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Would you say that the UK has turned into a nation of coffee "douchebags"? When you walk around a town centre and see the number of people toting reinforced paper or plastic cups with a lid and a straw on and the familiar logo of one or other of the growing number of coffee chains, does it make your heart sink? You see, I'd probably have answered "Yes" to both of these questions a year or two ago, but then you taste the coffee and are forced to admit that it's really quite nice. And where do you go from there?
I'll tell you where. You start to crave a cup of smooth, continental coffee that doesn't taste like it was squeezed from a car battery. Your nearest barista-based coffee shop is 20 minutes' drive away and you know that £3 is an insane price to pay for even the really nice coffees; even the ones with syrup in that are topped with whipped cream and everything. But like a junkie craving that fix, you're in a car and handing over an exorbitant amount of cash for something brown and addictive before you can say "Pete Doherty".
What I tend to do when this becomes a problem is use my single transferable skill. You see, I'm fairly nifty in the kitchen. I eat a meal from a restaurant or a sandwich from a deli, and my mind sets to work on how easy or otherwise it will be to home make it. And usually I can manage it, although my home made burgers still fall well short of muster for some reason. So when I saw a 60g jar of this "Barista Style Instant Coffee" at a local budget shopping emporium for £1.50 (usual price £4.49), I swooped. I can't resist a saving, I'm afraid.
(Sidebar: How horrendous a word is "barista"? Every time I type it I want to hit myself, and I didn't even come up with it.)
So what's the skinny latte on Nescafe Azera, then? Well, it is quite the smoothest cup of coffee I have made in my kitchen since forever. With the addition of some caramel syrup (you can pay a huge amount for a brand name on Amazon, or just buy some generic stuff from Morrisons like I did) and some milk, you can make a Caramel Latte that's just a free wi-fi signal and a crap compilation CD away from being just like you buy on the High Street. And the moment my blender's not broken, I'm going to go mad making frappes with it.
Although the jar is small, the coffee really goes a long way, and works out much cheaper than buying it at the coffee shop even if you pay the full price for it (but seriously, look for it at a shop like B&M, where it should be the same price as I paid for it). It comes vacuum sealed and with a plastic top that fits over the outer jar for freshness (no more chiselling the last few cups' worth out of there with a bread knife for me!). The taste is gentle but far from bland, and a cup of this first thing in the morning will pep you up without making you feel like you've injected a tonne of icing sugar.
In the end, you know, it's coffee. Just coffee, but nicer. I mean, I could go into what beans were used to make it, who picked them, and what I imagine those people look like, but you know the drill. If you're feeling indulgent and in the mood for a light, legal, socially acceptable stimulant, then this is a good way to go.
For around a decade now, Original Source have been making waves with their environmentally and socially aware products, of which by far the most popular are their shower gels. On a regular basis, Cussons (the parent company) put the opportunity to vote on new flavours to their customer base. This allows smell-centric people like me to get excited about the new, and increasingly girly/metrosexual fragrances they come up with. Always reasonably priced, Original Source products have been making their way into bathrooms up and down the line in increasing numbers.
THE PRODUCT: This is a 250ml bottle of Chocolate and Mint Shower Gel by the aforenamed Original Source. The smell, as you might expect, is reminiscent of mint chocolate (like After Eights or mint Matchmakers for example). Being brown, it doesn't look like your typical shower gel, but the company's reputation is by now high enough to ensure that people will give their products a chance. This is particularly true of people like me who will buy just about any Original Source shower gel. I got money off on this one too, so it was inevitable that I would buy it.
THE BOTTLE: Original Source bottles are immediately recognisable, looking sort of like an elongated blunted pyramid, with the opening at the bottom (meaning that you don't spend the last half of the bottle shaking it in increasing frustration as gravity keeps the contents in the bottle). All bottles from this company give you a little information about what has gone into the product - along the lines of "ten limes have gone into making one bottle of this Lime shower gel" or "x number of bee miles have gone into this Honey and Shea Butter shower cream". Here, we find out that "2000 years of chocolate history inspired one bottle of this Original Source Chocolate and Mint Shower". The Mint gets no love at all, apparently.
There are one or two other little bits of overly cutesy advice such as "AVOID EYES. It's not for them it's for your body" which as well as being imperfectly punctuated is also a bit patronising and childish. Luckily, the products are usually so good that I can tolerate it, like the slightly shrill laugh of an otherwise charming and beautiful lady.
THE SHOWER: This is where the important details are. Simply put, does it so what you need it to? Well, it takes more of the product to work up a real lather, which could lead you to believe it isn't working. It is, but it's mildly disconcerting nonetheless. When in the bottle, the chocolate smell comes across very heavily, but when you're showering the mint is very much in the ascendancy.
This shower gel does leave you feeling very fresh and clean, which is the job it's meant to do. One thing I do find, in comparison to the many other gels I have bought from this company and the Body Shop, is that the smell does not linger much on the skin. If I want to smell lovely after showering I will need to use a body spray - which I don't mind, admittedly, but in comparison to the gorgeous raspberry and vanilla shower that they do among others, it is mildly disappointing.
However, overall this is a good product. It's not the first one I would buy in the range, but I would not be disappointed to see it on the shelves. It does what it needs to do, and it makes the shower a sweeter experience. I would use it again.
No kitchen is fully stocked without a good frying pan. Although health advice tends to trend against frying food these days, there are so many different ways that you can use a frying pan that you could use yours every day of the year without ever cooking bacon and eggs. And in any case, the occasional fry-up isn't going to do too much harm. For certain jobs, a good frying pan is just the right tool, and that's without taking into account its potential in humorous slap-stick burglar deterrence.
Me, I like the occasional fry-up, but I also like lasagne, risotto, curries, omelettes and stews. And in cooking these dishes, I would be lost without my Tefal Specifics frying pan. It's a highly versatile bit of equipment that allows me to get things right every time. The key to its effectiveness comes in the interior coating which is, of course, non-stick. If you look at the inner base of the pan, there is a network of grooves similar to a circuit board, which allows heat to be conducted around the pan rather than grouping at one spot.
Probably all of us, the first time we fried an egg, turned the hob on, placed the frying pan on it and then cracked the egg into the pan, before watching dismally as all of the egg white ran into whatever area of the pan its "slope" was angled towards. We then waited as the albumen took an eternity to start turning a sickly, milky white, jumping in too quickly to try and flip the egg over and ended up with a lump of impacted, tepid egg mess in our pan. Admittedly, it doesn't take space-age technology to right this problem, but the way Tefal have faced it down is quite nifty.
A wide red spot in the base of the pan, brighter at the inside, changes colour as the pan heats until it is all the one bright red, which means the pan has reached the appropriate temperature. At this point, dropping your egg into the pan will be met with a satisfying sizzle and an instant change in colour and texture, and it makes perfect eggs every time.
Many frying pans are non-stick until they aren't. The coating is liable to start peeling after a while, and any attempt to fry something from a semi-solid state into a solid one will result in half of it sticking to the pan and the other half coming away with some non-stick base still attached. I've had this pan for more than two years and it has yet to even weaken in terms of the coating. During that time it has been super-heated on the hob, fried hundreds of eggs, made perfect omelettes, been placed in the oven to finish off a risotto, handled complicated stir fries and more other tasks than I can list. And it has never let me down.
At 26cm in diameter it is roomy enough to do a couple of eggs and rashers of bacon along with two tomato halves, a good-sized omelette and several helpings of curry or risotto. It fries off meat to a T as prep for a casserole or stew. I can't remember a day in the last few years when I haven't used it for something, and never once has it taken more than a few wipes with a wet cloth to get it clean. It has fried, fricasseed, sauteed, seared and poached, and come back for more every time.
26cm exterior base
Expert interior coating
Sturdy, durable Bakelite handle
Lifetime-guaranteed non-stick coating
The Price? £14, although I got it for £10, and it's going strong after nearly 30 months. Well worth it for the money it's saved me.
As someone who has got quite into cooking over the past few years, I am constantly looking to expand the range of things I can cook. While takeaways are always there for the days when I'd sooner put my own head in the oven than put a roast in there, it saves money and gives me more freedom in what I eat to have as many "go to" meals as possible and, with a little forward planning and pre-prep, a quick dinner or lunch can take less than half an hour to cook.
Chips are one of those foods with which we have a complicated relationship. Although universally accepted as not being terribly healthy, they are versatile, easy to make and very affordable. And as long as you're bright enough with your portion control, they really aren't that much more calorific than a plate of basmati rice and actually less so than a portion of pasta. There's a reason that a good chippy does a lot of business even in a recession.
*Height x Width x Depth: 35x23x21 cm (making it easy to store away, and unobtrusive in the kitchen)
*Oil Capacity: 2.5l
*Food Capacity: 800g
*Power: 1400 Watts
*Stainless Steel Outer Cool Wall, Removable Bowl
*Cool Zone Technology to keep oil fresher for longer
*Cost: Usually retails for £17.99, but I got it in a sale for £14.99
Is It Up To The Job?
800g is a fairly pokey food capacity, if we're being honest. It might not be the ideal appliance for a large family. Luckily, It's just me and Mrs LeicesterPaul here, so there's enough in one go here for us both (and enough for one more person if we were to entertain). If you're living alone or just as a couple, or can bear doing more than one load, then the size isn't a major issue. If you're trying to feed a rugby team you'll probably want a larger model.
As for the quality of the frying, here I have to admit that my consuming quest of the last several months has been the perfect chip. Par-boiling for ten minutes beforehand, letting the unfried chips cool, then frying them in Beef Dripping at 140 until they're a light yellow colour (about eight minutes), draining them on kitchen roll while the oil heats to 180, whereupon I whip them back in for another two minutes is my technique. Using that technique this fryer consistently produces chips I'd be happy to shove under Harry Ramsden's nose and say "What do you think of that, then? Huh?" if it weren't for the fact he's been dead for fifty years.
Using this fryer I have also produced chicken goujons that have received extremely favourable reviews for just four minutes of cooking, as well as battered mushrooms and breaded prawns. Once I work up the courage to prepare fresh fish, I have no doubt that this fryer will be more than up to the job of making delicious fish and chips.
Is It Easy To Clean?
No, it's a deep fat fryer. It holds 2.5 litres of grease. That's never going to be even slightly easy to clean, especially if you hate touching grease. However, it is easy to take apart and the exterior is stainless steel. The component parts are not especially intricate and, once you've got them separated out, lots of hot water and washing up liquid, a good pair of Marigolds and some multi-purpose cloths will have it sorted out in less time than many other fryers I've worked with.
Overall, Was It Worth The Money?
Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. Even at full price it would be well worth it. There is nothing flashy about this deep fat fryer, but the only question you really need to ask is "Does it do what it is supposed to do, and do it well?". The answer here is yes. You can't go away and leave it to do the job itself, but leaving a hot chip pan unattended isn't really a good idea anyway. It's cheap and cheerful, but it really doesn't need to be anything else.
If you're in your thirties, chances are you remember the Britpop days. I am, and I do. Those days were squeezed mostly into one year, that year being 1995, a year which saw Oasis and Blur fight it out for the title of the Biggest Band In Britain, even though Take That were bigger really. Indie kids (including a teenage me) didn't count boy bands. Britpop was ours and - after years of the charts being dominated by pop, dance and the kind of soul music that is unlistenable to anyone who has so much as heard Aretha Franklin breathe - suddenly "our" bands were picking up mainstream attention.
1995 saw the release of "(What's The Story) Morning Glory" by Oasis, "The Great Escape" by Blur, Elastica's eponymous debut album and a goodly number of other albums by the bands who would go on to define our late teens. I don't remember those albums when I remember 1995. It is to this album, a 12-track document of Jarvis Cocker's jaded yet hopeful worldview, that I still find myself listening eighteen years on.
The CD bursts into life with "Mis-Shapes", which at the time was familiar to Pulp fans as the second track on the double A-side single that also contained the controversial "Sorted For E's And Wizz". As an opening track, it's a perfect choice. A national anthem for the freaks and the geeks, it really represented a call to arms for those who just didn't quite fit in. Those of us who did try to rise up, armed with this album and a love of French cinema, were quickly slapped down by the hard kids, but at least they tried to borrow our CDs a few weeks later.
The next track is "Pencil Skirt", one of many tracks on the album not to be released as a single but which would have been a perfectly good one. It's also the first insight on this album into the sleaze in so many of Pulp's best songs were marinaded. If you reacted to a snub from the cool girl/boy you fancied by cooing "You can tell some lies about the good times that you've had/But I've kissed your mother twice, and now I'm working on your dad", and survived, then you're a braver nerd than I.
Track 3 is "Common People", as close to a defining song as Pulp ever had. An account of Jarvis' short-lived relationship with a slumming Greek socialite, it beautifully skewers a sense of "ooh, let's live like the poor" which still exists today among people well-educated enough to know better. The poor wouldn't live like that if they were rich, and it's insulting to treat it like a game, is the message of this song. But Jarvis and the band make it catchier and it had Sadie Frost in the video, and when it landed at #2 in the Top 40 it felt like our time had come.
Following up, "I Spy" is a manically dark, filmic panic attack set to music. The key themes here are revenge, class war (a recurring theme on the whole album) and envy. It ends with a twisted rant containing the immortal phrase 'Take your "Year in Provence" and shove it up your...' - well, you can guess the orifice Jarvis had in mind here. It's brave to follow this up with an indie disco classic that has more in common with Elton John than John Barry, but then Pulp never did things the easy way, having been together for thirteen years at the time of this album's release. And "Disco 2000" doesn't disappoint.
What to say about this song? It's not exactly celebratory (virtually none of the album is completely euphoric, at least on a lyrical front). But it has the catchiest hook on the whole album, and recounts an affair that never quite happened between a boy and girl who grew up together but went their separate ways leaving the boy musing on what might have been and the girl blissfully unaware.
It is followed by "Live Bed Show", and if I say that the story of this song is of a protagonist who used to entertain many guests at night, but doesn't really any more, you'll notice that a pattern is emerging across the album. The song itself is OK, but it's Pulp OK (which by Britpop exchange rates makes it "Good Blur", "Astounding Oasis" or "Don't Even Dream Of Getting There, Cast"). And it leads into the prettiest, sweetest song on the album, and maybe my favourite Pulp song ever.
"Something Changed" is the song about being glad you did something on an album of songs about regretting doing nothing and being guilty about things you have done and thought. It imagines the parallel universe in which you didn't go out for the night and didn't meet the partner you'd been dreaming about, and it snaps you back to saying "Hang on, why ponder on what could have gone wrong, let's celebrate what went right". A beautiful sentiment, expressed tenderly against a mostly acoustic backdrop.
Beauty is at a premium for the rest of the album, as the sleaze makes a big return. This is no bad thing. "Sorted For E's & Wizz" is not the celebratory anthem for drugged-up youth that it was portrayed as. It's also not a totally disapproving read, to be fair. Simply, it makes the point that while those nights in a field with chemically altered friends may have felt like the perfect future, the highs are short-lived and the comedown traumatic.
"F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E." is an absolute nightmare to type. I should have cut and pasted it. As a song, it's a seething, drum-n-bass influenced number that sounds a bit like a tension headache. You know that early stage of a love affair when you can't wait to see the person again, and you can't concentrate on anything else, you're constantly paranoid that they'll write you a letter saying they never want to see you again because of the weird way you snort when you laugh? This is a song about that. Reading back I can see that I've not really sold it, which is a shame because it's really quite fabulous.
In the closing quarter of the album, we have Pulp on a plate - the sweet, the sour, the highs, the lows and the filth. "Underwear", the b-side to "Common People", is a gentle waltz about the moments just before you take a big step with a new beau or belle, and is endlessly listenable despite that. "Monday Morning" and "Bar Italia" are companion pieces, both dealing with the comedown feeling from different points of view, the former almost drilling in its sense of anxiety while the latter lowers you softly onto your bed to sleep it off. All in all, it ends the album on a positive note after forty-plus minutes of uneasy - but brilliant - listening.
As a 35-year-old man who dropped History as a subject at school the moment I had the chance, I might not be considered the target audience for a historical sketch show on the CBBC channel. Indeed were it not for my wife, a keen historian who as a kid read the books from which this show takes its inspiration, I might never have seen it. And that would be a dreadful shame because it has somehow become a show that I watch compulsively and will rewatch time and again. Simply put, it's a work of genius.
If you've never watched it, the chances are that you've seen it as a kids' show or that you're simply not that interested in history. Or you didn't know it existed. Well, now you know, so let's deal with the other issues. Is it a kids' show? Well, it's on CBBC and is hosted by a puppet rat (named Rattus Rattus - which may sound silly but is actually the Latin name for the black rat), so it could be considered so.
Certainly, there's nothing here that means your kids shouldn't watch it. There is no swearing, and no sexual references. Any violence is largely implied or cartoonish and slapstick. And yet, it doesn't shy away from the gruesome side of history. In fact, it glories in it. And it manages to do this without insulting the intelligence of any viewer nor ever feeling like it is a teaching set-up. Often, it is only after watching that you realise they've gone and educated you.
The show is based on a series of books written by Terry Deary, who pops up in cameo roles on a semi-regular basis, and has a permanent cast of six actors who also do a share of writing, singing, and no small amount of dancing. They are; Mat Baynton, Ben Willbond, Laurence Rickard, Jim Howick, Martha Howe-Douglas and Simon Farnaby. Each of these has at least one recurring character who they bring to life in their own unique way with my particular favourite being Baynton's portrayal of William Shakespeare as an egotistical blowhard.
It is this irreverent treatment of historical figures and stories that makes Horrible Histories unique and truly educational. We are taught a somewhat airbrushed version of history as kids, which is generally not likely to appeal to children. And as a somewhat childish adult, I have learned a lot more about Caligula from Simon Farnaby's eye-rolling, nostrils-flared portrayal than I ever would have in school. And the recent discovery of Richard III's remains in my adopted home city was given an extra frisson by remembering Howick's magnificent song in the character of the misrepresented Richard.
The six are ably supported by regular cast members such as Larry Lewin (never better than when he represents Oliver Cromwell), Alice Lowe, Sarah Hadland, Dominique Moore and many more besides. There have been relatively few "guest stars", given the show's increasing popularity, although early series saw appearances for David Baddiel and Alexei Sayle, while more recently there have been cameos from Chris Addison, Al Murray and, in one regrettable step, the inclusion of the League of Gentlemen to take on sketches that would have been more suited to Farnaby's fictitious Cliff Whiteley.
Each episode includes a musical piece, which is one way to track the increasing budget the show was given as it gained an audience. The early songs are fairly basic musically and are filmed cheaply. To see what I mean it's probably best to look on YouTube for their Black Death song (series 1) and then for the Henry Tudor song from the fifth and final series, which is laden with effects and musically more complex while still losing none of the charm.
The songs, indeed, are a demonstration of the real talent at work here. They're catchy as stand-alone tunes, but really clever in that most of the later tunes are pastiches of the work of other artists - a Charles Dickens song which beautifully apes the Smiths right down to Baynton's observation of Morrissey's vocal tics and way of moving, a tribute to Mary Seacole (played by Moore) which tells a story well while sending up Beyonce's "Single Ladies". Perhaps my personal favourite is another Baynton work, where he plays Dick Turpin as Adam Ant (Dandy Highwayman, anyone?).
And all of this is barely to mention the original creations, such as the brilliantly observed Bob Hale character written and performed (in one breathless, three-minute take) by Rickard. If you squint, you can just about see Peter Snow in his manic information splurge. It's all held together by the aforementioned talking rat (who was replaced in a few compendium shows for Sunday evening BBC Two by Stephen Fry, and much missed by real fans of the show). They've stopped making it now as the cast and writers move to other projects, but you can still catch regular repeats on CBBC.
And you'd be as mad as Caligula not to take that opportunity.
We all love chocolate, don't we? At least, those of us who aren't just plain weird. If you hate chocolate, I'm pretty sure you're not someone I want to know. It comes in so many forms - the small bars of questionable cocoa content that children seem to love, the insanely expensive bars that you just can't buy guilt-free no matter your income, and the old favourites that you buy to have on standby for an occasion that demands chocolate (like a cup of tea, for example, or the fact that you are awake).
The majority of chocolate we buy falls into that third category, and is often impulse-purchased when you're in a newsagent or filling station for non-chocolate-buying reasons. Indeed, I have a theory that most newsagents are kept afloat by customers reaching the till with their daily paper or emergency pint of milk and thinking "Oh, go on then. 79p is a ridiculous price to pay for a chocolate bar, but I'd rather have it than walk home wanting it". (Actually, that is the theory in its entirety. I'm not very analytical.)
Of those bars, it is my own humble opinion that the KitKat Chunky is the best in show. A comparatively recent arrival and a modification of the old familiar two- or four-finger bars, which are very nice in themselves, what does it offer that they don't? In a word, SIZE. As much as I like the smaller bars, they do lack a certain bulk that was always present in a Mars, Snickers or Wispa. When the KitKat Chunky hit the scene, no longer did we have to choose between the pleasing crunch of wafer and the thick chocolate overcoat. We could have both in the same bar.
Of course, the bar has been around for some time now, long enough to have developed its own spin-offs including the Peanut Butter version (I don't mind admitting I shed a few joyful tears when I sampled my first one) and the recent Coconut flavour. What they all have in common, and the thing that makes the KitKat Chunky a king among swine, is the thick layer of chocolate around the wafer. It would be easy to bulk it out with a bit more wafer and have less chocolate, but Nestle have figured out that there is no such thing as too much chocolate, anyone who disagrees is a lightweight, and it's chocolate that keeps people buying these bars.
An acquaintance of mine once spent a profitable hour in his kitchen melting the edges of four Chunky bars together to make a four-finger Chunky Kit Kat. It looked a bit like a normal four-finger bar that had been exposed to some sort of radioactive process and, let's face it, is something we've all considered from time to time. Time will tell what other developments are coming our way with regard to the KitKat Chunky but, for the moment, the standard milk chocolate version in the familiar red wrapper is more than adequate for anyone's elevenses needs.
First-person 3-D immersive shoot-em-ups have become ten a penny since Lara Croft raided her first tomb. It has become difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, especially for people who play "WheatChaff Separation Challenge II: The Difficult One" on the PS3. However, gaming is much like any other leisure pursuit in that you become familiar with names you can trust, and know that they will set the bar somewhere between "excellent" and "transcendent". One example of this is the Grand Theft Auto franchise. You know the game's going to be superb, it's just a matter of how superb.
GTA IV is the first game in the series developed especially for the XBox 360/PS3 generation of consoles, and the first full-game return to the franchise since GTA III: San Andreas (although a plethora of tie-in games have been released on various platforms). In keeping with the rest of the series, it sees you take control of the life and actions of a protagonist who's found himself embroiled in no end of trouble. In this case it is Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant of unspecified nationality (but probably Serbian or Croatian), a recent arrival in Liberty City, a highly realistic remodeling of New York.
Niko's problems in the early stages of the game are the result of his family connection to his cousin Roman, who has encouraged Niko to the city with lavish tales of living the American dream, fast cars, sexy ladies and easy money. It takes very little time in the game to see that Roman counts lying among his hobbies, as his apartment is a hovel, his tales of womanising are spectacularly exaggerated and his taxi business could charitably be described as "flat broke". He's in hock to loan sharks and other organised crime figures and his ex-soldier cousin, with your help, spends his early days Stateside digging Roman out of holes.
This game is the most expansive yet in the series despite being set in a single city. It takes you around the five boroughs of Liberty City, starting in the run-down Brooklyn clone known as Broker. From here you will work your way up to more exalted heights by working for Roman and as a result his creditors, and by killing whoever you are told to kill. In between you will need to date the right ladies, make the right connections and for the first time in a GTA game, get yourself online to take on lucrative side missions.
Many aficionados of the GTA franchise feel that this game is lacking compared to San Andreas, deeming that Niko is a less sympathetic character than his predecessor CJ; that fun elements such as bike riding and flying planes are missing; and that as a game world Liberty City lacks the variety and charm of San Andreas. Maybe they have a point, although Niko's dry humour is not to be underestimated and the road-race side missions are a hoot. In any case, Roman is a ton more fun than CJ's brother Sweet, so that evens a lot out. There is more here in the way of 50/50 decisions affecting the path you take than before too.
I'd certainly say it's a more challenging game than its immediate forerunner - gun battles are more difficult with your adversaries taking cover wherever possible and the police acting more intelligently than their West Coast counterparts. Weapons are not as readily available (a nod to New York's strict gun control laws means that you need to buy them in shady illegal stores) and for some reason Niko throws them away when he runs out of ammo, meaning you can't just buy more rounds - you need to buy a new gun at a high price. You'll spend less time shooting at random stuff here once you realise how expensive a hobby it is.
If forced to choose one or the other, I personally would pick San Andreas over GTA IV, but it's really close. This game certainly has its laugh-out-loud moments (and at least one heart-breaking one), and as a test of reflexes, problem solving and resourcefulness it's got plenty to keep you occupied. It's every bit as addictive as the other games in the series and once you get into it you'll find it hard to put down. It falls somewhere between excellent and just plain awesome, and is well worth a place in any collection.
Before I start, anyone expecting an impartial review of this almost popular TV show should consider themselves forewarned that Charlie Brooker is fairly close to being my ultimate hero. Well, just behind Stephen Fry at any rate. Yeah, I may be setting my sights low, but he does what I would love to do. He gets paid to do something he loves - watching TV - and rant about it. Ranting just happens to be a favourite pursuit of mine, but as yet no-one has paid me for it, instead moving a few seats away on the bus when I reach the ten-minute mark.
So when I heard that he would be hosting his own show on BBC Four I just about soiled myself with delight. By which I mean I nearly knocked over the bowl of cereal I was eating. Of course. I have been a Brooker fanboy since 2001. In fact, it goes back earlier than that, to when a friend introduced me to Charlie's TVGoHome website - a spoof TV listings page so acutely observed and darkly humorous that I was hooked from the first read. I didn't put the website and the man reviewing TV shows in the Guardian Guide together for a while. But then, I am somewhat slow.
If you truly, honestly believe that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, you will not enjoy Screenwipe. But if you truly, honestly believe that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, you clearly haven't seen Bo' Selecta, so it's debatable whether a programme "all about television" (as Brooker reminds us at the start of each show) would be for you. I digress! Charlie is a very sarcastic man, so much so that I'm not sure I ever want to meet him, because he could reasonably have a field day with my many and varied inadequacies.
This sarcasm is used to quite lacerating effect on mostly deserving targets. You won't see Charlie focussing much on Big Brother, for example, because everything that can be said about the show has been said a thousand times over. In fact, as often as not, the focus of the show will shift to TV advertisements, a topic on which Brooker is jaw-droppingly funny. A particularly savage set of remarks about a Head and Shoulders ad featuring a central character named "Mickey" had me simultaneously punching the air and laughing myself silly. I'd noticed the awfulness of the ad weeks previously, but had been limited to shouting profanity at the screen.
Some kind soul has taken captures of all the shows and posted them on YouTube, an act on which the BBC normally cracks down on with furious vengeance. If I were Charlie I'd feel somewhat put out by the corporation failing to defend my honour, but reportedly he's actually more than happy with the situation. Then again, the chances of anyone wanting to put anything I say on YouTube are limited, so I guess it's a moot point.
The show doesn't just talk about the content of TV programmes or ads, though. It features regular investigative features explaining how things happen behind the scenes on a show, matters of funding, production and the little tricks that are used to convince us that what we're watching is real. These segments are interesting and informative, and never patronising like they would be if Noel Edmonds did them.
It's all shot on a tiny budget - much of the show features Brooker sitting on his living room sofa speaking into a steadicam about clips that have just been shown. This makes the show not unlike being ranted to in an otherwise quiet pub by an overall friendly acquaintance who has found a way to be comfortable with his rage. These are my favourite segments of the show, as Brooker has an uncommon gift for one-liners and reactive humour.
You may find that this show isn't your cup of tea, that Brooker is a touch too cold and misanthropic, or that the format jars with you. Or you may, like me, find it the most enjoyable 40 minutes of the schedule.
This is not a guide to coping strategies for depression, and should not be seen as such. It is an exploration of my own experience of depression and my thoughts on how depression is seen by others. I'd be interested to know how it squares with other peoples' experiences and opinions, and if it helps anyone so much the better.
Mental illness is a subject on which a lot is said, perhaps more than is actually known. Certainly there seems to always be a lot of ill-informed comment and portrayal of such illness in the media, and a general lack of understanding.
As a sufferer of clinical depression, diagnosed over a decade ago but with tendencies certainly pre-dating that, it has always irritated me when I see depression portrayed as a syndrome that causes the sufferer to sit in a darkened room hugging their knees and reaching for a pill bottle. This is a simplistic, cartoonish caricature of an illness that is far more complicated than most people can imagine.
The last "job" that I had before I went self-employed, I had to resign from because my depression was so severe, and was aggravated by the duties of the job. My performance suffered massively and in the end it was a case of jumping before I was pushed. In the end it was a massive relief to leave the job, but in the last few weeks the panic and fear that I felt were indescribable, as were the thoughts triggered by even having to sit down at my desk and call people.
I mention the above not to try and elicit sympathy, but to set the scene for what my then boss said to me on accepting my resignation. He shook my hand and said "I'm only sorry that I couldn't understand, and couldn't help you more". This showed a level of awareness that I wish more people would allow themselves. It's not a simple thing, depression. It's very, very far from simple, and even as a sufferer I'm quite a ways away from understanding it fully.
The only people who seem to even imagine they understand depression entirely are the sceptics. The people who, on hearing the word "depression", immediately click into gear with responses such as "pull yourself together" or "there's plenty of people worse off than you". People who, in short, don't feel that depression is actually an illness. Well, it IS. Blasé cynicism will not change that.
Do I wake up some mornings wanting to die because it's a pose? No. Do I go hours without moving from the same spot because it is easy? No. Have I spent longer than I'd wish to imagine trying different medications, which have had some enormously profound side-effects, because of something I'm imagining? No. There are plenty of people worse off than me. I'm fully aware of that - and I've probably done a good deal more to redress the balance than most of the people who trot out that line.
I do not spend hours upon hours in a darkened room contemplating the pill bottle. In company I talk at length about subjects that take my interest, I listen attentively and I even make jokes when the circumstances permit. I laugh, I sing, I shout at the screen when there is football on. In short, I behave like a normal human being. Sometimes, beneath the surface, something arises that makes me so angry with myself, so disgusted and hateful towards myself, that it terrifies those who know me. Am I putting it on to get sympathy? You'd better believe I'm not. I hate seeing what it does to those people.
I'm not currently in treatment - medication had various effects ranging from mood swings (!), excessive tiredness (I was sleeping for 16+ hours a day at one time) and listlessness of a kind that the depression never managed to place on me in ten years of trying. Counselling - I missed too many appointments and was discharged. I feel like I'm managing the risk well, and my wife would frogmarch me to the doctors herself if I moved towards the extremes which I once inhabited. But I still get the self-loathing from time to time, and the chances are I still will be twenty years from now.
The difference between now and a few years ago is that I fully expect to still be here twenty years from now, and want to be. And believe me, that makes a big difference.
The following list is in no particular order and is subject to change at the drop of a hat - especially if someone takes video footage of the hat dropping and sticks it on YouTube. The ten websites I will list are the ones which, most often, tear me away from my work and cause me to lose hours doing nothing of any real worth. It's a procrastinator's to-do list. Or would be, if I could be bothered compiling a proper to-do list.
I am an excessively silly human being. You wouldn't believe how silly, honestly. And the things that make me laugh should really be a source of eternal shame, but I can't help it. I keep going back to this hive of idiocy. I never post - Photoshop isn't my forte, so I just gawp in wonder at the works of people with imaginations that against all the odds are more warped than mine.
I'm very into politics, in a vaguely left-wing but not very hardcre kind of way. More than anything, I like a bit of banter with an edge. If someone disagrees with me I like to know why, and I'll happily debate politely and openly with someone who holds the polar opposite view to mine, as long as they state their points clearly and offer their views in a polite manner. And if that doesn't work I normally call them a racist. Horses for courses, you know...
News, politics, football, rugby, Strictly Come Dancing. It's hard to drag myself away from this place sometimes. I'll log on to the BBC website to check on football fixtures and log off thirty minutes later knowing election results in Latvia, the latest tennis rankings, what the weather's going to be like in Florida for the next week, but no idea who my team are playing on Saturday because I got giddy with all the information.
I admit it, I love American Football. I'm not even ashamed. I don't get to watch it as much since I left home and left Sky TV behind, but I follow it online and the official NFL site is a godsend. Don't judge me, OK?
"Oh God, what was he in? Oh look, it's her, from that thing we watched, you remember..." These words are as a mantra to many of us, I have no doubt. With IMDB I no longer need to spend hours wondering where I recognise someone from. You'd be absolutely stunned how often it's Buffy.
When I was at university, I had to scrupulously research essays and then spend hours sitting in front of a computer trying to churn out something that didn't suck completely or read like a News of the World article (or both, obviously - actually the NotW reference is pretty redundant). I don't know if Wikipedia even existed back then, but if it did I really missed a trick. People criticise its lack of reliability, but as long as you check the sources that it links to, and don't rely on anything that is uncited, then Wikipedia is a superb resource.
It really is very good. It stops spam like no mail provider I've known before. It keeps everything neat and tidy. As yet I can't make it lay a false trail making it look like I've vanished to Cuba every time a deadline approaches, but I'm sure that'll come soon.
I tried, but I can't get to ten without mentioning this site. It's really pretty different from any site I've used before. People read my meanderings. They even like them sometimes. And I get rewarded financially for doing it. How very rare. I don't think the Dooyoo community is ready for my review on the All-Leicester Rubber Fetish Fair, but that's a minor quibble at worst.
Silly stuff again. I like cats, indeed we have three of our own, and it's amazing how many of the stupid captions ring perfectly true. Two of ours have even featured on the front page here, which still makes me unaccountably proud.
Yes, I have a Facebook page. The privacy controls on mine are so tight you could bounce 1p coins off them, of course, and I only add people I remember and recognise. For some reason I'm very protective of my personal information, he said on a review with a big picture of himself next to it.
And there you are. This is how I waste my time, and yours if you've read this far.
Taking the old cliche of an alien landing on earth and looking for examples of human behaviour and norms, it is often tempting to wonder what a visitor to our planet would think humanity was playing at, were he to lay eyes on a copy of the Daily Mail. Given a cursory explanation of the concept of newspapers, our visitor would pause to think and then ask "And this "news" of which you speak - is it always about 'speed cameras' or 'Polish immigrants'?"
The Daily Mail is not so much a newspaper, as the concept of fear turned into liquid and vomited onto a few squares of cheap newsprint. It has some genuine practical uses - if you forget the date, for example, or wish to know what's on TV - but it fulfils the role of a "newspaper" about as well as a small pocket torch fulfils the role of "floodlights". That is to say it gives a wholly unsatisfactory overview of things, illuminating only a small part of the matter.
The Daily Mail imagines itself as a sort of moral conscience for the nation - and this would be reasonable enough, if the nation was filled with people so right-wing that they daren't get a suntan for fear of catching sight of themselves in the mirror and shouting a racial epithet. Take their recent reaction to a joke from TV irritant (and I use the term as a compliment in this case) Jeremy Clarkson, wherein he suggested that lorry drivers have a tendency to kill sex workers. The paper flew right off the handle, quickly pulling suitably outraged quotes from taxi drivers' and prostitutes' union reps, looking to stoke the bonfire on which Clarkson should be burned.
Compare this with the same paper's mouse-like quietness when their own columnist Richard Littlejohn reacted to the *actual* murder of five *real* prostitutes by stating that their deaths were "no great loss" and that no tears should be shed for them. He even made a rib-tickling joke where he used a double-entendre on the expression "missionary position". Laugh? I nearly purchased a sniper rifle and a portable clock tower. Littlejohn, somehow, gets the credit for "saying what we're all thinking but don't dare say", when in actual fact he says the things that he's thinking because he was allowed to inhale Tipp-ex thinners as a toddler.
To suggest that the Mail is only for irresponsible rabble-rousing and thinly-disguised hatred for the working-class would be unfair, though. It delivers hard news stories that you just won't find anywhere else (unless you're in the habit of standing under bridges listening to Special Brew enthusiasts). Did you know that Polish immigrants are eating our swans? Now you do. Not much info on the increasing difficulties faced by single mothers trying to feed a young family - unless the single mother tries to knock up a swan korma of course. No, the Mail goes to the big issues first, the stories that other papers are afraid of tackling.
In one recent case, I was enlightened by the Daily Mail that local councils had banned their workers from using Latin phrases - because it might confuse immigrants. A quick online search brought the surprising revelation that this story had been taken from the Sunday Telegraph, had key passages removed, and then placed in the Mail with a different journalist's name on it. Cripplingly tight journalistic standards they have at the Mail. You need to be able to do Google searches and everything.
You DON'T have to include the key points in the stories you pinch, like the representative from the Plain English Campaign explaining that the current average reading age of UK citizens is TWELVE. So if they can't manage English, perhaps Latin is a step too far. But why let that interfere with a good ol' bit of immigrant-hatin'?
You may have guessed at my point before I reach this concluding paragraph, but here it is for those who weren't sure. I'm not a big fan of the Daily Mail.
Quizcom. How's that for a word? I don't know if it has made its way into the OED yet, but it's a word I find myself using more and more these days, and if you haven't already guessed it refers to a comedy show in a quiz format. Think of "Have I Got News For You", "Never Mind The Buzzcocks" and all that jazz. The quiz itself is of dubious competitive worth, serving more as a stimulus for the guests to say something funny.
"Mock The Week" is now six seasons old. Hosted by Irish comedian Dara O'Briain, it features four regular panel members (Frankie Boyle, Hugh Dennis, Andy Parsons and Russell Howard) and two guests (usually comedians themselves, although Lauren Laverne has featured, much to the delight of certain people who have a long-standing crush on her. Yes, me.) In the last few series the show has become a good deal more popular, in line with the increasing popularity of regulars like Boyle, O'Briain and Howard.
Anyone who has watched dire UK sitcom "My Hero" will recognise Hugh Dennis, one-quarter of the 90s sketch-show The Mary Whitehouse Experience. It would be a shame if his "My Hero" shenanigans were to put them off, as he has a lot to contribute outside the format of an awful script, including being a fine mimic. Parsons has the occasional trenchant contribution, but for me the show is what it is principally thanks to Frankie Boyle. His near-the-knuckle humour may not be to everyone's taste, but it contributes to the majority of the show's laugh-out-loud moments.
The quiz has four rounds, which go as follows:
1) Headliners - The teams are shown a picture (connected to one of the week's news stories) with a series of initial letters beneath it. These letters are an abbreviation of a headline which goes with the picture. For example, a picture of Barack Obama might be accompanied by the letters "O.W.P.E." The correct answer would be "Obama Wins Presidential Election". Before anyone deigns to furnish the correct answer, several joke guesses will be made. "Obama Wants Porcelain Elephant", perhaps. That one's terrible, but you get the general idea.
2) Spinning the News (usually given a secondary, topical title) - Boyle, Howard, Parsons and one guest stand and walk to the side of the game area, where they must line up in front of a CGI "wheel" featuring four pictures representing topical subjects. As the wheel "spins", each comedian performs a couple of minutes of stand-up on the subject that takes their fancy.
3) If This Is The Answer, What Is The Question? - Fairly self-explanatory - the teams are given the answer to a topical question and are asked what the question is. Comedy answers are traded until Dara gets fed up and asks someone to pony up with the actual question. Typically in this round, Frankie Boyle will make at least one joke about Kerry Katona.
4) Scenes We'd Like To See - a list of hypothetical scenes are imagined, and celebrities have to improvise on that basis. For example, the Scene We'd Like To See might be "Things you don't want to hear from a doctor". From this, the comedians will take the part of the doctor and make comments along the lines of "Well, the good news is that you're going to get maximum use out of your Donor Card quite soon" (again, my own example. Those on the show are a good deal funnier.)
Points are awarded throughout the show by Dara on a completely arbitrary basis - indeed he has admitted more than once that he just makes the scoring system up as he goes along. As I say, the actual quiz takes a back seat to the opportunity to make jokes. O'Briain hosts the show excellently, doing as a presenter should do and allowing the guests to make most of the jokes. As a result, when he does make one it tends to be a pearl.
Though I was already aware of most of the regulars on Mock The Week, it has brought to my attention a number of very funny comedians, particularly Russell Howard and frequent guest Michael McIntyre. It's worth watching - a repeat run is still going on Wednesday nights on BBC2 at 10:00, and a new series is certain to follow in the New Year - as long as you're not easily offended.
Speaking as a French tutor, I think more people should learn another language. Specifically, I think they should learn French. From me. I have to make a living somehow.
In the unlikely event that that hasn't persuaded everybody, I do have some genuine reasons for saying that more people should learn a foreign language. I will now list and explain these.
Firstly, whenever I've been abroad - generally in France, I have on more than one occasion been witness to the most cringeworthy behaviour in the Brit/Irish/American Abroad armoury - the use of Loud English. You're speaking to a shop assistant - she's French. She doesn't speak English. She's not meant to, you're in Marseille. She will not understand what you say any better if you SAY IT AGAIN AT TEN TIMES THE VOLUME. Put yourself in her place. If you were in Tesco and some overly confident Parisian bowled up to you saying "EXCUSEZ-MOI OU SE TROUVENT LES BANANES?" you'd be more than a little put out, wouldn't you?
It takes a few lessons, a few hours to get to the point where you can politely explain that your French/Spanish/Polish isn't good enough to sustain a conversation, and it makes it a lot less likely that kitchen staff will empty their nostrils into your soup.
Another reason, perhaps less frequently expressed, is that learning a second language gives you a better appreciation of your own mother tongue. Learning French has expanded my English vocabulary immensely, as there are quite a lot of words in each language which have their roots in the other. The process of learning a language makes you aware of linguistic structure which you generally won't have paid attention too when learning to speak your own language - after all, you've been speaking your own language since you were a child and back then, Tonka trucks were more important than tenses.
If you don't feel that you'll ever speak another language to the same level that you speak your own - and hey, most people never quite manage that - even being able to ask where the milk is will prove you've made the effort, and this makes people a whole lot more receptive towards you. I lived in France for eight months while doing my degree, and had heard all the usual cliches about the French - how rude they were, how unhelpful and unwelcoming. It occurs to me now that this impression was imparted by people who couldn't be bothered communicating in French, because the people I met were delightful, polite and great company.
The final reason I am so thankful to have learnt another language is a cultural one - cinema, to be specific. There are so many wonderful French films, and to watch them is for me a joy and an education. Learning French exposed me to the wonderful "A Bout de Souffle", Godard's classic story about a self-proclaimed outlaw; "Tenue de Soiree" - Depardieu at his best; "La Vie est un Long Fleuve Tranquille", a chaotic riot of comedy and social commentary. I would still be unaware of these pleasures had I not chosen to develop my understanding of the French language, and I would be much poorer for it.
Aside from all that, I've been told it sounds really sexy when I speak French. That's got to clinch it, surely?
Let's see how intolerant I am, shall we?
1. Sex And The City
It's fair to say I'm not the target audience for this show, but I truly cannot bear its existence. I'd put it so deep in Room 101 that it would be buried under cobwebs for all eternity. It's hard to say why I loathe it so much. Well, not that hard - Sarah Jessica Parker. Shouldn't a style icon be better-looking? And her character is an awful, awful person. She gets upset at a boyfriend for blanking her *because she slept with her ex*. Hello? You're lucky he didn't spray-paint a gypsy curse all over your front door. And set it on fire.
2. "Avid Merrion"
Yeah, I know, his real name's Leigh Francis. However, I feel he traded in his right to a real name when he went on TV being unamusing. People repeating his catchphrases ad nauseam were the eternal blight of my student days. There is a particularly fiery circle of Hell reserved for "wacky" one-joke nonsense-merchants, and that's where he's headed,
3. Boris Johnson
He may be passably amusing on the telly every once in a while, but does that really excuse calling black children "picaninnies"? How, just how did he become Mayor of London? How? Did you see him at the Olympic Closing Ceremony? Were you, like me, waiting for him to do a comedy Chinese voice and make his eyes go slanty with his fingers? Aren't you BLOODY TERRIFIED that the running of one of the most important cities in the world has fallen to him? Can you imagine what 7/7 would have been like if he'd been Mayor then? The mind boggles.
4. Football hooligans
I love football. The highs, the lows, the anticipation. Well, not the lows so much. Last-minute winners. Contentious penalties. Derby matches. The whole shebang. My point is that football is exciting enough. What is the bloody point of punching a complete stranger in the face because he likes another team? Cricket fans don't do it, rugby fans don't do it, snooker fans don't do it. Formula 1 fans don't even do it, and Heaven knows that Formula 1 could do with a bit more excitement because it's extremely dull. Football hooligans give football fans a bad name. It's enough to make you want to punch them, if it weren't for the fact that they like that for some gormless, stupid reason.
Ugh. They taste like twigs. Varnished twigs. I've asked people why, why on earth they eat them, and apparently they make beer taste better. Drink better beer. You'll save money in the long run, and you're less likely to suffer high blood pressure from excess salt. They couldn't even choke George W Bush properly. Useless, salt-covered snack that they are. And a while back some complete psycho decided to cover them with chocolate. Is chocolate not nice enough on its own? What is the point of that? Stop ruining beer and chocolate.
I could go on, but the nurse is nearby with a big syringe full of sedative and I don't want to give her the satisfaction.