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"Micky was very glad when it was time to get up. His bedroom didn't seem anywhere near as frightening in the sunlight.......No werewolves. Not even a tuft of fur or fang."
By his own admission Micky was a wimp, out of him and his four Sisters it seemed that he was the biggest girlie of them all, and this didn't go unnoticed by his Dad. He would often moan that Micky needed to stand on his own two feet and toughen up a bit which unfortunately just made Micky snivel and blub all the more and seem an even bigger wimp. So when His Mum and Dad went out for the night and his Sisters insisted on watching the latest Werewolf video "Savage Snarl" Micky thought it would be the ideal opportunity to stop behaving like a wimp so he settled down as well to enjoy the film. Sadly Micky did not enjoy the film one bit; the parts he did see when he was not holding his hands over his face left him scared and traumatised, far from toughening him up the film left him an even bigger nervous wreck than before. And when his Sisters insisted on playing cruel tricks on him by draping themselves with the furry hearth-rug and jumping out on him Micky was close to becoming a complete nervous wreck, which seemed to anger his Dad still further and please his four sisters no end.
"When Micky went to school that morning he crossed right over the road so he didn't have to go near Sandy the Alsatian. But even from right across the road Sandy looked much larger and fiercer than usual, and there seemed to be far more teeth springing from his jaw. He really did look remarkably like a werewolf."
Things got worse and worse for poor Micky; His younger Sister Marigold delighted in telling her school friends about his absolute terror at all things wolf like and so they spent break and dinner times at school chasing him around and making snarling-howling noises. Anything furry immediately transformed into a leaping biting beast, so much so that Micky nearly screamed the house down when his Granny Boot showed him the new fox-fur cape she had bought at the charity shop. Mickey's Mum had obviously seen enough and so decided that the only way to cure this fear of all things furry was to get Micky his very own dog, however the idea of walking around the dog re-homing centre with all those caged werewolf like beasts trying to get at Micky was just too much for him to bare. Maybe the grey scruffy looking dog would sort out his fear once and for all but just maybe the dog - which he christened Wolfie - would be a ravenous beast all set to rip him into tiny bits at the very first opportunity.
"Micky knew it was the only possible choice. He had the most magical special pet in the whole world. His very own werewolf. Well, not quite a werewolf yet. A werepuppy."
This is my very first taste of Jacqueline Wilson the author, and I can now see why she is a children's favourite. The Characters in the Werepuppy are all delightfully described so that we know what scares them or what gives them there kicks. Micky and the trials and tribulations he faces are no doubt typical of a young boy in a house with four Sisters, constantly getting pushed around and mocked by his siblings. And I'm sure most of us have watched a scary movie when we were far too young to be doing so, all the time pretending it wasn't scaring us while wondering how we could put off going to bed and the related darkness. A slightly deeper story within the story is that of Micky`s dad and his disappointment at the wimp of a son he has, but by standing up for what be believes Micky does eventually earn the respect and love of his Father.
"It seemed a good idea to feed wolfie as soon as possible as he'd already chewed several fingers, tried to eat a rabbit supper, and now, after a sniff at Wilbur rat and a gnaw at Mona, he was severely worrying Marigold's My Little Ponies."
I feel that the Werepuppy would suit children over about eight years old, it also has sufficient pace and fun so that adults can enjoy it too. Its 96 pages are broken up with exquisite drawings by Janet Robertson and each chapter of the book is typically ten pages long. Four stars out of five from this big kid.
As a young man leaving school, many years ago, I decided I would like to be a chef. Not least because you get to wear checked trousers and a funny hat and people don't laugh at you. I arrived at Catering college on the first day ready to be trained and moulded into a lean mean cooking machine and was promptly given a long list of text books I needed to help me on my way. At the top of the list was a book called "Practical Cookery" by Ceserani and Kinton. So off I went to the book shop and purchased the required books. Little did I know that I had just purchased the "Chefs Bible", a book that would become so indispensable it was better for a trainee chef to forget his knives than his copy of Practical Cookery.
The Authors credentials stand up to examination, Victor Ceserani MBE was the Head of Department at The School of Hotel keeping and Catering at Ealing, as well as an examiner for City and Guilds Advanced Cookery 706/3 (every would be chefs goal). As a Chef he has been apprentice at the Ritz hotel. Basically this chap knows his onions, literally.
Ronald Kinton was a chef at the Waldorf hotel and Claridges. He also taught at Garnett College which is where Catering teachers are trained.
David Foskett, the editorial Consultant of the book, was a senior lecturer at Ealing College of Higher Education. He has worked at the Dorchester and Savoy hotels and has also been a Chef technologist in many test kitchens for food manufacturers.
And so to the book itself, the chapters are as follows:-
1. Selection, use and care of knives
2. Useful Information
3. Methods of Cookery
4. Culinary Terms
5. Stocks and Sauces
6. Hors d`oeuvre, Salads and Sandwiches
9. Farinaceous Dishes
11. Lamb and Mutton
16. Poultry and Game
17. Vegetarian Dishes
The Useful information chapter has Metric and Imperial Conversion tables, Oven temperature guides, the content of Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats in various oils and fats and dietary considerations. Methods of cookery covers all of the ways to cook food and gives pros and cons for cooking certain foods in certain ways. Also included is a list of the correct equipment to use for different methods of cooking.
Culinary terms is basically a kitchen French dictionary, this should help you tell your Consommé from your Cuisse de Poulet. On to the recipes in the book, and if it is not in Practical Cookery it probably is not worth eating. All of the recipes have their French name next to them, so you can amaze and impress your family and friends when you serve them Filets de plie frits et Pommes frites (Plaice and Chips). The recipes are well written in plain English and often include recommendations for accompanying dishes. The Various meat sections include information on all the cuts available from the particular animal, as well as the best way to cook and prepare them. There are also diagrams of the Dissection of the animal so you can joint up the meat yourself if you so wish. When I say that there is information on ALL the cuts available it is not an exaggeration, for those who just happen to have a pigs head in their fridge, (Don't we all), there are details on how to prepare it as well as a recipe for brawn
Every aspect of the cooking of ingredients is in the book, the most basic recipe I could find was Plain Boiled Potatoes (Pommes Nature), but once you have boiled potatoes mastered it opens up many of the other Potato recipes, 52 in total, to you. If you mash up your boiled potatoes, add some egg yolk and margarine you have a Duchess Potato mix. Mould some Duchess Potato Mix into 3cm flat cakes and shallow fry them and you have Galette Potatoes (Pommes Galette). The Pastry Chapter has over 200 recipes, from basic pastry to Pineapple Creole (Ananas Creole). Again all recipes are well laid out and explained thoroughly. The Farinaceous dishes section deals with pasta and rice. There are recipes to make your own pasta and noodles, which in my experience taste ten times better than the ready prepared variety.
The beauty of this book is that non chefs can enjoy it as well; it knocks most other recipe books into a cocked hat. So why not get a copy, maybe treat yourself to a chefs hat as well, and before you know it you could be a Gordon Ramsey in the making.
As 2008 drew to a close I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to pay a flying visit to Milan, the purpose of which was twofold - to soak up some culture in the fine city, and also take in a football match at the famous Stadio San Siro. Because the trip was part of a package we were unable to specify flight companies or hotels of our own accord, instead relying on the powers that be that put these all inclusive city breaks together. So it was we found our party of three transported from Malpensa airport to the hotel Amadeus in the fashionable shopping district of Milan, a clean looking three star hotel, boasting eighty rooms.
Location, Location, Location
Little doubt that the location of the Amadeus is one of its strengths. Although it is a good hour's drive from Malpensa airport it is - quite literally - a stone's throw from the Stazione Centrale. Widely slated as one of the main - and most architecturally stunning - train stations in Europe, it can whisk you to the great Lakes of Garda and Como in well under two hours, or Venice in a little over three. In relation to sightseeing in Milan itself the Amadeus is a pleasant twenty minute stroll to the centre of Milan, and the Duomo (cathedral). If the stroll doesn't appeal there is a tram stop outside the hotel, while the nearest Metropolitana station is at the end of the road, less than five minutes walk away. While in Milan we used a mixture of Metro and legwork to get around; the Metro is clean, prompt and cheap, with tickets purchased from any of the many newsagents and coffee shops on street corners allowing you to travel all day for just a few Euros. Unfortunately for us the hotel was on the opposite side of town to the San Siro Stadium, which can be a problem as the nearest Metro station to the hotel seemed to close very early, around 10pm.
The check in receptionist was polite, professional and soon had us speeding to our various rooms; rooms that were spotlessly clean, large and well decorated. The bathrooms held a shower, toilet and sink, and again were spotlessly clean and well stocked with soaps, potions and shampoos. Such was the timing of our trip that we needed to be at the football stadium in the evening, and as such we missed the evening meal, but the staff did offer to keep some food for us which we thought was a nice offer, although to our shame we declined in favour of the local Burger King! The rooms all had televisions offering the usual staple of channels for the traveller - CNN and BBC world service to name but two.
My first gripe was that the windows of my room were shuttered, not necessarily a problem but for the fact these dark, wooden slabs were immovable in every way. This meant the lack of natural daylight cast a perpetual gloom as I had to rely on one overworked light bulb at all times. I wanted to gaze upon the hubbub of Milanese folk going about their business, instead I had to get used to an almost prison like existence as I stared blankly at the austere wooden slabs of solitude cutting me adrift from civility. No matter, I was only there for one night, and no doubt those shutters would prove excellent at diffusing the city noise as I slept the sleep of angels. How wrong can a man be! - At around 3am, I was awoken from my slumber by what sounded like a full scale earthquake. For reasons known only to themselves, those in control of the tram network of Milan decided to rearrange and shunt every available tram back and forth beneath my window. Of course I only found out this was what the noise was, having wandered down the corridor to find that rarest of things in the Amadeus, a window you could look out of! You've not known noise until you've heard assorted tram drivers, operators and god knows who else slam, shunt and otherwise make as much noise as possible as they argue and bellow in their inimitably Italian way. Bleary eyed and a little irked I asked the hotel receptionist if this was normal, he said it was, and that it would be over in about half an hour, deep joy! This gave just enough time to return to the room and curse the bloody shutters that seemed great at blocking light but did little to dull the cacophony below. I have to say I slept well once the noise had abated, so well in fact I missed breakfast entirely, making it to the dining room just in time to grab a pastry and some coffee to see me through the day.
A quick look at the hotel website boasts "soundproofed windows, protecting guests from the hive of activity outside" - all I can say is they are either a very recent addition to the hotel, or the person that fitted these magical windows in my room was having an off day. If you can guarantee a room away from the front of the building and with windows then I could possibly recommend the Amadeus; but based on my stay I cannot do so, and award it three stars out of five. This may seem generous bearing in mind I do not recommend a stay, but the three stars are mostly due to the excellent location the hotel possesses and the competent and friendly staff. At around sixty Euros a night out of season the price is fair, but if you plan on going use a couple of Euros to buy some earplugs.
When I purchased my first ever PC back in the mid nineties it came with a measly 32MB of memory, at the time this was more than enough to run Windows 95 and anything else I cared to throw at it. But as programs grew and evolved into being ever more complex so the drain on the computers resources became ever greater. Nowadays I fear a system with 32MB would struggle to even start the latest incarnation of Microsoft's operating system; indeed my current PC - purchased in 2007 boasted 1GB of memory which I was assured by the salesman would be more than enough for many years to come. Needless to say I have noticed a drop in speed as time passed, with the little Windows vista system monitor in the sidebar going into the red ever more often as the memory struggles to keep up. Clearly something had to be done to stop my system grinding to a halt, which is why I decided on throwing some much needed extra memory into my computer; but where on earth to start? I wasn't even sure what make and model my PC is, much less what type of memory would work within it. Commence much research and head scratching before I eventually pinned down exactly what make and model my computer was, and what sort of memory was required.
And boy do you need to be sure; Memory nowadays seems to be a minefield of pins, DIMMS, MHz and Ram. It's no good purchasing that lovely looking 200 Pin memory you've had your eye on and trying to fit it into your 240 Pin slot. Heck, you might just as well try shoving in a handful of custard in for all the good it will do. DIMM's? The only thing remotely dim feeling in this whole equation was me as I wondered if there was some sort of Open University course available to make sense of the mysterious world of memory cards and upgrades, my head hurt at the very thought of it all! Anyhow, with a mixture of Internet searching and examining the memory that came with my computer I managed to work out what sort I needed. A quick browse on Amazon showed me that Kingston manufactured the memory I needed, 1GB in size and with all the requisite Pins, slots and speeds in the right place. And at less than £13 the price seemed reasonable too, so I ordered one, for fear that if I procrastinated I'd forget all over again the specs required and have to start the research circus afresh.
Two to four days later the memory arrived resplendent in plastic box complete with fitting instructions. Being a bloke I immediately tossed these aside and set about having the side off the computer; from there it was a relatively simple matter of finding the spare memory slots and slipping the memory in, a task I knew I'd carried out successfully thanks to the reassuring click of the holders gripping the memory and fixing it in place. Reassembling the computer (why is there always a screw left over?) I plugged everything in and booted up. Initially there seemed little difference in speed; the vista sidebar system monitoring gizmo did indeed show that I now had 2056MB installed instead of the 1028MB before, crucially though the RAM part of the monitor was now flitting around the 60% usage level rather than maxing out as it had done all too frequently before.
So, all was well, my computer was running with a new found spring in its step. But, for this review to be taken seriously I feel I need some decent benchmark comparing my new memory to my old amount. My test were carried out using Windows Vista, with no other applications running save for a natty little number called Sandra 2007 - an application that examines many facets of a computer, all forgone for my purposes save for the memory bandwidth test. The first run without the new memory returned a memory bandwidth per second reading of 3250, while the same test with the new memory resulted in a reading of 3660. In this test the higher the total the better, which was reassuring given the second total is higher than the first. Although this test isn't really representative in that it doesn't measure the memory's performance under pressure, i.e. with lots of resource hungry applications running at once, it does show in a rudimentary way that the increased memory in my system does mean an increase in performance. And when all is said and done that's all I was after.
So, if you are after 1 GB of DIMM RAM with 240 pins running at 667 MHz and backed by a lifetime warranty for under £13, you should look no further than this little beauty from those masters of memory, Kingston. I didn't, and I've never looked back, and as such I can give nothing other than the full five stars.
They say there are two certainties in life - Death and taxes. But I think you can safely add a third, and that is that you will need a bank loan every time you buy an ink cartridge. As the owner of a Lexmark printer I find myself having to fork out £35 for a colour or £32 for a black cartridge respectively. How can the printer manufacturers warrant such high prices for a few pieces of moulded plastic and a couple of fluid ounces of ink?
Of course I've tried the alternatives, trying to refill the cartridges myself ended in tears. It is truly amazing how much mess a few drops of ink can make when handled incorrectly. I was washing my hands for days afterwards and there was a particularly worrying moment when the cat jumped onto the table amongst the mess and ended up with more dark patches on his coat than before, thank goodness it was black ink I was using and not coloured. Having said that, he was not at all impressed and ran every time I went near him for days afterwards. Since that day I have steered well clear of the whole cartridge self-filling minefield, believing it far better to leave it to the trained experts.
So with my black ink cartridge hovering on empty I decided to trawl the Internet for the cheapest cartridges I could find. A few sites offered compatible cartridges priced around the £20 mark, which was encouraging. Then I happened on a site called Inkfactory.com; the front page of the site looked welcoming and loaded quickly. I was offered all of the major makes of printer, from Apple to Xerox, so I clicked on Lexmark and a page appeared listing virtually every Lexmark printer model. Clicking on my model number took me to a page that contained both remanufactured and original Lexmark cartridges, I clicked on the remanufactured black cartridge button and was amazed that the black cartridge was priced at £14.66, a good £5 cheaper than any other site could offer.
Also listed was a remanufactured colour cartridge at an unbelievable £17.11, roughly half the price of an official Lexmark colour cartridge, now that's what I call a bargain. However, if the thought of using anything other than the original cartridge on your printer worries you the prices of these are also far cheaper than one might expect. An original Lexmark colour cartridge will cost you £28.20, a saving of £7 from the high street, while an original black Lexmark cartridge comes in at an amazing £23.54, which amounts to nearly a £10 saving. Add to this the fact that VAT and first class Royal Mail postage is included and the savings really start to look attractive.
Once a decision has been made about which cartridges to buy, you are taken to the checkout page where you set up an account. This basically consists of entering your name and address details and creating a password. The password feature allows you to check the process of your order and also speeds up any future ordering, simply enter your password and your entire ordering history can be checked and analysed.
Next, choices of delivery options are offered to you. As I have mentioned First Class Royal Mail postage is free and should take a couple of days, but if you need your cartridge desperately or on a Saturday a premium can be paid for the pleasure. £4.76 ensures next day delivery with Royal Mail Special Delivery while UPS will have your cartridge in your hand on a Saturday for £4.97. I opted for the free Royal Mail option and it took 2 days from placing the order to receiving the parcel.
The payment section is on the next page and you are given the choice of how to pay. All major credit cards are accepted as well as Delta, Switch and Solo debit cards. Also there are more payment options coming soon. It is also worth noting that the site is SSL Certified which mean secure online ordering, your card details should be safe here.
When my cartridge arrived it was in a small brown cardboard box, which was well packed with polystyrene chips. A Company called Alphajet makes the cartridge itself, which was presented in an airtight bag and without any ink leakage. Inkfactory.com recommend that you refer to your original printer documentation when installing the cartridge, which I did without any problems.
The actual printing was better than I thought it would be, although not quite up to the standards of Lexmark's own cartridges. However the more I used the printer the more the ink warmed up which improved the look of the finished printing, on the whole a satisfactory result.
I have never had to return a cartridge so I cannot comment personally on the experience. However it looks to be an easy process, if you have a faulty cartridge you first need to telephone or email Inkfactory.com to obtain a Returns Authorisation Number. Then you simply return the cartridge to a Freepost address and you will be given a refund, credit or a replacement depending on which you'd prefer. The use of a freepost address is a nice touch and takes some of the hassle out of returning a faulty cartridge.
*Inkfactory.com Price Promise
Inkfactory.com are obviously a confident bunch, as their Price Promise shows. In it they say, "We do not expect you to find cheaper prices than ours and therefore want to hear from you if any of our prices are higher than those advertised by another UK competitor. In the unlikely event that you do discover a better deal within seven days of placing your order, we will refund DOUBLE the difference".
"Children: - 'Christmas is for the children.' Repeat this ten times when you're trying to park at the supermarket on Christmas Eve because you've forgotten the cranberry sauce."
Let's cut to the chase - Christmas is shite. Whether you're a shopkeeper, teacher, bin man or nurse the run up to the festive season is one long headache on a path to lots of short headaches. The shops are packed, roads busy, your bank account takes a battering as do your nerves, and you can't even escape the madness by going abroad without first having to play that very British of Christmas games - guess when the fog will lift so your plane can take off. But despair not, you are not alone. Hot on the trail of the books 'Is it me or is everything shit' Volumes 1 & 2; comes 'I'm Dreaming of a Shite Christmas' a witty tome in which R.J. Clarke examines the season of goodwill in what he subtly calls 'A festive guide to overcooked sprouts, charades and giblets.' Who amongst us Men folk has not had to suffer the naturally occurring annual phenomenon of 'Buygration'? - The worrying sight of wandering males congregating in lingerie departments on Christmas Eve. At least now we can recognise this and other festive follies, as IDOASC offers up an encyclopaedic look at everything pertaining to Christmas time - from advent calendars and batteries to unwanted presents and white Christmas, all covered in an honest and amusing manner.
"Crossword Puzzles: - At Christmas, these suddenly quadruple in size. Why? Nobody knows and it remains a puzzle."
So how do I feel about IDOASC? Well, there is little doubt that this is the book I have been waiting for, I thought I was alone in feeling like this at yuletide and feared being branded a curmudgeon of Scrooge like proportions should I voice my feelings to others. But it seems there are many of us the length and breadth of the United Kingdom struggling with Christmas and all it entails. I was considerably alarmed at the amount of head nodding and wry smiling elicited from myself during the reading of this book, but each entry seems to sum up so eloquently those little things that really shouldn't get to us at Christmas - but do! Don't get me wrong, I like Christmas itself, it's just the run up (which seems to start in August when Tesco put out their Christmas cards and toy manufacturers start to hypnotise children into believing they have to get the latest doll/Console game/Harry Potter crap!) that really gets to me.
"Over-commercialisation:- The worry is that the true meaning of Christmas is at risk of being lost. If we carry on like this it won't be very long before children will see December 25th as just a day when they get presents."
At 87 pages I think it is fair to say IDOASC isn't going to be the longest or most challenging read you'll come across, but I defy any person not to find at least a dozen descriptions that don't have them nodding in agreement or chuckling in guilty recognition. The encyclopaedic layout means it is the sort of book that can be dipped in and out of without losing the value of the writing. Selections of black and white pictures grace the book where words alone cannot impart the requisite feeling of Christmas woe or holiday horror and these just add to the feeling of murk. Let's face it, we all know Christmas can be shite, maybe that's what makes it great, but at least now we know there is a book to seek solace in so that when you find the turkey is still half frozen at 11:30 on Christmas morning or Great Aunt Florence has had half a bottle of cream sherry for breakfast you can console yourself in the fact that you are not alone. Four stars out of the five for me - the missing star pertaining to the fact that IDOASC is not nearly long enough! But I guess they have to keep a little back for volume 2 next year, now did I notice an entry for Christmas cash in books....................
"Santa, a.k.a. Father Christmas: - He knows if you've been bad or good. He knows what you want for Christmas. He knows where you live. He knows a market research company that will pay top dollar for this information. Santa is responsible for your junk-mail."
ISBN: - 0-7522-2626-6
Typically under £5
Hardback 87 Pages
Jimmy Carr is obviously a man who loves his work - on a recent chat show he explained that on completing a mammoth one hundred and sixty date tour he simply starts all over again. He spends more than half his life travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles delivering his unique deadpan rapid fire style of joke telling and observations on life, love and the worlds many problems. And for me it's not hard to see why he enjoys touring so much, he seems so much at home in front of a live audience, he knows how to play to them, how to deliver his jokes with impeccable timing, always articulate and well observed. Many people will be familiar with Jimmy Carr as the host of the successful Channel four quiz show 'eight out of ten cats', but if you were expecting more of the same you may well be disappointed. This DVD represents the real Jimmy Carr, unburdened by televisual etiquette he is able to really let fly. Recorded at London's Bloomsbury theatre, 'In Concert' is Jimmy Carr's fourth live DVD, and in my mind it's his best so far, he is on top form with nothing escaping his razor sharp wit.
The always dapper Jimmy Carr seems particularly at home if a member of the audience is silly enough to try and heckle him; his put downs are swift, crisp and very very hard. Be in no doubt that if you heckle Mr Carr you will come a very poor second. One moment worthy of mention is how he deals with an audience member complaining that he is not racist and doesn't tell any racist jokes; his put down is quite brilliant. A lot of the humour is adult based, on more than one occasion I squirmed a little as he tightrope walks that fine line of controversy and bad taste, suffice to say this is probably not the sort of DVD you want to be settling down to with your Parents, ....or children, ....or indeed anyone where embarrassment is likely to be an issue - this DVD is over eighteen in every sense of the word. A couple of nice little diversions break up the stand up routine nicely on this DVD; firstly Jimmy relaxes in an armchair and ponders those random thoughts that are troubling him, all the while a jazz trio play melancholy tunes as smoke drifts lazily across the stage. He also takes to sitting behind a desk for a segment where he rewrites classic children's jokes to bring them up to date. There is also a little improv section where Jimmy asks audience members to throw up some words and situations, with mirthful consequences.
Satire and dark humour abound then in this ninety minute show. If you like your jokes fast, polished and edgy this is very much the DVD for you. No props or special effects, just one man on a stage doing what he does best. Jimmy Carr in Concert was released on November 3rd 2008 and can be purchased for around twelve pounds. Jimmy Carr reminds me a little of the late great Bob Monkhouse in his mannerisms and speed, and that's no bad thing. I give the main stand up portion of this DVD five stars out of five, and the Extras three out of five, giving an aggregate of four out of five stars.
DVD Extras and Special Features
Not huge amounts to write home about as far as DVD extras are concerned. There is a rather clever thirty minute animated featurette where Jimmy is portrayed in different animated semblances delivering his best put downs to hecklers during the tour (presumably done because there were no cameras present to film the put downs in person.) So if you've ever wondered what a Muppet style or plasticine Jimmy Carr looks like this segment will sate your curiosity no end. There are also nine static comic strip style jokes featuring Jimmy, and the obligatory subtitle alternatives should your first language be Polish, Welsh, Australian, Scouse or Glaswegian.
I roll my eyes when I hear the likes of Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard have Autobiographies coming out. What possible insight into the world of football can 23 year old Rooney possibly offer me, at least live a bit and actually get through your playing career before you dare to presume you have anything to say worth hearing. For me, a decent football biography has to be by someone who has lived a life worth reading about. Someone who has played the game to a close and has the many and varied experiences, bruises and memories that gives. This leads us nicely to John Wark; a football player many would have heard of thanks to his exploits in an Ipswich, Liverpool and Scotland shirt. A player who worked hard, was at the top of his game, and had a distinguished and fruitful career to talk about. Ripe for an Autobiography then, which is why I was more than glad to purchase 'Wark On - the Autobiography of John Wark' when It was released.
As is the standard fair in biographies we get to read about the subjects childhood, and John's seemed little different to most growing up in Glasgow with little money but plenty of love and support from kith and kin. We then get to enjoy tale of John's first forays into football with local team Drumchapel Amatuers before going to Ipswich to sign schoolboy forms where he enjoyed ten fruitful years. The fact that Ipswich - very much a provincial club - won the FA and Uefa cups in this spell is thanks in no small part to John Wark's contribution. Scoring thirty-six goals from midfield in the Uefa cup winning year is nothing short of astounding, a record that modern day heroes like Ronaldo and Gerrard can only dream about. We also get to read about John's role in the hugely successful Liverpool side of the eighties, lining up alongside such kop legends as Dalglish, Hansen, Souness and Rush.
Some of the darker sides to John's footballing career and personal life are also dealt with in a refreshingly frank and honest way; sitting in the changing room at the Heysel stadium waiting to play when news of the wall collapse that claimed the lives of thirty-nine Juventus fans filtered to the team, and then having to go and perform knowing such a tragedy had happened mere meters away. The drinking culture prevalent in many football clubs in the eighties and nineties is also touched upon, hard to imagine some of the players could even stand up come Saturday afternoon, much less run around a field kicking a ball!
Possibly my favourite chapter of the book concentrates on the Ipswich Town players reaching the FA Cup final in 1978 and deciding to sell the majority of their complimentary Wembley tickets to a tout to make some extra cash. This practice is illegal now but at the time it was considered a perk and a sensible way of making some extra money when wages were nowhere near the level they are today. The players all pooled their tickets and the hapless fellow who drew the short straw was so worried about the impending meeting he borrowed a gun for security! We also get to enjoy tale of John's time as an actor, appearing alongside Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in the 1981 film Escape to Victory. Initially Bobby Robson casually asked his Ipswich Town players if they fancied earning a few quid over the summer appearing as extras in a film being shot in Budapest. With little better to do John readily volunteered only to find out that the role as an extra was actually a speaking part. Still, getting paid £1000 a week for pretending to play football sounded like a great deal, and something John enjoyed immensely. Only tempered slightly when the film premiered in an Ipswich cinema a year later when John's broad Glaswegian accent was dubbed to make it easier for the watching public to understand.
A facet of the book I wasn't expecting is the detailing of John's wages at Ipswich, Liverpool and Middlesbrough. It's hard to imagine present day footballers being nearly as frank with their financial affairs, yet John freely lists his wages at the time, as well as bonus payments and any signing on fees or extra pecuniary aid. Maybe the fact that he is happy to share these intimate monetary details stems from the fact that players today are paid a fortune every week, some pocketing over one hundred thousand a week - rather makes John's wage when he signed for Liverpool - £851 a week - pale by comparison.
The 170 pages of narrative are nicely broken up with various colour photographs. John's early life growing up in Glasgow as well as performances for Ipswich, Liverpool and Scotland and even his role in Escape to Victory all captured for prosperity in picture form. The book also commences with a foreword from Kenny Dalglish as well as glowing quotes from such footballing heavyweights as Bobby Robson, Alex Ferguson and the late Bob Paisley. You even get interchangeable covers for the book depending on your preference, with John in either an Ipswich or Liverpool shirt.
Five stars out of five from me then. Initially I thought that this book would have little appeal to those who had no affinity with the football teams of Ipswich, Liverpool and Scotland. But then I realised that this book is about more than just a player for those clubs, it's about a hard working footballer who always gave his best and who achieved a great deal of success thanks to his determination, hard work and skill. It's just a shame there are not more like him playing the beautiful game today, it would be the better for it.
Football books have tended to follow the same rather boring and predictable path; Biographies by twenty year old hotshots who haven't lived a life worth reading about, or washed up ex players looking for the cash a book deal will bring having just gone through messy divorce number four. And if it's not biographies there are stat books aplenty; and while a detailed breakdown of the number of free kicks Hull City enjoyed in the 1968 season is probably very interesting to those who follow the tigers, they hold a very limited appeal to the rest of us. Step forward Scott Murray and Rowan Walker - a couple of writers who I happened to catch talking about their newly written book on Sky News. It seemed that, like me, they felt the football book genre had grown humdrum and tired, so set about producing a book just that little bit different. They succeeded; that book is 'Day of the Match: A History of Football in 365 Days'; a cleverly written and immensely well researched tome telling tale of a footballing match, event or incident for every day of the year - 366 stories for 366 days (29th February included of course). Murray and Walker have trawled the archives of football globally to deliver the quirky, celebrated, infamous or just plain daft incidents that mark the history of the beautiful game.
All of footballs famous historical events are included - from the game played in no-man's-land on Christmas day, 1914, between British and German troops, to England's World Cup win against Germany at Wembley in 1966. As befits the book though the latter is described in an interesting and alternative way - instead of concentrating on the match itself the book tells of the television commentary of the game. And no, not the legendary "they think it's all over..." delivered by Kenneth Wolstenholme for the BBC, but rather the forgotten words uttered by Hugh Johns for ITV. Johns himself mused that he wished he'd been able to find a line, but that he was feeling tired! Of course the game of football has had its share of disaster and despair; these events too are detailed in the book. The tragedies of Hillsborough, Bradford, Ibrox and Heysel are all relayed in heartbreaking detail, as is the Munich air disaster and the murder of Andrés Escobar by disgruntled Columbian drug lords who decided to have him shot having lost them a lot of money when he scored an own goal in the 1994 World Cup.
The book is neatly divided into monthly sections, with each day's event taking up one page. This style means that it is the kind of book that can be picked up and read in tiny snippets. And yet I found that such was the interesting and informative way the stories are written I ended up reading large chunks at a time. I feel the strength of the book is that it includes incidents of hilarity as well as the sad and serious tales we know so well. The transition from serious to frivolous could have seemed a little cold, but because each day's event is cocooned in its own section the book manages to juxtapose light-hearted and serious perfectly. The amount of research Murray and Walker must have undertaken is breathtaking; along with majorly reported football events there are incidents so obscure that you have to wonder where on earth they started when compiling all of the data. I guess the fact that they work for the Guardian and the Observer respectively means they had at their disposal a huge archive in which to immerse themselves.
It would not feel right wrapping up this review if I did not share my own favourite tale from the book. As fate would have it, it is the very first story. On January 1st 1940 a match between Hibernian and Hearts was due to kick off in Scotland. Unfortunately the ground was shrouded in the thickest of pea-soupers - meaning the crowd, players and officials could not see much further than ten feet in front of them. Usually in such circumstances the match would be postponed, but because commentary was due to be broadcast on the radio for overseas soldiers, it was feared the postponement would alert the Germans to the weather conditions in Scotland and make a bombing raid a distinct possibility. So it was the commentator that day, a Mr Bob Kinsey, was instructed to relay the match as if it was a beautiful sunny day in Scotland. Originally he sent runners down to the pitch so he could garner some sort of idea what was actually happening in the match, but because nobody could see he decided to simply make up the game as he went along. The overseas soldiers had little idea that the commentary was made up, thinking the game was the action packed spectacle being described to them. As a footnote, even Bob Kinsey's commentary seemed tame compared to the actual match, which finished 5-5. It's just a shame that nobody actually got to see it, indeed some of the crowd only realised the match had finished some ten minutes after the final whistle had blown!
Day of the Match: A History of Football in 365 Days is brilliant in its simplicity, and a must read for football fans the world over. Three hundred and eighty pages of unmitigated pleasure - it is immersive, interesting, educational and witty; a rare achievement in a book nowadays, and as such I can award nothing other than the full five stars.
Being the proud owner of three Black Labradors - quite possibly the most gorgeous examples of the breed around, definitely the most pampered and loved - I get given all manner of Labrador related items for birthdays/Christmas or any other day for that matter. The festive season wouldn't feel the same without that pair of socks/gloves/bookmark replete with one or more Labradors smiling back. Last Christmas I delved into my stocking and retrieved a compact little tome bearing the legend "101 uses for a Lab" by Dale C. Spartas. Not being sure if this was some sort of complex manual to train and turn my Labrador into a Guide dog, or a sniffer and retriever of illegal drugs, I turned the pages with trepidation. After all, the only uses I ever stipulate on any canine crossing the threshold into my life is that they show the same amount of love and unquestioned loyalty that I lavish upon them.
In truth, my Labradors need not have worried. The book is little more than a whimsical look at Labradors in various positions and in various acts caught for posterity in pictorial form. It turns out Mr Spartas is a photographer of some repute - with four previous dog themed publications to his name - and it is his gloriously coloured and detailed pictures that form the mainstay of the book, with just a few descriptive words beneath should each depiction not be clear enough without them. We get treated to over a hundred black, brown and blonde canines of the Labrador persuasion doing what they do best - goofing around, being cute and enjoying life. A great many of the pictures seem to focus on Labradors looking daft with something clamped in their mouths. Not unusual for a dog that is bred for retrieving, though you have to wonder what the subject of number seventy-one was up to when caught for posterity with a bottle of "Black Dog Ale" clamped steadfastly in his maw. Now that's one training tip I wouldn't mind teaching my brood - providing they didn't drink the nectar on route from the fridge!
My personal favourite entries? Well there are a couple - Number forty one sees a Black Lab with the world's biggest bone clamped between its jaws, and the one word legend beneath - "Archaeologist". The other entry that amused me above others was number eighteen, in which we see a Labrador shaking after a dip in the river. The legend "Lawn sprinkler" can only truly be appreciated by those of us who have inadvertently stood too close to a Labrador as it shakes a seemingly impossibly amount of water every which way.
I do have a couple of gripes with the book - the first is only a minor one - it is that the photographs and captions have a distinctly American feel to them. But those of us who know what a Q tip or faucet are and can accept the seemingly large proportion of men in plaid shirts shouldn't struggle too much. And since the Author/photographer is American I'm not sure what I was expecting. Maybe they are paving the way for a second edition featuring international Labradors - who wouldn't want to see a Thai version of this magnificent breed causing mayhem and mirth in a Paddy field, or a German incarnation running wild and free in the Black Forrest - I'd pay to see that! Also, for a publication that is concentrating on photographs the book is a little on the small size - just 15cm squared. And the photographs don't even fill these small pages, so you are left looking at a picture roughly the length and width of a playing card. I feel the book would be far better if it were twice the size, allowing the rich and colourful photographs to be enjoyed in far more detail. This feels a little like gazing at a masterpiece the size of a postage stamp. And at the full price of a penny short of a tenner it is perhaps a little on the expensive side for what it is.
That said this is still a lovely book for Labrador lovers to enjoy and cherish. It has no real story, and only a smattering of words. But the characters within are ten times better than in any other book. Cuter, funnier, and much more loveable. Four stars out of five from me.
''We had been a dogless farm for many years, and I was not ready to change that arrangement. I had my own reasons for not wanting a dog - long standing ones.''
It's fair to say that life on the farm suited George well; he enjoyed the honest but hard way of life a great deal. He enjoyed still further the help and support of his beloved wife Mary-ann and the youngest of his five children, Todd. Todd was born ten years after George and Mary-ann thought they had changed their last diaper. Todd was - Depending on which Doctor you asked - mildly retarded, or autistic, or learning disabled. He simply didn't seem to function at full speed, but what he lacked in some areas he more than made up for in others. A kind and gentle young man, Todd seemed to hold a special affinity with animals. They trusted him, they enjoyed being around him, they felt unthreatened by him. And so it was - with an almost unstoppable inevitability - when Todd heard an earnest appeal on the local radio station for people to volunteer to adopt a dog for the Christmas period he set about convincing his parents that they had to help out, they simply had to adopt a dog for Christmas. But whereas Todd saw such matters in their simplest black and white form, George was a lot more reticent about letting a dog into their lives after so many years. Previous experiences with dogs as a young man had left him heartbroken and scarred, and he wasn't at all sure that he was ready - or able - to offer the love and support to a canine again. Nevertheless, with plenty of lobbying from Mary-ann and the promise that Todd would feed, water and exercise the hound religiously - it was decided that they would adopt a dog. But only under the complete and irrevocable understanding that this was a short term deal, that the dog would be returning to the animal shelter once the holidays were over. Little did George realise however that come the 26th December events would take an unexpected and life altering twist, and the decisions made would have ramifications reaching far beyond their lives on the secluded Kansas smallholding.
''The one thing that defined Todd's life more than any other was his relationship with animals. He held them, raised them, loved them, and laughed with them.''
Without wishing to give anything of the ending away I found this an immensely enjoyable read. At varying times my emotions fluctuated between sadness, anger, happiness, and joy - Not a bad sensual journey from a book that is only one hundred and eighty pages in length. I think most people can find some sort of affinity or bond with an animal - be it a dog or cat or whatever - and this feeling is what Greg Kincaid taps into so well in this book. He also sets the story at Christmas for added effect - we all want the yuletide period to be full of mincemeat merriment and tinsel draped niceness - a time when goodwill to all men (and dogs) should prevail to preserve that perfect fairytale Christmas we all strive for. In my mind there are not nearly enough books like "A Dog Named Christmas" around. Sure it's not going to win any awards for its depth of story or plot twists, but as a light read that tugs on the heartstrings it does a darn fine job. A good barometer when reading a book for me is if I find myself caring and feeling for the characters, after all if you don't care about the characters then ultimately you don't really care about the story either. Happily I found myself empathising with the characters (both human and canine). The author blends the perfect ingredients for a story that has you longing for the happiest of happy endings. And therein lies the appeal of this book, a story that is sentimental but also painfully true to life, it deals with love, loss and hope - something we all have to go through in life.
''I walked around the dog twice, noticing four legs, a tail, and all the other required appendages. 'He looks excellent to me,' I offered''
Four stars out of five from me then, Greg Kincaid has managed to write an engaging story of hope over adversity that captures that rarest of bonds between man and dog - not bad from a man who doesn't even write as a main job (he is a lawyer). I managed to read the book cover to cover in a couple of hours but then at a little over £3 from ASDA in paperback form I didn't feel short changed. A Dog Named Christmas really is a cracking little gift book which I recommend.
"Maggie's voice came out in a whisper. 'What . . . what are you going to do?' The springs creaked as he sat on the edge of the bed. 'Everything,' he said"
The small peninsula town of Safe Haven in Wisconsin suited its name well; with only one road in and out it has stayed secluded and desolate while towns around it bustled and profited from tourism dollars. Several times people had tried to encourage growth within the town, talk of widening the road and making the town more attractive to outsiders were usually voted down at town meetings. It seemed the townsfolk enjoyed living in their own isolated community, crime was the exception more than the rule, and everybody knew and looked out for their neighbours. Sadly the secluded nature of the town and its inaccessibility was to become its undoing; when a helicopter crashed in the woods outside town a chain of events were triggered which bought apocalyptical havoc to the streets of Safe Haven. Life - what little of it survived - would never be the same again; whatever caused and subsequently escaped from that helicopter crash was set to alter the world forever, and it was up to a disparate band of townsfolk including an ageing Police Sherriff, a short order waitress, a cowardly fire-fighter, a rotund dog and a monkey called Alan to fight back and try to reclaim the towns streets. A one sided battle at the best of times, made more so when the foe they faced seemed to possess near inhuman traits.
"First pressure. Then pain. The killer sawed his teeth back and forth and shook his head like a dog, but apparently the toe didn't want to come off no matter how violent the movement."
Now it has been said I am very conservative in my reading - I know the Authors I like and rarely deviate from their work. So when I unwrapped Afraid by Jack Kilborn it could be said I was a little underwhelmed at the thought of letting a new writer into my inner sanctum. Thankfully a quick scan of the inside cover spiked my interest sufficiently that I started reading the book before any of the others I received for Christmas. And boy, am I glad I did. Kilborn wastes little time in getting stuck into the action in this book; no sooner are the pages turning than the full horrifying events start to unfold before your eyes. And there is no quarter given as regards blood and gore either, the atrocities metered out to many unfortunate townsfolk leave nothing to the imagination thanks to a gloriously descriptive way with words. Something that often troubles (nay annoys) me in this style of book is the way in which they end - the baddies get defeated and the good guys walk off into the sunset holding hands; With Afraid this formula is squarely turned on its head and given a long hard shake; without wishing to give too much of the story away there are plenty of grizzly ends met - and not always by the people you hope or think deserve it.
" 'This knife is meant for more delicate work, and has no blood groove,' the intruder said. 'You have to twist it to break the suction.' "
I can give Afraid nothing other than the full five stars; for a book to grip me so completely that I cancel a trip to the pub and sit up until 3am to finish it is unheard of. Afraid is that rarest of books within the Mystery/thriller genre - it actually keeps you in suspense until the last word is read, and makes you damn sure to double check the doors are locked after you read it. Few books can elicit such a feeling within me, and few books make me feel a little bereft when I finish them - I literally wanted this book to keep on going forever. If you are in anyway squeamish at the thought of limbs being severed and blood and entrails flying hither and dither then you should probably look elsewhere for you literary fix, but for those of us who like our thriller/horror books to grab us by the lapels and scream the most blood curdling of screams into our face then Afraid is the book to read. Always suspense fuelled, dark as night and occasionally funny - Afraid is like a breath of fresh air to its genre, three hundred plus pages of frightening narrative that doesn't let up until the bitter end. Jack Kilborn is a pseudonym of J.A. Konrath, and sadly Afraid seems to be the only book he has written under this pen name, but I shall certainly be checking out his work as Konrath - this is an Author I am hoping to read much more from in the coming years.
One of the many joys of being an Uncle rather than a Parent is that I get to hand back my Nephew at the end of the day, without having to deal with the tantrums and crisis's that inevitably go hand in hand with a four year old boy. Of course while he is in my control I have to make sure I fulfil my role as doting Uncle by entertaining, educating and amazing in equal measure, and while I try my hardest to rely on my wits for this purpose I do occasionally need outside help. Being a Chef I wanted to find a game or toy in a similar vein, to show my Nephew what it was I did for a living, and to interest him and maybe even get him to follow in his Uncles footsteps! After a little searching I found a game called Crazy Chefs made by Orchard Toys, since they were a company I'd heard good things of and because the game was described as a memory game, blending enjoyment and education, I purchased it without delay.
What's in the box?
Firstly you get five brightly coloured place mat style boards with a happy chef holding a dish. There are seven squares around the edge of the board with little pictures of ingredients, as well as the completed meal on the dish the chef has in his hands. Next you get thirty-five small square pieces each with a colour picture of an ingredient or utensil, be it peppers, flour or a frying pan. There are also five small plate shaped cardboard pieces and the same amount of the completed dish. Finally, you get a circular spinner with six equally sized sections, two featuring a picture of a plate, and the other four showing pictures of children with forks akimbo, ready to eat.
How to play
The box and instructions state that two to four people can play, but as there are five boards I see absolutely no reason why that number cannot play. The object of the game is to become the first player to collect all of the ingredients and utensils on your board. Players choose a board to play with; there are five to choose from each with the ingredients and utensils needed to prepare your dish. The dishes are Shepherd's Pie, Kebabs, Fairy Cakes, Pizza and Shrimp with Noodles. Next, all of the small ingredient and utensils squares are placed face down on the table, players take it in turn to pick up a square and try to match it with one they need for their board. If the square does not match it is placed face down on the table again and play moves to the next person. If the picked up square does match one of the ingredients or utensils needed you place it on your board. Once all seven ingredients and utensils are successfully picked up and the board is full the spinner comes into play. When it's the turn of the person who has a full board they spin with the hope of landing on the plate icon, if this happens an empty plate is placed on the board, if it doesn't happen play simply moves on and another spin is taken when it becomes the persons turn again. Once the plate has been won another spin is needed where the icon required is of a child sat at the table, once this is successfully spun to the dish is completed and that player wins.
Once a child gets a favourite game then it's inevitable that that game gets played to destruction time and time again. This is the case with my Nephew and Crazy Chefs, and while lesser games might have me climbing the walls rather than yet another outing, Crazy Chefs is interesting and engaging enough that it doesn't get boring. It's a great test of memory, trying to remember where that ingredient square you need is harder than you'd think, yet my four year old opponent manages it well. The colours and pictures on the boards and squares are all bold and colourful, and the emphasis on fun learning is such that memory and observation skills are tested without realising it. It is also a good opportunity to point out what each of the ingredients is and further educate in that way. Four stars out of five from me, at only three to four pounds this is a well thought out and interesting game with plenty of replay appeal and learning potential. Now if I can only work out a way of winning once in a while I'll be sorted, my family think I let my Nephew win, if only I was that good!
"It's back!" exclaims the excited blurb on the packaging of the Birds Eye Arctic Roll. "I never even realised it had been on holiday" I mumble to myself as I dropped a couple of the frozen desserts into my trolley on a recent trip to ASDA. But secretly I'm excited; you see, I'm big on nostalgia, and the memories of Arctic Rolls scoffed while watching Jackanory or Blue Peter as a schoolboy meant I was always going to try these frozen treats of yesteryear when their comeback was announced in late 2008. In my mind there was always something a little naughty and cutting edge about the humble Arctic Roll - some clever rascal has made a dessert combining cake and ice cream and raspberry sauce! Brilliant! Culinary genius is what it is! At a little under £2 a roll, It's a shame Birds Eye didn't see fit to charge us eighties prices too to really get the nostalgia flowing, but then you can't have your Arctic Roll and eat it - unless you pay a premium, so I reluctantly part with my hard earned cash and head home to sample this frozen delight.
On closer examination I am amazed to see there are preparation guidelines on the box, namely - "take it out the box and let it stand at room temperature for five minutes" - Pastry chefs the length and breadth of Britain must be quacking at Birds Eye's culinary nous. Of course this five minute waiting period allows me to peruse the box and see just what I'm about to consume. Nutritionally speaking your average Arctic Roll is never going to be the healthy option, with each roll racking up 550 calories and 15 grams of saturated fats - three quarters of the recommended daily allowance. The ingredient list does little to lift my spirits either - with far too many unnatural ingredients like reconstructed skimmed milk, pasteurised egg and emulsifier, to name but three. Finally, before I attack the dessert with abandon, it should be noted that these Arctic Rolls are made in a factory that uses nuts, and they also contain wheat, egg, milk and soya - so anyone with allergies relating to any of these should look elsewhere for their frozen dessert fix.
Onto the taste test; and my spoon breaks through the thin sponge easily before meeting resistance against the firmer vanilla ice cream beneath. There is absolutely no scent at all as hold the spoonful to my nose - not a promising start then. And sadly this blandness continues as I place the amalgamation of sponge and ice cream into my mouth. The sponge has an almost rubbery feel to it - not at all cake like and with no discernable flavour. Once the sponge disintegrates the ice cream melts in the mouth, but again there is a real struggle to garner any flavour of note, even the sparse raspberry sauce does nothing to enliven the experience. I was starting to regret my greedy decision to eat the whole roll as I separated some of the sponge from the ice cream for closer examination. And I have to say this flimsy bouncy sponge is a disgrace to the name and not of this world. I'm guessing it's the result of some secret experiment to meld sponge cake with a mouse mat to see what happens; heck I'm off to have another look at that ingredient list to make sure rubber is not one of the constituents! And the ice cream is a disappointment too; come on Birds Eye, just because this is a mass produced dessert doesn't mean you can use poor quality ice cream in it - Ben & Jerry and Haagen Dazs manage to produce massive quantities of ice cream that actually exhibit flavour and texture, surely you can too? Your sponge is tasteless and artificial, your ice cream is cheap and nasty, and even the raspberry sauce is flavourless. If I was paying fifty pence for this abomination I'd feel hard done by, at nearly two pounds I feel completely ripped off. Us consumers can be trusted with sponge that's thicker than two millimetres and has a pleasing texture and flavour, we want a rich, creamy ice cream made with real cream and real vanilla, and we want a nice tart tasting raspberry sauce to bring the ingredients together and make the whole eating experience halfway decent.
Safe to say I'm disappointed then, and really wish I'd never sullied the memory of Arctic Rolls by eating these modern day lumps of crapulence, I truly am struggling to find any saving grace or reason to buy these at all. Apparently there is a chocolate version of the Arctic Roll available; I only hope it's better than this one, it really couldn't be much worse. Personally, if I ever feel the need for a cake and ice cream based dessert in the future, I'll stick a cupcake in a tub of Haagen Dazs, I sure as hell won't be buying an Arctic Roll again. One star out of five from me then - it fills a gap, but then so does a glass of water! My advice would be to save your money and buy a dessert worthy of the name, or indeed go without - that would be preferable, believe me.
With the summer holiday season here at long last we are all looking for interesting day trips to fill our time. Parents want something that little bit different to engage kids during the long school break, while the rest of us want something to enjoy while soaking up the sun, should it decide to shine. Colchester Zoo seems to tick all of these boxes nicely, and with a clutch of complimentary tickets in hand thanks to a recent animal adoption, we set off to enjoy the many marvels of the animal kingdom at the sixty acre site in the North of Essex. Colchester Zoo opens its doors at 9.30am every day of the year, except Christmas day, while closure times depend on the season, with the doors open through summer until 6.30pm, and 4.30pm during the winter months.
Despite the Satellite Navigation in my car seemingly determined to strand me in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Colchester, we eventually found our way to the zoo, thanks mostly to the many signposts and directional arrows upon leaving the A12. Colchester Zoo is on the outskirts of Colchester, about twenty-three miles from Ipswich or sixty from London. Public transport links are poor at best, meaning by far the best bet is to visit by car, or better still a coach trip if you fancy letting someone else take on the driving.
Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!
Or at least Lions and Tigers, surprisingly there are no Bears of any variety at the zoo. The animals are divided into sub sections depending on the continent they originate from or their habitat suitability. This seems an intelligent way of arranging the animals and lets you get a far better feel for the animals and their habitat - going from African elephants to King Penguins to Orang-utans would be pointless, and confusing! There are loads of opportunities to meet the keepers of animals throughout the day, so you can get the inside info on how the animals are and whether they are in a sociable mood. Displays are also plentiful in the different zones, with my favourite on the day we went being the Sea Lion and Otter feeds.
Beginning Zone - Situated immediately after the entrance, the Beginning Zone is the first section of the zoo. It seems to consist of a fifty/fifty split of animal and non animal exhibits, with the shops, ticket office, theatre and children's play area sitting side by side with some of the smaller animals in the zoo - Parrots, Iguanas and Tortoises chief amongst them. There is also the interactive Discovery centre where school trips and children are encouraged to learn about the animals, as well as studying in detail skeleton and bone structures. Most exciting of all though is the section where Insects like hissing cockroaches and stick insects can be handled. Initially filled with trepidation, I soon warmed to the idea of holding one of the giant cockroaches, it wasn't nearly as bad as first feared and I was glad I gave it a go. With 2009 marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin the Zoo has set up an interesting and informative display detailing his theory of evolution, with some fun examples of Darwin's hypothesis, and some interesting predictions about where evolution may lead to in the future.
Kidz Zone - The Kidz Zone is another section concentrating firmly on younger children and their enjoyment, with a petting zoo and a wallaby walkabout area where you can get up close and interact with the animals. The day of our visit the wallabies seemed more intent on sunbathing than taking notice of the public, but the goats, sheep and rabbits in the petting zoo were very friendly and happy to be stroked. There is an activity centre here where kids can try their hand at panning for gold, as well as another theatre with shows about pets of the world, as well as reptile handling sessions. Baby changing and feeding facilities and a Pizza bar complete this section.
Valley Zone - This section, situated to the East of the Kidz zone, is by far the busiest in the zoo, thanks largely to the impressive Meerkat enclosure. Whether a certain price comparison website advert has raised the profile of these little critters I'm not sure, but people were standing two deep around their enclosure to catch a glimpse. The Meerkats played their part for the watching throngs, standing on their hind legs and generally looking cute to the delight of all. The popularity of the section could also be because it is where the main picnic area is situated, certainly at around 12.30pm when we were there it was very busy indeed, so perhaps it would be an idea to visit this section away from meal times if you don't plan to eat there. Other animals worthy of mention in this section are the majestic looking White Bengal Tiger, who seemed totally uninterested in anything other than sleeping on her raised wooden platform. A smattering of Lemurs, Monkeys of the Colobus and Medallin variety, and Baboons wrap up this amazing, if very busy, zone.
Aquatic Zone - We timed our visit to the Aquatic Zone especially so we could witness the 1pm Sea lion feeding display. The sheer frenzy and energy these glorious mammals expel in their quest for some thrown fish is a sight to behold, the water became a churning mass of froth and speed as they raced around, all trying to get the food before others. Such is the design of the Sea Lion enclosure you can walk through a glass tunnel underneath it as well as viewing it from above, so you can witness the graceful effortlessness as they swim and glide underwater. A wide selection of fish, turtles and invertebrates continue the Aquatic theme, but I'm not overly sure how the recently opened Orang-utan Forest fits into the whole Aquatic theme. Geographical contradictions aside, the Orang-utan Forest is a spacious but humid building which houses an indoor area for the Orang-utans to play, sleep and feed in. There are several openings to a larger outside area where the animals can stretch their legs, and swing from tires on ropes to their hearts content. One word of caution, the Aquatic Zone is probably the section with the steepest hills and walkways, so it is probably a better idea to approach it from the Beginning Zone to the South, rather than the Valley Zone to the West, this will ensure the hills are mostly of the downward variety as you move through.
Lakeland Zone - No prizes for guessing that the Lakeland Zone consists of three lakes of varying sizes, situated to the South of The Valley Zone. To me this was an ideal place to rest a while, as it seemed less cluttered and noisy than the neighbouring zones. The animals found in this section were for the most part the sort you would find on any lake in any park in the UK, with various species of water fowl enjoying a leisurely wade. There were a couple of exceptions to this rule though, with a smattering of flamingos stood sentry in the smaller lake and some terrapins lined up on a tree branch protruding into the water. Perhaps because of the tranquil feel to this area there were a few food establishments and plenty of seats and benches, so those wishing to make the most of the relative quiet can do so while enjoying a snack or lunch.
The Heights - The Heights are a long swath of animal enclosures and eating establishments stretching from the Aquatic Zone in the North of the Zoo to the African Zone in the West. Those willing to walk the long distance from one end to the other are rewarded with some of the finest animals in the Zoo. The Amur Tigers were impressively majestic while the Wolves relaxed style belied their power and poise. The Komodo Dragons stalked their enclosures, looking for all the world like prehistoric hunters, while the Philippine Deer were as skittish as you'd expect. As with all the other areas of the Zoo there were a smattering of eateries and refreshment kiosks, and an abundance of toilets and changing facilities.
African Zone, incorporating Spirit of Africa - Very much the meat and drink of the Zoo, the African Zone is where the tradition large zoo animals are housed. A family of Giraffe feed from specially constructed towers while a brace of Rhino roll lazily in the dust. All watched by an attentive looking Ostrich and four Zebra, their tales swishing lazily at errant flies. The other side of the walkway houses the Elephant Kingdom, a spacious enclosure consisting of sand, a mound and a watering hole. Alas both of the Elephants were at the far end of their enclosure, away from the general public, no doubt seeking out some much needed shade to enjoy. Other animals in this Zone include an impressive array of Warthogs, Hyenas and Cheetahs, and some quarrelsome Mandrill Monkeys who seemed intent on having a full scale domestic argument in front of the watching public. The Africa Zone is by far the largest in the zoo, so it is perhaps a good idea to take advantage of the Tanganyika Road train which tours the section every fifteen minutes.
The whole Ethics/Morality argument
It is an oft argued point that animals such as those found in zoos should not be held in captivity, but rather left to freely roam their native environments. I fully appreciate and understand this view, up to a point. However, to simple say that Zoos are no place for wild animals is to belittle the tireless work that Zoos like Colchester undertake to encourage conservation and active breeding programs both within the zoo itself, and in the wild. For example, one pound from every admission ticket goes to the Action for the Wild charity which supports a nature reserve in kwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Over seventy species of animals at Colchester Zoo are part of breeding programs due to risks of endangerment or even extinction in the wild, And with glorious beast like the Amur Tiger numbering fewer than 400 in the wild, they need all the help they can get. Colchester Zoo are also committed to ensuring the animals in their care as comfortable as possible and their conditions as close to those they would encounter in the wild, and they seem to be on the right track with their award winning enclosures and contented looking animals.
Feeding time at the Zoo
Snack kiosks are plentiful and intelligently situated around the zoo, so you are never more than five minutes from refreshment should hunger strike. There are also a plethora of vending machines offering up myriad of cold drinks to keep energy and hydration levels topped up during hot days. Food outlets vary from pizza bars, fish and chip restaurants to coffee bars, all offering up a variety of snacks to suit your mood. There is also lovely picnic area near the Meerkat enclosure where you can either buy goodies like sandwiches, cakes and fruit from a kiosk or supply your own and sit in the sun picnic style. Because of its central location though, this area was very busy, with seating very much a premium at peek eating times. My recommendation would be to avoid the main thoroughfares and head for the Playa Patagonia coffee shop in the Aquatic zone, due east of the Meerkat enclosure. Here you can purchase a nine inch baguette with various fillings, a cake, and a hot or cold drink for £5, with plenty of seating both in the shade and in the sun an added bonus. This value for money seems to be prevalent throughout the zoo, because they have you as a captive audience with no competition they could really sting you on the refreshment pricing front, and yet they don't, food and drink is all very reasonably priced, well made and tasty.
Access for the old, infirm and disabled
Colchester Zoos layout can best be described as undulating, although the majority of inclines are manageable. There are a couple of exceptions - entering the Aquatic Zone is a very steep climb, pushchairs and wheelchairs are advised not to attempt it. The zoo does have an easy route suitable for all which is marked with a continuous yellow line on the walkways. If a wheelchair is required the zoo are happy to supply one for a small charge. There is also the opportunity to enjoy some sections of the zoo riding on road trains. The Umphafa road train does a circuit of the African Zone every fifteen minutes, while the Tanganyika road train does the same around the Heights section. This is a nice way to enjoy the zoo exhibits while giving your legs a well deserved rest. Finally, those who are hearing impaired are also well catered for, with induction loops fitted at the pay desk, theatres and other interactive exhibits.
Will small children enjoy the experience?
I should say they would. All of the enclosures and exhibits have low viewing windows to allow little ones to see the animals up close. There are also many play areas, activity centres and interactive exhibits to keep them engaged, and all are pertinent to the animals nearby. For example, there are a set of hanging rails next to the Orang-utan enclosure, so children can see if their dangling and swinging skills are on a par with the long armed primates. Just after the entrance in the Beginning Zone there is a soft play complex, encompassing ball pits, crash mat areas and even the opportunity to have your face painted to match the fiercest lion or scariest tiger! School parties are also well catered for; there are interactive quizzes for some of the animals, and a petting zoo section where you can get up close and personal with animals like goats, sheep and pigs.
Of course for all the good intentions of the zoo in helping to conserve and breed species, it is at heart a business. Colchester Zoo needs over £27,000 a day to operate, with the majority of this sum taken up by staff wages and animal feed. An adult ticket costs £15.99 while children can gain entry for £8.99. There are a couple of shops on exiting the zoo, one selling the sort of fare you would expect - mugs, pens and cuddly toys of virtually every animal just seen. The other shop is altogether more upmarket, selling wood carved animals, delicate chinaware and even small items of furniture. There is also the option to adopt any of the animals in the zoo, alas you don't get to take that cute little Meerkat home with you, but the most expensive £110 Gold scheme does get you a plaque next to the enclosure and eight complimentary tickets to the zoo, valid for a year. Even the cheapest Bronze adoption offers up two free tickets, as well as a photograph, certificate and regular news of your adopted animal. If you decide you want to make trips to Colchester Zoo a regular occurrence there is the opportunity to buy a gold or platinum card which gives you unlimited access for one or two years respectively. These cards start at £39.99 for an adult and £23.99 for a child, with the more expensive platinum card also offering admission to a smattering of other zoos in this country, as well as Topeka Zoo in America and a couple more in Denmark and The Netherlands.
I am really struggling to find any facet of the zoo which left me feeling less than happy. There are some fairly hilly areas to walk up and down so those that might struggle in such situations should maybe ask about the free loan of a wheelchair, or alter the path travelled to avoid the steepest inclines. It is also fairly hard to get to the zoo using public transport, with Colchester railway station a good three and a half miles away. There is a free bus shuttle service connecting the station to the zoo, but this is only once a day and not all year round. Finally, and I'm really being nitpicky here, the Orang-utan forest enclosure was a little on the hot and humid side, not a place you'd want to spend much time in, for fear of passing out or sweating yourself into a puddle.
As you can guess my visit to Colchester Zoo was a positive and fun experience, with the many plus points detailed above. It just had that sort of feel about it that you cannot always quantify - the staff seemed happy, they were all courteous, helpful and attentive, and the many walkways and thoroughfares were clean and uncluttered. But much more important than that, the animals themselves seemed happy in their surroundings; all of the pens were spacious, clean and you could tell they had been designed to give the animals the very best experience and living conditions. The little things also seemed to be taken care of too, there were plenty of hand gel dispensers scattered around so that hygiene could be adhered to after petting animals or using door handles or hand rails.
Truly a great day out, combining interesting displays, contented looking animals and a well run and maintained location. My advice would be to get to the zoo early as the crowds start to build around lunchtime. Also, grab a welcome guide at the ticket office, it folds out into a large map which really helps you plan your route and get the most out of the day. If you dislike crowds it's probably best to avoid visiting during school holidays or at weekends, and the hillier parts of the site are probably hard work in the really hot weather. Five stars out of five from me, I really cannot wait until I revisit this lovely zoo.