Monday, 28 January 2008

Viva La Difference

As I approach the end of my mini-jaunt around Europe, I have taken some time out to visit an internet cafe in the delightful town of Charleroi, where I am catching up on e-mails before the final leg of my journey (Madrid) tomorrow.

One might assume that a former mining town would have little to detain one after the pleasures of Valencia and Bergamo - but you'd be wrong. Maybe it's because of my own working-class up-bringing, but the place seems warm and welcoming like a wholesome Northern town, with the added bonus of dozens of varieties of Belgian beers to make the day go with a swing. Skipping from country to country as we are, it's easy to see the cultural differences that divide our nations, while at the same time re-inforcing our prejudices. The Italians were indeed smartly dressed and very dapper with it; the Spanish very stylish but in a relaxed sort of way and the Belgians - well, they're happy enough with whatever is available from the market.

Of course, the trip is proving to be a bit of a compromise. THJnr and myself are very different animals, and there's nothing like sharing a hotel room to discover a man's foibles. At least we both of us got to cast off our shoes and socks to have a good 'plodge' in the Med. Valencia's beaches may not be the prettiest in the world (vaguely reminiscent, in fact, of Seaton Carew), but the sand is fine and clean, and just feeling the sun on your face is enough to dispel thoughts of a grey English winter.

And so, like a couple of American tourists, our jaunt continues. It's Monday, so it must be Belgium.

Adios! Ciao! Au revoir!

Sunday, 20 January 2008

A Ladies' Man

I realise that some of my readers might be tempted to doubt my feminist credentials. My recent rant about Janet Street-Porter has led some to think, somehow, that I’m a whisky-soaked misogynist of some sort.

I can’t claim I wasn’t wounded by the charge. Just because I’m styled (by my publicists, I hasten to add) as The Man Who Tells It Like It Is, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a certain affinity for the female mind. Watching Willy Russell’s wonderful Blood Brothers at the Liverpool Empire last week was a truly moving experience. I’m not the kind of man who would pretend a tear didn’t cascade its way down my cheek now and again during the performance.

I like to think – alongside the estimable Crofty – that my sensitivities extend a tad further than standing on the sideline cheering the Latics as they trounce Everton in a cup encounter. I’ll also be the first to admit to occasionally listening to Alanis Morissette, without for a moment thinking I’ve dented my credibility as one of the foremost sports correspondents of my generation.

For those who doubt my claims, I can only refer them to some of my earliest writing. I’m not a man to blow my own trumpet, but should there be anyone who thinks I’m a ‘man’s man’, here’s a clipping from one of my earliest forays into journalism, when I was asked to stand in to write a column or two for Letty Bradshaw, the Stockport Leader’s much-respected woman’s correspondent. I think it speaks for itself. If anyone thinks a mere woman could have penned such prose, then they’re clearly biased.

Friday, 18 January 2008

A Friend in Need

Just when I thought it was safe to take to the air on my mini-jaunt around Europe, a call from Thomas Hamburger Jnr comes in. Would I mind awfully, he asks, if he accompanied me on my trip? He’s had a rough time of it recently, dealing with one or two ‘issues’ he feels must be tidied up before he can re-write his fictional account of Harry McFry. I chided him with the fact that not the least of these issues is that he’s required to finish the bloody thing before he can even contemplate a re-write.

I must say, it wasn’t like this in my day. When Wally Green asked for a story for the front page, a story was precisely what he got. There wasn’t much time for intellectual agonising at the Stockport Leader. Lolling around in a flat listening to Cavalleria Rusticana and complaining about writers’ block wasn’t an option when there were bills to pay and a young family to support.

Well, I suppose I owe him one. It was Thomas who eased my way into the world of blogs in the first place, and he has continued to post whatever musings I send him (with very little editorial cuts). At the same time, I can’t help but think a very different kind of holiday is now in store for me. I’ve had to hastily re-arrange a few liaisons I had lined up en route, as it wouldn’t be seemly to have a friend in tow for some of the encounters I had planned. And I doubt very much he’ll be keen on visiting the great football stadia in Milan, Valencia, Madrid and err... Brussels, which was also part of my plan. The prospect is now real that the entire seven days could be spent in a blur of cafes, cigarettes and culture.

Still, what price friendship? It’s a brave man who accuses Bill Blunt of turning his back on a friend in his hour of need. And, who knows, maybe a few days spent ‘people watching’ won’t be such a bad thing? I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Oh, Mrs Porter, What Shall We Do?

So. Janet Street-Porter, the highly-paid doyen of Fleet Street, rails against the humble blog? Donchajustknowit? The much-made-over hackette seems to think blogs are nothing more than self-indulgent mediocrity (Just blog off. And take your self-promotion and cat-flap with you, Independent on Sunday, 6 January 2008).

Perhaps she thinks Joe and Josephine Blogger would be better off punting up £1.80 of their precious cash to read her whining, self-obsessed ramblings in the IoS every week? Keen to see what she was up to these days, I did just that. Her musings about Marks & Spencer, Big Brother and a plug for her latest publication Life’s Too F***ing Short (for which we are invited to punt a further £12.99) are hardly the most scintillating of reads.

She confesses to being ‘a bit nervous’ that M&S might branch out into online food delivery – worse still, that they are considering expanding their range of food to include more basic ingredients with which meals can be cooked. Well, I think JS-P needs to toughen up a bit. It takes more than a shift in retailing strategy by a high street chain to make Bill Blunt even the least bit nervy.

Janet is clearly no stranger to irony. After slagging off the lowly blogger for self-promotion, should we be surprised that her angle on Big Brother is that ‘I was allowed to hijack the programme last Friday’, or that a quarter of her column is devoted to advertorial for her own (just-published) book?

At least no one can accuse her of being a hypocrite. ‘Start each day … by telling yourself you are great. No one else is going to, believe me,’ she says. How true, Janet. Now – where’s that cat-flap? Mee-owww!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

You Need Hands

When Mrs Blunt scarpered with the fishmonger, she little realised what a favour she was doing me. Accustomed, over many years, to having the odd loaf of bread baked in a bread machine, I was quite bereft when she waltzed off with it as part of the carefully-worded divorce settlement prepared by her solicitors. There’s nothing quite like waking up to the smell of freshly-baked bread, and I must confess I was more than a bit miffed to lose the facility.

My circumstances did not immediately permit me to buy a replacement (bread maker, that is – not wife) but, after an evening of head-scratching, it came to me that I didn’t actually need one to meet my desire for the aroma of cooked dough. Everything I needed was right there in my hands – quite literally, in fact.

If she did but know it, the late Mrs B did me a great service. A consultation with my sister-in-law )not on Mrs B’s side, I hasten to add) was all I needed. She pointed me in the direction of Andrew (God Bless Him) Whitley’s seminal work Bread Matters. It’s not often that Bill Blunt endorses a product, but when he does, his readers can be assured that they should rush out and buy it.

Mr Whitley has produced the definitive reference book about bread. In 370 closly-printed pages, he expounds all there really is to know about bread, and how to make it. Forget your chemicals, your additives and your preservatives. A loaf of bread is flour, water, yeast and salt. That’s all. Since ASDA will furnish you with free yeast (just ask at the bakery), and since Dove Farm produce a very acceptable organic wholemeal flour for just 60p per 1.5kg, in no time you can be producing your own, healthy bread for less than 40p a pop (that’s 80c to our transatlantic cousins).

The only fly in the ointment is friends and acquaintances. For some reason, they seem to think that people who make their own bread use the process to ‘take out their frustrations’. They have this vision of me battering the hell out of the dough. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A good loaf is made with love, time and attention – just like a good relationship. You can’t force these things by shoving them in machines or by pummelling them to death. Bread is the staff of life. Make it with care and devotion, give the yeast plenty of time to do its stuff, and the taste will repay you in dividends.

While I was rustling up a couple of loafs and a cob last night, I got to thinking why, the world over, the classic figure of the baker always seems to be male? Whether it’s the little French boulanger or the dusty-aproned fellow who crops up in nursery rhymes now and again, there’s no doubt that, in our mind’s eye, we visualise a man.

Well, times have moved on. Thanks to campaigners like Emily Pankhurst, women, too, can get their knuckles well and truly dusted with flour. So, take a tip. This weekend, get that oven fired up and feel the thrill of the dough coming together in your hands. You’ll thank me for it.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Cheap Week Return

Whenever the low-cost air carriers publish their new schedules, or whenever they announce a sale, Bill Blunt finds it hard to resist the temptation to wander their websites with an eye to a bargain.

So, when Ryanair began advertising their current crop of low, low air fares, I set myself the challenge of finding out how far £50 would get me. That's near enough $100 to our transatlantic cousins. Anyone booking via the likes of Ryanair, Easyjet and Flybe will have learnt to their cost that it's one thing to find a cheap flight, but quite another to absorb the 'taxes and charges' lurking beneath it.

To make my challenge more realistic, therefore, my target was that the £50 had to include their published taxes and charges. Well, here's what I came up with:

Wed 23 Jan Liverpool - Valencia £10
Fri 25 Jan Valencia - Bergamot 10 Euros
Sun 27 Jan Bergamot - Brussels 10 Euros
Tues 29 Jan Brussels - Madrid 10 Euros
Thurs 31 Jan Madrid - Liverpool 10 Euros

That makes a grand total of around £40 or 80 USD - not at all bad for a journey that takes in three countries and four European cities.

Of course, I've got to find some accommodation for each evening while I'm away. Any offers or suggestions of budget-priced places would be most welcome...

Monday, 7 January 2008

A Grand Day Out

The dawning of a new year on Merseyside brings, for a seasoned hack like myself, a veritable plethora of cultural opportunities. For, it is finally here: Liverpool is European Capital of Culture.

I know there have been some people (mainly Mancunians, it has to be said) who have tried to make light of this accolade, even suggesting that, when the wheels are stolen from your car in Liverpool this year, you’ll return to find it resting on four stacks of books, rather than bricks. I’m not one of those who revel in such cheap stereotypes, and I think there is more than the whiff of envy in comments like that.

Given Liverpool’s new status, it was easy for me to make a personal resolution that 2008 should be my own year of cultural development. With Mrs Blunt off the scene, I can finally allow myself to sample some of the artistic pleasures of the world - free of that carping voice in my ear saying “I don’t know what the fuss is all about – it looks like a load of triangles and circles to me” (the best she could make, apparently, of Kandinsky).

With a multitude of arts activities lined up, where better place to start than the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate Gallery, in the Albert Docks, at the invitation of an old drinking friend of mine? Now that I’m resident in the Wirral, Liverpool is but a short ferry ride away, as any Gerry Marsden fan will tell you, so it seemed an attractive proposition.

Alas, fate – and the fact that, during the day, the morning and evening ‘commuter’ ferry service is curtailed in favour of a tourist route that adds an extra half hour to the trip – conspired against me. Add to that the potent mix of a bitingly cold (‘nithering’ is the word I am looking for) wind, and building works that interfered with the otherwise short walk from ferry terminal to the Tate and, well … my readers will understand why I was seduced by the charms of a warm and cosy bar, for a reviving shot of Bells. Circumstances may even have dictated that I had another. It all meant that I missed the Turner prize exhibition, and the company of my erstwhile drinking chum.

Consolation was is store for me, however. Forsaking the bollock-withering ferry, I made my return via the ‘fast and frequent’ (and decidedly warmer) electric train that runs under (rather than over) the Mersey. Still craving art, I headed for Birkenhead’s Williamson Gallery, best described as a provincial museum and art gallery – little knowing what delights were in store for me.

The Williamson is a treat – its permanent collection is worth a trip in itself, although heavily weighted towards C19th art and with a rather unsettling room of drab, weighty furniture that includes a huge, dark fireplace that would be better broken up and burnt – but Bill Blunt was never a fan of big fireplaces. Notwithstanding that, I discovered an exhibition by students from the Upton Hall Girls School.

Now, I’ve never pretended to know much about art, but only a brave man would accuse me of being uncultured. And I think I can recognise vivid and exciting art when I see it. These 17-18 year olds had produced an exhibition that set my soul on fire, making me hungry for more. I am sure there are those who would describe their work as derivative, but I’m not sure there are many youngsters who can work free of the influence of giants such as Hockney. There’s hope yet when our teenagers can produce work of such outstanding quality, and (for what it’s worth) my guess is it will stand head and shoulders over anything given the Turner prize. Here’s a sample.

Happy New Year!