Tuesday, 25 February 2014


Some 40 years ago, my parents, in an almost unprecedentedly impulsive purchase, acquired one of the early Goblin Teasmades. They reasoned that ... well, to be honest, I don't know what they reasoned, because they were never truly happy with it. According to the blurb, the device would brew a cup of tea and then wake you through its alarm clock. In actual fact it did little more than splutter boiling water in the face of my sleeping parents while simultaneously making a sort of intestinal bubbling sound at the volume of a space shuttle launch. The alarm clock component of the device was entirely redundant. Firstly you couldn't hear it above the sound of the tea maker, and secondly, my parents were already awake, often applying flannels to scalded areas of the face.

All of which technological ineptitude was surprising. Mankind had just put a man on the moon. How difficult, by comparison, could it possibly be to make a cup of tea?

My father, born of good Yorkshire stock, has never been prone to impulse purchases. He believes now, and believed even more then, in the value of taking your time over decision-making. We were the last house in Doncaster to have colour television. And it is only in the last year, with my father in his 80s, that he has tentatively enquired about computers. Back in the 1970s, my father was in his pomp. When it came to buying white goods, he would ensure that he knew the price of every comparable refrigerator within a five-mile radius. Armed with this information, he would then stride into Currys to buy the product in question at the price he had mentally set. The conclusion was foregone, and experienced salesmen usually capitulated immediately rather than face a negotiating style that, to this day, I believe was the model for Darth Vader.

Not surprisingly then, the Teasmade was a memorable blot on his copy book.

My attitude to purchasing household goods has strong elements of my father's thoroughness and sense of value (Yorkshire genes are of course dominant), but is executed more rapidly thanks to Google. The same diligent research, of which my father would be proud, can now be conducted in minutes rather than weeks, giving it a somewhat impetuous, nay impulsive, air.

And I'm constantly surprised at the range of prices available for consumer items. Take photography for instance. As broad a church as there is. Everything from the happy snappy through to the career professional. A camera can cost £10 or £10,000. And it's understandable -- these are fancy bits of kit. The same goes for hi-fi. All perfectly plausible for state-of-the-art electronics.

But what about simpler products. Say a toaster.

The cheapest toaster I could find (made by a company called Lloytron -- and no, I've never heard of them) cost £11.34 and was available in a choice of three colours. For this price, the toaster featured a seven stage variable control and a "midcycle cancel button" although I imagine unplugging it would achieve much the same. There is also a slide out crumb tray. So, not perhaps the most sophisticated device on earth but then all it has to do is make toast.

And it's hard to see how the process could be made more sophisticated or more expensive. After all, a device that (a) makes toast and (b) allows you to make it to your preference would appear to achieve somewhere between 99% and 100% of the functionality required of a toaster.

Apparently not.

At the opposite end of the price range, and representing the aristocracy of toast making is a roller toaster made by Paderno (nope, I've never heard of them either). I've no idea what a roller toaster is although, with a pricetag of £1818.13, it costs about as much as a Roller. And yes, that is not a typo. It really is possible to spend the best part of two grand on a toaster.

Now I don't want to be a curmudgeon but I would take quite a bit of persuading to buy the Paderno. For that price I could have 160 Lloytron toasters, enough to cater for an army of toast eaters. Or I could have a brand-new toaster every week for more than three years. And I can't even compare the specification. Nowhere on the Internet is there a single review of this toast making colossus. Not a single person is prepared to tell me why a machine which costs as much as 36,000 slices of bread is an essential addition to my kitchen.

Perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree with the toaster. Let's simplify things further -- how about the electric kettle? There isn't even a need to vary the temperature here. All it has to do is boil water. Nothing fancier than that.

At the bottom of the price range, checking in at a mere £12.95 is a cordless white jug kettle made by Elgento (yet another make I have never heard of). It boils water. It switches off. That's it. And at the other end of the Amazon price spectrum is a cordless jug kettle from an unspecified manufacturer, weighing in at a staggering £318.75. It too boils water and switches off. And if you've recovered from that surprise, believe me when I say that one of the reviews on Amazon even went so far as to say that this was a "great value for money product". If it was made of platinum, perhaps.

Heaven help any man who tried to sell my father a £300 kettle.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Called home

I've said it before, perhaps not in so many words, but there is something special about having Parkinson's. And it has nothing to do with the manifold indignities of the condition itself, its capacity to test everything you hold dear to destruction, or its shameless pickpocketing of your mental and physical abilities. No, these are merely the price you pay to be a part of what you might almost considered to be, in Parkinson's terms, the rapture.

I have long held the view that life has a habit of equalising happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, joy and despair. And for everything this hateful condition has taken away from me, it has given me recompense in that most valuable currency of all -- friendship.

I have made friends that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life. Who are they? They come from far and wide -- from Berwick, Stockholm, Hexham, Australia, Texas, Vancouver, Norfolk, Tennessee, Arizona, New England, Pennsylvania, Manchester, North London, Sri Lanka, Hungary, Gravesend, Sarratt, Pewsey, Malaysia and beyond. They are the Viking, the Angel of the North, the Southern Belle, Lola, The Butcher, the Walker, the Battler and more.

They are the network for my survival, just as I hope I may be part of theirs. They brighten my day and sing me to sleep at night. We are the children of the night and daytime sprites. We tell each other the truths we need to hear and the lies we hope to hear. We watch each other's backs and walk in each others footsteps. We build sand castles on that Parkinson's beach and watch as, one by one, the sea takes them from us. We dry each others' tears and mop each other's brows. We chase away each others' fears and share each other's joy. We bandage each other's wounds.

We are a family. We bicker, we squabble, we hug, we treasure. Some think, some act, some talk, some listen. We all share. And we all dream.

We dream of the day when we'll be delivered from this pestilence. The day when our sandcastles are not lost to the tide. The day when we will stand on that beach, and hold hands, our eyes screwed tight against the sunset and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. That day when we will wash our hands clean of every word we wrote, every trial we endured, every step we took to bring us to this place. The day when we are called home.

People with Parkinson's are lucky. We have two families. We are blessed.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

That sinking feeling

For a long time it was alien abduction that exercised my half-waking hours. One minute I would be queueing in the '10 items or less' aisle with this week's Exchange and Mart and a bag of fun size Mars bars. I blink and suddenly I'm surrounded by funny little blue people with their brains on the outside talking to me, all squiggeldy bloop, while attaching jump leads to my nipples and prodding pipe cleaners into parts untouched by daylight. Typically this is where I wake up. Or wet myself.

And in any case, it should be "10 items or fewer". That's basic stuff. Even Martians know that.

Recently the focus of my daymares has shifted. And whilst I don't wish to downplay the alien menace, my current worry is sinkholes. You know the kind of thing -- huge, house size holes in the Earth's crust that appear spontaneously and swallow your car, caravan or dinghy. Or worse still, your house. You may be sat on the toilet with the Sunday Times crossword when suddenly half your house detaches itself and tumbles towards the Earth's core leaving you waving to the neighbours across the abyss and wondering if it took the refrigerator.

Now I know that this is statistically less likely than being struck by lightning or being gored by wild boar, but that's not the point. It's rather like being told on a flight that only one plane in every hundred thousand crashes. Frankly I don't care about the other 99,999 planes. I only care about this one. And if there have already been 99,999 flights without incident, obviously a crash is overdue.

Again, my head knows that statistics don't work like that. But it still didn't stop me thinking about alien abductions and giving funny looking kids with big heads and blue T-shirts a wide berth.

Wikipedia, that source of unquestionable online authority, tells us that common factors in many sinkholes are the presence of underground aquifers combined with persistent torrential rainfall. Certainly that was the case in the 2010 Guatamala City sinkhole, 20 m wide and 100 m deep, which swallowed a three story office block. And if you have never seen a picture of a sinkhole, look that one up on Wikipedia.

All this would be of little more than academic interest to me, were it not for two niggling facts.

Firstly, we live in a spa town and, without detailing my precise address, suffice it to say that the name of our street has a decidedly aquatic ring to it -- River Road, Aqua Avenue, Tsunami Street, Monsoon Mews. That sort of thing. I also know for a fact that a freshwater spring emerges from the ground less than 100 yards from our front door. Underground aquifers -- tick.

All we need now is persistent torrential rainfall.

Oh, well I guess we can tick that box as well, as we face the wettest December, January and February on record.

Suddenly, we are, in a very real sense, potentially staring into the abyss. To be honest, I was a lot happier worrying about the little blue guys and their electrodes than the possibility that our ground floor might become Ground Zero.

And to think that I was going to recarpet this year.

Friday, 14 February 2014

A Soho Club

I want to tell you about a little place I've discovered in Soho. It's not widely known and I suppose you could say it's a kind of gentlemen's club. Located about halfway along Old Compton Street is a door, set slightly back from the street. There's no sign on the outside to tell you. You just have to know. This discreet door, next to an off-licence, opens onto a steep, narrow staircase up to a first-floor room. I was met there on Tuesday by a slim girl with blue hair called Zoe who, over the course of a couple of hours, transported me and my friend Nigel to some amazing places. It was an education in every sense and worth every penny.

I'm talking of course about the Soho Whisky Club and one of their tutored whisky tastings -- why, what were you thinking?

The tickets for this were a birthday present from my daughters. A deal they had found online. And it specified that I should bring a friend. Nigel and I have always enjoyed a dram or two, setting the world to rights and so on. And I know of few other friends locally who have embraced the whisky journey as much. So naturally, he had to come on my Soho trip.

And it has to be said that this was a whisky tasting with a difference. Over the course of the evening, we learnt how to marry perceptions and expectations in a whisky, how the senses of sight, smell and taste need to used in sequence in order to get the most from each drink. The evening was orchestrated to take us from the low lands, with their smooth understated simplicity through to the peated sea monsters of Islay and their smoky, salty, craggy beauty. From lowland Auchentoshan and what, for me, was too meagre a flavour, we rolled north to Blair Athol, as typical a Highland malt as there is. Not outstanding in any particular dimension but representative of the genre. From the Highlands to the islands and specifically to Orkney and Scotland's most northerly distillery. And despite this bleak terroir, the distillery produces one of the most perfectly balanced of all whiskies -- soft, lingering, slightly sweet and honeyed, with the peat held in dignified proportion. A lady's whisky I have often thought and certainly one that Claire enjoys too. From Orkney, we stepped back on to the mainland, lurching our way down the east coast to Clynelish in Brora. A clean dry whisky, a little more peaty, but elegant and slightly nutty. Of course no tour of the whisky landscape would be complete without a visit to Islay and its smoky beauties. And this for me is what whisky is all about. Even the names -- Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Ardbeg and Laphroaig -- are Celtic poetry. And on that Tuesday, our journey ended at my own favourite, Lagavulin. From its fortress on the coast, the distillery produces a whisky that bowls you over with flavour. Powerful, muscular, peaty, salty and yet somehow also fruity and perfumed. This is Renaissance Whisky.

Our guide on this tour was as improbable an expert as you can imagine. I think we were all expecting perhaps a portly, middle-aged man of ruddy complexion in a Harris tweed jacket as our guide. Nothing prepared us for the effervescent brilliance of Zoe Toolan, pierced nose and blue hair topping a catwalk model's physique. And Zoe, self-styled whisky missionary, clearly delights in turning the conventional on its head. A spirited artist, she shook all our preconceptions about whisky, its character and the people who drink it. Her no-nonsense approach and playfully iconoclastic delivery helped make our whisky journey so enjoyable. She is a rising star. And I have no doubt we will hear more of her in the future. Personally I think she should have her own TV series!

It got me thinking as well. If I could sum up the Scotch Whisky industry in five drinks, which would they be? Any choice is of course always going to be personal but here goes.

Springbank -- one of only a couple of Campbeltown malts left. Perfectly balanced, clean and elegant.

Macallan -- simply can't be ignored. Their sherry cask philosophy led away long before it was fashionable.

Caol Ila -- stops short of the awesome smoky brutality of Ardbeg. But not that far short.

Glenfarclas -- the archetypal Speyside malt. Full flavoured, open and welcoming

Talisker -- I still regret the passing of the rough, edgy eight-year-old bottling but, even in its Sunday best at 10 years, it is still the one whisky I would take to a desert island. A whisky of happy memories and wonderful friends.

A wonderful evening in Soho. I suspect Nigel and I will be back for more.