Sunday, 28 December 2008

New Year Wishes

I ventured into town yesterday for my annual trip to the sales. This news will doubtless come as something of a shock to those readers who imagine old Bill is immune to the seduction of retailers.

It shouldn't do. A semi-retired journalist has to make his limited income stretch as far as he can, and a canny trip to the sales has become a staple in my quest to make ends meet.

Of course, those of my vintage may well remember when, here in the UK, we had something called The January Sales. They at least allowed a certain amount of time to pass before we had to endure the horror of seeing everything we'd bought as Christmas presents for our nearest and dearest savagely reduced in price.

Now, the sales begin not just on Boxing Day, but in the days (and weeks) leading up to Christmas. If you're after a new sofa, in fact, there afre few days of the year when you won't manage to catch one in the sales. Amazingly, millions of people spent their Christmas Day on the internet, taking advantage of online sales to supposedly save yet more money. That's one rubicon-shaped threshold I haven't stepped over.

In these uncertain times, though, it's clear that folk aren't spending as much as they have done in previous seasons. Wandering around PC World and Currys looking for a laptop yesterday, a sense of the nervousness of retailers could be glimpsed. Of a good two dozen laptops on display, fewer than a quarter were in stock - and I don't think it was because they'd been flying off the shelves. I was invited to buy the display model (at no additional discount, I might add), but the risk averse, anti-MRSA side of me baulked at the idea of a machine that hundreds of people had already had their digits on. I sensed a real anxiety in the sales staff, and I only hope they're still in jobs this time next month.

As for other shops... well, Next wasn't as busy as I remember from previous years, and good old M&S had little to offer in the way of real bargains. The latter had already shot their bolt with a series of pre-Christmas discount days when all stock was reduced by 20%

It's cold out there, campers - so don't forget your booties!

All the very best for 2009!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

Well, it's that time of year when I make my annual posting to a blog that has become - err... just a tad moribund of late.

It's my chance to save a small fortune on Christmas cards, and save the planet to boot, as I bring friends and family up to date with my life over the past year, with the Bill Blunt Round Robin.

First off, apologies are due to Justin, Jasper and Barbara who, by the time they read this, will probably be preparing to open their Christmas presents from their old pa. Knowing their prediliction for popular music, I decided last week to buy them all gift vouchers from that solid retail giant, Zavvi, who have today gone into administration. I have always prided myself on my prescience.

On a brighter note, my friends will - I hope - be pleased to learn that I spurned the dark corner of my soul that almost tempted me to make contact with the ex-Mrs Blunt. Once I had sobered up, and come to my senses, I realised what a favour Tommy Fishfinger had done for me.

But it's been a strange old year. The credit crunch has brought a chill wind to a world that's grown giddy on borrowing. Let's hope 2009 brings a healthier approach to economics and finance. It won't do us any harm. It's A Wonderful Life, really...

So, my condiments of the season to blog readers and writers of the world, one and all!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Getting On With Life

Separation... divorce ... the break-up of a family. It's never as 'amicable' as some people would like you to think.

I don't wish to rehearse the circumstances that led to the breakdown of my marriage to Mrs Blunt. It isn't really of any interest to my readers to know that, after almost three decades with a woman who (single-handedly) helped Scottish & Newcastle Breweries to achieve one of the healthiest profit ratios of any UK listed company, our relationship foundered (or should that be floundered?) on the rocks when she fell into the arms of an erstwhile fishmonger from Ipswich. That's too much information for anyone to have to digest. Even with a side helping of chips.

I thought I had put all this behind me. Then, my eldest son (Justin) furnished me with the latest 'stats' from my blog. I was expecting them to make grim reading - after all, why would anyone bother checking in on a blog that seems to be updated only when the moon's blue? But I wasn't prepared for his findings.

'Pa!' he exclaimed. 'Take a look at this!' Did I detect a note of relish in his voice, as he showed me how my site had been 'chanced upon' via Google searches - courtesy of

As you can see - quite clearly - someone, somewhere, is trying to get in touch with Enid! I know it can't be the fishmonger - he's supposed to be with her now, as they enjoy their place (or should that be 'plaice'?) in Norfolk. So, what's going on?

Take a look at that entry for 29 November - mid-morning.

Call me an investigative journalist if you must, but I can't help feeling that a search via Google for a divorce club in Ipswich, so swiftly followed two days later by a hunt for Mrs Blunt's e-mail address tells a story all of its own. What if Mrs B and the fishmonger have fallen apart? I always thought that mackerel and Mackesons weren't the best table-mates.

Just as I thought I had got over her, her spectre comes back to haunt me. If you're out there, Enid... I'm still here for you! Whatever you've heard, or read about my life since you left, it isn't true. You know where I am, if you ever want to come back. And I promise you - faithfully - I will NEVER make disparaging comments about your size ever again.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Google Ate My Spam

It's not often that Bill Blunt waxes lyrical about a product. It takes more than the inducement of a free razor and gel to prod Bill into endorsing something, as my regular readers will know. At the same time, I think I have been around long enough to know when a product doesn't deliver.

I'm of a generation that thought the Welfare State was designed expressly to prevent anyone under the age of 70 ever having to encounter reformed bits of pig, still less to have to eat the stuff. I know there are some (mainly those who lived through the War) who will try to tell you that Spam has it's virtues, but I'm not one of them. Too many Spam fritters for school lunch made that inevitable, I'm afraid. That's why, when I learned that Googlemail had a 'Spam Filter', I was fairly relaxed. I wanted nothing to do with the stuff.

Thanks to the eagle eye of my son, Justin, however, I now realise there's another meaning to the word 'Spam'.

'Pa,' he said, just yesterday ... 'take a look at THIS!' With the flick of a mouse, he took me to a place I never knew existed.

I've had a Googlemail account for over four years. It was Justin who persuaded me to become one of what he termed the 'early adopters'. What he failed to do, however, was tell me that Googlemail has a very sophisticated 'Spam Filter'. It came as something of a shock to discover that the Mighty Google was able to weed out a huge amount of supposedly 'unwanted' mail. 24,572 items, in fact.

Call me an investigative journalist if you must, but I was intrigued to find out exactly what it was that Google was automatically filtering out of my in-box. Well, here it is...

As you can see, GoogleMail has not only prevented me from winning a vast array of international lotteries over the last 4 years, but has also denied me the ability to help an awful lot of people in Africa - many of whom are apparently distantly related to me, and who have been involved in tragic accidents. If the Mighty Google had only kept it's nose out, I could even have had a larger manhood, with access to almost unlimited supplies of cheap Viagra.

I, for one, would quite like to have made contact with the lovely-sounding Loreta Tamala, Rene Cammie et al, but I suppose it's too late now.

It's pure speculation as to whether my life would have been different without the interference of the Googlemail spam-filter. But I can't help feeling that being a multi-millionaire, distributing my largesse across the African continent, and availing myself of a more pronounced manhood, would have made the last four years altogether more interesting.

When I tried to explain this to Justin, he merely laughed. I can only put that down to the folly of youth. It's more than slightly annoying that I've missed such a myriad of opportunities... thanks to the so-called (for that is exactly what it is) Googlemail spam filter.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Dawn of An Old Era?

Only a hardened misanthrope could have been failed to be moved by the sight of the youthful Barack Obama speaking in Chicago earlier this morning. The world has shifted on it’s political axis – and not before time.
Speaking to a nation that was less divided than it had been for a generation, Obama told how a 106 year-old voter he had met had lived through everything from the dust bowl, the New Deal, the second world war, the hatred of post-war racism in America through to man reaching the moon and going on to dismantle the Berlin Wall.

Somewhere, within the rhetoric, there is a message, and it’s one we had better get used to. The time’s they have a-changed.

When my fellow journalist, HG Wells, visited the Soviet Union in 1920 to stand witness to the great advances a socialist economy had brought to an otherwise backward, peasant society, he was scathing in his assessment. By embracing Marxism, Russia had embarked on a road to tyranny. In an era when the King of Shaves Azor was only a glint in his grandmother's eye, Wells only had to take one look at the effigies of Marx to know what had to be done:

"About two-thirds of the face of Marx is beard, a vast solemn woolly uneventful beard that must have made all normal exercise impossible. It is not the sort of beard that happens to a man, it is a beard cultivated, cherished, and thrust patriarchally upon the world. It is exactly like Das Kapital in its inane abundance, and the human part of the face looks over it owlishly as if it looked to see how the growth impressed mankind... A gnawing desire grew in me to see Karl Marx shaved. Some day, if I am spared, I will take up shears and a razor against Das Kapital; I will write The Shaving of Karl Marx."
Alas, Mr Wells never did get round to shaving Karl Marx’s beard. But if he had, he might have discovered John Maynard Keynes beneath it. A liberal to the core, it was Keynes who came up with the idea of an active economic policy by government that would stimulate demand in times of high unemployment – by spending on public works, whether that be a new dam, a new highway or (almost a century later) an infrastructure that supports the environment, rather than works against it.

Keynes had a fair point. Personally, I’m glad to have a proto-Keynesian at the helm of the British economy at this difficult time. Gordon Brown has already shown his willingness to bite the bullet. We know he’ll borrow to invest. The real test will be how far Obama follows suit. Let’s hope his grandmother, who lived through the New Deal, taught him how to suck eggs...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Those who have known Bill Blunt a good while will know he’s not a man whose endorsement is easily bought. As a columnist at the Stockport Sentinel, I built my reputation for impartiality by never being swayed by a freebie.

That’s why I was sceptical (to say the least) when - courtesy of those fine people, Kevin and Sylvie, at FMB – I was asked to ‘test-drive’ the new Azor shaving system by King of Shaves.

I have always had something of a professional interest in shaving equipment, anyway. I rarely trumpet the fact that my grandfather lost thousands of pounds in an ill-fated venture to design and market the perfect razor blade. As a project, it went well-enough, until he took it to market, that is. Lady Retrospect is a harsh woman, I know, but he’d have saved himself a few bob if he’d realised that promoting Blunt Razors was always going to be something of an uphill battle.

The Azor media pack, when it arrived yesterday, was initially impressive. Less so when my ageing laptop couldn’t access the free CD that came with it. Would it be churlish to expect King of Shaves to send out a high spec laptop just to let me view their images and logos? I think not. As it is, the web already has images aplenty for me to look at.

Well, what’s different about the Azor? As a British contender against the might of multi-nationals Gillette and Wilkinson Sword, it certainly cuts a dash in the design stakes. Cool and sleek, it’s a departure from the over-engineered, garish orange, blue and silver Gillette Fusion, which seems to sprout an extra blade every month. King of Shaves have bucked the trend, and stuck with four blades.

It appeals to my innate sense of economy, too. In a time when money is tight, there’s something to be said for a razor that costs half the price of its competitors, and doesn’t require a battery to make it work.

So far, so good, then. But what’s it like to shave with? Alas, my divorce from Mrs Blunt means I couldn’t submit the Azor to the toughest of tests (one which even the infamous Prolectix Epliator, with its 36 discs rotating and twisting bunches of hairs together and plucking them from the roots ‘like a large pair of tweezers’ was never really up to).

I had to be content with using it on myself, then. The flexible head certainly seemed to make the razor hug my famously rugged chin much more closely than other razors I’ve used. And four blades were more than enough for the task of removing my ‘Mexican Bandit’ stubble. I hope it wasn’t just the psychological fact of having read all the accompanying hype that made me feel that it did, indeed, produce a closer shave.

I hope I wasn’t mistaken, but I’m sure I got more than my normal share of admiring glances from the barmaids when I sashayed into the bar at The John Laird for my usual post-prandial whisky last night.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Ten Days That Shook The World

Hovering on a precipice is never an easy thing to do, at the best of times. When you're a newspaper editor faced with day after day of imminent financial apocalypse, however, it must seem near-impossible.

Staring into the abyss can get a bit monotonous when it's a daily feature of life. After all, there are only so many times readers want to know that their savings in some obscure Icelandic bank have gone down the plug hole. When we've already been told that we're on the brink of disaster, only the actual disaster is 'news'. It must all start to feel as if you're one of those chaps who used to parade our town centres carrying billboards proclaiming that 'The End is Nigh'.

For most of us mere mortals, it's easier to just switch off and watch The X Factor than to try to understand the intricate details of multi-billion pound bail-outs of our financial institutions. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is demonstrating the kind of firm leadership we all wished he'd shown from the day he became PM. Anyone who was around during the last big market collapse (under the Tories) might be forgiven for feeling more reassured that we have a dour Scot at the helm in these difficult times. I know I am.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Brown seems to have an instinctive grasp of economics, even if his political judgement hasn't always been what it might be - witness his dithering over any number of issues over the past year. Well, now that the chips are down, he's rising to the challenge. I suppose a decade or more of privatisation and deregulation has taught us that the market doesn't always know best and, suddenly, nationalisation doesn't make us feel dirty any more. Still, I can't help feeling that £50billion of taxpayers money shouldn't really be 'injected' into institutions that have hardly demonstrated they can use money wisely. Far better to invest it in some decent, green, infrastructure.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. There are an awful lot of estate agents out there getting very good at Solitaire, I hear. After years of making a mint by doing err... not a great deal, really ... their chickens have finally come home to roost. According to the Daily Telegraph, they're now selling, on average, just one house a week. Such a shame.

Monday, 8 September 2008

The Stuff of Nightmares?

After a life-time working in the hard-bitten world of football journalism, it's perhaps understandable if my attitude to 'art' was coloured just a tad by the apres-match banter in the saloon bar of the Dog & Duck in Stockport. We weren't much for chewing over the merits of theatre, paintings, the cinema or sculpture in those days.

Nevertheless, there's always been a bit of Bill Blunt that's had a sneaky regard for culture. That's why I joined the throngs in Liverpool, last night, to watch the finale of La Machine's visit to the city.

Some have argued that around £1 million for a piece of street theatre was a waste of public money. I can't agree. There are worse abuses of public finance than this. The giant mechanical spider that made Liverpool its home for three days has drawn huge crowds, and sparked lively discussions amongst friends, neighbours and workmates for the whole of the period. Last night's musical and pyrotechnic ballet, as the creature moved through the streets to the mouth of the Birkenhead tunnel, was wondrous to behold.

My colleague on The Times, Donald Hulera, spent 24 hours in Liverpool covering the story, but skipped off before the grand finale, missing the best of the weather and the best of the show. Like so many cosmopolitan visitors to the north, he missed the point. Was it worth it? Donald couldn't decide.

The crowd that assembled to witness the spider's swansong was of all ages, and included youngsters who, after an evening watching La Princess parade through the streets, are likely to be much less traumatised next time they see a spider in the bath - after all, once you've seen the mother of all spiders, anything else pales into insignificance.

A good dousing of water is clearly the antidote to spiders - however big. There'll be quite a few less pigeons around Lime Street station for the next few weeks too, I'll bet. And that's got to be worth £1m of anyone's money.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


I can't pretend to be a poet. And I wouldn't seek to even convince you that I had even heard of 'R. Combe Miller'. However, having spent the last week in my allotment shed sheltering from the grey rains, when I read these lines from Mr/Mrs/Ms Miller...

"Fairest of the months!
Ripe summer's queen
The hey-day of the year
With robes that gleam with sunny sheen
Sweet August doth appear"
... I have come to realise that poets know nothing.

Not about meteorology. Or rain. Or Britain in August, anyway.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Of Books And Men

When I read this post, mentioned by 24 Hour Portly Person over at Occupied Country, I couldn't resist the challenge.

The BBC's Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books that emerged from their survey.

I don't know how you feel about that, but to my mind that's one scary statistic. It's an interesting mix of literature, dominated by the classics. I managed a reasonably-respectable 58%, and I know a lot of people who would probably score higher - which must mean that there are an awful lot of folk out there who've read less than the average 6, if my knowledge of maths is right.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8= Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
8= His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien,
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Alborn
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

If you fancy having a go at it, here are the 'rules' ...

1) Look at the list and embolden those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or were forced to read at school and hated.
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Birds

There will be some who try to tell you that Bill Blunt has far more holidays than he deserves. My advice – for what it’s worth – is not to listen to those gainsayers.

After a lifetime at the peak of provincial journalism, a man deserves to slow the pace a little. Retirement can too often feel like being turned out to grass, unless it’s leavened with a little travelling.

It’s a fine line, of course, between work and leisure. There aren’t many who would choose to spend their ‘holidays’ mowing lawns, chopping wood and learning the finer points of artisan bread-making, French-style.

That’s how I came to find myself, once more, in the delightful town of Bergerac. Yes, the doubters and the critics will put it about that I spend half my life there. I can’t worry about that, at my age. Under the watchful tutelage of Jean-Philipe, I spent a happy morning moulding and shaping bread dough into all manner of shapes and designs. So much enjoyment did I have that I realised how, if I hadn’t been seduced at an early age by the smell of printer’s ink, I could have slipped easily into a career as a local baker.

Jean-Philipe makes old-fashioned bread using quality, organic ingredients. It’s a slow, thoughtful process, dependent on a fine eye for the state of the weather and the ambient temperature during the mixing of the dough. Real bread, strong enough to last a week, not the insipid, plastic rubbish that predominates in the shops in England today. Crofty would have loved it.

On my current trip, I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr and Mrs Dixie, part of the powerhouse that err…fuels Fuel My Blog. They live in La Rochelle, of course, but reasons of economy meant this was my point of entry into France, despite the three hour journey it entailed down to Bergerac. And a very lovely couple they are, too.

La Rochelle’s a fine city, which my flying visit for a coffee with Kevin and Sylvie couldn’t do justice to. Perhaps that’s why fate – and a few stray birds on the run-way at La Rochelle that managed to mangle themselves in the engine - conspired to hand me a free afternoon in the place on my return to the UK. Either that, or it was some terrible curse cast upon me by Mystic Veg, in repayment of the delays I had forced him to endure in June.

If Easyjet had been a tad more honest about the reasons for the delayed departure of their 1.15pm flight EZY5034 to Gatwick, I might even have had much longer. At first they admitted it would take four hours to fly out an engineer to check for damage, which at least meant I could leave the airport and hop a bus into town. Having been in a few airports in my time, I can tell you that La Rochelle’s doesn’t have much to hold your attention for much more than twenty minutes, so when balanced against the prospect of a bowl of moules et frites in a pleasant bar overlooking the harbour, it was what the younger set might call a ‘no brainer’.

Returning to the airport at 5pm after my modest repas, I was delighted to discover that Kevin and Sylvie were also going there, so they were able to offer me a lift. Their flight with Ryanair had, we discovered, also been afflicted by the kamikaze birds of La Rochelle.

Once the engineer had done his stuff (about 6pm) we were informed that the plane now needed a new pilot – who was similarly being flown in and – yes - it would be another (this time unspecified) delay. I suppose it was too much to expect that whoever was working on the logistics of this problem at Easyjet could have factored this matter into the equation when working out what to do about the birds in the engine, and sorting out an engineer. But that would have been too simple. Instead, we awaited hourly announcements that finally culminated in the plane taking off at 23.15pm, a full 10 hours after schedule.

To rub salt into already very sore wounds, the less than merry band of passengers we had become as the day wore on were informed that there were no refreshments available on the plane, other than a glass of water. For a group of people who had become increasingly annoyed by the surly manner of the chap who runs the bar at La Rochelle airport (where food and smiles had run out quickly) this was the final straw. By now, of course, we might have been a cowed and whimpering lot, denied our Easyjet sandwiches and Pringles, but too worn-down to complain. Or maybe (and this is what I’d prefer to think) we were strengthened in our resolve and determination not to let this last tribulation break our spirits. Our stiff upper lips prevailed.

The fate of the Ryanair passengers was furthermost from our minds, although I heard they departed shortly after us, and landed safely at Stansted. Perhaps they fared better when it came to the sarnies.

It’s a brave man who says Bill Blunt is easily put off enjoying his holiday by a simple matter like a 10 hour delay in the return journey. I’ll be back to learn a little more about bread-making in Bergerac, and I’m more than certain there’s another bowl of moules waiting for me on a table outside a harbour bar in La Rochelle with my name stamped on it.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Going Nuts

A man in retirement has time on his hands. That's a truism, if ever there was one. Nevertheless, even though it's many years since I hung up my quill, I like to think my quiet, measured voice still resonates in the corridors of power.

Or, in this case, in the aisles of my local Sainsbury's. My subject today is Nuts - or, more precisely, I'm about to let you into one of Bill's ways of saving 33% on the price Sainsbury's would like you to pay for their Pine Nuts.

Pine Nuts, as any decent Italian worth his garlic, basil leaves, parmesan cheese and olive oil will tell you, are an essential ingredient in the classic Ligurian recipe for pesto. As a devotee of pesto, you will understand if I pay more than an ordinate amount of attention to the price of pine nuts. You can't make an omelette without eggs, and you can't make pesto without pine nuts (unless you buy one of those commercial brands that seems to think it's acceptable to substitute peanuts for the real thing).

On a recent foraging trip, I noticed that Sainsbury's appeared to have re-packaged their Pine Nuts, and that the price had increased by 50p per hundred grams. Have a look at this:

As you can see, they're promoting the product as a 'snacking' nut. You'll find it near the fruit and veg, and will be invited to pay £1.99 for 100grams.

That's all very well, but if you take the trouble to walk ten yards and find the 'cooking ingredients' section, you'll find the humbler version of the Sainsbury's Pine Nut still available for just £1.45 for 100grams.

If this was Bologna, housewives would be taking to the streets in protest. And I, for one, wouldn't blame them.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Passage Of Time

When you get to my age - the kind of age for which discreet veils were invented - it would be nice to think that the passage of time didn't play an unduly influential role in one's life.

But the truth is, like most other people, I spend more time than is probably healthy worrying about a future that hasn't yet happened. My old uncle Jesmond used to say "Yesterday is a cancelled cheque; tomorrow is a promisary note. Today's the only cash you have - so spend it wisely, son."

And so it proved when I made the trip north to attend the 124th Durham Miners' Gala. All my anxieties about whether it would rain were in vain. The sun had his hat on, and the pac-a-mac stayed dry. A year on from my last visit, here are one or two photos of the 2008 Gala, which I hope you enjoy. I must confess I enjoyed my cup of Labour Tea. Even though the price had gone up due to rampant inflation, I think they met the Government target of selling more than last year.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Cheap Tricks

It’s a brave man that accuses Bill Blunt of stooping to cheap tricks to boost his ailing blog readership. Not for me the shoddy inducements to people to drop by to my blog, enticed by a gimmick or the strategic placement of a label or two.

I had enough of that during the infamous Stockport Circulation War of the 1960’s, which saw two fine newspapers go to the wall, and the reputation of the Stockport Leader left in tatters after it introduced its widely-copied Page 9 girl. I was working for the rival Herald at the time, and our editor (Wally Green) was firm in his belief that, while readers might flock to see such lurid spectacles at first, a reputation for truth, honesty and good writing was what would make them come back for more.

It was a long, hot summer in 1965, and many were those who tried to persuade Wally to relax his Presbyterian stance as the Herald’s circulation plummeted. But he dug his heels in, even as the Stockport Leader began to overtake us for the first time since the 1890’s. His one concession to the masses was the ill-fated introduction of Where’s Wally? - a competition which involved readers trying to spot him as he wandered, incognito, around town. Once spotted, the idea was they would challenge him and then claim the munificent sum of £5.

The game didn’t last longer than a couple of weeks, however, since the local constabulary sternly advised us to draw a halt to it. A spate of fights in pubs and clubs across the town had drawn their attention to the Herald’s competition, and the received wisdom after the dust had settled was that it was a mistake to expect punters to point at total strangers while uttering the words ‘You’re Wally – Give Me A Fiver!’

So, you’ll gather I am no fan of cheap attempts to garner readers. That’s why I don’t want my dwindling band of subscribers to read too much into my featuring Olga The Travelling Bra in this posting. I believe Olga represents a genuine cultural phenomenon – an item of lingerie that has already traversed thousands of miles in its quest to … err … traverse the globe and appear in blogs.

Here’s Olga when she visited Liverpool yesterday, in the company of 70’sTeen and Claire, two fine bloggers who had brought Olga for her day out, much to the bemusement of visitors to the Albert Dock.

I like to think it isn’t the first time Billy Fury twirled a bra strap around his index finger, but you never can tell with these pop icons, in my experience. I'd hesitate to make the same comment about Cliff Richard, for instance.

As for the Super Lamb Banana, this was already a potent symbol of Liverpool before the powers that be behind the European Capital of Culture decided to clone it and site small-scale copies across the city and the wider environs of Merseyside. I think you'll agree, Olga looks like she was made to fit the Ringo Starr version of the new icon.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Don't Rain On My Parade

It's around this time of year that I get excited about the prospect of attending, once again, the Durham Miners' Gala. It's become something of a tradition that I turn up at this celebration of all that is great and good about the north east working class. Just because I shop at Sainsburys doesn't mean I have forgotten my roots.

Next Saturday, 12 July, therefore, I'll be strutting my stuff in the streets of Durham City, following one of the brass bands as it winds its way past the Royal County Hotel. In my mind, previous visits to the Gala are always associated with a day of wall-to-wall sunshine. It's July, after all, and the British people have every right to expect a bit of sun now and again. The reality, however, is often not quite so comfortable. Many's the time I've sheltered under my pac-a-mac as the relentless drizzle fails to lift.

I've been around the block enough times to know that selective memory comes out to play whenever we look back on our own Blue Remembered Hills. Our mind has a nasty habit of censoring out the bleaker parts of our life, and that includes the dismal rains which so often accompany the Great British Summer. However, the British psyche is nothing if not optimistic. That's why we are the country in Europe which apparently buys more cabriolets than any other: the triumph of hope over experience, I suppose. And that's why I'll be packing shorts and a t-shirt - just in case.

Meanwhile, I contemplate a visit to my allotment which, after the recent rain, will most probably resemble something like a World War I battlefield. Somehow, I don't think I'll be needing any of Mystic Veg's wonderful, patented Soil Improver.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Did I Mention The Dementia?

As the grey hairs continue their steady advance across my head, in step with the cruel march of time, it becomes increasingly difficult to blame my forgetfulness on that old standby, alcohol.

A recent trip to Bergerac revealed this all too starkly. The first part of my holiday was in the company of a friend of mine from Chester. We go back a long way, but it was nonetheless good of her to stay calm and collected when we arrived at our place of stay to discover I had forgotten to bring the key. We drew on our collective wisdom to construct a plan, rapidly discounting breaking in or calling a lock-smith (reasoning that if two French people tried to persuade an English locksmith to break into a either of our own houses on the strength that they had forgotten their key, we'd hope they'd get pretty short shrift).

I was dimly aware that an organic baker of the name Jean Philipe held a spare key, but wasn't exactly sure where he lived. When, after some driving around, we did finally find his oven, he was nowhere to be seen. We back-tracked into Bergerac and I made what was to be the first of many trips to the Tourist Information Centre there. The girl behind the desk listened in a bemused sort of way as I told her my sorry tale. She then proceeded to do a lot of phoning around, finally locating the said Jean Philipe, who promised to deliver the key a couple of hours later at a rendezvous (which is French, apparently, for a meeting place). That left Sue and I a couple of hours to amble round the town and take in a spot of lunch, relaxing for the first time since we'd stepped off the plane a couple of hours earlier. True to his word, he turned up at 2pm, and the holiday could get back on track.

My friend was departing a couple of days later, so our time was spent in a whirlwind tour of markets, cafes, restaurants and vineyards. On her final night, I admit we may have consumed more than either of us is used to when it comes to wine and pastis. Nevertheless, I managed to deliver her to the airport safely where, once she was through check-in, I was able to position myself in a cafe outside the airport and wait for my second visitor, who was arriving off the plane she was departing on. Everything went to plan this time, with my writing-accomplice Dick Broadhean clearing the tiny arrivals hall in minutes, and his bags safely deposited at the house just ten minutes later.

We were there, ostensibly, to do some writing, and were to be joined the next day by a third scribbler. In the meantime, Dick and I had a trip out to watch Jean Philipe firing up his huge bread oven, situated in a large shed in a tiny village outside of Bergerac. Like a vast ship's engine (but not on a ship) the oven required almost constant feeding with carefully-selected pine wood. The wood had been chosen to allow the oven to reach it's optimum 'calorific weight'. Much discussion took place about this concept, I can tell you. Dick seemed to understand it more than I did. Then, it was a trip to a nearby market for a spot of food shopping.

That evening, as the sky shone with stars, Dick and me spent hours putting the world to rights. I'll admit, more wine and pastis were involved. The next day, we had one main task to accomplish - the collection from the airport of my old mucker, Mystic Veg. I'd managed to lose the paper with his arrival time on but, Bergerac airport not being exactly a hub of activity, it was fairly easy to discover that the Stansted flight wasn't due to arrive until 4.30pm, which left Dick and me with a full day to explore some of the villages around Bergerac. And very pleasant it was, too.

We were in good time to meet the flight, which arrived early. As we waited excitedly for MV's emergence from the arrivals shed, there was much 'That's him-ming' followed just as quickly by 'No - that's not him'. As the last passenger cleared customs, it was clear that MV hadn't made the flight. Unless something else could have gone wrong.

Dick and I drove back to the house, pondering what could possibly have happened. The fifteen minute journey seemed to take an hour. When we arrived, we found a note - quite a polite one, under the circumstances.

Dear Bill and Dick

After waiting two hours at the airport I decided to get a taxi here. After a further four hours sat in the garden, I decided that something must have happened to you both. I'm going to book into a hotel tonight, and will meet you outside the Tourist Information at 11am tomorrow.

Mortification isn't the word. The thought that a man of such advancing years as Mystic should have had to spend the best part of a day alone and abandoned in a foreign country made me ashamed to be a Blunt.

Dick and I sped off to the Tourist Information, where I found myself instantly recognised as 'The Key Man'. It was a slim hope that we'd find MV making enquiries there, but they hadn't seen him. They gave us a list of hotels in the place, and we began our task of searching them. After we'd visited a couple, we finally had a call from Mystic, who had just booked into a hotel two minutes away from where we were standing, and where he'd found a phone in his room that didn't require a degree in french to operate. When we told the receptionist our tale, she was pleased to release him from his contract.

It's a brave man that accuses Bill Blunt of dementia. There's life enough in this old hack's frame to be able to blame the Ricard from the night before. However, there's a lesson to be learned from this whole, sorry affair.

I've learned that Lincoln is MUCH closer to East Midlands airport than Stansted is, and that only a fool would assume otherwise.

And, on the positive side, we found it easy enough, after the experience of our trip, to come up with a name for the sitcom we're working on - Losing The Plot. I like to take credit for that.

A huge Big Up is due to the staff at the Bergerac Tourist Information Office, though. They don't half get some weird enquiries.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Sowing The Seeds

It will probably come as no surprise to those who have read this column that I am something of a stranger to hard graft. In fact, it's a truism to say that I have spent most of my life avoiding it like the plague.

I was fortunate to be the first member of my family to receive the blessings of a university education, and my choice of a career in journalism meant that any notion of manual labour was easily sidestepped. That's not to say that the life of a scribbler has always been an easy one. Wally Green at the Stockport Argus taught me an early lesson in life, when he said 'Son, the Olivetti is your lathe, and your brain supplies the engine oil to keep it moving.'

So, it has been something of a shock to my system to recently take on an allotment. There's a lot to be said for digging away in the sun, eagerly anticipating the point at which your seeds will be sown or your bulbs will be transplanted. Even if six hours of solid labour only managed to transform a plot little bigger than my bathroom. Admittedly, it was a bit of a jungle, but even so it gave me pause to consider whether I was doing the right thing. Six decades of studiously shunning physical exercise had not exactly prepared me for such toil.

I'll be persevering, however. To everything there is a season, in the sun, and I sense that in my own personal autumn has approached. I may be hanging up my quill, and replacing it with a hoe. At least it's cheaper than a gym membership.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Endorse and Be Damned!

Older readers of my blog (by which I don't necessarily mean the more geriatric amongst you) will recall how I have sometimes pointed those who drop by here in the direction of a good bargain.

I've never been one to needlessly fritter away money on expensive food and beverages - not so long as there are expensive wines, women and other such diversions to soak up my cash. 'Look after the pennies, and you'll have more to spend on the finer things in life' is a motto that has guided me down the years.

So, when I endorse a product, it's not because I expect recompense. It's because I recognise its intrinsic worth. That's why I was so keen, just recently, to flag up one or two purchases I had made at my local branch of Sainsburys.

I've already written about how my decision to highlight the good value of Dove's Farm Organic Wholemeal Flour came back to bite me, here.

Now, I find that just weeks after pointing readers in the direction of Sainsburys Basics Ground Coffee, the company has chosen to up the price by over 25% Previously available for just 79p, this week I had to pay £1.06 for the same product.

It's the curse of Bill Blunt, and it spells, I'm afraid, the end of any further product endorsement by me. No sooner do I seem to find a bargain than the greedy supermarket barons rush to capitalise on my celebrity recommendation. Well, it won't happen again. I'll be keeping my counsel in the future.

It's a brave man that accuses Bill Blunt of chagrin, but it seems my readiness to spill the beans (so to speak) on cheap coffee has unwittingly led me to have to pay an extra £20 per annum on the stuff. There's something wrong here, surely!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

A Conspiracy of Silence

It would be easy for readers to imagine that my recent 'radio silence' has been prompted by threats of legal action, promoted by the powers that be who are always anxious to still the voice of the dissident.

A glance at the list of labels used for my postings over the last year (handily listed in the side-bar, to the left) will show that my potential enemies are legion, so it would be natural to assume there was a queue of potential litigants.

The truth, however, is more prosaic. I have been distracted from my blogging by one or two projects that demanded my energies. My on-going attempt to compile a Guide to the Wetherspoon Pubs of England has proven to be a task which makes the painting of the Forth Road Bridge look like a pushover. New establishments are opening by the week, and I fear it may be years before I can bring the Guide to publication.

At the same time, I have been getting excited at the idea of taking over part of an allotment which a friend has just procured. I'll doubtless be stopping by over at Mystic Veg's place more frequently for tips and tricks to guide me in my growing - although if his attempts with rhubarb are anything to go by, I may have to cast my net wider in the search for advice.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Accept No Substitute

It's a brave man that accuses Bill Blunt of being worried about the competition. It's not my way to concern myself with imposters.

But Jasper was doing a spot of Googling just today.

William Blunt looks like the kind of guy you'd stake your pension on. Or use as your estate agent, if you lived in California.

That's OK with me. So long as he doesn't intrude into journalism. The world's big enough to take two Bill Blunts.

I like to think that my distinctive voice will set me apart from any imposters, so that readers will find the 'real' Bill easily enough.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Don't Leave Me This Way

It’s not very often I hear from my old pal and former drinking-companion, Des Smith, but when I do my memories of our days together on the Preston Globe are inevitably stirred. Des made quite a name for himself by championing IT at a time when most of us couldn’t tell an Atari from an Apple.

His retirement has found him in Japan, of all places, where he ekes out his pension by ‘stringing’ for a couple of Tokyo dailies. His irregular missives back home are always an intriguing insight into the cultural differences between east and west, peppered as they are with accounts of his trips to bars with his work colleagues. He’s developed an out-of-character fondness for eating raw fish and sea-weed, but apart from that has slipped easily into the Japanese way of life.

Anyone even remotely familiar with that lifestyle will know that Karaoke looms large in the social currency of the country. So, it came as no great surprise to him, when attending a leaving-party for one of his male workmates who had secured an advertising job in the capital, to find the Karaoke machine was blasting away in the corner.

“What do the British sing at farewell parties?” he was asked. Des’ assertion that it was quite unlikely that anyone would sing anything was met with blank incomprehension. “Oh, go on…” they cajoled. “Sing us the British farewell song”. Not wishing to offend his friends, but stuck to know quite what might be appropriate in the circumstances, he noticed that the ‘menu’ of songs included that Peter, Paul & Mary classic ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ – a song which most of us, of a certain vintage, could make a decent fist of. At first glance, it would seem to be a decent enough choice for a ‘leaving’ song and the chorus, at any rate, is a familiar refrain (altogether, now):

And I'm leaving on a jet plane
I don't know when I'll be back again
Oh, babe, I hate to go
As a confident Des took to the stage and began his rendition, the smiles on his friends’ faces were enough to convince him he’d got away with not offending them. Then, as the words of the song unfurled, he began to hope that their English wasn’t up to understanding the finer points of the lyrics. Increasingly crimson with embarrassment, he ploughed his way through the song, which he later described as ‘A Stalker’s Lament’.

For those who might have forgotten, here are a few lines:
All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go
I'm standin' here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye

But the dawn is breakin', it's early morn
The taxi's waitin', he's blowin' his horn
Already I'm so lonesome I could die

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go

There's so many times I've let you down
So many times I've played around
I'll tell you now, they don't mean a thing

Every place I go, I think of you
Every song I sing, I sing for you
When I come back I'll wear your wedding ring

Now the time has come to leave you
One more time, oh, let me kiss you
And close your eyes and I'll be on my way
As Des dashed off the stage, he could only reflect how fortunate he was not to be singing that song in the saloon bar of The Black Horse Hotel where, if our previous visit was anything to go by, he would have been lucky to escape with a couple of broken arms.

Plus ça change, as they probably don’t say in Japan.