Thursday, 16 May 2013
Sunday, 21 April 2013
St. George's Day is the one day we get to celebrate being English. St. George is not only the Patron Saint of England but also the Patron Saint of Scouting.
It is perhaps for this reason that Scouts, Cub Scouts and Beaver Scouts around England renew their promises after conducting a St. George's Day march. This tradition has been a regular fixture of the Scouting calendar in Brentwood with a procession along the High Street.
Times are tough in Brentwood. Costs are going up and people are losing their jobs because the Council are opting to freeze Council Tax. Services are being cut, parking charges are being increased, central housing benefit cuts are not being maintained with local funds, bedroom tax is being introduced and difficult decisions are being made.
Clearly Tory majority Brentwood Council is doing its best to live up to Cameron's expectations. It would require too much loss of face for the Council to decide there had been enough cuts and, to provide residents with the services they need, Council Tax needs to rise.
There are all sorts of small consequences of this type of political manoeuvring that detract from quality of life and today I experienced one.
Ethan turned up, together with about 100 or so other young (and middle aged) members of the Scouting Community, for the 2013 St. George's parade.
For the first year the parade didn't travel along the High Street. The Council decided that, this year, they'd ask the Scouting movement for £1,000 for the road closures required.
The Scouting movement is staffed by thousands of volunteers. They are an exemplary embodiment of Cameron's Big Society. They help children to become better people for the benefit of society and Brentwood Council has chosen to start charging them for one of the integral activities of the Scouting year.
Well the Brentwood District Scouting movement didn't have £1,000 in spare change which meant an alteration to their plans.
Instead of an impressive parade involving all Scouts marching along the High Street the Scouts set off at intervals to walk on the pavements, and cross at the pelican crossings, quietly making their way towards the church. After the service they did the same, but in reverse.
It wasn't the same, but it got me thinking. This is clearly a new policy and other parades may well be affected.
The other major parade involving the Scouting movement is the Remembrance Day parade. I wonder if there might be a bit more fuss when the Council decide that not only do we not need to celebrate the fact that we're English in style, but we don't need to remember our war dead properly either.
Saturday, 30 March 2013
Chelmsford Theatre recently sent me details of a show during the Easter holidays. It was right up Ethan's alley so I booked for the family.
Within a week of booking I received a telephone call advising that the show was cancelled.
I knew the children would be disappointed but I checked, and I'd at least get my money back. I was told I could have an exchange or a refund, and a refund suited me. I was told I would have to have the refund on the card that was used for the original payment and I proffered my card details to get the admin over and done with as quickly as possible.
Apparently they needed to call me back after Easter to sort out the refund. I pondered. I was being called on a Tuesday, not Good Friday, not Saturday, not Sunday, not a day during the school holidays, just a Tuesday before Easter.
I asked, I think quite reasonably, why I had to wait until after Easter for a refund. Apparently it's because of the proximity of the end of the tax year. The accounts department won't allow them to process refunds until after Easter.
Really? I mean if I'd called to book something then they'd have been only too happy to take my money, but it was not possible to give me my money back? Really?
Well it's the end of my tax year too, and I'd much rather have the credit showing in 2012/13 than 2013/14. Actually it makes no difference at all to me other than the compromise on the principle. I trust Essex County Council about as far as I can spit and I'm not, nor ever have been, a long distance spitter.
Do you honestly believe that it wouldn't be possible to process refunds at the end of a tax year or do you think Essex County Council are cooking the books?
Sunday, 17 March 2013
I've been baking for our annual half marathon cake sale. I've taken a previous recipe and added a twist, hence the surprise. I haven't tasted these yet (because that would be consuming the profits) but I'm sure they'll be delish.
The surprise is the lemon curd in the middle of the muffin.
These muffins freeze really well. Defrost or, if you're in a hurry, zap in a microwave for 30 seconds for each muffin.
Saturday, 2 March 2013
I have been searching for a self-saucing pudding for years.
My mum made one that was amazing. I think she used to make it in a soufflé dish. I need a soufflé dish. Ideally I would have her recipe too, but I don't, hence the continued search.
I found this little Nigel Slater number in a magazine. I made it with very dark Green and Blacks chocolate and I think a slightly lower cocoa content, higher sugar content chocolate might make it appeal to more palettes. The children found it a little too rich.
It isn't an elegant dessert at all, but it has gooey chocolate in spades and, in my experience, that can compensate for a lack of appearance.
- 150g self-raising flour
- 2 slightly heaped tbsp cocoa powder (I hate recipes with ill-defined quantities so I just chucked some cocoa in and guessed when I'd put enough in)
- 45g ground almonds
- 200g light muscovado sugar (I'm sure you could use any old sugar)
- 75g dark chocolate finely chopped (I used 75% but I think less would be better, but I wouldn't go as far as milk chocolate)
- 200 ml milk
- 25g melted butter plus more for greasing
- a few drops of vanilla extract (I chucked loads in, probably too much)
- 1 large egg
For the sauce
- 175g golden caster sugar
- 75g cocoa powder
- 500ml freshly boiled (not boiling) water
This method starts a bit like a muffin recipe with dry ingredients in one bowl and wet ingredients in a second bowl then stir them together.
Firstly though, butter an oval dish about 1.5l capacity and turn oven on to 180°C (or 160°C for a fan oven)
Put flour, cocoa, almonds, muscovado sugar and chocolate in a bowl. If you're wondering how finely chopped the chocolate needs to be, this was my interpretation.
And this is what you should have
which I then stirred.
In a separate bowl or jug whisk together the milk, melted butter, vanilla extract and egg.
Pour the wet mixture into the dry and stir together unit there's no flour visible. Pour into the buttered dish.
Mix the cocoa for the sauce with the sugar and scatter over the pudding. I used a sieve.
Add the freshly boiled water.
At this point you'll be thinking you've added too much water and that it looks very unpromising. To take your mind off these doubts, put this in the oven.
Cook for 40 minutes until the top is springy. (Not sure mine was.) After you've taken it out of the oven, leave it to rest for 10 minutes. Apparently this step is essential but I forgot it.
Maybe it looks better if you rest it. I opted to serve instead of rest.
Served with cream to counteract the strength of chocolate flavours.
Sunday, 24 February 2013
I guess you're reading this because you've heard about the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour but want to know whether it's worth the trip. It is. Here are our pictures from the day.
That could have given you all the information you wanted, but just in case you'd like to know more then read on.
Firstly it's important you know you can't do this on the spur of the moment. If you want to go then you need to buy tickets in advance. If you want tickets for a day in school holidays then you need to plan ahead a few weeks/months in advance. I'm writing this during the February half term and morning slots for the Easter holidays have already gone.
I think the tickets are good value. They are in the range of costs for a good quality family day out and a family ticket for four costs £85 at the time of writing. There are extras which I paid for, but shouldn't have bought.
A souvenir guide can be bought in advance with no discount but you can't pick up your souvenir guide until you get to the Studios and we almost forgot about it until we were just leaving the gift shop. My advice is get it from the gift shop after you've had an opportunity to browse and decide that it's worth the £9.95.
A digital guide is also available for £4.95. I had spoken to friends who had told me the digital guide was definitely worth the extra money so I paid for one, figuring we could share. If the digital guide was an app that you could download and keep and view at any time then the £4.95 might be a worthwhile investment. Instead you are handed an iPod Touch with a pre-loaded app (not available from the App store - we know, we looked) and headphones. The content in the app is brilliant and, if you had no other distractions, it was the only source of information as you went around the tour, you had unlimited time to spend looking at each and every exhibit, and it was on an iPad mini (to aid those whose eyes are starting to deteriorate), then it would be great. I found I was experiencing sensory overload and couldn't cope with the digital guide. As you walk round you are bombarded with things to look at and listen to. Add to this an iPod that needs input and navigating as well as your full attention with both eyes and ears (and maybe it's an age thing) but I couldn't do it and I let the digital guide hang lifeless around my neck. Additionally the guide has so much content that, if you were to watch it all, you fall behind the group that are on the tour at the same time as you. Plus, in a world where people hesitate to spend £0.69 on an app they might use daily, to spend £4.95 on a one time use app seems out of proportion. (It is possible to unplug the headphones for the sound to come out of the speakers but the sound is muffled.)
As you arrive at the Studios you'll walk into a massive entrance with access to the gift shop, a cafe and a Starbucks counter. We didn't use the cafe or Starbucks so can't comment on these but I think it's strange to have a cafe at the beginning and at the end when, actually, access to a cafe during the tour would be far more convenient. This leaves the problem of when to book the ticket. We had a 1:30 entry and ate lunch before going in but next time I think I would try and get 10:00 tickets and survive on snacks until a late lunch. We spent about four hours on the tour but could have spent more time if children hadn't been flagging.
We did go through the gift shop. As with all well-managed attractions, the gift shop is positioned at the exit with patrons forced to walk to path of kiddie heaven/parent hell. The gift shop is ridiculously over-priced and the best example is a bag of dolly mixtures in a Harry Potter branded plastic bag costing £3.95 when the cost from a newsagent would probably have been £1. It's clear that many visitors to the Studios are extreme Harry Potter fans and we saw many gift shop bags stuffed with over-priced merchandise. Value is subjective and many of the items in the shop could only be bought in that one location. I would have loved some of the amazing graphic art that was available but couldn't justify the several hundred pounds being asked. I was also tempted by the Voldemort outfit at about £175, but then I reflected that opportunities to wear it might be limited, especially as I'm past the generally accepted age for trick or treat activity.
You might think that as your ticket has timed entry that you wouldn't need to queue. You'd be wrong. The timed entry means that a large group of people are all admitted in half hour slots. The large group needs to queue to be manageable (and it wouldn't be British if the queue was absent.)
If you're wondering whether it's de rigueur to turn up in full Harry Potter costume then feel free, you won't be alone.
Once you are released from the queue that passes the cupboard under the stairs, you enter a holding area before moving into a cinema. After a short film you enter the amazing Great Hall. As with most of the exhibits the level of detail is astounding. From the Great Hall you can proceed at your own pace. It's a self-guided tour which effectively means you wander around spending as much or as little time at the different exhibits as you'd like. If I were to return I'd be tempted to visit alone as children don't have very long attention spans and always want to see what's around the next corner. I'm tempted to go back on a school day when it's less crowded. Maybe it's because my parents were avid actors on the "am dram" scene or maybe it's because I took 'O' Level drama but I found the whole thing fascinating and didn't feel I had the time to adequately absorb everything because I was accompanied by an engineer and two eager children. I felt that it was a little too crowded and the volumes admitted at one time could have been reduced just a little to make the experience more comfortable.
After the Great Hall you enter a vast room full of sets and props and costumes and, around the corner, a green screen photo opportunity. It wouldn't be a commercial enterprise without the obligatory £10 photo so if you must, and we did, you can have your photo taken on a broom or in a Ford Anglia. I opted for the witch shot for obvious reasons. This is another queueing opportunity but you can see what you're getting while you're queueing which makes it less of a chore.
Once you reach the Ministry of Magic you're ready to step outside for a Butterbeer. It is possible to step outside and stay under cover but still exposed to the outside temperature. However, if you want to take pictures of the Knight Bus, Privet Drive or the house in which Harry's parents were cruelly dispatched by he who must not be named, then you won't be undercover. The Butterbeer is non-alcoholic and my two loved it. It is sickly sweet but does have a buttery taste. We bought the £2 disposable beaker but you can upgrade to get more volume and have a choice of two different varieties of plastic take home drinking vessels. Next to the Butterbeer bar is a counter selling snacks and refreshments. It didn't look like there was much more than a choice of soft drinks, crisps and chocolate. Whilst my two would be happy if this formed the basis of lunch, I wouldn't.
There is much more to see after the Butterbeer stop including animatronics, Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts castle, the models and drawings for different sets, some impressive graphic art and Olivander's wand shop which leads you to the exit via the gift shop.
I used to wonder how a film production could cost as much as it does. I now wonder how on earth they achieve productions for the meagre sums involved. It is an industry that I find fascinating and, if I had a creative bone in my body, I would love to be a part of it. Who doesn't want to see their name in the credits?
For more information, click here.
Sunday, 10 February 2013
I'll outline the simple version and then provide details of the more complicated options.
- Chocolate muffin
- Chocolate sauce - the kind that goes on ice cream
- Strawberry or raspberry sauce - the kind that goes on ice cream
- Icing sugar
- Chop the muffin top off the top of your muffin.
- Upturn the main body of the muffin and crumble the top you've chopped off around the base of your forming volcano.
- Pour or squeeze chocolate sauce over your volcano (this is the cooled lava flow)
- Pour or squeeze strawberry/raspberry sauce over chocolate sauce (this is the hot lava flow)
- Sprinkle with icing sugar (snow atop your volcano)
- Admire and devour
- Make the muffins. I have a couple of recipe suggestions, here and here.
- Make a chocolate sauce. I found a bar of chocolate containing honeycomb pieces and chucked that in the microwave gently, until it melted. I figured the honeycomb would add an interesting texture. It was more spoonable than pourable but a cooled lava flow moves more slowly so it was quite authentic.
- Make a compote. This sounds posher than it was. I found a few left over raspberries, red currants and blackcurrants in the freezer and heated with a bit of water and neat blackcurrant squash. I then blended the resultant goo. The great thing about using this whilst warm is that when you sprinkle on your icing sugar at the end, it will dissolve on the compote in the same way that snow would not settle on hot lava.
Saturday, 19 January 2013
A strange thing to be making in the middle of winter perhaps but I had some frozen raspberries and an increase in builders due on site next week (and baking keeps them sweet).
There are a lot of different recipes out there but I like this one because it uses oil instead of melted butter. This may be healthier and it's definitely easier.
Makes 12 and they can be frozen. To reheat either remove from the freezer and allow them to defrost over an hour or so, or take one at a time from the freezer and blast in microwave on full power for 30 seconds.
- 250g self-raising flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 100g caster sugar (granulated is fine)
- 250ml milk (any type of milk)
- 1 large egg
- 90ml vegetable oil (corn oil is good, olive can have too much taste)
- 150g raspberries (if using frozen then separate berries and cook for 5 mins longer)
- 150g white chocolate chips which is a pain as you normally buy these in 100g bags
- Pre-heat oven to 160°C for a fan oven (180°C for non fan oven).
- Put muffin cases in muffin tin. Don't even think of using the silicone things.
- Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and choc chips together in a large bowl.
- In large jug or bowl mix egg, milk and oil.
- Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until no flour is visible.
- Set aside 12 raspberries and carefully mix remainder into muffin mixture.
- Spoon muffin mixture into cases and pop saved raspberries on top of each muffin.
- Cook for about 25 mins or longer if using frozen berries.
- Muffins are cooked when lightly browned and spring back when touched.
- Enjoy with tea, coffee or gin.
Tuesday, 15 January 2013
I have been searching for for a self-saucing chocolate pud for years. Mum used to make one in a soufflé dish and it was delicious. Well I'm pretty sure this recipe isn't the same, the main giveaway being that it isn't cooked in a soufflé dish, so I'm still looking.
This is a stir some stuff, chuck some other stuff in and bung it in the oven recipe. Easy peasy. Serves six.
- 150g plain flour
- 2tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- pinch of salt
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
- 1/4 tsp chilli powder (optional)
- 200g caster sugar
- 50g cocoa
- 125ml milk (any variety)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
- 4 tbsp corn oil
- 100g dark brown sugar (can be substituted with another type of sugar)
- 60ml rum (optional but if omitted then substitute with boiling water or other liquid)
- 175ml freshly boiled water
- Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (160°C for fan oven) and butter a two litre oval oven proof dish.
- In a large bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, cinnamon, chilli powder, caster sugar and half of the cocoa.
- Beat the milk, vanilla extract and corn oil together in a jug or bowl and then pour this into the dry ingredients.
- Mix it together with with a wooden spoon to make a thick, smooth batter.
- Spoon into buttered oval dish and it should look like this.
- Combine remaining 25g cocoa and dark brown sugar in another bowl giving it a good stir to eliminate any lumps.
- Sprinkle this over the batter on the dish. You can see my lump elimination efforts were flawed.
- Poor freshly boiled water on top followed by the rum. This seems completely bonkers but you just need to have faith.
- Then pop in the oven for 30 mins.
- When it emerges from the oven it hasn't turned into anything particularly beautiful but it is tasty.
- I know Mary Berry doesn't approve of soggy bottoms but this is more gooey than soggy and can be served with cream, ice cream or mascarpone. Custard doesn't really work.
Monday, 31 December 2012
I'm old enough to remember chain letters. I don't remember the content very well but I remember being told by my parents that they were "bad" and to be ignored.
Often they were ostensibly innocuous requiring a small investment in time and money with the promise of a modest reward, but others were more demanding on time and money with the promise of much larger rewards.
The pernicious aspect of the chain letter was the threat that a failure to participate would lead to bad luck, ill-health or a disastrous love life.
With the advent of e-mail the chain letter morphed into the chain e-mail. Often there was still a real world element requiring the use of post but the spreading mechanism was electronic.
Now it's Facebook that is awash with the chain letter disease.
This is the latest one that landed in my Newsfeed:
The post had graphic details of the rape and murder and this post ended with the words
If her death Touches YOU & UR against RAPE
If YOU Support RAPE
"IGNORE THIS POST"
COMMENT & SHARE with atleast 10 of YOUR best FRIENDS! Tell them to LIKE COLLINS OKELLO so they can receive daily update from us on this story. The culprits MUST pay for this. I'M FOLLOWING THIS STORY TO THE END TILL DAMINI GETS FULL JUSTICE.
I don't know Collins Okello but they have used a tragic situation just to increase the likes on their Facebook page. It's a behaviour that tugs on the emotions of the masses for selfish gain.
I ignored this post, not because I support rape, but because this type of Facebook post makes me sick.
I see the same kind of post for child abuse, animal cruelty etc. and they are all promoted by an individual who has the selfish motivation of self-promotion. This is the latest instalment in the long history of chain letters.
My parents were right. Chain letters are "bad" and to be ignored.
Thursday, 22 November 2012
I think I might be in a minority on this one, or at least I disagree with most politicians. I believe some prisoners should have the vote.
If someone is in prison they are "paying" for their crime. Once their sentence is served the slate should be considered to be wiped clean, were this not the case then everyone would be given a life sentence.
I think there's a simple way to determine whether a prisoner should have the vote.
If someone has a release date that would fall during the term of the next parliament then they should get the vote because they would be living as a free person during the term of the person/government that won the election.
Sometimes people are released ahead of their initial release date. If that is known ahead of the election then a vote should be granted. Where an early release date is anticipated, but not agreed, then it would not be used to determine the right to vote.
This seems fair. You vote if you will be living as a free person at some point during the term of the election winner.
It's a different approach to the ones that have been put before Parliament. I understand that those with sentences of either less than four years of less than six months are being considered for voting eligibility and of course retaining the ban on voting is still being maintained as an option.
My solution treats everyone in the same way be they convicted murderers or shoplifters. If they are due for release during the next term of office (for and MP or Government)), they get a say.
What do you think?
Monday, 12 November 2012
I am sick of people metaphorically falling on their swords.
So George Entwistle has resigned to make it easier for the BBC to get rid of him by sacking him, but either way he gets the same money he would have received had they sacked him.
Do I think his career is over? Probably not. He's had a very successful career at the BBC and is resigning because he's come under pressure to make a gesture because somebody made a mistake. Either way he has a full year at full pay to find a new role and I doubt this will be a challenge.
I've lost track about how many people have "stepped aside" because of the Newsnight debacles. Why have they stepped aside?
On the Savile issue the problem seems to be not explaining properly why the programme didn't air. In my experience not everyone in an organisation is always in possession of al of the facts and writing a blog post and getting it a bit wrong is hardly a major misdemeanour.
On the Welsh child abuse issue as I understand it some journalists who didn't work for the BBC spoke to a man who was adamant that he knew who one of his abusers was, and could name him. He knew this because police showed him a picture and told him that the person in the picture was a senior politician, and named him. The police got it wrong. Would you check this? If you were under pressure to get a story out and you had someone in front of you who was adamant that an abuser was a senior Tory politician because the police had shown him a picture of the politician and you recognised him as an abuser; would you think "I doubt that and need to check that by showing this chap a recent picture of this politician"?
Would it surprise you if senior politicians were child abusers because it wouldn't surprise me at all. They fiddle their expenses and I'm sure they have many skeletons in various cupboards. If one or two were guilty of child abuse I would not be at all surprised. I'd be angry, but not surprised.
Of course it's hideous that an innocent name has been dragged through the dirty internet mire. This gentleman will, forever, have Google search results attached to his name that are libellous. That is difficult, if not impossible to undo. Fortunately the story about the inaccuracy of those Google search results will also be there forever.
I do not think that all of this warrants paying a man £450,000 for not doing his job. I'd like to see George Entwistle earn that money by doing his job and I'd like everyone who has stepped aside to step right up, back to where they were.
Mistakes should teach people to get it right next time. These people won't make this mistake again, which makes them perfectly qualified for their jobs.
Tuesday, 9 October 2012
David Cameron is on Twitter. It's about time. Frankly he should have made the jump a long time ago and, if he had, he wouldn't have received the reaction to his account that he has experienced.
His first meaningful tweet was about the NHS.
The problem with tweeting about this is that hospital wards are closing and staff are losing their jobs because of insufficient funding. Additionally, the funding to which he referred was in the form of loans and not additional cash. To quote Sky News:
"The money will initially be made available to hospitals in the form of loans, although they will only have to pay back a proportion of it, depending how well they perform according to feedback from the public."
Cameron received a torrent of abuse in his twitter stream which he must have expected. I'm sure that there's never been a Prime Minister who has ever had 100% approval ratings and Twitter is well-known as a platform where people can vent their views and opinions without a thought to the hurt it can cause.
There are many celebrities who have found it difficult to cope with event the smallest criticism aimed at, or about them on Twitter.
David Cameron must, therefore, have a strong constitution, because only Mark Bridger (the man charged with the murder of April Jones) would be likely to see stronger, more vitriolic abuse on the micro-blogging platform.
One of my favourite intelligent responses was this:
And the link to the blog in the tweet is here. Dr Clarke seems to have a great handle on exactly how the Conservatives are privatising our Health Service and benefitting financially in the process.
One of the better parody responses is here:
And then there were the thousands of abusive tweets and comical putdowns. You can find them all here. You may need to scroll a bit for some of the best ones.
I think the abusive tweets could serve Cameron well though and if I were on his PR/Soc Med team I would be advising a new type of analytics. Daily there could be a count of the ratio in @ mentions of the words c*** and w***er to followers. So if there were 50,000 mentions of the word c*** in @ replies to a total number of followers of 100,000 then you'd have a C Score for the day of 50%. Similarly if there were 25,000 mentions of the word w***er in replies to @david_cameron you'd have a W Score of 25%.
A successful day, in the eyes of the Tory PR team, could be one in which the C and W scores are both below 25%. For accurate measurement one would need to include those who use asterisks to avoid offence but this is all possible using a number of Twitter tools. Once the C and W scores are being used one could extend the report to include the B score, the T score and the P score.
So @david_cameron - if you need a hand with your Social Media analytics then give me a call. My services are expensive, but worth it, and, for a man of your means, I'm sure cost isn't even a consideration. I won't be donating to your party though. I am happy to tell you exactly what the country thinks of you, wrapped up in a nice little Social Media report, but wouldn't want to get my hands dirty by supporting your career financially.
Monday, 24 September 2012
Ethan retains so much information it's scary.
- Ethan: "Mummy, you know you keep losing your keys?"
- Me: "Yes…"
- Ethan: "I know what you need."
- Me: "What do I need Ethan?"
- Ethan: "You need a Fiesta."
- Me: "Why do I need a Fiesta."
- Ethan: "Because it's got keyless entry and keyless start."
- Me: "I'd still need to have my keys in my handbag or pocket. And how do you know the Fiesta has keyless entry and keyless start?"
- Ethan: "Adverts during Channel 4 news."
I happen to know that adults, grown ups, watch that Fiesta advert and don't realise it's for Fiesta and then don't get the message that the car is available with keyless entry and keyless start. Strange child.