Me in Hats

Soft Bears, Hard Bottles

or What I Brought Back from My Scottish Holiday

As some of you will know, I have - since the mid-1990s - been working my way through a book called The Malt Whisky File, trying to sample the produce of each of the distilleries listed. This quest has gone in phases: before, during and shortly after a trip to the West of Scotland in 1997, I cleared almost half the list, but then there was quite a long gap, with only an occasional extra one. Things came into focus again with my 50th birthday, when my sister was kind enough to send me ten miniatures to help the cause and rekindled my interest, whilst also highlighting two things: on the one hand, I was much nearer finishing the list than I had realised, but on the other, brands of whisky I had been counting on as potentially available had either shot up in price or seemingly disappeared altogether. Time was clearly of the essence in tracking down as many of the remaining whiskies as possible.
[Cut for length] The opening of Boisdale, Canary Wharf, stopping off in Edinburgh on the way back from the Tolkien Society's Glasgow AGM and my discovery of The Britannia pub near Guy's Hospital all helped a lot (as did buying miniature bottles online), but there were still some tricky ones...
Another of my idiosyncrasies is that I don't tend to take holidays just as holidays: I need an excuse for going somewhere (for example: without my interest in Sherlock Holmes, I would probably never have gone to Switzerland). The fact that my internet research turned up references to one rare whisky in Aberdeen and another in Dornoch convinced me that now was the time for my third trip to Scotland, so I set about booking it.
Ironically, it was on St George's Day that I pulled out of King's Cross Station to the strains of the Get Carter theme on my MP3-player (for those who don't know: in the film, the music plays as Michael Caine's character takes a train journey on the same route). Booking weeks in advance had meant that I got a 1st Class ticket for roughly half the price of a Standard Class one bought on the day and it really is worth the upgrade, particularly on East Coast Trains, who have given me more of the feeling of being treated like a VIP than any other train company (so far, at least). Aside from the advantage for such a long journey of having a reserved seat with plenty of leg-room, the friendly train crew provide table service of drinks and food: I had at least one cup of freshly-ground coffee per hour, two rounds of sandwiches (hot food was available, but I didn't fancy what was on offer), a glass of wine, an orange juice and a can of Coke - all included in the (cheap) ticket price. The only real problem for me, as a long-time smoker, was having to go without a cigarette for seven hours, so I took some nicotine chewing gum, which turned out not to be as good as I'd hoped, but just barely satisfied my nicotine cravings (I'll be exploring the possibilities of another potential solution soon).
I won't bother describing the scenery en route - it's really something you have to see for yourself. Suffice to say that I was suitably impressed by my first views of the East coast of Scotland.
Considering the weather we have had so far this year, I was really lucky: we passed through bands of sunshine and of rain, but it was fine when I arrived in Aberdeen shortly after 5 p.m. I had booked a B&B not far from the station and, apart from walking past it once before working out how the house numbers worked (oops!), it didn't take me all that long to get booked in, so I could explore the place without the encumbrance of luggage. I like Aberdeen: nice architecture and not too big.
At this point, I'd like to say that almost everybody I met in Scotland was friendly and charming. However, there are always exceptions and I met my first two loonies during my walk about town: a woman who was determined to give me directions, even though I wasn't looking for anything in particular, and a man who thought I was a rabbi and was quite disappointed when I told him I wasn't!
When planning my holiday, I had decided to book a restaurant in each location, to give me a good chance of at least one enjoyable meal (taking pot luck for the rest), and in Aberdeen that was Cafe Boheme, which I can heartily recommend, unless you are on a budget (a recurring theme on this trip was spending far more than I had intended!). I had pigeon breast for the starter, duck for the main course - accompanied by a very nice pinot noir red wine - and a multi-faceted dessert of mini tiramisu, chocolate mousse, coffee, meringue and a macaroon - with a sweet, white dessert wine - all rounded off with a coffee and liqueur. I left feeling replete and contented and was back in the B&B in time to watch some TV before an early night (for me) after what had, after all, been a long day.
I don't always manage to get up in time for breakfast when I'm away (especially as some B&Bs have particularly cruel early hours of serving), but I did this time and it was very nice too. Then it was time to set off for the main object of my visit.
The Grill is something of a legend, partly because it has changed little since the 1920s and partly due to the truly impressive range of whiskies available. It is also not as narrow or dark as reviews had led me to believe - perhaps due to the exceptional luck I had with the weather (and starting mid-morning), it looked positively bright and airy.
Anyway, after a fruit juice to lubricate the pipes, I soon got down to business, starting with the rare one I hadn't been able to find anywhere else. As with most of these "ticking-them-off-the-list" whiskies, it was quite nice, but unlikely to change my Top 30. Over the next six hours, I tasted some 14 whiskies (interspersed with soft drinks and snacks) and discussed my "quest" with people on both sides of the bar, including the boss, who had built up the collection of bottles with drinkers like me in mind.
I could go through my tasting notes for all of the whiskies, but one thing we all agreed on was that tastes differ, even to the extent that different people taste the same whisky differently (the boss-man had a copy of the same book as me and neither he nor I agreed with all the tasting notes in it), so that might not be much use, and not everyone would enjoy quietly sitting, sipping whisky and chatting as much as me, so I'm not sure I can convey what a marvellous time I had.
With nothing booked in the way of an evening meal, I just wandered up and down Union Street until a place called the Filling Station caught my eye and I stopped off there for steak and chips - something nice and simple was just what I needed.
Amazingly, I managed breakfast again, but then just gently faffed about until it was time for my train to Elgin. During that journey, I had a very pleasant chat with the passenger sitting opposite and was in danger of missing my stop, but it all worked out all right in the end. Elgin is not that large and the B&B would have been in fairly easy walking distance, but I got a cab to avoid having to map-read whilst dragging my suitcase. Once I'd settled in, I walked along for a look around town.
The highlight of my visit was supposed to be shopping at the renowned establishment of Gordon & MacPhail, purveyors of fine whiskies since 1895, but it turned out to be rather a disappointment: they didn't have most of the things I was looking for and the staff didn't seem very interested in trying to help me. However, they did have one bottle left of the limited release 1973 Ladyburn and I decided to snap it up while I had the chance, rather than risk the vagaries of the postal system for a potentially cheaper one from somewhere else. It was far more money than I should have been spending on a bottle of whisky for drinking, but it could have been worse: the rare one at The Grill would have been almost three times as much and the one at Dornoch Castle nearly four! Both of those pale into insignificance, however, compared with one whisky I saw at G&M's shop for £15,050.00...
My booked meal was at Pizzeria Toscana. I don't know if it was just that I was not in such a good mood, or that my system hadn't recovered from the delights of Aberdeen, but I struggled to enjoy it and find myself unsure how to rate the place: I can't really recommend it, but wouldn't want to do them a disservice in marking them down (it was a bit disconcerting, though, to see a couple of the staff sending text messages when they could have been serving).
Next morning, I didn't fancy breakfast, so had a bit of a lie-in instead (as I've mentioned: this is quite normal for me during most holidays, but was a one-off for this particular expedition). This meant that I was back on good form when I trundled my (now significantly more valuable!) luggage the officially 0.9 mile distance out to the Glen Moray distillery for a very enjoyable tour and tasting. They have a scheme whereby you can fill and label your own bottle from a specially-selected single cask, so I had to take them up on that and I couldn't resist getting one of their branded teddy bears too!
A taxi ride to the station started me off on the most complicated leg of my journey: train to Inverness and then coach to Dornoch. Luckily, apart from getting caught in a hail shower in the coach queue, this went as well as I could have hoped (I don't really like coach travel, but it seemed to make sense when I was booking it) and I got to the hotel shortly before four o'clock.
I think officially Dornoch Castle Hotel only has three AA stars, but I am pretty sure that is just limited by things like small size and that the architecture cannot incorporate lifts - it certainly felt luxurious to me and I would give them five stars if I could! In fact, I was a bit of a "cheap date": I only had one cup of instant from their extensive array of tea, coffee and hot chocolate making facilities, half of one day's worth of the little luxury chocolates and I didn't touch the complimentary sherry at all (though mainly to avoid clashing with the whisky I knew I'd be drinking). On the dresser was a teddy bear in a hotel bathrobe, with a label saying that he was called Henry and could be purchased from reception, so I sat my Glen Moray bear (now named Iain) next to him, so they could have a chat while I was otherwise occupied.
Given the complications of getting there, I had planned to make things as easy for myself as possible, so I was leaving the serious whisky tasting and meal out until the next day. This meant dining in the hotel and I went for an early sitting, since it had been a long time since lunch (and that hadn't amounted to much). For my starter, I had razor clams (that had just been added to the menu that day), then a main course of venison (the chef was apparently delighted that someone had finally ordered it rare; if anything, I'd have preferred it rarer still) and for dessert Earl Grey tea panacotta and a chocolate eclair. All absolutely scrumptious and as haute a cuisine as one would expect from such a place. I did let the side down a bit trying out a new cocktail recipe: with Kahlua and Archers, the Kahlua gets completely lost, but with Tia Maria and Archers, the balance is spot on!
Before dinner, I had already started chatting with Simon and Phil, the two brothers responsible for stocking the amazing whiskies behind the bar, and I'm afraid I took up far too much of their valuable time during my stay, but they did seem to enjoy having a guest who was almost as enthusiastic as they are. I was still holding off on trying the really expensive one, as I wanted to be sure I was in the right state to appreciate it properly, but the night was yet young, so I did have a few wee drams. In fact, the first was one of the best two all weekend. The next one, though...
This brings me back to the "tastes differ" phenomenon I have already mentioned and, just this once, I will share my notes: Nose - car upholstery, with a hint of dashboard; Taste - oily, claggy, sour; Finish - mercifully short... Luckily, having seen the funny faces I pulled forcing myself to finish that one, the brothers knew what not to recommend and everything else went well.
After another fairly early night, I was up for breakfast again (much easier anyway, with their more sensible times) and went for a walk around the lovely little town, but then had a siesta before buckling down in the bar again. As TV shows with a live audience often have a "warm up act", I didn't go immediately for the real rarity, but started off with a Littlemill, which almost persuaded me to add that distillery to my Top 30 (but my notes on the other version I had tried outweighed that). Then came the main event, which was nicer for me than the one in Aberdeen, but not as nice as the Ladyburn (hooray! I hadn't spent a fortune on the wrong one!).
Several more drams later, it was time for my booked meal for this locale, but I left the hotel with the potential chance of something special later, if I was in a fit state when I got back...
I think it would have helped me to know in advance that the proprietor of Luigi's has what Conan Doyle might have described as a pawky sense of humour. However, after a short while thinking I should have eaten at the hotel again, things got back on track with a salmon and crayfish terrine, served with nicely toasted ciabatta, a marvellous monkfish main and a very rich walnut treacle tart.
Back at the Castle, I did take them up on the very special offer, about which I am sworn to secrecy! I can say, though, that I was able to add what had been a borderline distillery to my Top 30.
Next morning, after another hearty breakfast and settling my hefty bill (including the price of Henry Bear!), I was waiting for the departure time of my coach when Simon and Phil's father, Colin, happened to mention he was headed in that direction and I was able to cadge a lift, which was brilliant. On the way, we were able to chat about all sorts of things, including the lads' ever-expanding whisky business, before he dropped me in Inverness well before I had expected to arrive.
Here I encountered my third loony: a woman ranting about Muslims. I said I was a Taoist and that Middle-eastern religion and politics were a bit of a mystery to me and she left me alone.
My faith in humanity was quickly restored, however, by the proprietors of the Rossmount B&B: they picked me up from the coach station when I arrived and drove me to the railway station when I left and gave me a photocopied map of Inverness, on which they marked all the best bars! And all of that exceptional service from the cheapest place I stayed at all week!
The Castle Tavern is probably great if you like beer, but didn't seem much cop for anything else, so I didn't stay there long. The next recommendation was "the piano bar" at the Glenmoriston Hotel - I couldn't see (or even hear) a piano anywhere, but maybe they used to have one. Unfortunately, a large group of what I would peg as Guardian readers had ensconced themselves right in front of the bar, which made things rather awkward, and nobody was serving when I got there, but eventually things did improve. One of the downfalls of being so far through my whisky quest is that a list that would have seemed very impressive and extensive some years ago has little new to offer my jaded palate, so I only had a couple. I also felt a bit sorry for the young barman (how patronizing of me!): he is certainly enthusiastic and may end up in the same class as the knowledgeable folk at The Grill and Dornoch Castle, but he still has a long way to go at the moment and may not be helped by the pricing structure at his current establishment. On the whole, though, I am glad I went there.
I decided then to go to the other end of the map, so to speak, and work my way back, as the restaurant I had booked was roughly mid-way, but (not for the first time) my schemes went somewhat agley: I had so much fun at Blackfriars Highland Pub that I stayed there until just before dinner-time and went back there shortly afterwards. Among the delights on offer were a range of Thistly Cross ciders (including a strawberry-flavoured one!) and the ingredients for several of my cocktail recipes, which I then inflicted on a couple of the locals and a Swiss tourist.
The guys at Dornoch Castle had warned me that Mustard Seed could be somewhat variable, but someone else had recommended it and there wasn't much else open on a Sunday, so I had booked it. As with Toscana's in Elgin, I am loath to say: "don't go there", but I did not enjoy my time at Mustard Seed. In fact, I sent back my main course and left in a huff, stopping off at a Chinese takeaway to fill up later - draw your own conclusions...
After my last breakfast of the holiday (including haggis!), it was time to head for home. This journey was less of an ordeal than the one up had been, though, as I had to change trains in Edinburgh, splitting the journey into "bite-size chunks" and allowing me to use some East Coast Trains reward points to spend an hour in the First Class Lounge. Having said that, it did take over eleven hours total.
As I've mentioned, I spent far more than I should have done, but I had such a marvellous time that I think it was worth it. If you like drinking whisky (or even think there is a remote possibility that you might), then I can recommend a pilgrimage to The Grill in Aberdeen and/or Dornoch Castle Hotel - you don't have to have any of the rare, expensive ones to enjoy it: there are lots of nice reasonably-priced ones too and the experts will be able to find something to your taste. Even if you don't drink booze, Scotland has lots of lovely places to visit and stay and (most of) the locals are friendly.
So, what did I bring back? Soft bears, Iain and Henry, hard bottles, Ladyburn and Glen Moray, and a whole host of memories to cherish.
Rowley Birkin QC

Belated Birthday Treat

I have to try and type this before the euphoria wears off, so apologies if I go a bit loopy at times...

I had intended to enjoy a decadent evening at Boisdale of Canary Wharf on my birthday itself, but they were all booked up with a wedding reception, so I had to postpone until the following Friday. Ho, hum!

[The gory details]It certainly is a very impressive establishment (with prices to match) and almost all the members of staff are very friendly and enthusiastic, but they are a bit amateurish when it comes to knowing when to appear (or not) and the service is agonisingly slow at times. They also seem to have trouble with maths: they miscalculated my bill the first time and, when they 'corrected' it, the overall bill went down, but the service charge (a percentage, so it should be pro rata) went up! Did they really charge me an extra 2.26% for making them redo their sums?

Anyway, I had booked a table as early as possible, as it is not far from the office, but still arrived early, so I went to their oyster bar to start tasting whiskies before dinner (as I had, indeed, intended). However, it took them so long to serve me a 1976 Banff (very nice, as it happens) that I only had time for one before going back up to the restaurant. Still, when I explained, they were kind enough to let me sit at the bar for the next one and a half, before looking at a food menu, so it wasn't too bad.

As I was so early, I was the only one at the bar and had a chance to chat about whiskies with the quite knowledgeable Antipodean barmaid, whilst ordering and then savouring a 1973 Ladyburn. Wow! Just... just... wow! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most complex, sumptuous whisky I have ever had (including the legendary Black Bowmore). And at that price, it damned well should have been! I'm not really any good at the Jilly Goolden/Oz Clarke style of tasting note, so I won't even attempt to describe it, except to say that it was subtle and smooth, rather than punchy, with layers of flavour succeeding one another as I got further down the glass. Unfortunately, I could only afford one (and a small one at that!); in fact, if sense had prevailed over obsession, I shouldn't even really have afforded that one. But, hey!

I made it last as long as I dared and then switched tack completely to something that didn't even exist when I compiled my original list: Kilchoman, the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years (as they like to boast). What a difference! Now, this is probably going to sound really cruel and doesn't do the drink justice at all, but the only way I can think of to describe it is like sucking a butterscotch with a burning tyre round your neck! It has a higher level of peat smoke flavour/aroma than just about anything else I have encountered (including cask strength Laphroaig), but has the sort of sweetness I would only expect from something made on Speyside. Weird, but in a good way. It was very young (they haven't been distilling for long), but I expect great things from them in future.

Knowing from bitter personal experience the dangers of mixing grape with grain, I decided to stick with whiskies to accompany the meal (which I finally got around to ordering). The mini roast haggis (with the best neeps and tatties I have ever had) came in a package deal with a dram of Johnnie Walker Black Label, which reminded me why I normally avoid blends...

For the main course, I went for a large plate of (delicious) langoustines and, as I had mentioned Cragganmore three times already, a glass of Speyside's finest. To accompany one scoop each of vanilla, chocolate and banana (!) ice cream, I had a succulent Cardhu and then (after the kerfuffle over the bill) finished things off with an Irish coffee (I told them the should have done a Scotch coffee instead, but it was close enough).

Overall, a very enjoyable night out (though it took at least half an hour longer than it should have), though it would have been better with some company. If anyone would like me to guide them through the largest selection of whiskies in London (if not the entire UK - including Scotland!) and could at least partially help out with the finances...

Slainte mhath!
Me in Hats

Stetsons are Cool!

When I was still at school, I once saw a genuine Stetson close up in a gentlemen's outfitters and was most impressed, but I wasn't really a wearer of hats in those days (school caps don't count!). When I became one (shortly before departing for university), I went for more of a "Sam Spade" look and with a modest budget at that. I blame two characters for my current interest in cowboy hats: The Doctor in "Doctor Who" and Raylan Givens in "Justified".

When Matt Smith said: "Bow-ties are cool!" I thought: "maybe, but I think I'll just include one in formal wear/Holmesian costume". When he said: "Fezzes are cool!" I just laughed - of course they aren't!* When, during a behind-the-scenes documentary, he opened a Christmas present and said: "Oh my God, it IS a badger! Aw, Dude, that's cool!" and then terrorized his co-star with his new glove-puppet, I had to buy one for myself (thanks, Amazon Marketplace!). That got me thinking back to the beginning of the series and a scene filmed in Utah in which he said: "I wear a Stetson now; Stetsons are cool!" I'd bought the cool badger, should I buy the cool hat too? (Even though he only wore it for a few minutes, before it was shot off his head and never mentioned again.)

Now, I haven't managed to see enough of "Justified" to know if I'm a fan of the series or not (it has an inconvenient time-slot and there are so many other programmes I'm trying to keep up with at the moment that I haven't watched it 'on-demand'), but I am a fan of Timothy Olyphant's hat. I've read what Elmore Leonard has said about it being the wrong style, but I don't think an "Open Road" would have worked with that actor on that show. Stetsons certainly are cool, at least when worn by Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens.

Anyway, I thought I'd do a little research (I ought to know by now what that means!) and rather fell for the 4X "Stone Portage" - unfortunately rather pricey as hats go (though there are far more expensive ones available, for those with deep pockets) and I had to suffer shipping costs and import duty as well. I did try to talk myself out of it, or at least stall until another foolish headgear purchase arrived (of which, perhaps, more later?), but I got a rebate from my electricity supplier and couldn't resist. As with a lot of parcels, collecting it did involve a trip to an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere (well, Beddington, which is much the same thing!), but it turned up really quickly, fits perfectly and is just generally marvellous (though I am still getting used to how wide the brim is and keep knocking it on door frames etc.). I was a little anxious about possible reactions the first time I wore it to the shops, but I needn't have worried: being this close to London means that what might be considered odd items of headgear (or, indeed, clothing) hardly get a second glance.

*Whilst I still don't think I want to wear a fez myself, I was fortunate enough to get the incredibly helpful and talented miss_next to make me one for my cuddly orang-utan!

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King of the Nogs

But it wasn't really like that...

Something has been bugging me recently: the use of real/historical people in fictional works. It had bothered me before, but not nearly to the same extent. Now, I acknowledge that the subject had been brought to the forefront of my mind by a couple of novels featuring J.R.R. Tolkien and a fantasy story with William Tell as a major character, but it only really became problematic when I started reading "The Three Musketeers" (something I had been meaning to do for a long time).

When I saw Michael York and company romping around to "Swords for your supper" some years ago, I just enjoyed it as a fun story. The 1993 version prompted me to take a cursory glance at the synopsis of the written version, but little more. However, a combination of occasional boring 'down time' and the proliferation of the internet have seen me researching all sorts of things and one of these forays included looking up a book I had seen in the pre-1950 'stack' of Exeter Central Library: "Memoires de M. d'Artagnan" and then tracing the historical characters involved. The more I read, the more it disturbed me.

Dumas' book starts in 1625, with the eighteen-year-old D'Artagnan travelling to Paris and meeting up with three older musketeers, with whom he has various adventures over the next thirty years or so, involving events like the siege of La Rochelle and people like the Duke of Buckingham.

In reality, Charles Ogier de Batz Castelmore, Seigneur d'Artagnan, was still living at home with his parents (as a teenager) when La Rochelle was besieged and Buckingham assassinated - he only became a musketeer in 1632, four years after those events. Then Armand de Sillegue d'Athos d'Autevielle and Henri d'Aramitz, who were four and nine years younger respectively, only joined up eight years later and Isaac de Porthau, six years d'Artagnan's junior, came into the regiment two years after that. As Athos was killed in 1643, they only served together for a year or so. In the books, Porthos is the first of the group to die, but his historical counterpart outlived them all.

Now, you may ascribe the differences to Dumas following the lead of the book I mentioned above (by one Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras) or to artistic licence (in one or both authors), but then we have by contrast "The Count of Monte Cristo", in which Dumas retold a real (to an extent) historical story and changed the names of all the characters, the opposite of what he had done with the musketeers! Admittedly, the revenge story had happened much more recently, but there had already been at least one book on the subject, so Dumas needn't have worried about sparing the feelings of anyone connected with the case. Why such different approaches? And does it matter?

Surely, having fictional characters (even if they are clearly thinly-veiled copies of real people) allows the author to do what he likes with the plot, without fear of contradiction (except on the grounds of lack of internal consistency). Using historical characters might be tenable if the story is specifically a "what if...?" scenario, but otherwise? I'd really like to know what the rest of you think.
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Me in Hats

Three Parties, Two Dinners and a Quiz - Part Three

After all this time, it may not be worth posting this, but I hate to leave things unfinished... We had got to the point where I was organising a second absinthe party:

This time, we used the venue that had originally been suggested: the kitchen of a rented cottage, which was made easier by the fact that one of the people who was keen on the idea was one of those doing the renting. As we had less space to work with, I didn't bother with the fountain this time, relying instead on my auto-verseur a bascule or see-saw dripper to prepare a single glass at a time, which was then passed around the assembled company for tasting. I had given away the rest of the Louche, but we still had quite a lot left in the two full-sized bottles and several of the tubes, including one containing Mansinthe, made to Marilyn Manson's own specifications and with a bottle strength of 66.6% ABV!

Once again, I ran through the history of absinthe and tried to answer as many questions as I could, something that was made slightly more daunting by the fact that our erudite guest speaker and her husband were there. Of course, we also chatted about other things (and I think Tolkien may have got the occasional mention!) and we all seemed to have as good a time as the night before, with a similarly late finish.

Strangely enough, I didn't get up in time for breakfast again, but surfaced around lunchtime and checked out The Swan Inn. Now, I must admit I was under a misapprehension: when I had looked up accommodation before, it had seemed to have nearly the highest prices in town and, with that in mind, I was seriously underwhelmed. However, on checking again I find that it has recently changed management and now has much more reasonable prices, so I shouldn't be over-critical. At least that is one more ticked off the list of local watering-holes...

After the events recounted in "Romance in the Cotswolds", I ended up back in the Bell Inn, chatting with Malcolm (now a local resident) and the staff about absinthe, cocktails and special events. I was told that they had a quiz night on that very day and agreed to come back after dinner.

Last time I stayed at the Redesdale Arms, I rather got swept along with other people's plans and didn't manage to try one particular menu item; this time, I had determined to have at least one major meal there without interference. Sadly, the item in question was no longer on the menu, so I'll never know how good it was, but there was still plenty to choose from. As it happened, they had got hold of some (early?) Vale of Evesham asparagus, so I had that (with a poached egg and Parmesan shavings) as a starter from their 'specials', along with some very nice bread with dipping sauces. For the main course, I went for the Roasted Gressingham Duck Breast and they kindly let me have peas instead of the spring greens (as at least some of you will know: I hate brassicas!). As excellent as those two courses were, however, they pale into insignificance against the dessert: Iced Malibu & Coconut Parfait with Strawberry marmalade. I wish I could find the right words to describe how truly scrumptious that was - all the elements were fantastic in their own right, but the combination was absolutely amazing!

Anyway, I just had a nice amount of time to calm down again before setting off for the Bell once more and taking my place as a 'ringer' (!) on Malcolm's quiz team. There were three rounds: a sheet of 20 pictures of celebrities (of various sorts, from George Clooney to Ernest Hemingway) to identify and two sets each of 40 questions that were read out. As usual with quizzes, it helps to have a varied team, especially as there are some subjects I know practically nothing about, and this time I was lucky with the mix: overall we got 67/100, which may not sound like much, but there were some very hard questions and our runners-up only got 49/100, so we won by a respectable margin. Of course, there was also quite a lot of drinking and chatting between rounds and afterwards, especially when the owner returned and gave us a round on the house!

As you may have noticed, up till then I had managed to miss all the breakfasts, but I made up for it on my final morning, having a truly full English, including black pudding and mushrooms! After that, I just took things easy until what I thought was a suitable time to go and catch a train. However, I hadn't realised that the train company effectively had a lunch break: there was a two hour gap, instead of the usual one hour one, so I trundled my suitcase back to the Bell to kill some more time. Still, even with quite a leisurely journey home, I was back here by early evening and I had sensibly booked the Tuesday off work as well, to give myself some proper recovery time.

Having taken this long to write such a short piece (admittedly in instalments between other things), I can appreciate why it took JRRT 17 years to finish The Lord of the Rings - you have my apologies for trying your patience so much! I hope this will serve to convey what a marvellous time I had and encourage you to try both the AGM weekend (wherever it may be) and Moreton-in-Marsh yourselves whenever you get the chance (if you haven't already).
Me in Hats

Three Parties, Two Dinners and a Quiz - Part Two

Just in case you thought I'd given up on this...

After a while, we all drifted over to the White Hart Royal for the official Innmoot. Some of the others had gone there first and we were joined by quite a few more as the evening progressed. Some people had already eaten; others of us had something there, on an ad hoc basis. A performance by folk group Tinkerscuss had been arranged and quite a lot of people went to attend that, but I was not really in a musical mood and had heard them during my previous visit, so it wasn't as if I was missing out and I therefore remained in the bar, as did a number of others.

Now, you will know from my other writings that I have recently been dabbling in absinthe drinking and had discussed it with some of the others (especially after I bought the Secretary a symbolic spoon, which she wanted to try out 'for real'), so I had brought my paraphernalia with me, but we hadn't managed to sort out the arrangements properly, despite e-mail exchanges and a chat earlier in the evening. As a sort of last resort, I suggested that I could check with my own hotel, to see if we could host something there and it actually turned out to be a very good idea indeed: they allotted me an L-shaped area in one of the rooms off the bar and we agreed a suitable 'corkage' fee (as it was my own booze that was to be consumed). I went back to the White Hart Royal to explain the situation and the Chairman accompanied me back to the Redesdale Arms to look after the tables while I collected the relevant bits of luggage from my room.

As I unpacked things, the others who were interested and not otherwise occupied gradually joined us. I placed my fountain (which the barman kindly filled with iced water for me) in the centre and laid out plastic 'glasses', spoons, sugar and the various bottles and tubes and began my first large-scale demonstration as a professeur d'absinthe. I hadn't packed a measure, but one of the tubes (in which I had brought a sample of Jade V.S. 1898) luckily held exactly 30ml, so I poured that first and we were able to use it as a guide for most of the evening. I then showed how the absinthe is poured into the glass, the spoon placed over the top and the sugar cubes put in position on the spoon, before the whole assemblage is placed under one of the spigots (or taps/faucets, depending on your preferred terminology) and the flow of water is turned on and then regulated back to a slow drip, after which the louche can be watched developing: as the alcohol (in which the essential oils of the herbal distillations is dissolved) becomes diluted with the water (in which those oils are not soluble), complex oil trails develop in the so-far transparent liquid and it gradually fills with what look like billowing clouds and becomes almost milky. In fact, the first absinthe I plied people with is called Louche, after this very process. I thought it would be a good one to start with as it is a 'proper' absinthe, made by a reputable French producer, but is not extreme either in flavour, alcohol level or price.

After this initial round (with the party/audience gradually increasing to about eight), I went on to the La Fee XS Suisse, which is somewhat more refined (and expensive!) and starts off clear, rather than the green that most people expect. I'm not sure if it was then, or the following night (or both) that I explained that green absinthe was more popular in its early days as a herbal tonic and throughout the time it was freely available everywhere, with the better manufacturers using a 'second maturation' to infuse the clear distillate with green from added leaves of the constituent herbs (and less reputable ones saving money by using such unsavoury additions as copper sulphate!), but the clear variety (though always available) became much more popular after the various bans, as it made the drink more difficult for the authorities to recognise as absinthe - something that led to the name Clandestine being applied to it.

Almost everyone seemed to be enjoying it, so I then progressed to Lemercier Absinthe 72: made by the same firm as Louche, but with more alcohol and a more complex mixture of herbs (including gentian, I believe). A couple of suppliers sell tubes containing small quantities so that you can try a number of different varieties before committing to the cost of a full bottle and (as alluded to above) I had brought some of those along, so the Jade finally got louched and passed around and so did a couple of others, including Montmartre, which has an added flavour of cinnamon! Some of us also had additional glasses from the full-size bottles and this, with talk of absinthe and completely unrelated topics, took us up to about two o'clock and time to disperse.

At least three of the hotel staff had expressed an interest/shown curiosity during all of this, so I donated the remains of the Louche and one of my spoons to them, so they could try it for themselves (when off duty, of course!).

I got up about half-past-eight the next morning, decided I wasn't hungry for breakfast and didn't have anything much I particularly wanted to do until later and so went back to bed until lunch-time!

Then it was time for what was becoming my habitual trip round the three bars, with occasional chats with other 'stragglers', until it was time for the AGM proper. This was held upstairs at the White Hart Royal and I'm sure you'll hear about it elsewhere. The main discussions were about publicity and finance, but it was comparatively 'tame' and short, as AGMs go.

After that, there was more 'barfly' time and time to change for the Annual Dinner. The food was rather nice, though not spectacularly so (especially considering the price), and the company even more so: I was sitting with someone I had met briefly a couple of times, some people I had not yet met and someone I had known for a long time, but hadn't seen recently. The highlight, however, was undoubtedly the speech - one of the best I can remember hearing - by Dimitra Fimi, explaining the trials, tribulations and triumphs of her progress as a Tolkien academic.

During after-dinner drinks, several people expressed regret that they had missed my absinthe party the night before... so I organised another one!
Me in Hats

Three Parties, Two Dinners and a Quiz - Part One

It is taking me longer to write this than I had hoped, but I don't want to get too out of date, so here is the first instalment and more will follow when I manage it.

April 2011 is turning out to be a very busy month for me (and it isn't over yet), but (so far, at least) in the nicest possible way. In one of my earlier write-ups, I mentioned meeting a very friendly couple in Purl, London and - most surprisingly - not only did I not scare them off forever, but they actually contacted me to say that they would be spending a night in London (on their way to Paris) and would I like to have a few drinks with them again? As it turned out, this was going to be the night before the Tolkien Society AGM weekend, meaning I wouldn't have to get up early for work, so I booked us a table at Bourne & Hollingsworth and gave them directions.

I was lucky enough to get all my work done at the office by just after five o'clock and (for once) there were no delays on the Tube, so I actually reached the venue rather early and was glad I had brought my Sony Reader with me. Now, I must confess that I am rather short-sighted (even with my glasses on) and not always good at remembering what people look like (especially if I've only met them once, after a few drinks...), so I was rather counting on the fact that they would recognise me and, a few cigarettes and most of a chapter of "Against the Grain" later, such was indeed the case. We were still a few minutes early, but I ushered them down the stairs and into the bar and we were shown to our table (after the staff had dislodged a couple of people who hadn't booked - the place is very popular!). I hadn't wanted to put B&H to the trouble of fishing out their absinthe fountain, so I had brought my auto-verseur à bascule, but they seem to have acquired a mini fountain since my last visit, so I was able to louche successive glasses of Pernod 68 both ways! Olwyn started on the cocktails list straight away (Rob, perhaps sensibly, stuck with lager) and I dove in after my absinthes. I won't go into detail, but there were some very nice concoctions, including one in a jam-jar for sharing! We chatted about all sorts of things and I had a great evening, without getting too drunk or being too late home (I hope the same was true for them and that they managed to catch their Eurostar in the morning and enjoyed their time in Paris too).

The next morning, I felt fine (if a little tired) and so had less of a lie-in than expected, whilst still leaving myself plenty of time to pack. Now, I've said this is a busy month and I didn't realise it at the time, but I'd mixed up the train times for two trips. This dawned on me as I was sitting on a train at East Croydon station and decided to check my connections: it was the wrong train! Luckily, I had time to get off and change platforms, but because of this error I gave myself an extra-long wait at Reading (which seems to be a bit of a tradition, so maybe it was my subconscious making me stick to the rules!). Even so, it was barely early evening when I arrived.

I'm sure I've said nice things about the Redesdale Arms Hotel before, but this stay has caused me to run out of superlatives and I'd like to award them six stars out of five or 12 points out of 10 if I could. The rooms I've stayed in (numbers 10 and 6 so far) have left a certain amount to be desired (though that may be due to the limitations of it being such an old building), or at least there are a couple of things I'd do differently if it were up to me, but it is still a very nice hotel in itself. What makes it stand out from the crowd is the friendliest, most helpful staff I have ever encountered anywhere: all of those who were still there from my previous visits recognised me immediately and, with the ones who have started since then, I built up such a rapport through the course of the weekend that it was like saying goodbye to old friends when I checked out.

Having settled in and had a snack and my first pint of cider of the weekend proper, I went over and had a quick look at the White Hart Royal (which was to be the main venue), but it was a little early for anyone else to be there, so next I went to The Bell Inn, which is the favoured watering-hole of the local Three-farthing Stone Smial and those who have visited Moreton before. Sure enough, a couple of them were already there and we were soon joined by some others. Now, I'm not going to name-check people generally speaking, partly because it saves me having to remember who was where at each stage and it also avoids the problems of not knowing names that I should, but we had a good mix of local smial members, TS committee members and (for want of a better term) unaffiliated Society members. Thus the carousing commenced!

Tune in next week (?) for another thrilling instalment...
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PB King

Romance in the Cotswolds

My write-up of last weekend is taking a while and this didn't really fit in with the rest of it, so...

For those readers not yet familiar with my pet wolf, Paddy Smith, I suppose I had better start by explaining how we met. Last August, I attended one of the Tolkien-inspired art exhibitions hosted by Andy Compton in Moreton-in-Marsh and, quite early on, happened to spot a slightly forlorn looking, but eminently cuddleable, wolf sitting on one of the trade stands in the downstairs part of the Redesdale Hall. Now, I may have been misinterpreting (he's a bit of an inscrutable chap), but I thought he was trying to convey: "Please rescue me - I don't really belong with these other items and, anyway, I'm being evicted from my real home soon" (well, I only gathered the last bit later, when I saw a notice in the relevant shop window saying that planning permission had been granted to turn it into yet another teashop...). I reckoned I had better not be too hasty, but thought (or did I say it out loud?): "If he's still there on Monday, I'd better take him home with me" - he was, and I did! (Before you ask: yes, I did compensate the people who had been looking after him up till then.)

When I found out that the 2011 Tolkien Society AGM was going to be held in Moreton-in-Marsh, I promised Paddy that I would take him on holiday with me, to see his old stomping grounds. I don't know if he really looked more cheerful when I said it (he can seem a bit grumpy at times) or if I just imagined it, but "Oi made a prahmiss, Mr Frowdow!", so off we went...

Now, as other pieces I intend to write will make clear, I was rather busy with other things on Friday and Saturday, so it wasn't until Sunday afternoon that I got the chance to take him for a little toddle around the town (although he had had a look out of the window, shortly after we arrived, and seemed quite happy to spend most of his time relaxing in the hotel). As it happened, there was a sort of crafts & antiques fair going on in the Redesdale Hall, so I explained why we were there to the stall-holders and he helped me buy a pen with a hand-turned wooden barrel. There weren't many stalls, though, and I was running out of cash, so we didn't stay there for long.

I thought I might introduce him to some other TS members, but it turned out they had either left already or simply weren't in when we called. However, on the way up the road we had passed the local chemists/pharmacy, which had an Easter-themed display in the window. The little chicks seemed to be admiring the ceiling or the (generally) good weather, but the cutest little lamb beamed the warmest of smiles straight at us... and suddenly Paddy looked all coy! It was love at first wuff!

I didn't want to scare the staff or other customers, so I took Paddy back to the hotel and told him to sit tight - I wouldn't be long. I was a bit worried that the shopkeepers might want to keep the sheep (she turned out to be older than I had first thought) until after Easter, or even longer, especially when I discovered that she was the only one in the whole shop, but luckily they were happy to fetch her out of the window for me, for a very modest handler's fee.

There happens to be a dedicated toy shop in the same row of businesses and I thought it would be churlish of me not to check that out too and it turned out I was right: a soft, golden fur-ball (I think he may be a distant cousin of Benson O'Hedgehogs) practically launched himself off a shelf at me, with a sort of "Me, too! Me, too!" eagerness (in fact, he was so boisterous, I had to pick him up off the floor a couple of times - he seemed to be trying to rush out of the shop without permission!) and the shopkeeper had trouble persuading him into a bag for me to carry him in. Still, it wasn't long before I got back to the hotel.

Paddy seemed bashfully pleased when I let Shari the Sheep sit next to him, but a bit non-plussed when GanleyTM the Gund(R) (or Len, for short) joined them - he wasn't expecting a ready-made family (albeit with an adopted toddler) all in one fell swoop! As I had already made plans for the evening, I left them to get better acquainted (having taken a quick 'snap' with my 'phone*)...

They were still snuggled up, though quite chastely so (whether that was a "not in front of the children" scenario, I wouldn't dare to ask), the next morning and now their 'uncle' Rangi-Tangi is acting as chaperone, just so things go at a civilised pace and I don't have to worry about leaving them alone in the flat when I'm at work. (Although, with all the 'pets' I've now got, "alone" isn't really accurate anyway.) I do wonder, though, if the extra Bank Holiday we have coming up might give them ideas...

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