambassador's Hall at Real Alcázar

The Ambassador’s Hall at Real Alcázar

The Ambassador's Hall as depicted in the show

The Ambassador’s Hall as depicted in the show

For those wanting to venture a bit further, there are two other filming locations outside of the city. Santiponce was once considered one of the most important cities in the Roman age and the ruins themselves are free to visit for EU citizens. The Italica ruins have been an attraction since 1989 when it was declared an Archaeological Site by a decree of the Andalusian Regional Government. Most importantly, the amphitheatre was used as The Dragonpit in the finale to season seven which saw Cersei Lannister face up to Jon Snow and Danaerys Targaryen. The ruins are about a half hour bus ride away on the M170 which is a local bus you can catch from the main bus station at the Plaza D’Armas up to every 15 minutes for €1.60. Keep gazing out of the window as the rolling hills on the approach through the village of Camas can be likened to those in Gladiator and you can see why the Romans took a fancy.

The Amphitheatre at the Italica ruins in Santiponce

The Amphitheatre at the Italica ruins in Santiponce

The amphitheatre as it appeared as The Dragonpit

The amphitheatre as it appeared as The Dragonpit

Danaerys Targaryen as featured in The Dragonpit

Danaerys Targaryen as featured in The Dragonpit

The same spot in the amphitheatre

The same spot in the amphitheatre

The entrance to the amphitheatre was also used to feature The Hound

The entrance to the amphitheatre was also used to feature The Hound

The entrance to the amphitheatre as depicted in the show

The entrance to the amphitheatre as depicted in the show

If large, open-air arenas are your thing then you should also visit the bullring at Plaza de Toros in Osuna which was Danzak’s Fighting Pit in Meereen in episode nine of series five when Daenerys Targaryen escaped on the the back of her dragon, Drogon, after an ambush attack by the Sons of the Harpy. You will have to imagine the dragon but the bullring itself dates from 1904 and is one of the widest and most prestigious in Spain, still seating around 5000 spectators. Osuna is about 85 minutes away on a coach from Plaza de San Sebastian and costs €8 one-way, though you could get the roomy, air conditioned train for €3 more. The train trip is also a far cry from Britain’s equivalent as the ticket price stays consistent and the Renfe train itself even comes with vending machines.

The Bullring at Plaza Del Toros in Osuna

The Bullring at Plaza Del Toros in Osuna

Filming the bullring as Danzak's Fighting Pit

Filming the bullring as Danzak’s Fighting Pit

The sheer variety of historical landmarks combined with it’s easy accessibility and warm climate make Seville a great destination for a mini-break. Given the brutal history that the Andaluscian capital has endured makes it a no-brainer that the city was chosen to masquerade as Dorne and Meereen. Even without your own dragon, there are few better cities to immerse yourself in the show.

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Travel

Safari Bingo at The Maasai Mara

A safari trip to the Maasai Mara must be pretty high up many bucket lists and mine is no different. Kenya’s most famous national park is teeming with wildlife and you have probably already seen it without realising. Those migrating herds of wildebeest charging across river banks, trying desperately to avoid the waiting crocodiles with commentary provided by David Attenborough. That would be the Mara River during The Great Migration as thousands of wildebeest travel from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Mara in Kenya between July and October, I went to see what all the fuss was about.

The first thing that strikes you about the Maasai Mara is its sheer vastness. Ideally this is best seen from above and there are regular flights out from Nairobi to ‘the bush’. I booked with Safarilink which has two daily flights out to Maasai Mara from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. You COULD drive out for 5-6 hours yet flying in a thirteen seater Cessna Caravan was an experience I was not going to pass up. This remains the closest I am likely to get to a private jet, albeit for an hour long flight so I sat right at the front and gazed at the confusing flight instruments. About as close as you can get to sitting with the pilot.

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Cessna Caravan

From a few hundred feet in the air you can clearly see the herds of zebras, wildebeest and giraffes meander across the plains. Then there is the topography of lush greens, pale browns intersected with ravines. Not a skyscraper or car park in sight, and you can barely make out the runways below.

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Our destination was the third and final stop making the plane the equivalent of a long-distance shuttle bus. As the plane homed in on Mara Keekorok there was clearly no terminal, no duty-free and no café; merely a local market ran by tribes members and a hut which acted as an admission gate to the park itself. Ah yes, the fees. For tourists the cost is $70USD per day which seems excessive but this is far better than your average day at the zoo.

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We were picked up by our two kindly, knowledgeable guides; Korbin and Benson, and soon enough we were away on our first safari trip. A bright lizard sunning itself on a rock and a lion family lazing under a sausage tree were our immediate highlights. After a couple of hours we arrived at Simba Lodge and were given a hearty welcome. The rooms are mainly constructed out of wood which blends into the surroundings. There are the usual trappings of a hotel room with a kettle, shower room and comfy double bed. Most impressively, the room featured an outside balcony overlooking the stream below. We really were in the middle of the bush as a hippo was enjoying the late afternoon sun on the opposite bank, only an electrified fence separated me from the wildlife. The monkeys were still lolling around the swimming pool though.

DSC05936In order to best see the majesty of the bush it is best to get there early. With my mobile alarm set I woke to the sound of birdsong, surely the best wake-up call on Planet Earth as Attenborough would say. Then watched as the red morning light diffused from sunrise. What became obvious over the next few days was the familiarity of the bush. On the first morning we were greeted with a family of giraffes mingling with zebras. We soon found out that due to the successful policing of the poachers the animals really did not mind us. Giraffes stared at us with a vague interest then continued munching on foliage. Strangely, considering their prevalent role in The Lion King, warthogs and meerkats were easily the shyest of animals we encountered.

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As far as action went we looked to have had narrowly missed a cheetah catching his dinner as a fresh wildebeest corpse soon had its ribs exposed. On another morning all appeared serene as a pack of zebras grazed on one side of the road. On the other side a lion cub slowly crept over the brow scouting for breakfast and suddenly the zebras were on high alert. Likely due to the interests of public decency we vacated the area to let nature play its gory course.

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On several occasions we were late to the action yet even then you could see the inner workings of the bush. When the chase was over and the hunters had had their fill the other predators join in. Before carrion becomes toxic the vultures actually play a responsible role in the bush’s upkeep. Rotting corpses can pollute the land and poison wildlife, before that happens the vultures pick the bones clean. The ecosystem in perfect harmony.

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With the safari trip itself ticked off the bucket list, the next list was The Big Five or, as I like to call it, Safari Bingo. On the first day I had managed to scratch off an African lion, elephant and cape buffalo. Feeling pretty smug with a solid afternoon of safari spotting we soon went off-road. Of course, we were not the only transport on the plains as Korbin and Benson slowed down to excitedly talk to another guide. They could have been discussing the latest boxset or what they were having for dinner such is my lowly grasp of Swahili. Soon enough we edged off-road and thankfully there was a reason to suffer all those bumps. The sun was going down and soon enough we would have to have departed the park and got back for dinner. Yet the reward far outweighed the risk, within a few minutes our guide pointed into the trees and a dark grey silhouette could be seen. At last count there were three rhinos on the Mara, somehow in the 1,510 km² vastness we had managed to spot one. Only when I realised how unlikely our encounter was did I really begin to treasure it. Our return to the lodge was innocuous enough, until we mentioned the rhino. Some workers had been at the lodge for months, maybe years without seeing one, we had only been there for a few hours. The bingo card was nearly complete and the first day had ended with a buffet dinner including dessert, I was on holiday after all.

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The second day was more of the same but I could appreciate how the Mara changes during the day. From mating calls and playfighting Gazelles in the morning to herds of wildebeest minding their own business. On the second day  I took a break from the wildlife to visit the natives. The Maasai tribe inhabit southern Kenya and are resident on the game parks. Indeed, the nearest tribe was pretty much next door to the lodge and for the afternoon we got to know their local customs. We were welcomed with the males bouncing to a rhythm and soon learnt about their cattle and goat herds. Their leader, James, spoke faultless English as my Mother asked about their interaction with the wider world; the internet, education and inoculations. We were then shown their clay huts, means of making fire and a herbal remedy for all ailments which made for an insightful afternoon.

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On our final day we had a full day safari with a picnic and ventured a bit further. A thunderstorm had left mud patches across the terrain which had mainly dried out during the morning. However, by early afternoon some mud remained meaning many transports got stuck and part of the entertainment was cheering them get towed out. As we got closer to the Mara river the sheer volume of wildebeest kept mounting up but we had missing The Great Crossing as the hippos, crocodiles and Egyptian geese looked kinda bored. There was one vacant box on my Safari Bingo card and with a few hours left I managed to tick it off as we spotted a leopard lazing up a tree. I felt like shouting ‘BINGO’ but that would have woken him then scared him off.

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The final morning was also my birthday yet I kept this quiet to enjoy the majesty of the bush waking up. The giraffes and zebras grabbing their breakfast, the wildebeest slowly meandering across the plains and the lions huddling as a family. Well worth a trip, even if it isn’t on your bucket list.

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Politics, Uncategorized

General Election 2017. I Still Believe In This Country, But Not Under This Current Government.

Let me begin with a disclaimer, politics is not really my thing. Yes, I take an interest in how this country is run and how, in general, the world is becoming increasingly ridiculous. I also know people who are a lot more articulate when it comes to understanding and explaining affairs of state. Most of us get our facts from the media but my patience for impartial news is wearing thin to the extent that I do not believe it exists anymore. Since a young age I have have maintained this heavy scepticism, especially when newspapers and television become our primary sources of information when election coverage ramps up.

My main concern lies in an estimated ¾ of the current mainstream media in the UK being privately owned, ergo I don’t believe most of what is being printed being anything close to objective. The Government had an opportunity to investigate the media but dropped the Leveson II Inquiry. I do not believe the media were let off the hook without a compromise, a government able to ignore unwanted facts is a prerogative of unchallenged power. Avoid headlines. Read the manifestos and make up your own mind.

Even then it can be difficult to try to find the common good amongst all the promises. I find it easier to present politics as a fairytale; good v evil, The Force v The Dark Side, government for the few v government for the many. Thomas Jefferson saw it as a battle between aristocrats and democrats. The aristocrats are ‘those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.’ The democrats ‘identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe.’ Once you realise how nepotistic the media is and concentrate on policies the picture becomes a little clearer. Judging by the recently published manifestos, it is not difficult to work out which party fits which description in this general elections and why I still believe in this country, but only if the current government was removed.

I believe in a £9 p/h minimum wage and a tax freeze promise on wages for those earning less than £80,000.

I do not believe in zero hour contracts.

I believe in eradicating rough sleeping and raising corporation tax to £26bn. I also believe in Excessive Pay Leverage, in taxing the top 5% and those earning over £80,000. I also believe in giving HMRC more teeth to go after UK companies who plough their profits into tax havens. The rich must pay their dues before a social crisis.

I believe in renationalising the trains and bringing them back under Government control. I also believe in free wifi on trains and freezing rail fare prices before reducing them gradually while investing in infrastructure. Over £100 to visit London before 9am is for the few, not the many.

I believe in renationalising Royal Mail and the National Grid.

I believe in scrapping university tuition fees, a higher education should be a right and not a privilege. However, the Tories have announced plans to fund new free schools (academies and grammar schools) by raising tuition fees. The Conservative manifesto states; “We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools”. Universities themselves are concerned, Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, said “Universities need higher tuition fees simply because the government has cut their funding by over 80 per cent. If the fees of students are used to get more academies and free schools off the ground, this would be like robbing Peter to pay Paul but it would also side-line local parents and governors who might prefer to work with other sponsors.”

Meanwhile, free school meals for children from lower income families would be scrapped despite thousands spent on kitchens. In effect, our education system is becoming a system of entitlement.  To put figures into perspective, Tories gave a £100k tax cut p/a to 13,000 millionaires while they are removing school meals from the mouths of 900,000 kids. Dickensian.

I do not believe in a new Dementia tax for the elderly. This would mean elderly people who are receiving social care to fund the entire cost until they reached the last £100,000 of assets which the state would allow them to keep. Of course, the Tories have now made a u-turn but their intention was clear; taxing the vulnerable. The u-turn itself is also telling, going back on a repugnant proposal only because going through with it would cost them votes. The Tories even bought up Google advertisements to try and hide the ‘dementia tax’ as if the blunder was all but a figment of our imagination.

I also believe in maintaining the triple lock state pension guarantee and means-testing of winter fuel payments up to £300. I believe in caring for the elderly, not stripping them.

I believe in a properly funded NHS with free car parking, not one involving private consultancies. I also believe in restoring nurses’ training bursaries. I do not believe in dismantling the NHS piece by piece. I do not believe Jeremy Hunt has a conscience.

I do not believe in the loss of Disability Living Allowance. I do not believe in the rise of food banks. I do not believe in starving the poor and the needy.

I believe in a new Minister for Mental Health.

I do not believe in Boris Johnson as a functioning adult, can you imagine him negotiating with the EU as Foreign Secretary? The alternative is Keir Starmer LLB, QC and Barrister who is Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. A man with actual experience of persuasion in a court of law. No-brainer.

I believe in interest-free loans for homeowners to improve property.

I do not believe in unethical arms exports to the likes of Saudi Arabia, not with their human rights record.

I believe in banning the UK ivory trade, the Tories removed that pledge from their manifesto. Horrifying.

I do not believe in borrowing over £700bn over seven years with zero investment.

I do not believe in taking the internet under government control but a toughening up of punishments for online abuse.

I do not believe in fox hunting, Theresa May does.

I believe in renewable energy and clean air, not fracking. Germany has it right, not wholesale nationalisation but letting councils decide how to supply their energy and not relying on a few providers.

Strong and stable? What about the weak and vulnerable? I believe in fairness, I shall be voting Labour.

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Lifestyle, Opinion

Katie Hopkins – The High School Bully Given The Airtime She Desperately Craves

Let it be known that this has proven to be one of the hardest things I have ever committed to page. Put bluntly, there are certain people that should never be given the oxygen of publicity, the banteriffic Dapper Laughs as a recent example. Katie Hopkins also falls into this category and I am reminded of that luminous pink slime in Ghostbusters 2 which gets stronger the more hate it receives. I really do not want her to be an inspiration for anything, let alone my own writing, yet the poisonous witch is on her own personal crusade to inspire people to lose weight. Or so she thinks.

Any publicity is good publicity but I really do not want to help promote her dangerous new show, ‘Katie Hopkins: My Fat Story’. This is a woman who craves attention like The Daily Mail designs hate-fuelled headlines. A brief synopsis then; woman goes from 8st 12lb to 11st 13lb and back again to prove how easy it is to lose weight. No surprises that this is due to air in the first week of January when many are ruing those extra treats during the festive period. To have Hopkins choose to pile on the pounds to then smugly declare how easy it is to lose the weight is close to insulting yet she has history here.

Alarm bells should be ringing that her initial claim to fame came from The Apprentice, a show that rewards selfish, egotistical behaviour with a bumper business deal. This is a woman who really does not care what people think of her and seems to revel in the hatred that her poisonous views provoke. Anyone that can anger Holly Willoughby has to be a special case.

Let’s just check out some quotes from the show shall we –
Re: putting the weight on she said, “After I put on my first stone, I stopped having sex with my husband. As a fat bird, I stuck to my pyjamas and getting naked in the dark. A fat belly is not an attractive thing, fat people aren’t sexy”. This is to paint a poisonous picture of what the ‘universally perfect body’ is (hint, it doesn’t exist). There is a significant proportion of men who fail to find skinny girls sexy, are you going to try and persuade them otherwise Katie?

Later on she said, “It is just ridiculous what people do to themselves. Fat people, I mean I really I don’t know how they look at themselves in the mirror.” So ‘fat-shaming is in and beauty is not in the eye of the beholder then apparently. What this also spectacularly fails to note is that despite what Hopkins may hope, a significant amount of obese people are actually comfortable in their own skins, presumably by the support of their loved ones who actually do like seeing them naked.

According to Hopkins; “Being fat is hard work. You can’t be that fat and happy. If you’re too lazy to make a change then you’re going to be fat.” This is a mercilessly naïve statement which fails to address those that really do want to lose weight but for various reasons struggle. Some suffer from low metabolism rates as well as low self-esteem after trying various diets and not losing much weight. Some are suffering from crippling bouts of depression and find it hard to face the world, let alone go out for a run. Some lack the skills and time to cook healthy, nutritious meals for themselves.

If Hopkins really wanted to encourage obese people to lose weight she would, hopefully, be displaying a modicum of compassion. She would at least be trying to be helpful and sympathetic to obese people, maybe come up with a few healthy eating recipes of her own. Presumably we have seen this before and gotten bored of such noble behaviour from the likes of Jamie Oliver. Yet however disturbing her views on obese people are her methods are worryingly flawed, rapid fluctuations in weight have been proven as dangerous on the body, particularly the heart. Following Hopkins’ example is certainly not encouraged by any health practitioner.

Hopkins has the assumption that obesity is caused by apathy. In 2012 she told an obese woman that she wouldn’t employ her because fat people are lazy. This documentary is her chance to prove the misguided view that obese people are unwilling to lose weight. That is disputable, it can be incredibly difficult for a lot of people, it was for me.

Back in 2005 I was forced off alcohol and decided to go on a diet to lose some much needed weight. I had the time and know-how to cook my own meals but the most important thing was that I had the moral support of friends and family. The last thing I would have wanted was to see some smug TV personality tell me it’s easy. This isn’t an attack on freedom of speech, rather an attack on the editors and TV executives that allow her to be heard. Everyone is entitled to their view yet Hopkins is the high-school bully gifted a dangerous amount of publicity. The real contempt should not be aimed directly at her but at the media that continues to give her airtime.

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Fitness, Health, Lifestyle, Mens Health, Opinion, Politics

Self-Isolation Diary. Cheers, Dominic

What’s the easiest way to undermine lockdown restrictions? If you’re the Prime Minister’s chief aide then it’s driving 260 miles to visit your parents. In March. On the day that both the Prime Minister and Health Secretary test positive for coronavirus. While also likely showing symptoms of the virus yourself. Cheers, Dominic.

Did I miss the memo? While I’m struggling to retain my sanity there are several individuals quite flagrantly breaking the rules. It’s a glorious bank holiday weekend and while I’d love to pop to a friend’s house for a boozy bbq I know I can’t (or at least I really shouldn’t), even though it would immeasurably raise my spirits. People who know me should note that I’m a stickler for rules. They keep my brain and sense of decorum in check. Knowing that I CAN’T do something means I have a better understanding of what I CAN do. I can’t go to see my Mum or my friends. I can’t go out to see a girl, which has made the flat seem even more empty than it should have been during the last two nights.

But I can go on a morning walk with a cup of tea in a reusable vessel, call a friend, read outside, watch TV and films, go for a jog, join a friend on a bike ride, take photos of a deserted city centre, go to the supermarket and embark on a game of Pacman between aisles, shop online then anticipate the postman, bake then drop off a treat on someone’s doorstep. That’s pretty much it in the real world.

Discovering that a senior political adviser has broken the very rules he likely devised is a direct abuse of power. That he hasn’t lost his job only serves to show that if he can get away with it anyone can. Imagine how painful it must be for someone to suffer the loss of a loved one to the virus, not to be able to hold their hand, not to say goodbye. Then you see that news. I cannot.

For someone who’s been trying to so hard to adhere to the rules, that newsflash has only heightened my anxiety. Now I’m not even sure if the rules have any meaning anymore.

The last few days have been difficult. I’m trying to find the small joys while contained in my own mind (trying being the operative word when my mind seems to be getting darker). That film I’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix (Monos), a cold can of moderately priced lager with a well cooked homemade meal. Listening to a vinyl record while lying on my bed in the dark. Even a good night’s sleep, if I can get it.

Despite all this I’ve found myself on the brink of hot tears several times this weekend. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps this is my mind’s own way of telling me it has had enough, that it’s fit to burst with worry. That stickly cough after eating dinner too fast might as well be COVID-19. Every slight is a blow to my very core of being and I must be better.

There’s also ‘productivity guilt’, that I should feel accomplished at doing the bare minimum though I admonish myself for not having done it sooner. That I should have completed a first draft of my book by now with all this spare time yet I’ve felt painfully out of sorts that creativity has largely escaped me.

Every action now seems coated in a veneer of disappointment. Going outside to read means shuddering from the shrieks of the neighbours’ kids or enduring an inane Zoom call. Going for a jog means having to give side eye to fellow joggers or pedestrian’s pathetic attempts at social distancing as I run in the road. As if the gesture itself, or even the notion of ‘single file’, has been forgotten. What’s the point anymore?

There’s a helplessness pertaining over my every move. A mental, if not physical, prison has been built that I cannot escape until I’m told it’s ok. I’ve shut myself off from friends, preferring to have my phone off or out of sight. If I don’t communicate I won’t make plans that people will renege on and I won’t read someone picking out the tiniest fault even though they mean well. Out of sight, out of mind.

At various times I’ve listened to a Spotify playlist. Every ten minutes or so Mark Strong breaks up my shuffle play with yet another ‘Message from the Government’. Despite his straight-laced, coldly professional voice there’s a fear that the words have been irretrievably weakened by Cummings’ actions.

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Fitness, Food, Health, Lifestyle, Opinion, Podcasts

Self-Isolation Diary. Day ‘Who Knows Anymore’?

I haven’t worn a watch in over a month as time is immaterial, irrelevant when every day bleeds into the next. A malaise has fallen over me, I can feel the cold hand of depression resting on my shoulder and a voice continually asking me, ‘What’s the point?’ Even I struggle to answer it sometimes as I force myself out of bed.

Despite this uncertainty, there is a telling sense of solidarity in the air, at least in Sheffield. They don’t call this place ‘The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ for nothing. When I go for a run I make eye contact and make an effort to nod with every passerby. Normally to ensure they keep a distance yet also to acknowledge them. That might be theirs and mine only social interaction of the day and I’ve heard a few ‘hellos’ over the din of my headphones. However, I haven’t missed several pairs of joggers assuming that social distancing doesn’t apply to them and their panting breaths. Single file isn’t that difficult a concept to understand, is it?

There’s little joys to be found here and there. My herb garden has begun to sprout and the weather has been blissful. I dropped off some baking at a cousin’s (partly due to guilt and partly so I didn’t gorge on those treats myself) who noted that the pandemic and the ensuing self-isolation felt like, ‘Nature was ringing the bell’. She’s likely right. Once this is over can any employer force their staff to commute into an office when they can do the same job sat in their pants in bed? Certainly, the air tastes cleaner and I can hear the birds louder than ever before, badgers have even been sighted in the city centre as wildlife claims the vacant land.

I’ve started to get up earlier for a morning walk with a cup of tea or coffee simply to ensure I do get some fresh air during the day while listening to a podcast that’s been gathering dust. My weird dreams have largely ceased or have ceased to be so unfathomably weird. Words continue to gather in some semblance of order for my book and the latest count is… 114, 380. There’s still minor work to be done on the structure, interviews to conduct, a teensy bit more research, enquiries to be made yet it feels like it’s coming together.

In less productive developments, I’ve finished reading an 800+ page book and knocked a few more films off my ‘to-watch’ list. I’m exercising every day; whether that be a run, kettlebell workout or following a video of Joe ‘Fitness Chimp’ Wicks. I can feel my mood lifted when I wipe my sweaty brow. My baking exploits continue, even if I am getting complaints that my social media posts are making people jealous and hungry (excuse me while I just go finish off that sourdough pizza). I’ve made a pact with myself to empty the freezer of food so I can fill it with food I can plan around. I’ll also order myself a curry at some point when I work out which restaurants remain open.

Joking aside, this is an ideal opportunity for personal development. The real test will be when this is finally over. How will interactions continue? I’ve matched with a couple of girls on social apps and this is a truly weird time for ‘dating’, if you can call it that. Because you can’t date. You can’t schedule a trip to the pub or even a walk to the pub so what can you do? Get to know the person intimately from instant messaging and maybe phone/video calls then hope that as soon as the restrictions are lifted you hit it off in person. Akin to a long distance relationship, even if the match lives in the next postcode. Social distancing eh?

 

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Fitness, Food, Health, Lifestyle, Opinion, Sport

Self-Isolation Diary. Day 13 – Do you remember when?

Where has the time gone? It’s proving difficult to recall what day of the week it is when each seems to bleed into the next. I only realise it’s Monday as my flatmate leaves to go to work (he works for the NHS and doesn’t have a laptop before anyone asks).

Time is playing a key role in all this and we are all knowingly constricted by it, by the uncertainty of the situation. When will this end? When will our freedoms return? I’m trying to look past all that, at a time when we’ll look back at this period and laugh.

Do you remember when all the bars, pubs, clubs, shops and restaurants were shut? We’d just sit indoors and go outside for one trip a day, how did we get through that?

We’d queue outside the supermarket two metres apart and people came out with trolleys full of loo roll, even though the symptoms didn’t necessitate it. Oh yeah, and loo roll was selling on eBay for £1 a roll!

You’d want to slap anyone you heard outside if they were coughing. COUGHING!

We’d ‘virtually’ meet our friends via Zoom calls.

We all realised we didn’t need to go into the office, why did we even bother in the first place?

Friday nights down the pub was a video conference with drinks at home

We couldn’t hug our friends if we saw them outside

We’d move aside if our paths crossed with strangers on the pavement as if we were lepers

Oh God, there was no football was there? And Liverpool were about to win the league for the first time in 30 years!

What were we paying our Sky Sports subscriptions for?

Disney+ had just come out which was suspiciously good timing

No gigs either apart from musicians in their bedrooms playing acoustic guitars and the piano over Instagram

What did we do for exercise? There was that Joe Wicks Workout on Youtube from his living room or you’d go for a run, even if it seemed criminal

Do you remember when cities were deserted like 28 Weeks Later and how eerie it all was? Ah, what a time.

 

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Fitness, Food, Health, Lifestyle, Opinion

Self-Isolation Diary. Day 9 – Remaining Productive

I should really make a list of the things I want to do in the next few weeks or so during self-isolation in order to eke them out. Is there such a thing as being too productive? Part of me wants to remain feeling useful in general during this period while another part of me wants to recognise that this is history; right here, right now and I should be savouring the moment. This doesn’t feel like a time to truly savour though.

When I wake up, for a few seconds I forget that there’s a pandemic happening outside beyond my wall. Once I realise, a wave of anxiety goes over me and I want to stay in bed until this all blows over. I know I can’t and after a while I get out of bed and try to go about my day as best I can.

Though I’m yet to properly organise myself with a schedule my days have to include a few activities. For example;

Exercise – A half hour run ideally though a kettlebell session to also mix it up.

Reading – I’m currently partway through Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ which is over 800 pages long. Wisely I knew that the library would close so I’m given an indefinite time in which to finish it.

Cooking – Making a batch of ‘Big Soup’ and baking a loaf of bread took up most of today but was truly worth it.

bread

Cleaning – Unblocking my bathroom sink

TV – An episode of The Stranger, Dark and Better Call Saul a day means that at some point next week I’d better find a few more series’ to watch

Film – At some point I’ll make a list of all available films that I can stream to knock off my ‘to watch’ list (https://letterboxd.com/wiz52/list/films-i-need-to-watch/). Incidentally, if anyone knows of any good streaming sites to watch some of those films then please let me know.

Work – I’m essentially ‘on call’ at my office job so can expect a daily weekday chat lasting over ten minutes going through a case. The fun never ends…

Seriously though, structure is vitally important to get through this weird, unsettling period and though it seems never-ending at the moment this WILL pass. We will get to hug our loved ones again, travel where we want, shop til we drop and play out again. Just give it time.

There’s a sense that this uncertain period can bring up closer together, even galvanise a broken nation. There were over 405,000 volunteers to help the NHS in 24 hours which is incredible and gives a real indication that the country is coming together. My own sense of community may feel elongated but I’ve seen a friend at his doorstep, video-called another, spoken to my mother and a work colleague on the phone today. We’re all in this together so it helps to talk.

Strangely, this could all be nature’s way of teaching us a lesson. Earth’s way of telling us we’ve had our time. When I walked home this morning, aside from stepping into the road to maintain two-metre social distancing, the other strange thing to note was how relaxed nature seemed. The roads were so quiet and the air so tranquil. The cats were lazing in the sunshine and the birds were chirping while strolling on driveways. With the humans stuck indoors nature is having a little party.

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Lifestyle, Opinion

Self-Isolation Diary. Day 5 – What do we do without football?

Saturdays are the worst day for self-isolation. Does anyone remember what a Saturday used to be like? I had my routine DOWN

Parkrun

Warm down run to do my food shopping at the greengrocers and butchers

Soccer AM

Football Focus

Hallam FC to avoid the 3pm kick-offs

Saturday Night Football

EFL On Quest

Match of the Day

Bish. Bash. Bosh. What do we do without the football? We go for a walk around reservoirs with our friend’s dog and chat about football, that’s what we do! And that’s what I did.

Screenshot 2020-03-21 at 9.32.07 PM

After reading the news of Philip Green making his staff redundant an hour before the Chancellor introduced a wage pledge and Richard Branson requesting a bailout as Virgin Airlines staff forced to take eight weeks unpaid leave it got me thinking about who and what profits due to self-isolating from a pandemic. Here’s my top 10 in no particular order –

Canned goods manufacturers, I’ve stockpiled baked beans, black beans, chickpeas, chopped tomatoes, the list goes on…

Toilet roll makers, soon enough it’ll be our new currency

Streaming services, Disney + could not have been timed better

Pornography websites, #wanking was top trending in the UK tonight

Takeaways, as mentioned I will order from my local businesses just as soon as I run out of fresh vegetables

Authors, I’ve made such headway with the book

The environment, pollution is down and Venice’s canals have rarely been this clear

Internet providers

Hand sanitiser producers, my hands are RAW

Video conferencing apps

Anything else I’ve missed?

 

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Malted Milk Chocolate Cake Bites
Health, Lifestyle, Mens Health, Opinion

Self-Isolation Diary. Day 4 – Baking For My Postcode

As my copywriting freelance work dictates, if I’ve completed my tasks by Friday I usually give myself a ‘day off’. Right now, every day feels like that yet it’s important to treat yourself and others in times like these. I’m trying to stick to a daily routine which goes something like this –

7.30 to 8.30am – Get up, make myself a brew and breakfast then read in bed

8.30 to 9.30 – Exercise, perhaps some ab exercises but mainly kettlebells. Shower. Shave.

9.30 to 1pm – Work on the laptop, cooking, something productive

1 to 2 – Lunch

2 to 5 – More work, maybe some chores

5 to 6 – Bit of TV/video games

6 to 7 – Dinner

7 to 11 – TV/Netflix, maybe a film, complete a daily diary entry

Keeping to a structured day means my mind doesn’t drift to the chaos outside my own walls. The gyms are finally being closed as well as the pubs and restaurants. The elderly are still walking the streets and the shelves are still bare. I went to the supermarket for some baking ingredients and OF COURSE there was no flour. I’m hoping that Great British Bake Off 2021 has some stellar contestants… As I’ve noted previously, the independent shops nearby are coming up trumps. The organic shop is now employing a strict policy of only a handful of customers in at any one time (I’ve never seen more than three in there at once but hey ho) and on the off chance that they had some flour I popped my head in. The shopkeeper asked which flour I was after and as if luck would have it the last delivery dropped off some strong white bread flour so now I have no excuse not to bake my bread from now on.

I’m also trying to play my part in the community so I baked as everyone needs a treat from now and then to keep their spirits up. Having noted a journalist from the local newspaper asking on Twitter what people were doing for their communities I couldn’t help myself and replied, ‘I’m baking tomorrow and giving most of it to anyone in my postcode who’s self-isolating or who just needs a treat to lift their spirits’. She dutifully replied and so I really couldn’t not produce the goods then. Thankfully, I need little encouragement and even if my hand is splitting from washing them so often may I present some Malted Milk Chocolate Cake Bites and Oaty Dunkers –

I’m not entirely sure how I’ll be distributing them but I’d be happy to drop them on people’s doorsteps.

The rest of the day was down to chores; cleaning the cupboard shelves, two loads of washing and hoovering (always done after baking). I even managed to contact a couple more people I might send research questions to for the book.

Right now I’m listening to a live broadcast of Offbeat, a club night at Sheffield University from back in the mid-noughties while replying to a #TwitterWinchester event which brings together people taking photos of whatever they’re drinking indoors and imagining they’re in the pub. It’s quite novel and this is what our community has been reduced to now; video chats, live broadcasts and Twitter events.  Who knew a possible quarantine could be so productive!?

 

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Food, Lifestyle, Opinion

Self-Isolation Diary. Day 3

Today was another day of preparation for a situation I, and probably most of the planet, still feel ill prepared for. Having done a big fruit and vegetable shop in a fully stocked greengrocers yesterday I was disheartened to find empty shelves in supermarkets due to stockpiling and panic buying. I guess people remain stuck in their ways of shopping where they’ve always shopped. It’s their familiar place, where they know what to pay and where to find it. Easy.

I’m lucky in that on my way to my nearest supermarket I pass an off-licence (beer and wine), delicatessen (milk and cheese), organic shop (honey and eggs) and a butchers. I’ve always supported local independent businesses but right now it’s imperative we all do so. If you can, get whatever you need from your local sellers. Your sweets, your newspapers, your bread.

By the time I get to my supermarket I’ve usually managed to do most of my shopping and only need a few bits and bobs. This morning I got the only remaining bits I needed, and they still didn’t have any unsalted butter. 

On the way back I got a haircut as a further two weeks growth would likely drive me mad. Of course, I discussed the virus and yet again I noted that the ladies from the shops across the road were in grabbing a brew. Usually the hairdressers is too busy for a catch-up chat yet footfall has been quiet. Understandably people are staying indoors yet there are ways around this.

Plenty of the local businesses I know now offer home delivery so at the weekend I’m going to treat myself to a pizza. Not from Domino’s nor Papa John’s but the pizzeria in Woodseats that I’ve wanted to visit for months. If I want a magazine I’ll order it from La Biblioteka in Kommune where I’ve seen the shopkeeper behind the desk whenever I take in my laptop to the writing club yards away. Ordering from people I know who’ll appreciate my business is one of my ways of giving back to the community as I want them to remain when all this is over.

Another way is sharing and one such commodity is baked goods so for most of today I’ve run polls on Twitter. The confusing result of which is that tomorrow I’ll bake biscuits and a cake, not just for me but to donate to anyone who wants a treat in my postcode. Let’s hope I’m able to find the ingredients I need.

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Fitness, Health, Lifestyle, Opinion, Politics

Self-Isolation Diary. Day 2

If the rumours are true and we are to enter lock-down then today could well have been my final day of freedom before going into a home prison. As I often do when I’m working from home, this morning I went for a long run through the park and was somewhat perplexed/alarmed to see so many of a pensionable age out walking. Granted, they should enjoy some fresh air but given the circumstances isn’t this another example of British bullishness turning into self-harm? ‘I survived a world war so I’ll get through this’.

I took my backpack and following my huge fruit and vegetable shop I headed to the market and as usual I glanced at the newspapers. Then noticed a set of three old ladies and wondered quite why they were outdoors. Then glanced back at the newspapers. The Daily Star’s headline was, ‘Stick It Up Yer Virus’ with a photo of Winston Churchill doing a ‘V for Victory’ salute with the caption of ‘Bulldog Spirit’. The Daily Mirror led with, ‘This Won’t Beat Britain’. The old ladies were nodding along so the sentiment clearly had an audience, certainly it felt like we were on a war footing for an enemy we cannot even see.

When our Prime Minister advised us social distancing I’m pretty sure a huge swathe of the population either ignored him or felt they could take the virus on the chin which is foolhardy in the extreme. I see people still going to the gym, still going to the pub and wonder if we do need a state of lock-down for people to fully appreciate the predicament we’re in.

Though if a lock-down is only hours away I did manage to visit the cinema for the final time in the foreseeable future and quite enjoyed Misbehaviour even if there were less than ten people in the huge screen to enjoy it with. The posters in the cinema were taken down gifting the building an eerie vibe. I’ll easily miss my regular trips to the movies as it’s a huge boon to my mental health to take my mind away from the world for a couple of hours at a time.

Still, there are positives to come out of this crisis. Crossing the road is a lot easier and the air seemed fresher this morning. Air pollution is down and the lock-down has meant that the water is clearer in Venice (https://twitter.com/finessabae/status/1239788402196779011). Maybe after all this we’ll be able to find a new way of tackling climate change once we see tangible benefits to working from home.

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Lifestyle, Mens Health, Opinion

Self-Isolation Diary. Day 1

For years I’ve wanted to keep a diary yet never felt that my daily experiences merited regular recorded entries. That changed a couple of weeks ago and not just for me, the coronavirus pandemic is changing the world as we know it.

I’m trying to be more optimistic and fix myself looking at that bright side of life. These are trying times, I catch myself thinking about where I’d like to go on holiday or simply for a daytrip then realising that all of those plans are on hold. Simply stepping outside is non-negotiable for hundreds of thousands of people, I’m lucky that I can leave the front door.

At times this feels like a prison of the mind and soul. My freedom of movement has been restricted and this has nothing to do with Brexit. Oh, how I miss the days when THAT clusterfuck was at the forefront of my mind.

Despite all this I am secretly hoping that the pandemic brings about real societal change. That society as a whole will come out of it having learnt to live and work in different ways. So many of us may realise we can work from home and manage our mental health better because of it. Pollution may reduce as needless travel into offices will be curtailed. We may finally realise which meetings really could have done over email.

All of that is a pipe dream at the moment as I’ve learnt that British society is belligerent to the point of self-harm. This should have been clear enough after the Brexit vote and the following general election. People voted for Leave and people voted for Tories (you just can’t trust people, Jeremy).

The greedy are stockpiling toilet paper leaving the vulnerable to scramble around empty shelves. The foolish are still going out on pub crawls as it’s St Patrick’s Day and woe betide they be denied their pint of Guinness. The rich are asking for bail outs, I’m looking at you Mr Branson. The powerful are screwing the proletariat, yes you Mr Cummings seeing this as an opportunity for a mass scale social cleansing experiment.

It’s fascinating and deeply distressful to learn how other countries are dealing with the same pandemic. Several countries have imposed lock-downs and school closures. The US President believes this is just a flu that’ll magically disappear, to the point that medical testing is being prohibited so as to mask the true scale of confirmed cases (if you’re not tested, you cannot be a confirmed case, makes sense). France’s President has suspended tax payments for the entire population while our Prime Minister has cynically thrown the entertainment industry under the bus by ‘advising’ that pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants close knowing full well that ordering them shut means paying out on insurance. That’s how politics works in this country, cruelly ensuring that the government is devoid of responsibility when they could take measures to prevent financial harm. They simply don’t want to.

Tomorrow I’ll begin to self-isolate. By that I mean work from home and only leave the flat if I really need to. By that I mean go for a run and do an early food shop so I can batch cook. By work I mean a bit of typing while I mainly play video games and binge watch The Sopranos. Who knows when this’ll end? (Likely Monday when I have to return to the office).

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Lifestyle, Opinion, Uncategorized

Back to School, Gin School

“Doesn’t sound too hard to grow juniper berries then does it, Mum?” Only half an hour into the gin-making class and my interest is piqued. This is Gin Jamboree, a gin school held in the auspicious setting of Old School House in Tittensor. The first hour or so feels like being back at school, if this class was actually chemistry and instead of measuring the rate of evaporation we would be making a bottle of our own carefully crafted gin to take home.

One pagers are handed out to teach us how gin went from being brewed medicinally by the Dutch as ‘genever’ to becoming so popular with the British that their drunken mispronunciation birthed the name ‘gin’. To being the tipple of choice for William of Orange and instigating a trade war with the French to the Gin Craze when it became cheaper than beer and the poor literally went mad. The cocktail as we now know and love it started to come back into fashion when the British Royal Navy took cases of gin as a potential cure for various illnesses. Again, gin became medicinal and only the addition of Schweppes’ Indian tonic water made it drinkable then limes were added as an anti-scurvy measure.

Gin is now a £1.9bn industry in the UK and its popularity as a fashionable beverage began in 1999 with the launch of Hendrick’s Gin. Behind me are shelves heaving with bright and beautiful gin bottles, none of which would have existed unless Sipsmith’s successfully lobbied HMRC in 2009 to grant the first gin distillers license since 1820. There are now over 350 distilleries in the UK and the sheer variety means there should be a gin for everyone. Now it is my turn to work out what my own twist should be.

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For the entire, condensed history lesson there are five glasses sat temptingly in front of me. Finally a sheet is handed to us that fails to include any landmark dates and my tastebuds are primed. For a novice like me, for whom asking for a G&T is usually just a question of which brand behind the bar I have actually heard of, the fact that there are actually five different types pretty much blows my tiny mind. London Dry is the obvious one, I kinda knew about Plymouth Dry yet Old Tom, Genever and Gin Liquer are all new to me.

Few spirits are quite as versatile which encourages subtle tweeks to each cocktail. We learn of the importance of ice to open the gin up, encouraged to branch out to lemonade and ginger ale as mixers, how Schweppes dropped a clanger by bringing in sweeteners to their tonic and how the right garnish isn’t just for decoration. The ceiling may be high enough but school was never this fun.

Just as the rush of drinking gin samples before midday hits me we are led into our classroom which eerily does look like what I remember of a school chemistry lesson. Shelves of labelled jars, some decorated with toxic signs and others featuring ingredients you might have at home. A blackboard, measuring jugs, weighing scales, plastic tubes, ballpoint pens and huge wooden work benches. Unlike school, I am keen to get started.

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After a short tutorial of practical science into the art of distillation the creative side of my brain is fully engaged. Since learning of the class I have done a bit of homework. While the gin market is bursting with ideas, one of my favourite flavours is noted for its absence. Ever since a child I have adored liquorice, to the extent of buying a bag of allsorts safe in the knowledge that I can graciously offer the bag to friends and know that most won’t partake, meaning even more for me. As we go through the potential recipes I learn that liquorice root is readily available, then my Mum divulges that she’s making her own liquorice variety. Sigh.

This could be the start of a taste-off as we battle it out for who can best fill that liquorice shaped gap in the market. There could be millions at stake, and I graciously opt out. As I gaze at the shelves I wonder what other taste combinations are available. Liquorice now looks fairly obvious so I decide to go a bit rogue, aim for a little niche and make it my own. The base of every gin flavour board is obviously juniper berries yet second up is coriander seeds, after that it is a blank page. Key to my masterplan of cornering the gin market is subtlety; if liquorice offers division I want to open my flavour up to the world.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds’ Big Mac Sauce, Coca Cola and now… Citrus and Spice and All Things Nice Vol. 1. The combination seems straightforward, as if lightning has struck my brain, charged with inspiration. Orange twoways as a frozen segment then dried cut peel, slices of ginger peel, dried camomile flowers and orris root. The mix is precisely weighed and divided between jugs then left to macerate. Production has improved since those dark days in the 1700s when gin could be made with turpentine and sulphuric acid. Instead, my mix is poured into jugs of pure alcohol, itself a cruel but necessary measure for my beautiful flavour combination. Meanwhile, lunch.

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Citrus and Spice and All Things Nice Vol. 1

After an hour we are introduced to our apparatus; beautifully handmade copper Alembic stills. Almost Arabian in appearance yet we are making something stronger than tea. My mix is poured into the still, I tighten the valve, cover the coils in ice, turn up the heat and wait. And wait. While 80c is reached by the rest of the class in what feels like the time it takes to boil a kettle mine is still taking its sweet time. Good things come to those who wait and all that but my scheduled train looks in jeopardy at this rate. The accompanying drips sound like water torture and I continue to wait. Eventually I note that the still is angling off the heat with a gap of 2mm periodically robbing me of my sweet, sweet booze. Finally the mix begins to separate, water seeps out of one tube and after ten more minutes I raise my arms and celebrate the first drop of actual gin.

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These first drips are pretty much pure ethanol yet like any chef I cannot help myself and dip a paper straw into my new fangled masterpiece. Remarkably, after the alcohol burn has left my mouth I can still identify the ginger, and the orange and, incredibly, the camomile too. Even when I bake a simple cake I struggle to identify two flavours, let alone three. As the drips turn into hundreds of millilitres the alcohol concentration dissipates but not my enthusiasm. I continue to dip my straw in and can still pick out each flavour. The rest of the class are busy bottling up while I patiently add ice to the coil and let the vapour do the rest.

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As with any lesson, there is a test. My revision is years of home mixing and I soon realise that in order to win I need to go big. The mixer is a big risk and to complement the ginger peel I stick to my conviction that ginger ale is awaiting a return to the drinks market. Predictably, I add an orange segment to the garnish and four hours of intense classwork is being examined by a gin expert. Mine is the glass marked 3. My challengers are… My mother (2) and another middle-aged lady (1) who have both gone for liquorice and the experimental boysenberry based efforts of the teacher (4). I try the competition and without blowing my own trumpet too much announce to the rest of the class that, “if I was a betting man I’d know which one was the favourite”. Mine might be the only one that actually tastes like a gin you could buy in a fashionable bar, therein lies its appeal. Such is the appeal of gin that it is fascinating that these four distinctive concoctions all follow the same basic recipe.

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The judge comes over, tries each once, goes back to mine and 1 then puts down the straw. Number 3 she says, with an air of inevitability. The greater compliment is that she’d actually buy my gin. That’s right, I now have a certificate that pretty much states I know my gin plus I have the bottle to prove it and a renowned gin seller who wouldn’t mind stealing my recipe for herself.

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