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.