Writing Portfolio


The most sought-after item in Canada

"Is that..."

I didn't need to say anything else. I knew what it was that I was asking about, as did the half-a-dozen or so other customers who'd also noticed it, plus the store attendant who'd noticed that we'd noticed it.

'It' had not been what any of us had expected to see in a liquor store in small-town Manitoba three days before Christmas. 'It' is currently the most desired alcoholic beverage in all of Canada - and, for all I know, in the world right now. 'It' has caused queues to form outside liquor stores before they open and has sold out within an hour of going on sale in any such store, whatever the province (the staff in this particular one hadn't even expected to have any delivered this side of the New Year). 'It' has caused employees of such establishments to remind friends and neighbours that they are not allowed to hold or reserve items.

'It', the most sought-after product in Canada at the moment, is a bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, a whisky that was propelled into the limelight recently after being proclaimed as the World Whisky of the Year by no less an authority than Jim Murray, author of the highly influential Whisky Bible which is published annually. He apparently tasted more than a thousand whiskies before reaching his decision, and proclaimed this one to be a "masterpiece". Many Canadians would agree, if they could get hold of a bottle. Across the country, people are divided between those who have managed to get hold of some and try it, and the have-nots. The latter are in the majority.

For several seconds after I saw the almost-empty case of it in the Beausejour branch of the MLCC Liquor Mart, where I'd gone to get a miniature of something with which to ignite the Christmas pudding, a few thoughts rushed through my head. Would my British credit card work in small-town Manitoba? Of course it would, don't be silly. Were I to buy a bottle, would I be able to open it and sample the contents, then take the rest back home to London? No, that's not how it works.

Sadly, such thoughts were merely academic as the man in front of me grabbed the last three and, with a look on his face usually reserved for those who've backed the right horse or won the lottery, proceeded to the till. The rest of us were left staring at the empty case. Someone said something about how he'd heard that a store in another town nearby had had a delivery; someone else observed that by the time they got there it would be sold out.

"That didn't take long," said the attendant as he cleared away the case. I asked him how much they were charging for a bottle of this most elusive of spirits, and he showed me the price-card: $32.95, not including sales tax. On the current exchange rates, that's easily south of twenty quid.

"You know, you could double that," I replied. Hell, they could just add a number '1' to the beginning of the price and people would still buy it. "That guy," he said, referring to the afore-mentioned Mr Murray, "doesn't go for the really expensive stuff. He picks a whisky that ordinary people can buy." He clearly knew his whiskies - he told me his personal favourite was Lagavulin, as he showed me to the corner of the store that displayed some of Scotland's finest exports. But I wasn't after Scotch in Manitoba. If I was going to buy or try any sort of whisky, it would be the local stuff.

Crown Royal is indeed a product of Manitoba. Whisky - in Canada, it's spelt without the 'e' - has been distilled in Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, since 1939 (the brand was named in honour of that year's Royal visit, the first by a reigning sovereign). In Canada, whisky tends to mean a blend of barley, corn and rye, unlike in Scotland where they can only use malted barley. What makes the Northern Harvest Rye so special is that it's 90% rye.

For a Canadian whisky to be given such an accolade as World Whisky of the Year is unheard-of. Perhaps this is yet more evidence of how Canadians are gradually taking over the world!

As of yesterday morning, the Winnipeg Free Press was reporting that Northern Harvest Rye had sold out across the province, with no more expected in liquor stores until January; "Manitobans looking to get someone a bottle of the world's best whisky for Christmas are out of luck." If you can't get hold of a bottle in the province where it's made, what hope is there for the rest of the country?

Those who've tried it say that it's very good. I would like to be able to agree with them, but I just can't get hold of any.


Watching and reading at Christmas

‘Tis the season – for watching Christmas movies. Some are good, some are pretty ropey and a few manage to divide opinion, in some cases on the topic of whether or not they can even be classified as Christmas movies. My own view on this is that if there’s a way in which a given film can be linked to Christmas, however tenuously, then why not? I take a similar view with literature – if a novel or short story has a Christmas link, then it can be a Christmas story.

Maybe I’m getting set in my ways in my late thirties, but over the past few years things have evolved to the point where there are four films, a TV show and three (short) works of literature that have to be seen or read at Christmas time.

Let’s do the films first. We start with two old-school black-and-white classics from the 1940s: Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). I tend to prefer the original version of the former which has a lot of charm with the New York department-store Santa called Kris Kringle who seems to be the ‘real’ thing – a role for which Edmund Gwynn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, while Maureen O’Hara (who died earlier this year, aged 95) is on top form playing a career-oriented, divorced single mother which must’ve been very ahead of its time in the 1940s. The court scene at the end, with the judge worried about re-election and the posties using it as an excuse to get rid of all the letters to Father Christmas that they’ve accumulated, is hilarious every time. On doing some background reading for this film, I was surprised to learn that it was originally released in the summer, with the Christmas element being downplayed in the advertising (20th Century Fox’s logic being that they’d make more money with a summer release).

Less overtly Christmassy is that Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life, set in charming small-town America with Jimmy Stewart’s selfless everyman standing up to the bad guy who comes in the form of the Scrooge-esque Mr Potter. George Bailey may get the girl but the rest of his life gets put on hold in a never-ending struggle on behalf of the less fortunate, and it takes a heavenly intervention when he’s at his lowest to show him how much of a positive impact he’s made on many lives. Yes, there’s a lot of ‘life’ before you get to the ‘wonderful’ bit (it’s actually fairly depressing in parts until the last ten minutes), but it really is a lovely film that shows just how much of a difference one person can make.

Moving swiftly to the late twentieth century and changing the tempo somewhat (although the notion of how much of a difference one person can make remains), it’s time for an action movie and, working on the principle that any movie with a link to Christmas can be a Christmas movie, there is indeed such a thing as a Christmas action movie: Die Hard (1988). Like many a Christmas movie protagonist, New York cop John McClane just wants to spend the festive season with his family (which is why he flies out to LA on Christmas Eve), but first of all there’s the small matter of meeting up with his estranged wife at the Nakatomi Corporation’s office party. If you’ve ever been to a work Christmas do that doesn’t quite go according to plan, be thankful that you’ve not had it interrupted by a bunch of heavily armed terrorists and then sit back and enjoy the mayhem as McClane takes them on without wearing any shoes. This film was so big it spawned four sequels, many imitations and redefined Bruce Willis’s career (before this, he was apparently considered more of a comedy actor) as well as marking out Alan Rickman as an actor who plays the baddies very well.

Finally, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one movie adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and there are many options here with stand-out performances as Ebenezer Scrooge over the years coming from the likes of Alastair Sim and Patrick Stewart. My favourite, though, is the Muppets’ musical version from 1992 which is incredibly faithful to the original source material to the extent of providing much of the narrative word-for-word thanks to having Gonzo as Charles Dickens – a truly inspired piece of casting. Elsewhere, Kermit is Bob Cratchett to Michael Caine’s Scrooge – a rare example of a human character in a Muppet-based film not being overshadowed by the Muppets themselves. I guess I had to have Michael Caine make an appearance somewhere.

While we’re on the subject of A Christmas Carol, the TV show that is required viewing by yours truly is of course Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) which inverts Dickens’s plot; in this, Ebenezer Blackadder is a nice and generous man who gets taken advantage of by everyone except Baldrick. A night-time visit from the Spirit of Christmas inadvertently prompts him to change his ways. This one’s got quite a good cast; as well as Blackadder regulars – Rowan Atkinson et al – do look out for Robbie Coltraine and Jim Broadbent in supporting roles, as the Spirit and Prince Albert respectively.

On the reading front, I have three perennial favourites which I (try to) read each year. Obviously, there’s A Christmas Carol which blends comedy and horror to perform two roles – celebrating Christmas while highlighting the condition of the poor. 172 years after it was written, the name of the main character is still used to refer to anyone who feels a bit cynical or jaded about Christmas. Dickens, who defined how we think of Christmas to the point where most cinematic depiction of London at this time of year tend to involve snow (despite actual white Christmases in London being few and far between) is one of those authors who seems to have a timeless feel, with quite a few of his books feeling surprisingly undated when compared to some of his contemporaries; Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a reading of the first and best of his Christmas stories.

The other two are – not surprising given my literary tastes – detective stories. Both happen to feature a seasonal plot based on finding out who nicked a precious stone which has been found hidden in a festive food item. In ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go on the hunt for whoever stole the eponymous diamond which has been hidden in a Christmas goose which somehow finds its way into Holmes’s possession; after some hat-based deduction, their quest takes them from Baker Street to Covent Garden Market (which I always thought used to be a fruit and veg market, but according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle it had traders selling poultry as well). I rather like this one because of the seemingly improbable hat deduction sequence and the confrontation at Covent Garden in which Holmes tricks the trader into revealing where he got the goose from. This story first appeared in 1892 and can be found in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Several decades later, Hercule Poirot – the little Belgian chap with the little grey cells – finds himself staying at an English country house during the festive season in ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’. He’s there to recover another stolen precious stone – a ruby this time – which turns up in some seasonal food (no prizes for guessing what). Needless to say, Poirot is dealing with a criminal who, rather like Hans Gruber, hasn’t bargained for having a detective on the scene. This is one of Agatha Christie’s later works (it first appeared in 1960 in the short story compilation of the same name) and while the identity of the thief is a bit obvious there’s entertainment to be had with talk of pudding-making (with reference being made to the ‘stir up’ collect which was and presumably still is said at church services on the Sunday before Advent, serving as a signal that that was the day on which the pudding should be made) and a fun sub-plot about a fake murder alongside Christie’s extolling of a traditional Christmas at the sort of venue where a lot of her murders took place.

Ah, Christmas stories. Now, where’s that Blackadder DVD?


Right place, right time

It was over in seconds. As I was leaving the park the other day, I saw a Blackbird fly overhead with another, larger bird chasing after it. They went into a tree, then emerged and flew over the path into a bush – from which only the Blackbird emerged. Its pursuer was brown with yellow legs; the first two words that flashed through my mind were: ‘female Sparrowhawk’.

I have, to the best of my knowledge, only ever seen a Sparrowhawk once before, and that was eighteen years ago in Derby when I was walking through a park on my way to a lecture. The one back then was after a Blue Tit if memory serves, and the show (such as it was) was over in seconds; had I been walking in that particular park a minute earlier or a minute later, I’d’ve missed it.

So much of birdwatching is about being in the right place at the right time. Earlier this week I was down at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, hoping that I might be able to spot some winter-visiting ducks. My eyes lit up when I noticed that one of the wardens had written ‘Goldeneye’ on the sightings-board for the day. I ended up in the Peacock tower (the three-storey hide with a 360° view of much of the reserve) with a couple of the site volunteers trying to get a sighting of said duck, but to no avail (the closest we got was one that we couldn’t initially identify that turned out to be a female Pochard, and another that was presumed to be some sort of domestic duck that had escaped into the wild), although we were able to see a lone Shelduck, a couple of Pintails and the odd Gadwall and Shoveler among the many Mallards, Teals, Wigeons and Tufted Ducks. Rumour had it that a Jack Snipe had been seen in the reeds, but I didn’t see that (although I did spot a regular Snipe); I was certainly in the right place, but at the wrong time.

Closer to home I’ve clocked up Jays, Nuthatches, Goldfinches and a surprising number of Goldcrests; as that last one is Britain’s smallest bird I’m always happy to be able to spot and identify one as I feel it makes up for not quite being able to identify the various small brown birds that are too quick to be identified. The Sparrowhawk sighting was quite by chance, and not at one of my usual local birdwatching venues. After wandering round Coldfall Wood I decided, on a whim, to cycle up to Alexandra Palace and have a look around the park there; the boating lake is frequented by many ducks and I reckoned there would be no harm in taking a look. In the event, of course, it wasn’t a duck that turned out to be the sighting of the day. Even if the location wasn’t somewhere I’d intended to be when I set out earlier that morning, I’d still managed, quite by chance, to end up in the right place at the right time.


Feeding the birds (but not the squirrels)

One of the many joys of having a garden is that I can feed the birds – with this in mind, we have a feeding-station that provides various snacks for them in the front garden. It is cleverly positioned so that I can see it from the armchair in the lounge – I am quite literally an ‘armchair birdwatcher’! Peanuts, coconut halves filled with a fat-based concoction and a ‘Wild Birds’ seed mix (“gives your flighty little friends a tempting nutritious feast that’ll keep them coming back for more!”) are available for passing birds.

We’ve had all sorts of garden visitors. Admittedly back in January the Ring-necked Parakeets scared everyone else off during the hour I’d allowed for the Big Garden Birdwatch, but we’ve also had Goldfinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Robins, Woodpigeons (quite a few of those), House Sparrows, Blackbirds, Carrion Crows, Jays and on one memorable occasion a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

 We still have the stick-on feeder that we had in the flat – it’s now on the window of the spare room and it still manages to attract approximately no birds. Can’t imagine why.

Back at the front, there has been a problem of late: Squirrels. These animals, the bane of many a garden birdwatcher, have been trying to get at the food I’ve been putting out for the birds, and I’ve been fighting a running battle to try and stop them. The feeding-station does have attachments that can hold a water-bowls or a tray of kitchen scraps, but the squirrels were using these as a ladder to get at the feeders. So they went. 

Of late, a few more running repairs have been required. One of the feeders had the plastic parts chewed through in an attempt by the squirrels to get at the contents. 

That has now been replaced by the feeder with metal parts. There have also been issues with the feeding-station being a bit lop-sided (it’s rather top-heavy) so the pole has been hammered in a bit more. And what with it being winter and all, I’ve brought back the kitchen scrap tray attachment so bacon rind and cheese can be available. Hopefully it’s high enough so the squirrels can’t get at it…


A seasonal incident at Charing Cross

As I walked into Charing Cross station this evening, I heard a familiar refrain. Familiar for this time of year, that is – the sound of carol singers, the first time I’ve heard them this year, as it happens. At first I assumed that one of the shops was playing some festive tunes on its PA system, but in actual fact it was a group of a couple of dozen people who were serenading commuters and raising money for Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals.

The music took me back, for I was once a chorister and so I do know my way around most Christmas carols. I stood and listened for a while (the singers were accompanied by an accordion-player, I noted) before scanning the crowd for one of the collectors. Having clocked a man in a Santa hat and a high-visibility tabard, I walked up to him and dropped some pocket change into his collection-bucket; my reward was a polite thank-you and a “Merry Christmas”.

This was followed in quick succession by a tap on the shoulder. I turned round to behold a young man who like me was passing through the station. “Is this yours?” he asked. He had in his hand a black glove which looked remarkably like one of mine.

It was, of course – I’d de-gloved on one hand to dig out my change for the collection. Must’ve dropped it in the process. Good thing that guy spotted it – and an even better thing that he picked it up and told me! With thoughts in my head along the lines of “goodwill to men”, it was now my turn to give a polite thank-you and the compliments of the season.