Friday, 29 February 2008

Back to Basics

I’ve learned the hard way in life that there are two things you should never criticize about a man: his choice of woman and his preferred coffee machine.

Just as there are men who swear by the virtues of the blonde over the brunette, so too there are those who will argue late into the night on the relative merits of their particular model of Gaggia.

There’s no doubt about it, the Italian’s produce a seductive and ultimately sexy range of espresso makers - most of which, when teamed up with that other Italian marvel, Lavazza coffee, are guaranteed to satisfy the caffeine urges of any red-blooded male.

But I want to introduce you to another (perhaps little-known) brand: Ufesa. Many moons ago, I purchased one of these on the recommendation of a couple of coffee grinders who ply their trade in an industrial unit in a backstreet of Birkenhead. At £45 it was cheap enough – but was it too cheap to produce the pressure to guarantee the crema so characteristic of a good espresso, I wondered? They argued not.

I took the risk and, since that day, have never looked back. Day in, day out, for the last seven years, my plucky little Ufesa has doled out perfect shots of coffee. It’s a wolf of a machine in Spanish clothing. The only casualty across those years has been the unfathomable loss of the nozzle that sits on the end of the frother. Periodic expeditions around the kitchen have failed to unearth it, so I can only assume it fell off and got taken out in the trash sometime.

My latest discovery, however, is also worthy of sharing. My consumption of coffee is gargantuan, and threatened to be ruinously expensive. At around £2 for 250g, Lavazza can soon become a luxury that can be ill-afforded when licking the financial wounds of a divorce. I decided, therefore, to take another risk, when in Sainsbury’s the other week. Like most supermarkets, they have a range of products for what they probably think of as the riff-raff among their customers. What in Tesco is Value, and in Asda is Smart Price, in Sainsbury’s is Basics. When I saw they’d introduced a Basics Ground Coffee, I was up to try it.

At 79p for 250g, I wasn’t expecting much. What a surprise, then, to discover that it was more than a match for Lavazza.

Well done, Sainsbury’s. And well done that reader who, after spotting this post, dashes out to try it. You’ll thank me for it.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Did the earth move for you?

At my age in life, it's rare to feel the bed rattling against the wall, still less the very foundations of my bijoux residence shaking. It was a strange feeling, therefore, to be jolted awake at one o'clock this morning, to feel an unusual, trembling sensation - especially since I was sleeping alone.

As a well-trained newspaper hack, my first instinct was to think 'It's an earthquake' - a thought I rapidly dismissed as improbable, replacing it with the notion that it must, instead, be my next door neighbour's washing machine on it's 2000 rpm spin cycle. It wouldn't be the first time she's taken advantage of the Economy 7 tariff to freshen up her smalls.

I felt a certain sense of vindication, therefore, when turning on the news this morning. Minor earth tremor in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire - not many hurt. The kind of gem of a story we used to love on the Stockport Herald, rubbing our hands with glee as we tried to locate a local angle on the tale. Those lucky buggers at the Market Rasen News must think all their birthdays have come at once! Thankfully, the quake came too early to affect this decision, so the good people of the area may well yet get their swimming pool.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Storm Clouds Gather

Ever since the renting-assunder of my marriage, relations with my son Jasper have not been what they should. He seems to have spent more time down in Ipswich, giving credence to my theory that he was a mummy's boy. Nevertheless, I've missed his 'dropping by', and I've been at pains to let him know my door is always open to him.

His most recent visit saw him, as usual, 'analysing my stats'. He's always been keen to ensure that my blog meets the needs of its readers, and studying where they come from, why they come her and what they think when they arrive has become a bit of an obsession for him.

'Pa,' he said, on a recent trip to the Wirral, 'you're losing it.' Apparently, my Technorati ranking has plummeted. When pressed, he suggested this might be for the simple reason that I haven't been posting as frequently as I once was.

He knows my situation. More worryingly, he hinted darkly that his mother was considering publishing her own blog, based on a diary she apparently kept during our near-forty years of marriage. I must admit, I was shocked at the prospect. It's one thing for me to post my own reflections on life, but quite another for the former Mrs Blunt to want to do the same. I can only think this has been prompted by Tommy Fishfinger, her new paramour, who has doubtless been filling her head with thoughts of the fame and fortune that might accrue were she to spill the beans on her marriage to one of sport's more infamous journalists.

I'm not happy about it - not one little bit. I have instructed my solicitors to scour the internet and to alert me to any calumnies. There's a big, fat writ waiting in the wings, I can tell you.

Meanwhile, Jasper has helpfully produced another report on 'How People Find Me'. It makes sobering reading, and suggests I need to broaden my subject-matter, lest readers think I have become obsessed by Wetherspoons, Prolectrix Mp3 players and the Georgian Massage parlour in Oldham. I fully acknowledge that, if these subjects are the ones that are driving traffic to my site, I need to think carefully how I label my postings in future. After all, who would want to be thought of as a sozzled, music-obsessed frequenter of brothels in the Oldham area? Particularly when I can aspire to become the world authority on Kappa tracksuit fetishes...

Bill Blunt's Guide to Wetherspoons: No 3: Doncaster: The Gatehouse

Ever since its publication in serialised form in 1928, rumours have persisted that Michail Sholokhov penned the opening chapters of his seminal piece of fiction, And Quiet Flows The Don while sat in the snug of a pub somewhere in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

It's a seductive idea and, as any journalist worth his salt will tell you, you should never let the absence of any corroborating facts get in the way of a story. But that doesn’t mean we should believe everything the Doncaster Tourist Information Centre tells us in an attempt to lure visitors to the place.

As my loyal reader will know, I’m not a man who scorns the opportunity to travel - there’s not a lot of moss on Bill Blunt, I can tell you. So, when Reggie Mackeson, my old pal on the Doncaster Free Press, invited me across the Pennines for the weekend, I was quick to accept. He’s always eulogized about the place, so I was keen to sample its delights. Now, I don’t mind dark, Satanic mills – but when it comes to dark Satanic schools, dark Satanic churches and dark Satanic supermarkets, I can tell you: I’ve had my fill. In their obviously very finite wisdom, the city planners of Doncaster have elected to knock down a ghastly 1970’s-period shopping centre and replace it with a perfectly awful 21st century one.

I thought, however, I could take advantage of the trip to add another chapter to the Bill Blunt Guide to Wetherspoons, which is starting to take shape.

No one can be sure whether The Gatehouse was the very pub in which Sholokhov dashed out the first few lines of his epic Don masterwork. But the facts are clear that there has been an inn on the site since at least 1670. Messrs Wetherspoon didn’t get in on the act until early 2002, modernizing and transforming it into the pub it is today.

Early impressions are of a clean and spacious venue, if a tad on the dark side. Perhaps the fact that I was visiting for breakfast on a rather dull, Saturday morning in February had something to do with that, or maybe the lights were dimmed to protect the sensitivities of the dozen or so sterling men who, even at 9am, seemed to have no compunction in downing a pint (and more) of ale.

The staff at The Gatehouse are an exceptionally friendly and amiable bunch. Presentation-wise, the breakfast was a little lack-lustre, with the fried egg haphazardly thrown over the baked beans and bacon. But it was hot, tasty and greaseless – well-up to the usual Wetherspoon breakfast standard. And a bit more training on the coffee machine wouldn’t go amiss, if they are ever to master the art of serving up a decent cappuccino. However, since Reggie had a couple of vouchers he’d had delivered as part of a marketing campaign, the brekkie and coffee only cost us £1.99 each, so it would be churlish to complain too much.

I wasn’t able to test out the wi-fi signal at The Gatehouse, but Reggie assures me he’s never had much problem logging on there.

All in all, then, you won’t be disappointed by this one.

Decor: 8/10
Food Quality: 9/10
Value for money: 10/10 (using discount voucher)
Location: 6/10
Wifi Access: 9/10

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Cuban Heels Are Dancing - in Miami

The news that Fidel Castro, the world’s longest-presiding political leader, is stepping down from the helm in Cuba is not entirely unexpected. When, in August 2006, he handed power, albeit temporarily, to his younger brother, Raul, there were many who thought he would never return. Those who danced on the streets of Miami must have had cause to shudder when Raul’s older sibling re-assumed the reins.*

Nevertheless, it was always evident that Castro’s ill-health meant his return to power might be brief and, less than two years later, the Cuban exiles have once again dusted off their dancing shoes. Rumours are rife that another change in leader will herald a loosening of grip of the state on the country’s socialised economy.

It’s a marvel at all that a tiny country like Cuba has been able not just to withstand the constant opposition of the United States to it’s communist economic planning (dressed up as pro-democracy), but that it has done so for almost half a century. Castro’s achievement has been to see off nine US Presidents and their pernicious sanctions.

Now, I fear, the door will open slightly, and before we know it we’ll see the dismantling of one of the world’s finest primary health care systems. One where you don’t book an appointment to see the doctor, but where he or she comes knocking on your door as part of their regular rounds to see if everyone in every home is well. I’ve no doubt that once this is gone, and replaced by a US-style pay for healthcare system, there’ll be many who look back fondly on the days of socialised medicine, and wonder how they came to lose it.

As is so often in life, the words of the slogan of that great British company, National Car Parks, ring true: “You don’t know what you’ve got, ‘til it’s gone”.

Here’s wishing Fidel a few more years of health, anyway. Adiós, amigo querido!

* All mixed metaphors are the intellectual property of Bill Blunt.

Monday, 18 February 2008

A Brave New Voice From the North

Due to a change in my personal circumstances, I no longer get as much chance to surf for new blogs and thus point my readers towards them as often as I used to. I'm not exactly on my uppers, you understand, but the recent divorce from Mrs Blunt means I have to watch the pennies. A landline (and hence an ISP) were the first casualty in my economy drive.

However, I've recently signed up to the 3 mobile broadband service, and it's allowing me, once again, to dip a toe into the unknown.

Courtesy of those fine people at Fuel My Blog, I found a little seedling which I would like to suggest readers drop by to take a look at.

, by Elaine Stevens, is a 'novel in progress'. It differs markedly from that other novel I've pointed readers to in the past - not least because it does appear to be 'in progress'. Thomas Hamburger seems to have ground to a halt after a mere 150,000 words, despite his protestations that he's 'on a re-write'.

When you do drop by to Elaine's blog, just remember that she's a northern lass, and proud of it. A good editor will no doubt help her sort out some of the grammar and punctuation, but what appealed to me was a language that was sharp and distinctive, and a style that made me want to read on. I can't pretend I'm a fan of her chosen genre, but she kept me reading to the end of the chapters she's already posted, and left me wanting to know how it was all going to turn out.

I hope you will want to encourage this talent, by leaving her a comment and letting her know you've dropped by. You won't regret it.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Potatoes, Chicken and Madrid

When the Spanish take a photograph, they invariably enjoin their subjects to say 'Patatas' rather than 'Cheese'. Anyone who has tasted one of the country's national dish - patatas bravas - will understand why the humble potato might be dear to the heart of the average resident of the Iberian peninsula.

At the same time, it's hard to walk around the streets of Madrid without stumbling across the ubiquitous Museo Del Jamon chain of bars, where huge hams line the walls. You'll trip over them everywhere. And you won't be disappointed if you stumble inside. You'll search hard, however, for anything that celebrates the Spanish love of the potato in quite the same way. Thankfully, Bill Blunt has done the searching for you.

Back in 1980, two brothers in the south of the city centre surveyed the proliferation of ham museums and had the bright idea of opening something which marked the respect with which they held the potato. But fear not, this is no stuffy museum of the kind that Thomas Hamburger Jnr likes to wander round - this is a down-at-home, honest to goodness tapas bar where the potato forms the central part of every dish. Best of all - a couple of beers and a bowl of migas or other free tapas will (unbelievably) set you back less than €2. Worth the trip on the metro to Palos de La Frontera (just a couple of stops down from Sol, in the centre), the Museo de Las Patatas won't disappoint, and is well away from the tourist haunts. Particularly if you've availed yourself of Madrid's Abono Touristico, and have the freedom of the city's rail, metro and bus services for the paltry sum of €7.15 for two days. Buy it at the airport metro station, and your journey into the city is also included - Ken Livingstone, eat your heart out. For more information on the Museo de Las Patatas, and other worthy Madrid haunts, you could do worse than visit esmadriz!, which is one of my favourite blogs, from the design point of view of its header, alone.

Of course, man cannot live on just potatoes (although I'm sure the frite sellers of Belgium would make a pretty strong case to the contrary). Bill's top tip for an authentic, non-potato, Madrid eating experience is therefore to take a trip to Casa Mingo. Here, traditional Asturian sidra is served up alongside perfectly-cooked chicken. Nothing fancy - honest-to-goodness food that seeks to please the palate. Handily, you'll also get the chance to visit Prícipe Pio, where an abandoned train station has been converted, rather spectacularly, into a shopping centre.

Staying in Madrid is always a pleasure. It's a city I've visited more times than I've had hot dinners (at least, that is, more times than I've had hot dinners since my marriage to Mrs B was rent assunder), and I've always found somewhere to lay my head that is comfortable, and in an interesting area. This time, though, I was happy to leave the business of arranging our accommodation to THJnr, and he came up trumps with a modest little three star place just a potato's throw from Sol - the Hotel Ingles. It proved handy for the live jazz at Cafe Populart which he insisted on dragging me to watch, and where the drinks were 1000 per cent more expensive than those on offer at the potato museum. The staff at the hotel are attentive, and the rooms large and rather quaintly old-fashioned. I was particularly impressed with the bath, the design of which gave me pause for thought, and has given me ideas for how I'd like my next bathroom to be, when I finally get to re-establish Blunt Towers. But my views on bathroom design will have to await another posting. As will my views on jazz.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Injury Time

Over the course of a lifetime in journalism, I have inevitably incurred my fair share of injuries. A blackened eye - administered by an association footballer who liked to think of himself as ‘professional’ (but who was strictly amateur when it came to answering questions about his alleged affair with a waitress), was not the least of them. A broken rib or two - caused by slip on a step outside the Dog and Kettle in Stockport (which the brewery solicitors refused to accept was uneven, choosing to defend my claim by producing my - admittedly rather large - bar bill) figures somewhere along the line. And an injured knee – occasioned by a hammer-wielding ex-husband in a suburb of south Manchester (which shall remain nameless: no veil would be discrete enough where that story is concerned).

But the strangest injury of all has to be the one that has got me tapping away at my keyboard much more slowly than usual, with the middle finger of my right hand splinted up for the next 6 weeks thanks chiefly to a fight with a sock.

This posting is, therefore, published as a warning to any man (or indeed, woman) out there who carelessly attempts to remove their socks tonight, without giving a thought to the potential for bodily injury.


Think carefully before you absent-mindedly try to push off a sock with an extended finger. Had I had the foresight to be in Seattle in 2001, I might have learned about Fran Joy’s experience, and given more thought to what I otherwise had come to think was a fairly safe procedure. Having followed the advice (from an early age) of many of my teachers to ‘pull my socks up,’ I always believed I had become equally skilled at removing them. After all, in the simple act of removing a sock, no ladders, no electrical apparatus, and no dangerous chemicals are involved. And it’s an act I’ve performed at least 40,000 times in my life - sometimes more than twice a day (pass the discrete veil again, please).

However, I am here to testify about the dangers: mallet finger, and two months in a splint, awaits all who fail to heed my warning. Tonight, then, take extra care when taking off your socks. You’ll be glad you did.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Every picture tells a story...

I forget exactly which drink it was that used to advertise itself with the slogan 'It's what your right arm's for'- but I rather think whoever sculptured this fine piece in Charleroi might have had that phrase in mind.

It's a steelworker, apparently.

Travails With My Jaunt

It’s a brave man who calls Bill Blunt ‘unadventurous’. Not for me the easy life of pipe and slippers - even as my sixth decade starts to slip slowly away, like a golden sun setting in the west, I demand more. You’re never too old to learn, as they say – and I, for one, have that maxim branded on my chest.

So, a mini-tour of Europe (courtesy of cheap-flight pioneers, Ryanair) was ‘just what the doctor ordered’ to stimulate my decaying brain cells. Forgive the cliché, but they’re right when they say ‘a change is as good as a rest’.

As someone who is best known for his trenchant columns on sporting events, my readers may be surprised to learn that I’ve always nurtured a desire to branch out into travel writing. Another string to a bow which already resembles a seven-string guitar will never come amiss.

More than a century and a half ago, the great artists of the time pioneered The Grand Tour. At great expense, and not without some sacrifice of time and effort, it became fashionable to explore the European Continent. Well, thanks to the technological advances society has made since then, it’s now possible to follow in their paint-spattered footsteps for little more than the cost of a couple of cheap DVD players. Special offers from the low-cost airlines puts a slimmed-down version of the nineteenth century Euro-jaunt well within the reach of most people’s wallets.

An eight-day trip from the UK, taking in two Spanish cities, an Italian and a Belgian town offered the chance to sample a slice of Europe for the not-so-grand sum of £52, thanks to Ryanair’s winter sale. Getting from my home on the Wirral to Liverpool John Lennon Airport required a £1 bus fare to Birkenhead Central station, £1.75 to cross under the Mersey and £2.50 for the coach from Liverpool Lime Street to the airport. From there to Valencia was £10, including the obligatory ‘taxes and charges’. A maths teacher might find it interesting to set their pupils a challenge to work out the relative costs for each part of the journey… but I can save them the work. The 12 mile trip to the airport cost 43p per mile, whereas the flight to Valencia cost a mere penny a mile. I can’t pretend to understand the economics of it all, but since Ryanair posted a profit of £326m in the six months to September 2007, I can only think it must be because they charge a fortune for sandwiches during the flight.

My travelling companion, Thomas Hamburger, did me the great service of booking the hotels for our trip. The boy did well, managing to secure very acceptable rooms with twin beds, for around £25 for each of us per night. I must confess I was a little worried we might have to share a bed, even if it would be a la Morecombe and Wise, but in the event we found twin beds rather than doubles to be the norm everywhere we stayed. Quite how the continentals got their reputation for sexual frivolousness in the absence of double beds confounds me.

Valencia (Spain)

Once in Valencia, we took advantage of all the city offered With temperatures nudging 20 C, we got our first taste of ‘proper’ sun since October. There’s nothing like sipping a cool beer in a quiet Spanish plaza in January to lift the mood, but Valencia also offers the enticement of Chocolate con Churros – yummy twists of dough, freshly fried and ready to dip into the thick, sweet chocolate that the Spanish seem to love so much. We couldn’t help but notice that these chocolate parlours were full of ladies who lunch, adding grist to the popular theory that women lust after cocoa like a man desires a pint of Newcastle Brown.

But of course, our main target on our first day in Spain was what any red-blooded male’s aim would be … tapas. Thankfully, we found it aplenty, and no finer than in the bar opposite the magnificent city-centre market. The next day (after an evening during which THJnr philosophised about the problems of ‘writing’), we ambled into one or two bars, including a Basque one, where we partook of pinxtos (the northern Spanish equivalent of tapas – and very nice, too) and sideria, a brew which makes Magners look like the sheep’s pee it really is. We managed to fit in a trip to the coast, and dipped our toes in the Med to reassure ourselves that we weren’t in England (photographs are available, to prove the point).


From Valencia, the flight to Bergamo (Ryanair-speak for Milan, but actually a full hour by bus from the capital of couture) was just €10. I have spent more on a magazine (admittedly an adult one) than I have on that flight. Here, a three day tourist card was available for just €5 – a bargain since this also includes the airport transfer as well as the two funicular railways from the low town to the high town. Top tip: Italy isn’t the cheapest place to spend a few days but, if you do find yourself in Bergamo, take the funicular railway up to the high town, and take a meal – or just a coffee – in the restaurant at the top of the line. You won’t regret it – if only for the view. And the coffee. On Thomas Hamburger Jnr’s advice, avoid the Mexican Karaoke Bar in the low town, even if it sounds like a good idea at 2am in the morning.


The Bergamo – Brussels Charleroi leg of our journey again cost just €10 – and brought a surprise. As a former mining town, and the scene of a major colliery disaster as recently as 1956, it can sometimes seem a little rough around the edges, but as a northern lad I felt instantly at home amongst the beer bellies, flat caps and coal-dust scarred faces. The men of the town were quite interesting, too. Nevertheless, the civic burghers have done their best to move with the times. An integrated transport system is centred round the grand Charleroi Sud railway station, in front of which the canal glides sleekly by, tastefully lit at night. Head for the main square of the town, where dozens of bars battle for your business, ready to force distinctly strong Belgian beers upon you. In the evening, the bars and take-aways in the square are illuminated as if in homage to Rusholme in Manchester, and it’s a strong man who wouldn’t be tempted to sample the beers and the frites and mayonnaise on offer. The walk back down to the station will feel easier after a few of each. And the statue of a steelworker on the canal bridge, facing the station, will seem, somehow, just a little err… risqué. Thomas has an interesting photo of this, which he has promised to get to me once it's developed, so I can share it with my readers.

The big surprise on leaving Charleroi was to find ourselves departing from a different airport. In the 72 hours we had been there, the industrious Belgians had managed to open up an entirely new airport – a swanky, plush affair quite different from the shed we’d arrived at. THJnr and myself were among the first few hundred people to use the place, seemingly outnumbered by the press and TV photographers. But we were off to Madrid... (of which more, later).