Archive for June, 2010

Wiltshire Hospitality

Posted: June 30, 2010 in Living, Society

Originally in my Wiltshire Blog

On the benefits of extending hospitality to friends from far away.

“If it were not for guests all houses would be graves,” wrote Kahlil Gabran. I believe ‘grave’ is an adequate description.

I have been into houses where it is evident I am the first guest in many years. The place often feels like the neglected wing of a museum: lifeless, sombre, and neat.

Throughout history and in most cultures, hospitality has been an important social function. In ancient Greece it was a sacred duty to accept passing strangers into your home. The same was true of the Middle Eastern cultures; a tradition which is said to continue to this day.

When Macbeth deliberates over killing King Duncan, he does so not only because he is Duncan’s subject but also because he is his host, “Who should against his murderer shut the door, / Not bear the knife myself.”

It is with this ancient tradition in mind that I welcomed two friends from Japan to my home in Wiltshire last weekend, and played the part of host as best I can.

Chieko and Shigeru are in a band called Eddy, and they have come to the UK to play live gigs in London and Scotland. I arranged their gigs in and around London and managed to get them three gigs; the remaining two are happening on 1 July in Guildford and 2 July in Brixton.

As a sign of thanks they gave me four cans of Japanese beer and a yukata. I drank the first beer during the England v. Germany game. I drank the remaining three immediately afterwards.

One of the great things about having guests from abroad is that they see all the things you are used to with fresh eyes.

Watching Chieko and Shigeru take photos of Devizes Marketplace made me think that rather than go on holiday to escape a place you are bored with, you should try inviting guests from another land.

They will be fascinated by all the things you take for granted, and their fascination may spread to you.

Chieko and Shigeru enjoyed the easygoing pace of the countryside and said they felt refreshed as we drove them to Great Bedwyn train station, passing the Pewsey white horse and Wilton Windmill on the way.

Returning to Devizes, I was surprised to meet a flock of sheep crossing the road. As I dug out my camera for a few pictures I thought that this probably happens every day in Wiltshire.

“But not to me”, my mind countered, as I took half a dozen photos of sheep.

If you would like to see Eddy live, they will be playing at The Row Barge in Guildford on the evening of Thursday 1 July, and at The Windmill in Brixton on the evening of Friday 2 July. For Edinburgh dates please enquire to t.f.mellors [at] gmail.com

The Joy and Frustration of Wine

Posted: June 23, 2010 in Food

Originally in my Wiltshire Blog

To take your mind off England’s performance in the World Cup so far, I will talk about something we all enjoy: Wine.

Ah, wine! With the exception of water – and arguably beer – what other drink has given the human race so much, for so long?

Our ancestors began drinking wine at roughly the same time they first organised themselves into complex societies. Wine has been an essential ingredient of human civilisation for at least the past 5,000 years, and no doubt for the next 5,000 years too.

With such a lofty history, it is easy – for young people in particular – to be intimidated by wine. If I didn’t work at a wine merchant I would certainly feel that way.

Step inside a good wine merchant and you are surrounded by grand labels – usually written in French – with black & white sketches of beautiful chateaus.

Although the New World wines try to put the customer at ease with simple, unpretentious artwork, their labels still foster a sense of mystery. It as if they say: we are modern, yes, but the process by which mere grapes are turned to wine is not.

Learning about wine is undoubtedly a big task; you may as well be learning about astrophysics or the history of everything.

If you are lucky enough to have a local vineyard, that might be the best place to start. In Devizes we are fortunate to have a local wine grower who produces delicious English wine.

If you are in the area you should definitely take a look at the a’Beckett’s Vineyard. You can also do a wine tasting and kick start your journey to becoming a true connoisseur.

Don’t expect quick results though; this is something I have learned from experience.

Training your palate to recognise the characteristics of different wines is something which requires plenty of time and experience. Thankfully tasting wine is very enjoyable, or you might give up from frustration!

I have been trying to train my palate for the past two months and have been failing. If you know some good tips on how to do it, please tell me.

In the beginning I was even worse than I am now. I would hold the glass up to the light – something I learned from the film Sideways – and conclude that this wine looks very red.

Then I would swirl the wine about and thrust my nose into the glass – also something I learned from watching Sideways – and conclude that this wine smells a bit fruity.

Finally, I would take a generous sip and swirl the wine about in my mouth – making sure it reaches every part of my tongue – and conclude that this wine tastes a lot like wine.

Now, I hesitate to say, I am a little better.

It is possible that I can differentiate between some of the basic varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but until I test myself I won’t know for sure.

And so, the journey to understanding the brew of Bacchus goes on. If you feel like joining me drop me a line.

We can make an adventure of it, and maybe get a bit tipsy in the process.

Dionysian delights, here we come!

The World Cup

Posted: June 17, 2010 in Politics, Sport

Originally in my Wiltshire Blog

World Cup influenza is here and it’s contagious!

It’s impossible not to write about the World Cup this week.

I know because I tried, and failed. I tried not to write about the World Cup because that’s what everyone is writing about. I have to be more original, I thought to myself.

After mulling over a few different ideas, and getting nowhere with them, I gave up.

Why try to fight it? The World Cup is here, and it’s brilliant!

World Cup fever has hit Devizes, Wiltshire like no tournament can. When England played last Friday this ‘sleepy market town’ – as it is often described in the media – came to life with flags, fancy dress and football.

In the hours preceding the game the pub-goers spilled out onto the pavement and drank their beers in the sunshine – in defiance of the town’s ‘no alcohol’ policy.

Everyone was enjoying the World Cup fever and the electric atmosphere that comes before an England game.

The scene reminded me of Cologne in 2006. During the last World Cup I visited Cologne for a short time and was amazed by the energy which ran throughout the city.

When I arrived at Cologne train station I saw thousands of football fans from around the world. Everyone was wearing their home team’s strip; it as a sea of primary colours and face paint.

I love the World Cup because football is a sport real people play all over the world, every day. It’s not an esoteric sport like shot put, nor a boring sport like marathon running. And, in England at least, it’s not an elite sport.

George Orwell famously said that sport is ‘war without guns’. When you see the vigour that some teams play with, and the exaggerated patriotism that comes with every World Cup, it’s hard to disagree. But what a great alternative to war football is!

In All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the German soldiers darkly jokes that the First World War should be settled in a game of chess. In the 21st Century however, chess is boring and not easily televised, so let’s settle our problems on the pitch instead!

If you saw the North Korea v. Brazil game the other day you were probably surprised to find yourself backing North Korea. One pundit said that North Korea has done more for international relations in 90 minutes of football than they could ever achieve through politics.

If you happen to be a student of conflict resolution, or Secretary General of the UN, you can learn something from this.

Scrap the secretive meetings between men in suits and hold a football tournament instead!

Bike-fit

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Sport

Originally in my Wiltshire Blog

Most of us know how to ride a bike, but how many of us are actually bike-fit?

Did you know that when a professional marathon runner rides a bike for any distance, they soon find themselves being overtaken by greying OAPs who are older than their parents?

The reason? Because they are not bike-fit!

Before you decide I’m talking rubbish and browse your way over to YouTube to post video about how rubbish my blog is, hear me out.

I speak from experience, you see.

I am reasonably fit. Not very fit, super-fit or über-fit, but reasonably – as in I can bend down to tie my shoelaces without breaking a sweat – fit.

Yet every time I am invited on a bike ride by my cyclist friend I find myself lagging behind, out of breath.

The reason? Because I am not bike-fit! I am jog-fit, walk-fit, couch-fit and definitely pub-fit, but not bike-fit.

This is a bit embarrassing for me to admit. I consider myself a cyclist you see, but there are a few facts which suggest that my interest in cycling is shallow at best.

1) I don’t own skin tight cycle wear.

2) I tend to get a puncture every time I take my bike out.

3) I am often overtaken by cyclists more than twice my age, who turn back to laugh at me while I puff away red-faced and exhausted.

Doesn’t sound good, does it? It sounds like I’m an amateur cyclist at best.

Maybe I’m being hard on myself though. Skin tight cycle wear isn’t for everyone, and some people are just unlucky with punctures.

My father once had the pleasure of cycling across France with his brother-in-law – a man capable of getting a puncture every five miles.

And I can explain my embarrassing slowness by my tires, which are more appropriate for a lunar landscape than a B-road in Wiltshire.

*Note to unfit cyclists: “the wrong tires” is a great excuse which cannot be overused.

Evidently it’s possible to have an interest n cycling and not be 100% bike-fit. It’s to be encouraged in fact, as you have to somewhere.

Such people are bike-oriented, bike-keen or bike-enthusiasts and I am – for the time being anyway – one of them.

Whitsuntide

Posted: June 2, 2010 in Living

Originally in my Wiltshire Blog

Hours sitting on a train is all part of the Whitsuntide rush to somewhere better. Here’s my thoughts on passing the time while stuck in your carriage, or even your car.

The Spring Bank Holiday has passed, marking the beginning of June and the summer to come.

Formerly known as Whitsun, the Spring Bank Holiday used to coincide with Pentecost – the day in the Bible when the Holy Spirit gave the first followers of Christ the power to understand each other, despite them speaking in different languages.

What a shame Pentecost didn’t coincide with my GCSE French exam. I might have actually passed!

Now that Whitsun is a regular bank holiday, everybody seizes the chance to go someplace. The trains heave along their tracks, carrying hundreds of people to the seaside and beyond, while cars crawl along the motorway to somewhere better.

In the midst of my rushing this last weekend, I did an interesting thing. I looked out train window and observed.

As the train sped down towards Devon, I observed a small row of terraces built in the middle of fields, a walker accompanied by a dog, and numerous rivers and streams which ran parallel to me for a while.

This little exercise interested me because everything I saw from that train has a story of some kind. I don’t know the stories, but I can imagine them.

The small row of terraces tells the story of governments and their policies as well as tales of life in a small community amidst fields.

The dog walker might be a professional dog walker having a quiet day and so only walking one dog. Dog walkers seem scarce in rural England though, so maybe not.

Perhaps the dog was a gift to somebody who previously hated animals, but gradually grew to admire his loyal companion. Or perhaps it wasn’t a dog at all, but a miniature horse that looks just like a dog when observed from a passing train.

The little rivers and streams, also journeying towards the coast, tell stories of fishermen catching their dinners as well as children jumping from trees and – perhaps at one time – people collecting water to drink.

The very train I was riding on has a unique story. How many people has this very seat carried before me, and what were they like?

An ordinary train journey becomes an interesting experience when creative observation comes into play.

It also helps bridge the gap between us and everything else – nature, places, and people. Even though most of us speak the same language, we’re still separated by a lot of things.

A little sympathetic observation can do much to overcome differences, regardless of what day it is in the liturgical calendar.