Fresh from Instagram: the EU-approved snack for elevenses**

Now, a biscuit to go with your single currency, foreign policy and army!

Standardised flavour wherever you are: a bit bland and middle-of-the-road!

You will eat these biscuits and you will enjoy them. That is all.

** subject to local time differences

#food #foodporn #borovets #bulgaria

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This town ain’t big enough for the 10,094 of us

Okay, so here’s the deal: is kicking back and relaxing (if masochism is your idea of leisure) in the Bulgarian village of Borovets, some 50-odd miles (75km) south of the capital Sofia.

The can of Coke was how much? Give me a moment: I just need to remortgage my house.

You have my full understanding if the name draws a blank in your lexicon of famous winter resorts. Even though it’s the St Moritz (or Chamonix, or Garmisch) of Bulgarian snow sport, Bulgaria isn’t that big a country, so there not much competition for the top spot. Put another way, Borovets is to St Moritz what Brighton is to Monaco.

I likened it in an earlier post to the Wild West. It’s a hamlet, a bend in the road, which geography has blessed with a rich touristic seam of gold.

Borovets sits on the northern approaches to Bulgaria’s highest mountain, Musala. At a rounding error short of 3000m it casts a long shadow over its northern flank, gifting it a microclimate that leaves it frigid and snowbound in winter. Drive a mile out of town and there’s no more snow, no more gold rush.

The first time I made the journey here in the winter I thought climate change had cancelled the holiday. A chill wind whipped across the bleak forecourt outside Sofia airport, but that was it. This didn’t faze me: Sofia is a pretty big city, and such cities are often smothered in a grimy insulating fug. Aboard the shuttle bus the urban bleakness gave way to rural bleakness but the weather remained the same.

Even after unofficial road signs popped up, pointing the way to this or that hotel or restaurant, it could have been one of those days in London when sporadic 2cm patches of snow bring the transport infrastructure to its knees. We kept on trucking down the forest road at Bulgarian speeds as though it were midsummer.

A glorified shed in alpine style appeared: a restaurant. Then another, then an unbroken line of them. Some horses stood on the right, bored, chewing and ejecting their feed.

We had arrived.

As I said earlier, Borovets is on a bend in the road. In between the haphazard collection of lean-tos, mega sheds and mini villas are several low-rise hotels, punctuated opposite the main cabin lift by a hotel of astonishing architectural brutality.

Welcome to the Hotel Samokov. You’ll never leave!

This is the Hotel Samokov, giving a socialist middle finger to the puny capitalist sheds thrown up around it post-’89. I imagine it hosted commissars and ministers in its glory days, but now looks almost embarrassed still to be standing. I can bet the local government would dearly love to knock it down and start again, but a makeover will be all they can manage: there’s so much reinforced concrete in this building it will surely be a landmark in the desert once climate change puts a stop to the alpine fun.

Just a few reasons why indigenous folk are a little thin on the ground.

I’ll end with a nod to the title. A 2013 census put the population of Borovets at 94. Estimates from around the same time put the hotel capacity at 10,000. Since this place is currently heaving I suspect the natives are outnumbered 100 to 1.

Caffeine limit reached before dawn: a new record

It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when price-gouging airlines force legions of guilty parents to skip school early.

Tired and wired.

Household preparation for this recent addition to the family calendar begins shortly after Christmas. Our children start a new game, ‘suitcases’, which involves endless dry runs of baggage checks, and leaving small wheeled sit-on cases in doorways and hallways for their parents to trip on.

We heart budget airlines.
The joy of budget airlines.

What awaits us, we hope, is enough snow to ski on (no longer a certainty) and a reduction in falls on last year, when I mistook myself for a teenager and took snowboarding lessons. What folly.

Save us from cinnamon pastries

I have journeyed into what is usually retail hell. Ikea tends to be a slowly chugging crocodile of browsers poring over products like Trøllspit and Flänge.

I daren’t look at the calorific content.

I’m not a regular at this place so I turned up way too early. In the early morning it turns into a Scandi soup kitchen for the local waifs and strays. Breakfast can be had for a matter of pence. I fit naturally into this milieu, having rolled out of bed for the school run and thus looking like a derelict.

I curse the lacuna, as it has led me within arm’s length of Gifflar, destructor of daily calorie targets.

A spot of gardening. Guaranteed to lower your blood pressure.

I’m not a natural gardener. I’m more the sort of you get in to hack, sweat, swear and clear, which is its own therapy. But I’d love to be better versed in recognising plants and having the discernment to separate the invitees from the gatecrashers. I tend to take the view that I’ll just water all of it, and wait for the flowers to appear. I can recognise lavender, which is handy given my location. My bit sarf of the river was renowned for its lavender fields, easily good enough to rival your Year in Provence balls.

Some of these should be here. Some should not. I can’t tell the difference.

I’m guessing the advance of Metroland started to nibble away at the acres of blue before dropping the politesse and swallowing them whole.

Pottering around plants is marvellously relaxing, which is know is bleeding obvious but go easy, I’m a neophyte. The time spent scrabbling, repotting, sweeping and watering is an opportunity to centre, restore some equilibrium and breathe easy.

Better still, it can be a magnet for the tinies. I can heartily recommend the range of plant incubators on offer at IKEA.

Ikea Krydda plant incubator
The elusive triple-decker. Not yet spotted in the wild. This very swish website is keen on them

It’s called Krydda, in typical IKEA style (their product naming meetings must be a hoot). What draws daughter one to it is the permanent sunshine. Plants love the perennial summertime and results are quick to appear. Like most parents I’m unnerved by the time my children spend exercising their thumbs, stabbing at screens. Smartphones and tablets are the crystal meth of gadgets. Time spent away from the flood of digital tat is time well spent.

Daughter one has taken to our incubator, and especially the carnivorous plants that thrive under the fake sun. She has an Audrey II that is rapidly monopolising half the shelf. She hasn’t started feeding it people yet.

Making good on my promise to visit Gristle Corner

He stared at the fruit bag, transfixed.
‘One of my five-a-day? Here?’
He sensed something was wrong.

By way of evidence that I really do live life in ‘real time’ just like the yoof of today, I attach proof of our visit to our kindly Uncle McDonald, who was generous with his confections. Please note the fruit bag in a position of prominence.

A tray of things you can eat, if you’re felling masochistic.
Look away now.

The future of cheap news: two pages, infinite content!

Those fine folks at WordPress have unveiled a new project to help propel thrusting news organisations into a brave new world of well, meagre budgets, lower headcount and minuscule margins.

More seriously, though, the NewsPack initiative sounds like A Good Thing. WordPress clearly seems to think so, judging by the news release.

Look, straws! Grasp them!

The need for a cheap but polished publishing platform is urgent, as anyone who has witnessed the decline of regional and local news coverage will recognise. WordPress buffs the issue to a satin sheen, to avoid sending its readers into an emotional tailspin:-

With many local news organizations struggling to find sustainable models for journalism, we’re seeing a need for an inexpensive platform that provides the technology and support that lets news organizations build their businesses and focus on what they do best — providing critical reporting for their communities.

From the blog

Amusingly, the ‘click here for more’ link on this page takes you to another blog page in a different snazzy format, which clicks through to… the original blog page. And so on.

And on, and on.

I think they’ve hit upon something here. It’s the future of cheap news: infinite content, a bit of user interaction and two pages of copy!

All we need now is a fluffy press release from our PR chums at Phill, Space & Leggatt, and copy – paste – boom!

I must away now. Daughter #1 has been on gruel all week, and I’ve promised her a visit to her Caledonian uncle, Ronald McDonald. He’ll spoil her with his usual gifts of salt, fat, sugar and gristle.

Beer first, or wine? As long as you have a drink in your hand, who cares?

It’s still bad for you, apparently.

Ah, the news outlets in the UK have been chuckling to themselves this morning, thanks to this little gift from the white-coated community. I’m hoping that there might be some defensible rationale behind the research by Cambridge and German academics that yielded this nugget. Hoping, because what’s outlined in The Independent appears to have been – polite mode off now – a waste of time.

Post-doctoral research wasn’t always devoted to settling pub arguments.

The smallish city of Cambridge has honoured us with a stream of outstanding innovation, invention and discovery over the decades centuries, and an armful of Nobel prizes. Along the way,together with other notable centres of academic excellence, it has shaped out understanding of the perils that surround us, from air pollution and food additives to smoking and drinking.

I think the public understanding of science has advanced enough that none of us would seriously dispute the notion that excessive alcohol, whatever the format, can seriously ruin our day. There’s also enough wreckage in society to have hammered home the point that once a big night out becomes every night out, entire lives are derailed by this bacchanalia.

So why on earth were the intellects of a team of highly qualified researchers, and the associated budget, devoted to researching this guff? This is a bar-room talking point at best, and the outcome of the exercise was bleeding obvious before the project even started. In case you’re still in suspense, the conclusion was that, well, alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. If you drink too much it’s bad for you. Who cares what colour or flavour it is?

Alcohol. One of the roots of all evil.
One of the roots of all evil (see also: Money).

Now, I’ll provide a bit of background here and confess that I’m a recovering newsoholic. I absorbed too much of it for a period of 15 years as a journalist staffer with a Major International Broadcaster, and still do enjoy a little news tipple every now and again. I get that it’s a newsroom chuckle. I probably would have felt duty-bound to get it on the shows I put together.

But freed from the staffer’s yoke, I bridle at the churnalistic aspect to this story. ‘Churnalism’, if you’re wondering, was coined (I think) by the rather talented journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Briefly, this is the newsroom practice of swallowing wholesale, and publishing with few changes, the spin pumped out by PR agencies.

Now, newsrooms aren’t the places they once were. The professionals in them are generally expected to do more – often much more – for less, while suffering wave after wave of job cuts and trimmed budgets. In such an environment the cannily scripted news release is often seen as manna from heaven, as quick-turnaround clickbait.

I have to say that there’s a whiff of churnalism to The Independent’s story embedded at the top of this post. Can you smell it? In fairness to the Indy, they aren’t alone: the story has been everywhere in Brit-land today.

As I said, I would likely have fallen in line and covered this myself. The newsroom I worked in was subject to exactly the same privations and pressures I mentioned above. This sort of thing – ready-made fluff landing in your lap – happened 2-3 times every week.

Somewhere in a PR agency a copywriter (possibly a former journalist, now lost to The Dark Side) is laughing at the ease of today’s news coup. Turning academic research into news copy is not always easy. But today was a good day for them. I’m not sure it was so auspicious for the research scientists, who come out of this looking a little frivolous and lightweight. If there ever was a credible driver for the research, it appears to have been jettisoned to ‘sex up’ the press release. And while most people will consume the story without a second thought, I personally feel it’s symptomatic of a broader negative trend in the news industry. Some news outlets will subject this story to more rigorous scrutiny – but most will not.

Duck and cover

Gored by a Tusk.

Eek. That rascal Mr Tusk has been at it again, sticking his Twitter stick into the hornet’s nest of fate.

I can’t say I’ve been slavishly following developments here at HQ, but I’ll hazard a guess that Donald (Tusk, not Trump) has triggered an outpouring of bile and indignation with his cheeky tweet. But once the hyperventilating has ceased, a rational type on either side of the Brexit chasm must surely concede that, actually, Donnie T (Tusk, not Trump) has a point, the wily blighter.

We’ve lived this alternate reality, this fact-starved wasteland, for two and a half years, and the best HMG has come up with seems destined to leave this sceptred isle a poorer and weaker place, its prestige and influence destroyed by a combination of repeated falsehoods, ethically dubious voter targeting and even foreign meddling. And then Trump happened, inheriting tactics, tricks and the same foreign meddling to pull off a shocker of his own.

I’m lying down as I write this, which is probably a good thing.

Unfortunate metaphors

I would have thought we’ve scraped right through the bottom of the barrel and are well on the way to the South Pacific. This:-

Oh dear, this is unfortunate.

It’s worth noting that Dunkirk was not a gallant victory, but a heroic failure: thousands struggled and many died to effect the retreat of an army without suffering a massacre or imprisonment. Winston Churchill told parliament that it was a ‘colossal military disaster’.

This was followed by a few years of grinding siege and shortages as Britain struggled on alone.

Needless to say, this traumatised millions in Britain. A classic radio comedy series of long ago, ‘Round the Horne‘, once sent up the rose-tinted films that appeared post-war to romanticise the experience, creating a pastiche drama titled ‘Wasn’t It Great When They Were Dropping Bombs On Us And We Were All Half-starving‘.

If I’m offered a toss-up between a ‘Dunkirk option’ and stability and relative prosperity, I know which one I’d choose.

Fantasy Island

There’s a jolly decent chap on Medium called Umair Haque.

Since June last year he’s been holding forth, largely on the evils of predatory capitalism and focused in the main on the US. It can be a little hard going at times but let’s face it, our American cousins provide fertile ground for analysis.

Occasionally he’s touched on my own big beef: how in the UK the postwar social contract of better education, healthcare for all and state pensions is increasingly something we can see but cannot grasp, becoming more of a mirage with each year that passes. More on that some other time.

This entry isn’t about that, but instead deals with the slow motion car crash that is Brexit. I know, just a few posts in and there I go, spoiling the fun for everyone. But it’s hard not to mention it, not when we stand, at thirty seconds to midnight, on the cliff edge, scratching our heads and wondering if reason is ever going to make an appearance.

It’s easy to live in a past that never was, or a future where anything is possible. Dealing with a cold uncomfortable present is something else, and sadly anyone with the courage to confront it appears to have been abducted by aliens.

I think I should let Umair pick up from here. It’s worth the read.

On Twitter, over email, from friends, from people who recognize me at the cafe and stop me to say hi — I get one question these days. It goes like this: what happened to Britain?

— Read on

Car crash
Here comes trouble.

Newcastle nightlife, where the dress code never varies

Spotted in the Metro newspaper on a random train: comforting proof that while blizzards swirl and the mercury plummets, nightclubbers in Newcastle upon Tyne still adhere to a dress code where avoiding hypothermia is of lesser importance than avoiding a long queue at a cloakroom.

Layer-free revellers in Newcastle.
This is the correct form of dress in Newcastle for a Friday night out, even when it is -4°C.

As Metro says:-

It seems wearing a coat in Newcastle even when it’s freezing is a sign of weakness. Clubbers were out again in force yesterday night despite the cold temperatures and snow…

— Read on at

It’s all true. I have several years’ worth of first-hand experience. Coats are shunned.

The Iceman Cometh

Ice patterns on car bonnet.
Nature’s mathematician is let loose on water frozen to a car bonnet. The world around us throws up countless examples of such beauty daily, if we care to look for it.

To those visiting from another galaxy, it might come as a surprise to learn that on Earth, some days are colder than others. The rest of us have less of an excuse. (That said, the millennial thrill-ride that is climate change has given us a few anomalies in recent years that would make the most jaded pay attention.)

So, I’m not one of those who pays much attention to the weather. It happens. Winter can be cold. Rain is wet. In another era I might have painted myself with woad to greet the sunrise, but these days, not so much. I suspect it might have something to do with age.

I’m straying from the point (there is one). Today the chatter from my two young daughters was whether school would be on or not. It got me to thinking where the line was historically drawn.

My childhood was spent on the icy steppes of The North. Winters tended to deliver several nights of -10° and lower, very dark mornings and afternoons, and generous amounts of snow.

School was rarely closed. Closures, if they happened, were usually forced upon the school once the heating packed up completely. Until that point was reached the snow and low temperature were little more than inconveniences. The drifts could be big enough to hide a family, the ice extensive enough for a curling tournament: it would be business as usual.

The school boilers were housed in a sooty underground bunker next to the kitchens, an area off-limits to us cherubs. A giant pile of coal marked the entrance. In these cellars lurked the stoker, a Geordie Freddy Krueger who was rarely spotted above ground level. Unless the boilers were never extinguished he must have begun getting up steam before dawn, the captain of his landlocked steamboat.

Fast forward to my daughters’ musing, and things have changed. Children now have an operating temperature below which their brains struggle to function. Walk into a classroom blindfolded and you might think you’ve entered an NHS ward. Room too cold for t-shirts? Everybody out.

Outside, there’s more ammunition for the reluctant scholar. There might be a light dusting of snow, or patches of icy ground. That could well be enough to abandon lessons: we’re a more litigious society now, and parents taking a tumble while ferrying their offspring to the classroom door will be queuing up for compo to ease the pain of their contused coccyx.

We’ve had a few chilly days now: time enough for the ice to thicken. Come Monday, and a shortage of salt might be all it takes for my girls to enjoy a 3-day weekend.

Snowdrops, I think.
Snowdrops (I think) photographed during a trip to Wisley, the gardening equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hegl shops @ Lidl

Popular shopping emporium Lidl has proved to this sleepy suburban banlieue that it’s not napping when it comes to dialectic. In the last few weeks we’ve gone from feasting (five bird roasts, ahoy!), to penitence (DIY gadget hell). Today those discounters from Deutschland unveiled the synthesis of the two – that unhappy medium known back in half-price Heimat as Gymnastik. You have no excuse!

Lidl’s latest torment for the masses.
Exercise, exorcise. Reasons to avoid Lidl on 31st January.

The end of the beginning

The clock ticked. Somewhere under the desk a fan whirred. A fly wandered across the screen and paused to rub its forelegs together before continuing its traverse. I was minded of a vaguely mindless aphorism by a self-betterment type whose name I never bothered committing to memory: ‘Start before you’re ready.’

I’m not, so I have.

After a few days, lots of edits and a quantity of stimulant drink, I have to concede that I’ll never gather momentum unless I’m actually moving. So – subject matter be damned – this needs to see the light of day, while I ponder my next move and wrap my head around WordPress, the technical underpinning of this blog thing.

And if, when you read this, the title image is still a street in a chilly-looking business district, then I’ve not managed to swap it for something better. I didn’t even choose the City/Wall Street graphic. It just appeared, presumably assuming that the purpose of is to flog some dubious but over-priced business service aimed at ‘re-engineering your enterprise to leverage best practice’ or some such guff.

Speaking of guff, here’s the default placeholder text for this post:-

What goes into a blog post? Helpful, industry-specific content that: 1) gives readers a useful takeaway, and 2) shows you’re an industry expert.

Use your company’s blog posts to opine on current industry topics, humanise your company, and show how your products and services can help people.

I suppose I can claim that this is ‘industry-specific content’, if the industry in question is powered by a mildly cynical instinct to question assumptions, wherever they might lurk. And if this is the case then I’m certainly an expert, oh yes.

The phrase ‘useful takeaway’ just makes me hungry.

I like the word ‘opine’. Seems a decent string of letters to help dig you out of a Scrabble hole.

All companies consist of humans (unless they are tax evasion vehicles operating out of a Panamanian office block). The issue is not ‘humanising’, but ‘intellectualising’: most people will be relieved to learn that the ‘service provider’ (that’ll be me) is more than just a dead hand on the tiller. Some brainpower is involved.

There, I’ve managed to convince myself that I’m a polished blogging machine. I think in the next post I ought to set out my stall a little, to give you more idea where I’m coming from and, indeed, going. Suffice to say, for now, that little is off-limits. Life’s constrained enough without taking any more on.

A warthog, yesterday.
A warthog. One of these days I might actually explain why it’s here.