Wednesday, 24 June 2015


In a village, far from memory,
In this half-truth fantasy,
An elder said to She,
'A place exists, across the sea
Free from war and tyranny.
Here they show mercy,
You will have your freedom,
And your dignity.'

So She forsook that life for something more
She sought the land across the shore.

She walked and walked,
She seldom talked.
Mingling with smugglers of flesh
And dealers of death,
Weeping with those who lost their homes
To eyeless drones,
She joined the host of ghosts on boats.

Her eyes saw horrors unfold
Stories forever to remain untold.
Lest we forget?
Best we forget.

At last the white walls of Utopia loomed,
She arrived in the land of peace,
Of hopes and dreams and opportunity.
She did not know that she was doomed.
It was a lie.
Theirs was a different hostility.
Unpitying, unyielding,
This green land
Had lost its feeling.
Stony, bald, white faces,
Stared with indifferent contempt.
They would not rest
Until She went.
Anywhere but here!
Screamed the hatred and the fear.

They cast her back from whence she came.
Nobody ever asked her name.

From the story of She, what have we learned?
I fear We learn nothing until the tables are turned.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Proud To Be British!

I am so proud to live in Britain. I am proud of our multiculturalism, our tolerance, (some of) our history and our fish and chips. I am not, however, proud of our current football team or (most of) our politicians. It is the latter bunch of snobs parading around Westminster that have caused me to write this blog.

With an election around the corner and immigration a hot topic as always, Robot Overlord Cameron (aka our Prime Minister) and his weasel chums constantly espouse something they call 'British values.' Miliband does it too, and Nigel Farage of UKIP is arguably the best at making this nebulous concept sound credible. It is a tagline that panders to unthinking idiots.

We, as Britons, they want us to think, (white Britons only in the case of Farage) share an innate core value system. Cameron and his Tory elite, in their Downton Abbey fantasy version of England, think the poor know their place and everything has a natural order. Regardless of birthplace (as long as it is on this sceptered isle apparently) class or religion we Britons all feel the same about such disparate things as family...blah blah blah.

What a load of old smelly bollocks. There are no exclusively British values. Farage prances around sinking pints and shouting about family values, not-so-subtley insinuating that over the channel the French all eat their offspring and Britain is the last bastion of civilisation in a world where in 'foreign parts' terrorists lurk, cackling and doing evil.

My point is this: what politicians call 'British values' are actually universal values. I have been lucky enough to travel extensively and have witnessed firsthand the following: Everybody loves their family, the vast majority of people want to work hard to improve their lot in life, everybody who is fortunate enough to live in a democratic country likes it. Being British has nothing to do with these global values. What separates us as Brits is the idiosyncrasies. If politicians had any sense, they would latch onto the quirks, not values, that make Britain Great:

1: Queuing. We love a good queue. We have the best queue etiquette I have ever seen. Have you been to a country where they don't queue. Carnage. I once saw a queue form in Reading and the people didn't even know what they were waiting for! They just saw a line and stood in it, like human Tetris blocks. That makes me surge with pride.

2: Royalty. Love 'em or hate 'em, if you feel something towards our Queen and her fam, you are definitely British. Foreigners tend to think it's cute that we have a royal family. Some Americans I have met genuinely believe the Queen is still in power and makes laws.

3: Sense of humour. This is the big one. The thing I think that defines us as Brits. Our ability to take the piss out of any situation, to mock ourselves, our friends and our enemies relentlessly. To view the world through a sarcastic lens that helps you realise and cope with the absurdity of it all. We are a nation of towering comedy talent, and I don't mean professional comedians. Every Briton has at least half a dozen mates who are hilarious. Britain is without doubt the funniest country I have been to, and it is a defining feature.

4: Apologising. We excel at apologising. Sorry is likely one of the most uttered words on this island in any given day. What do you do if someone walks into you on the Tube. Say sorry. A lady gave me change the other day, a jumble of coins and no notes. She said sorry - and it was a sincere apology, as if she'd just run over my cat - before adding, 'at least now you possess every coin in the realm.' Magnificent.
A bloke was buying his train ticket and I was behind him in the queue (only in Britain). When he had finished his transaction, he turned to me, apologised and scurried away. Why did he apologise? Because he's British.

I live in Egham, a village in Surrey that in the last twenty years has grown to such an extent that it now could be considered a small town. It is the site of Holloway University and is 30 minutes by train to central London. As such it is home to many young students and professionals. Many of these people are foreign, and meeting them makes me realise they too display these quirks that make us British. When people say immigrants are changing Britain they may be right. But people forget that Britain changes them. This - tolerance and interchange - is what makes me proud to be British.

Maybe if our politicians mentioned some of these traits of ours they would seem a little more human, and British, come election day.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Excuse me, waiter...

It is inevitable in the industry I work in that people complain. Food is important, and expensive, and people are increasingly particular about both the meals they eat and the service they receive in pubs and restaurants across the country. This, for the record, is a good thing.

As a chef every time a meal is sent back, or a customer is dissatisfied, it hurts. You see, with cookery you get immediate feedback for the work you do. There is no angry email to send or evade, no bureaucracy to soak up the rage. Just the cold fact that you just fed someone something you made, and they didn't like it. It is hard not to take these criticisms personally, and as a result many chefs (maybe the vast majority) are very defensive, and are adamant that it is not their fault. Ever. The flipside of the coin is that if you do your job well, people tell you immediately. I still feel a surge of pride if someone has said compliments to the chef. It is the best part of the job.

Even the most exclusive, high-end eateries receive complaints. Perhaps given their clientele and the sums of money being spent they actually get more disgruntled customers. Whatever the case, the poor soul usually caught in the crossfire when a customer complains is the innocent waiter. They are the ones who have to inform the kitchen (chefs definitely are guilty of shooting the messenger) and then translate the chef's barrage of swearwords into 'I'm sorry sir, the chef apologises and regrets he overcooked your steak, we will replace it immediately' to an increasingly testy table. Being a skilled waiter is a job that is grossly underappreciated.

Sometimes the complaints are absolutely justified, sometimes they are absurd, and often people are fishing for freebies. Below is a list of my all time favouritecomplaints.

1- That's lamb's liver, not calve's liver

This was enraging. Liver and bacon was on our menu, and it was calves liver. Even when shown the packaging from the butcher, and a liver that is actually bigger than a lamb, the customer was adamant. Of course, the customer is always right.

2- This bacon is too bacony.

What??? I remember when the waiter came back with this information my head chef at the time almost had a nervous breakdown. How do you deal with a complaint like this?

3- 'It was too much food.'

Well don't eat it all then! Indian restaurants must get this all the time.

4- 'I wanted it rare with no blood.'

There are no words. I'm a chef, not a magician.

5- 'My food is cold.'

A pertinent remark, you may think. After all, you expect your food to be hot. Well, it was hot when the customer received it a whole hour previous to making this complaint.

6- Serial complainers.

A peculiar breed, these people have frequented every restaurant, cafe, pub and hotel I have ever worked in and cause the staff misery on a regular basis.They come in so often they must enjoy it, (or suffer from a strange form of masochism) yet they moan and complain on every visit. When your job is to give people a good time, these people make life very difficult. If the food and service is flawless they will find some minute detail to whine about (the plate isn't hot enough. It's a salad.) Part of me thinks perhaps such people enjoy demeaning those who serve them, or think that spending their money gives them carte blanche to behave like tools, but who could be that cruel or moronic?

7 -Anybody who doesn't eat gluten.

Not strictly a complaint, but I wanted to put this out there. Now people who have a gluten intolerance get a free pass and my utmost sympathy, as physically not being able to enjoy pizza or scones or sandwiches or cake is a tragedy.

These other anti glutenites and their bandwagon jumpers however, make chefs lives a living hell. 'Do you have gluten free cake?' No. No we don't. I dont understand why bread, which is an art in itself, has fed us for millenia and comes in myriad, awesome forms - from soda to pitta, foccacia to bloomer - is suddenly touted as a bad thing amongst foodies, health nuts and ladies who lunch. It is madness. Gluten is good! Rant over.

8- Anybody who tries to substitute salad or vegetables on a dish for more meat.

It doesn't work like that! You can't compare lettuce to chicken. It makes a mockery of the food chain and basic principals of business! Again, this isn't strictly a complaint, so as this post is in danger of becoming a chef's and restaurateur's edition of the panel show Room 101, I'll call it a day

Friday, 13 February 2015

In memoriam: Neil Connelly.

On 31st January of this year my brother in law Neil passed away. His loss is a tragedy from which my family may never fully recover.

Neil was a man who believed in the power of words for good or evil, and would always correct my grammar or argue with me over semantics. His vovabulary was such that I often had to reach for the dictionary! He could speak so eloquently he would run rings around most in any debate, or captivate an audience at any dinner table. As such, I thought putting something into words would be the most fitting tribute to him. This poem is for Neil. I loved him like a brother, and I will miss him dearly evermore.


He was the enigma with a thousand faces,
He bore a stigma that time erases.
Sit and talk, listen and walk
With this sage among men, and he could take you to places
You never knew were there.

He was a husband and father,
Devoted beyond compare,
He blessed his kids with
His own brand of
Compassionate intelligence,
Wisdom that betrays their years.
He raised them with
His own hand, and
With his presence
He allayed their fears,
Wiped away their tears.
He would sing rhymes of nonsense
To fill his home with the
Laughter of love.
Now they have lost it all.

He was a brother,
A young grandad,
A son and an uncle,
And now we have lost it all.

And until the end
He was my brother
And my friend
And now I have lost him.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015


In 2013 I went on an adventure with my family. Alongside my wife Natasha, there was my sister Samantha, my brother-in-law Neil, my niece Jessie and my nephew Haden. It was to be a week-long trip of badminton, woodland battles, aquatic madness, impossibly cute red squirrels and (for the adults) utter exhaustion. It was a trip to Centerparcs in the Lake District, and it was awesome.

This post will detail some of the highs and lows of that fun filled week, without trying to sound like an advertisement for Centerparcs!

After unpacking in our new home - a luxurious chalet - we said goodbye to our cars. This was a simple, blissful pleasure. To get around the site, which is essentially a large village, everyone uses bicycles. There is no distant roar of engines to be heard. The toot of horns was replaced by the chiming of bells, and the bicycle traffic gave the place a tranquil, utopian vibe.

There was, however, one small problem. My bike was fundamentally broken. The brakes didnt work. Not ideal on hilly terrain. The chain also had a habit of falling off if I completed one full revolution of the pedals. The result was that I either tagged along at the back of our group, jerking awkwardly on my crippled contraption whilst going uphill, or sped off at high velocity and out of control if going downhill. My family of course found this hilarious. Bystanders would peer as I slowly passed by, making a godawful racket as the chain clunked and whirred, shattering the woodland idyll. But I, being Mild Discomfort Boy (see previous post) persevered. I am happy to say I have since parted ways with that bike. I donated it to a homeless Albanian man. True story.

The week consisted therefore of cycling from one event to the next. I was not in peak physical condition, and the activities slowly took their toll on my flabby excuse of a body. The most embarrassing moment came during the rock climbing. We had to scale a 30 metre wall. Needless to say my athletic young niece and my trim wife both zoomed up the thing like a pair of spider monkeys, whilst I did well at first and then sputtered to a halt. Clinging on for dear life, my muscles were shaking and I was sweating profusely. In my mind I looked like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger, but really I was a fat man hanging 5 metres above the ground unable to ascend a wall that (literally) an 8 year old just climbed. It dawned on me suddenly how much my body had deteriorated over the years, and then, from somewhere, adrenaline fired me up the wall. I got to the top, almost collapsed, then abseiled down like an absolute boss.

Following the ritual humiliation of the wall, we then had to do the Leap Of Faith. This involved climbing a telegraph pole, then standing on top of it and jumping for a trapeze suspended in midair. Jessie went first, and put on a typically fearless, virtuoso display. I was clumsy by comparison, and almost missed the trapeze, managing to grab on with one hand. There is video evidence of all these endeavours somewhere. Im sure my sister will use said videos to shame her little brother when the time comes!

Luckily my ego was restored when I later bullseyed a wild boar with a bow and arrow during woodland archery. It was a pretend boar, but hey, small victories.

Other highlights included a family boat trip on the lake. This started off as a very enjoyable and exciting communal experience - the harmony and unity of rowing as one, gliding through the water - and quickly descended into competetive chaos. 'Why can't we go as fast as them?' 'How do you turn left?' 'Don't run over that duck!'
Perhaps inevitably, the boat trip hit a climax when I somehow clouted my dear wife Natasha right on the head with my oar. Tears and shouting ensued as our vessel wended its woeful way back to the pier. The weirdest part of that whole afternoon though was the response of the young man in charge of the boats. 'Ah, yes' he said, when told of Natasha's unfortunate injury, before adding, both laconically and mysteriously, 'There's always disputes on the lake.' Sinister.

My favourite part of the trip was the laser battle. We journeyed into the woods, and were met by a group of families who all temporarily became warriors. A guide gave us guns and split us into 2 teams. Then battle commenced. Now, even simulated combat gives you a sense of who people really are. One young lad was dressed in full camouflage gear and his Dad, a growling Scot, stood on the sidelines barking orders like a ham-acted general in a cheap sci-fi. My nephew Haden was far too small to carry his gun properly, but loved it nonetheless. Jessie my niece wandered around like cannon fodder, oblivious to the carnage! Two older ladies on our team looked harmless but had camouflage like Predator (they literally disappeared at the start of every round) and were crack shots I regressed to my childhood, and was reprimanded for doing a power slide, then jumping headfirst over a barricade. The guide said something about 'health and safety,' and I overheard two opponents muttering about 'the long haired nutter who takes it too seriously.'

I had a stroke of luck at one point that played out like a Hollywood movie. I was in a wooden dugout shooting at the enemy when a voice behind me said, 'Freeze.' I turned round and there was the lad in camouflage, his gun levelled at me. He could have shot me and taken me out of the game there and then, but I guess like all good villains he loved a bit of drama. He stepped forward (did he want to take me prisoner?) and his headset announced he was dead and out. The fool had stood on a clearly marked landmine. His dad was not impressed.

My absolute favourite memory, though, is crawling next to my sister. She was carrying a bomb (our objective was to blow up the enemy base), writhing around in a patch of mud, and both of us were laughing hysterically. Then, our referee announced my sister had been shot and killed. I, instinctively, took cover behind her body! That's war. You weren't there, man. It was hilarious.

So, after a week of mayhem, we returned to Surrey weary but happy. And the verdict on Centerparcs? Brilliant. Just dont expect to relax, and book a holiday afterwards to recover!

My (not very) Superpower

There is a superhero living among you. Do not be alarmed, for it is I! Yes, I have a dual identity. No, I dont wear a cape. Yes, I use my powers for good. No, I dont look good in spandex. Move over Spiderman, stand aside Batman, for I am Mild Discomfort Boy!

Perhaps not the catchiest title, and my powers won't be making millions for Marvel Studios any time soon, but in todays crazy world, my abilities come in very handy. Allow me to explain.

If you need a climbing frame/horse/swing/slide for your children, call Mild Discomfort Boy. He will tolerate being clambered on, having his nose squeezed, his head stood on, and all manner of minor injuries in the name of entertaining little ones.

Going hiking? Off on holiday but have too much luggage? Take Mild Discomfort Boy. He will happily be your packhorse. Although he's not much of a sprinter, he can plod on and on for days.

Need help in the kitchen? Too much to do for Christmas or that party? Mild Discomfort Boy is here to help. He will work 14 hours a day, 6 days a week and always smile! He is also burnproof and resistant to cuts.

Need to change the lightbulb? Not with Mild Discomfort Boy around. He will happily sit in the dark. For ever.

Mild Discomfort Boy has a host of other attributes too, including the power to sit or sleep practically anywhere (including on rocks or in bushes), the power to endure bus journeys of up to 3 days without saying 'are we nearly there yet', the power to open bottles with his teeth at any social occasion (including bahmitzvahs) and the power to converse with the elderly for what seems like eternity.

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Grand Bazaar

A cacophony of noise, aromas and colour bombards the senses as you wander aimlessly through labyrinthine streets. Merchants shout impossible deals as you walk past to get your attention and reel you in. Make eye contact and you're doomed to make a purchase. Waiters Buzz past with trays full of glasses of Turkish chai - tea - that seem to defy gravity as they weave between the crowds not spilling a drop. Small mountains of spices can be purchased around every corner and their smell is intoxicating. Rugs and carpets of all shapes and sizes - each one a masterfully woven unique piece of artistry - decorate the walls and floors. Antique trinkets and temptations lurk around every corner, and one gets the feeling that you have stepped from modernity into the world of Scheherezade and the Arabian Nights.

This, of course, is Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Once a major hub on the Silk Road, it is place where business has been done for centuries and the act of selling has been honed into something of an art. In recent years, tourists have been irresistibly drawn into this wondrous place, looking for bargains, entertainment and a glimpse of the past. As I was to find, however, this place is not without its pitfalls.

We had come here to purchase a backgammon board, and immediately upon entering the place were overwhelmed. Statistics put the scope of the Bazaar into context: over 3000 shops spread over 60 streets, catering for almost half a million customers per day. This is one of the busiest venues in the entire world, and you can buy almost anything. Lamps, furniture, designer clothes, fake designer clothes, fake fake designer clothes, Turkish delight, toys, jewellry, books, hummous! Imagine if was pulled out of the internet and its contents dumped in a giant maze, and you have some idea of the chaotic brilliance of the place.

Anyhoo, I digress. We were hunting for backgammon boards. Backgammon is wildly popular in Turkey and the rest of the Middle-East, and with good reason. Sat at a cafe with a friend, playing this ancient game (50% luck, 50% skill) and supping tea whilst watching the world go by is a great way to pass the time. Thus, what better place to buy a decent board than the infamous Bazaar?

It wasn't long before we were lured into a cramped shop stuffed with treasures by a typically charismatic Turk. He gave us a glass of chai each whilst making small talk and showing us various backgammon boards. No mention of a price. I, being English, was too polite to ask. He, being a merchant well versed in this ritual, was softening us up. Alarm bells!

Eventually we got on to the subject of payment. It is a kind of ritual in Turkey that when a seller names his price, it is too high. It is the part of the buyer in this pantomime to then act shocked and state a price that is too low. If all goes well both parties will meet somewhere in the middle. However, if the merchant knows you covet something you are in trouble. It is, however, incredibly difficult to act like you don't desire something that you really want. In these circumstances, the most powerful weapon in the buyer's arsenal is what I call the 'disinterested eyebrow flick and walk away.' My mother-in-law is a master of this, and often barters merchants down to prices I can only dream of. Unfortunately she was not present and I possess none of the aforementioned skills.

Needless to say, we agreed a price for a beautiful Syrian board that was reasonable, when things took a turn for the bizarre. I was challenged to a game of backgammon. If I won, the board would be heavily discounted (he would still make a profit im sure). If he won, I had to buy something else. Moron that I am, I accepted. More tea was brought out and the game began.

He was a skilled salesman but a poor backgammon player. I felt my confidence rising. I was playing well and the dice were on my side. Sensing defeat (and monetary loss) my opponent played his trump card. His son, who had been watching the shopfront, was summoned and became his advisor. He was good. Suddenly the tables were turned, and as so often happens in backgammon, the dice seemed to turn on me too. A stream of 1s and 2s. I tried to enlist the help of my advisor Natasha, but the merchant quickly snapped that that was cheating. He had the home advantage, and I realised I was playing a game I was never going to win.

Upon my defeat we purchased a tea set. 6 glass tea cups decorated with blue and gold. 'Good price, good price,' we were told. We said our goodbyes and stumbled back into the hubbub of the Bazaar. 5 minutes later we walked past a store that had an identical teaset for a fraction of the price. We had been well and truly swindled! Red-faced with indignation we tried to backtrack to the store and give this Turkish Del-Boy a piece of our mind. It was a hopeless endeavour. The Grand Bazaar is a maze, and we would never find him again.

I still have the tea-set, gathering dust in a cupboard, and whenever I see it I recall my folly with a grimace. The backgammon board, however, has pride of place in the living room and has hosted many a game in which I did emerge the victor.