The English Pedant – Footballish

Ah, footballers! Some of them can barely speak, but they provide excellent material for this blog. (Apologies to American readers: this is about what you call soccer.)

Have you noticed how they have taken to using one adjective twice for emphasis? “It’s a massive massive game.” “He’s a top top player.” No commas required, and hardly a need for a space, either: he’s not just good, but a toptop player.

At the end of the day, Gary, it's a massive massive game. I can't stress enough how massive massive this game is

Massive, of course, means very big, and there are many ways of expressing it in this context – vital, crucial, hugely important, potentially season-defining, big – but no footballer seems to feel complete until he has faced a TV camera and said massive twice. It shows he is taking it seriously. That and the assertion that he’s going to be giving it 110% or whatever mathematical impossibility he feels is sufficient.

On the other hand there is also a tendency, particularly among managers and pundits, to play things down. They do this by saying “a little bit” to dilute what could be seen as strong comments. Thus they will say that a defensive midfielder should “get stuck in a little bit”, when what they would be saying to him in private would be something like “Knock the b***ard’s head off.”

Then there is the banishing of that difficult word “consecutive”. Nasty one, this, with its four syllables likely to trip you up. Far better to say “back to back”, even if, when taken literally, this would mean they were facing in opposite directions.

Thus when they talk about “back to back fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal” they mean those are the next two in a line of matches that, in the Pedant’s opinion, would all have been going the same way.

Obviously Messi and Ronaldo are both top top players. But for me, Messi is top top topper

It’s not all shame for these people’s English teachers, though. England squads at international tournaments have been known to dare each other to incorporate certain song titles into their interviews, so if you ever wondered why Alan Shearer once mentioned 24 Hours from Tulsa when talking about a match against Denmark, that was probably the reason.

The obvious counter argument here would be that a team of language lovers would probably not fare too well in the Premier League. But then after we have done our stuff, we’re not called upon to demonstrate our ball skills, are we?

It is one of the sports fan’s little pleasures in life to find a football figure who we’ve never heard speak and who actually turns out to be articulate. The recent appearance of the former Leicester City captain Matt Elliott on BBC World’s Football Focus is a case in point. He could do it all: words of more than two syllables, coherent sentences, answering the question – everything. He was trying a bit too hard, maybe, but he probably wants a job as a regular pundit. He is certainly Champions League material in a field full of pub team players.


Whatever happened to nicknames?


Anyone who has ever googled themselves has probably been surprised and disappointed to find that there are other people in the world with the same name. Even though we have never met anyone with the same surname, there are bound to be others out there, and if that wasn’t galling enough, some of these people’s parents didn’t even have the decency to think up their own first name – they had to use ours.

Take the legendary British broadcaster Alistair Cooke, who brought BBC listeners his Letter from America every Sunday for nearly 60 years. He must have died safe in the knowledge that – as far as famous people went – his name was unique and unmistakably his. The Alistair Cooke, not one Alistair Cooke.

But just a year after the great man’s death, someone else of the same name came into the public eye. That was when a young cricketer called Alastair Cook made his debut as an opening batsman – and future captain – for England.

Minor differences in spelling that don’t alter the sound when spoken. Suddenly there were, to all intents and purposes, two Alistair Cookes.

What was needed here was a nickname or two. But no, in the modern sports world there exists a shocking lack of creativity. Alastair Cook is known as Cooky, Stuart Broad is Broady, Joe Root is Rooty. The only variation in English cricket is that if your name is longer than one syllable you might be given ‘ers’ on the end, rather than ‘y’. Thus Mike Atherton is Athers, but Michael Vaughan, whose surname is only one letter shorter but pronounced as one syllable, is Vaughany.

Howlin wolf
He used to howl like a wolf, but originally he Chestered like a Burnett

Let’s face it, most names are pretty boring. It’s better than being known as a number or a code of randomly-generated letters, but all the same, we’re all unique, so why can’t we be called something unique?

One area that is particularly rich in nicknames is black American music, which has given us such characters as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Lightnin’ Hopkins and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown.

Then there were Edward Ellington, better known as Duke, and William ‘Count’ Basie.

Less well-known characters probably only find their way into the media nowadays by dint of having a nickname. Step forward Bumblebee Slim , Sticks McGhee, Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson, Scrapper Blackwell and Daddy Stovepipe.

‘As right, Biggie. You da king

Alone among modern cultural groups, rappers like a good nickname. The Notorious B-I-G (AKA Biggie Smalls, AKA Christopher Wallace), Dr Dre (his first name is Andre) , Puff Daddy (P. Diddy), Ice T, Vanilla Ice and so on.

Isn’t this confusing, when the world increasingly likes to keep tabs on us? I was once challenged in a bank when I tried to cash a cheque with my name on it. “Why is it made out to Chris when your name is Christopher,” the keen young jobsworth asked in all seriousness. An older colleague gave me a break on that occasion, but what would they do if a music legend walked in with a cheque made out to Eminem.

David Evans (left) and Paul Hewson of U2. Oh, all right, The Edge and Bono

“But on your driving licence it says Marshall Mathers, Sir.”

Or perhaps he walks in with a cheque made out to his real name. “Where you get this from, man? You ain’t no Marshall Mathers. You Eminem, I got all your rekkerds.”


Bloke in the Kitchen. When you can’t be @rsed

A meal without cooking

Wow… and you did all this yourself?

Bloke in the Kitchen believes in making things from scratch rather than buying jars of this and packets of that, but there is also a case for giving yourself a day off now and then.

If you cooked the Christmas meal, and maybe Boxing Day too, you could probably do with a break from the kitchen. Even if you didn’t do any of the work, the festive season takes it out of you, so if you’ve got people coming round again, making a meal without really cooking is a perfectly legitimate thing to do.

It’s a bit like the sort of buffet you might find at an official do. It’s either good stuff or it’s not – you don’t think “they didn’t make this themselves”.

The line-up is entirely up to you, but here is an example.


French bread (for garlic bread)

Stuffed olives

Silverskin pickled onions (the little pearly white ones)

Smoked salmon

Peppadews (small red quite spicy peppers in a jar)





Salady bits (lettuce, tomato, celery etc. Nobody’s really going to eat it, but it looks good)

SHOPPING TIME: 30 mins. in a supermarket.

PREPARATION TIME: Three minutes (one for the avocados, two for the bread).


Smash up a clove or two of garlic using a mortar and pestle, if you’re so sophisticated as to have such a thing. Or just bludgeon them as best you can on a chopping board. A rolling pin would do. If you use a hammer, wash it before and afterwards. Mash the garlic with a fork, mix with butter and spread it on slices of French bread. Stick them under a hot grill and do them until the edges are about to burn.

Do plenty of this, because it’s the only stodge you’re giving them.


Garnish! That means make it look pretty. A  few slices of cucumber or tomato here, a ring of red pepper there. A sprig of parsley. It just makes it look like you’ve gone to some trouble.

buffet 3
It’s a feast – and a piece of cake

Cut the avocados in half, mash them with a fork and sprinkle some Worcestershire sauce on them. That is it. Serve in their skin with a teaspoon and a paper napkin.

Put all the other bits and pieces on a huge plate, chopping board or tray. Make it look neat and even arty if you can. Put the peppadews and olives in scallop shells, lettuce leaves, souvenir plates with pictures of Disney World, Corfu etc. Supply forks and spoons.

Give everyone a plate and tell them to dive in.

Make sure you’ve got some music on that they’re all likely to at least tolerate.

Keep the drinks topped up.

buffet 2
Difficult? Nah. You have the expertise to buy these once in a while


If a guest doesn’t drink alcohol, that doesn’t make them a bad person. Give them some Coke, lemonade, or even water in a nice glass with plenty of ice and a slice of lemon.


Kaycee’s Klasic Films – Spaghetti Westerns


You know you can watch one of these and you’re not sure which one it is because Clint Eastwood’s in it being as cool as a cucumber even though he’s been on his horse for 10 days and must smell horrible.

He rides into town and has his way with some woman – doesn’t really matter who because he’s not going to come back for seconds anyway its often quite rough the sex in these things. You don’t actually see much but it’s dodgy circumstances they’re often reluctant and rape wasn’t taken serious in the 60s and 70s like it is now so if you’re going to watch these you have to realize it’s from another time there was racism and sexism in them days like you wouldn’t believe now.

Anyways there is Clint being cool but a good guy as only he can and Lee Van Cleef being cool but a bad guy and the funny little loser what’s his name Eli Wallach. Like I said sometimes you can’t tell one film from the other but you still enjoy it it’s the atmosphere they create you just want to be there because you know Clint would look after you he’s upstairs with his gun in pieces cleaning it and the bad guy comes in the door downstairs and you think he’ll never get it back together in time but of course he does because it’s a film.

But you wouldn’t like it really no future especially for a woman they’re all either housewives or teachers or prostitutes nobody works on the perfume counter like I do because there are no department stores in little one-horse towns called Tombstone and stuff like that.

Lots of open country but there’s always a gunman shooting somebody or a lynch mob stringing somebody up from a tree.

I wonder if that’s what made westerns so popular because in the 1950s they made millions of them but if that’s true why did they stop being so popular you don’t see hardly any nowadays?

These films are called Spaghetti Westerns because they were directed by Italians like Sergio Leone it’s funny to think that happened because you think of cowboy films as American because they’re all set in America but I suppose there’s nothing to stop an Italian from doing it even though they didn’t have that sort of lifestyle if that’s what you call it.

Their all good escapist entertainment I know I’ve swallowed a dixtionary today I’m getting all fancy with my words but I’m still me really and I do love watching one of these on a Sunday afternoon preferably with my boyfriend (if I’ve got one at the time you never know but there’s plenty of fish in the sea I always say even if most of them are no good). I’ll make us a cup of tea and get a few slices of fruit cake and we might even get fruity are selves with a bit of luck and you get crumbs everywhere but its worth it and if the film’s on DVD you can watch the bits you missed but you’ve seen it three times already so.

The English Pedant – How Kayleigh Everyone is changing the language

In the last 10 years or so a new verb has entered the English language: to text. When we send someone a text message, we text them.

So far, so unremarkable. But what is the simple past tense of text? This verb has only recently been coined. We weren’t taught it at school. But Kayleigh Everyone needs a past tense immediately, to convey the information that she sent a text yesterday, and “I sent you a text yesterday” is too long-winded in this linguistically minimalist day and age.

Okay, Kayleigh, who's in charge around here_

So, ensconced in her bedroom at her parents’ house, she just uses ‘text’. It sounds like a past tense, a vague, unnoticed thought deep in her brain tells her. If she concentrated on it, she might realize that it should be spelled ‘texed’.

But that would be the past tense of the non-existent verb to tex. Never mind. She’s too lazy to say ‘texted’, so ‘text’ it is. And a million people like her, let down by a system that has failed to teach them this essential piece of 21st century language, go along with it.

Technically, anyway, what Kayleigh and the millions are doing is sending an SMS, but you can’t turn that into a verb, can you? Too clumsy, too ugly, too techie. “I SMSed you yesterday. Didn’t you get it?”

Something had to give, though, when other methods of sending short messages appeared. WhatsApp, for instance. Two syllables – life is too short. It was abbreviated to App. “I’ll app you later.”

Then Facebook gets in on the act and hijacks the word Messenger. We can’t say “I’ll messenger you” – again, it goes against everything the non-reading new wave stands for. So Kayleigh and her pals make a magnanimous gesture – in this case they will go the whole hog: two never-ending, tedious syllables. “I’ll message you.”

Okay, Kayleigh, who's in charge around here_

Another home-made past tense has corrupted a verb that already had one: to plead. Did he plead guilty? No, he pled innocent.

Pled? Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re basing it on the verb to bleed turning into a past tense bled, you’re ignoring that one is double e while the other is ea. And if it’s because the past tense of to read is pronounced red although spelled read, then pled is spelled wrong.

We say ‘beaded’ as the past tense of bead when we mean forming beads. What’s wrong with pleaded?

I’m just saying, that’s all.

Worse, though, is when the verb to lead is used in the past tense, which is ‘led’. Sure, there is a metal called lead and pronounced led, but we were brought up with these things. Is it so easy for forget?


Confessions of an Expat – There goes limin’ Simon

lime 2
It’s a place, it’s got alcohol, it’s got people. Liming. Think you could get the hang of it?

A year or two ago there was some kind of competition which people outside TT could enter to have a chance of winning a free trip here. It was won by an English woman with a posh voice and a sense of humour that didn’t really come through on the video clip of her acceptance speech. One of the reasons she wanted to visit the country, she said, was because: “I’d like to learn how to lime” – she had heard of the concept of liming and wanted to give it a try.

She was being self-deprecating (I think), taking the mickey out of herself for being a fancy, uptight Brit who wanted to know how to be laidback. This lady’s idea of liming probably wasn’t, in fact, anywhere near reality for someone of her age and gender. She must have been about 60 and middle class, but what she really wanted to do (and this is pure speculation) was hang out with some black studs, drinking Carib from the bottle, having a spliff round the back of the bar and possibly ending up horizontal and debauched in a room with an airconditioning unit rather than a heater.

With the exception of the climate, she could have got the same result hanging around her local pub in suburban London, drinking gin and tonic and making eyes at the beer-swilling Chelsea supporters in the hope that one of them fancied a bit of mature womanhood. But that would have been on her own doorstep, with prying eyes all around and the prospect of embarrassment and being thrown out of the church choir.

Trinidadian limes are smaller and more spherical than others

Everybody knows the official version of the origin of the term: British sailors were made to suck limes to combat scurvy, a disease with a degenerative effect on the body, making sufferers lethargic and generally unhealthy. The lime-rich diet enabled these otherwise robust seamen to engage in their primary land-based activity: hanging around outside bars.

It’s funny, though, how the habit was adopted, just like cricket and machismo, by the local population and turned into an apparently indigenous thing.

The magic ingredient in limes is vitamin C, so it is not clear why they were chosen as opposed to other members of the citrus family, but then if one of those had been the fruit of choice, the practice of liming would probably never have been given a name; ‘grapefruiting’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Maybe it’s because Trinidad and Tobago’s limes are smaller than the lemon-shaped ones you find elsewhere, and if they’re fresh it is quite easy to eat one without peeling it.

The way things are in this litigious world, where it is seen as potentially profitable to identify bad things as someone else’s fault and sue them for it, it is perhaps surprising that Trinidad hasn’t taken the UK to court for introducing a practice that reduced the drive and efficiency of its young male population. That would give the world’s lawyers a subject on which to let loose their creativity. The counsel for the defence stands up: “On behalf of Her Majesty The Queen, m’lud, I draw your attention to the health benefits that allowed – and continue to allow – these people to go on ‘liming’ well into old age”.

If that seems unlikely, you probably also think nobody has ever done an academic study on the subject.

“But, m’lud, I draw your attention to a scholarly paper by one Thomas Hylland Eriksen, entitled ‘Liming in Trinidad: the art of doing nothing’. Mr Eriksen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, and he lived in Trinidad during the 1980s. I bet you didn’t realize you were being studied, did you?

“Liming”, says Prof. Eriksen, “means, roughly, hanging around’. It involves ‘the sharing of food and drink, the exchange of tall stories, jokes and anecdotes etc, provided the activity has no explicit purpose beyond itself.’ In other words you can’t dress it up as a productive activity with any objective other than passing the time.

“A typical lime begins when two or several acquaintances (neighbours, colleagues, relatives or simply friends) meet more or less by chance; in the street, at the grocer’s, outside somebody’s home or in the rum shop.”

lime 3
Hey girls! Fancy liming later? I’m very good at it

You can’t do it at home, though, he says, because it is “open to others who might want to join in… Groups of people meeting in each other’s living-rooms are therefore not true limers.”

Thanks for clearing that up, professor. It had been bothering me, like the difference between going down the pub and having some friends round for a few drinks. “…unless the context allows for the intrusion of gatecrashers,” he adds.

I would like to tell you more about this insight into what people do and why they do it, but there’s 21 pages of it, and anyway, I think you know. Take it easy, guys.

Or, as they say in that posh lady’s circles, “Lime on, Simon.”

Ref! On the manager-go-round

The candid thoughts of Premier League referee Colin Preece, as recorded by our eavesdropping mole in the Duck and Peasant.


That’s right, Dave, only one subject to talk about today: the manager-go-round. Remember I said a couple of months ago I thought there was something fishy going on at Chelsea with Doctor Gorgeous and Mourinho’s overreaction? Well we still don’t know the actual details, but it looks that way, doesn’t it? The way the team suddenly looked good again when he was out the door: Mark Lawrenson described it as disgraceful, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

Because, Baz, some of the players seemed to be holding something back. I don’t know if it could be construed, as you put it – good word, mate – as match fixing exactly, but it’s not far off.

Anyway, Mourinho’s very publicly available and the popular little equation is him to Man U, Guardiola to City and Simeone to Chelsea. But things don’t often work out so neatly and I think we could be in for a surprise. Let’s say Roman Abramovich is at a Christmas party and he gets pissed and bumps into Tony Pulis. And somebody’s put magic mushrooms in the punch and they become instant pals and he can see Pulis working his magic at Stamford Bridge.

Or how about this? Arsene Wenger to Chelsea for two years before he retires, allowing Drogba to gain managerial experience at, say, PSG, before taking over in west London.

Stranger things have happened. Cheers, Gary, I’ll have a mulled wine please. No mushrooms in it, mind.

Why didn’t I go into management, Dave? Because my talent for discipline with harmony led me down my current path. Yes, I suppose there are similarities – transferrable skills if you like. You don’t know what any of these guys are really like in the dressing room, but there have been some real characters. Bill Shankly, Cloughie, Fergie. And also some quite grey ones. You can’t imagine Alf Ramsey telling too many jokes, can you? Bob Paisley: like a nice old uncle, he seemed, but there must have been more to him than that. Sven-Goran Eriksson. Capello. Grim.

Nowadays, is Van Gaal really such a miserable sod as he looks? Maybe he’s just got worse over the years and now he’s a grumpy old git, but he used to be all right.

Thing is, we think these foreign coaches are so good because we don’t really know them. Then they come over here and they’re not geniuses after all, but where are the English managers who are going to replace them? People complain about the lack of black managers, but first things first. Let’s get a generation of Brits running the clubs, then we can empower the minorities. As it is, I mean who have you got? Sam Allardyce? Dinosaur in many ways. He likes dossiers apparently, but so did Don Revie, and Allardyce makes him look sophisticated. No, that’s not negative, Dave, it’s realistic.

Anyway – cheers Gary – Merry Christmas one and all, but Santa can’t bring everyone three points on Boxing Day. Such is life, lads, such is life.




Dear Whoever – Merry Christmas

She's young, she's innocent, she's growing up in our dirty old world. And she's wondering what the hell is going on.
This is how the world looks through the eyes of a child.

girl bomb

Dear Whoever,

I’m praying to you but I don’t know who you are. My grandparents used to pray to God, but now lots of people say there is no such person and anyone who’s religious is just imagining it. And other people say there is, but not the one that Christians call God, the one who had a son called Jesus. They have other names for their god. Whatever, this is what’s on my mind this week.

Christmas kid 1

Am I allowed to wish everyone a merry Christmas? Well I’m going to anyway, because I don’t see anything wrong with it. So only Christians think of it as Jesus’s birthday – that doesn’t matter. Everybody in so-called ‘Christian countries’ takes the day off on 25 December and it is our tradition to exchange presents and have a big meal with the family.

People who actually go to church, like my family does, are becoming rarer, but we’re not freaks. And there will be millions of people sitting around dining tables this Christmas who don’t see it as a religious thing at all.

Maybe it isn’t, anymore. Maybe it’s just a time when everybody tries to be better than they usually are – nicer to people and more grateful for what we’ve got. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be too poor to have food on the table – or even a table to put the food on – but there are unfortunate folks like that. There’s an old song that gets rereleased every December, talking about starving people in Africa who don’t have things that we take for granted.

When we sing along with this, who are we thinking about? Are we thinking about people who deserve to have a nice Christmas because they believe in what we believe in, or are we thinking about everyone? Personally, I’m thinking about everyone.

They don’t have to come to church with us. They don’t have to sing only Christmas carols that don’t have any religious content (Good King Wenceslas, for instance – nothing about Jesus or Mary in that one, it’s just an atmosphere).

Christmas kid 2

So, everyone: have a merry Christmas. Just because it’s a chance to think about forgetting our differences and starting again.


Bloke in the Kitchen. The non-nonsense wine guide


Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Journey into the unknown. Don’t be afraid, young man. Just follow these simple guidelines.

Wine is a big subject and this article is like summarising a whole year’s news in 1,000 words. But…

There is more pretentious rubbish written about wine than on any other subject. Sure, it’s a complex matter and taste and smell are more difficult to describe than sights and sounds, but that is no reason to resort to absurd terminology.

You could see Chateau Whatever described as “ rich in tannins, heavy on the palate, with a petrolly nose and an astringent finish”. So was it nice, then?

I want to know how something that smells of petrol and ‘causes contraction of the body tissue’ (that’s what astringent means) could be pleasant to drink.

Now obviously you can’t just say things are tasty, light, drinkable and so on, because those are vague terms and you’re not really telling the reader anything that isn’t, anyway, nowadays stated on the label by the people who bottled it. But however sophisticated your palate is, I don’t want to know that there is a faint trace of cow dung in there somewhere.

Red Bordeaux (aka claret). Could be great but probably out of our league for now

So, having dissed the connoisseurs, what exactly is this wine-drinker’s answer? Well, five things.

  1. Don’t be afraid of wine.
  2. Try new things.
  3. If you like something, remember it.
  4. If you don’t like something, remember it.
  5. Consider who’s going to be drinking it.

Don’t be afraid of it. It’s only wine, and if you pay attention to what you’re drinking, you will know what to look for and what to avoid next time.

Try new things. It’s important, though, to do your experimenting in private. If you buy something you’ve never had before and it’s beautiful, that’s great. If it’s horrible (or perhaps there is nothing wrong with it but you just don’t like it) there is no harm done.

Consider who’s going to be drinking it. All you need to do is get something that you and your guests will enjoy, whether it be to drink in your home or theirs. If someone likes the sort of Californian rosé wine that should really be in the soft drinks department, get a bottle of that. And something else for yourself.

wine 2
There is probably something decent here. The people in yellow shirts might be able to suggest something, but don’t bank on it

Pay attention and remember what it was like. If it was good, look for it again. If you didn’t like it, make sure you don’t get it in future.


The more you learn about wine, the more you will realize that you know nothing.

What do I know about it? I worked for several years for a chain of wine shops in London and every evening we used to open a bottle and try it.

Our rationale was this: when a customer who knows and trusts you asks what something is like, you can’t just tell them what it is supposed to be like. We were providing a valuable service to the customer.

And I still feel like I know nothing, in the context of the millions of wines, blends and vintages I have yet to try.

What year? Vintages are for experts and not for us to worry about at this stage (but despite the saying, old is not necessarily better).

Another old saying: red with meat, white with fish – but now people are saying that’s rubbish. Well, like a lot of clichés, there is some truth in it, so it’s worth bearing in mind unless you really know what you’re doing.

Let’s imagine you’re having a seafood salad to start and roast turkey for the main course.

By all means choose a white for the seafood, but make sure it’s dry, not sweet. Italian Pinot Grigio is all over the place these days and with good reason, because it is dry, has a certain amount of flavor and is usually quite okay: reliable.

You could go for Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay, both of which have a more pronounced taste which you may or may not like.

pinot g
Pinot Grigio. Light, dry, tasty – you can hardly go wrong

My personal favourite is another Italian: Verdicchio, which comes in a distinctive bottle shaped not unlike a woman, with a nice balcony tapering to the ankles. Verdicchio is not terribly, gaggingly dry, but it’s certainly on the dry side of the line.

verdicchio 2
Verdicchio (pronounced vair dickio) The Maria Sharapova of white wine (yes, I know she’s Russian). Just leave us alone for an hour – and close the door behind you.

For your red, the world is full of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and you often find Pinot Noir too. These are the names of the grapes they’re made from, which gives you a rough idea of what they’re like. Shiraz is thick and strong-flavoured (and is another name for the French grape syrah). Malbec is heavy too.

Beaujolais is light. It’s made from the gamay grape, which isn’t very common otherwise, and is generally better young – no more than three or four years to be on the safe side.

Rioja (pronounced reeokka), from Spain, used to be thick and oaky, but they don’t mess around with it so much anymore. It’s just good, quality wine – and doesn’t have to be expensive.

If grapes mean nothing to you, you could try trusting a country. The Italians, French and Spanish all have an excellent reputation. With other countries you might find a gem, but you might not.

Cheap Californian wines tend to be easy to drink. The connoisseur might say they have all the character blended out of them, but when the name of the game is to keep your not-fussy friends happy, the popular Californian names should do it.

Rioja is from Spain. And pretty much all of your red wine-drinking guests are sure to like it.

DON’T BUY THE CHEAPEST. Wines are arranged at ‘price points’, so you will find loads atone level and then a leap to loads at another. You will occasionally find a little miracle that costs next to nothing, but not often, so spend a little more if you can.


Q. Aren’t corks supposed to be better than screw caps?

A. That’s a kind of snobbery. Corks are traditional, but when buying cheaper wine, screw caps are more reliable. When a wine is described as ‘off’ or ‘corked’, it means it tastes dirty, bitter, musty, contaminated. You are much more likely to come across this when there is a cork in the top. So go for a screw cap.

Like learning to cook, finding your way around wine is a long process, but it’s good fun. Basically, keep trying different things and you will teach yourself.


Age-related culture shock

Go on, show us your fangs

When we talk about culture shock we usually mean finding that things are done differently in another country, and this seasoned traveler is used to that by now. What I hadn’t experienced until recently – not for many years, anyway – was age-related culture shock.

We’ve got a teenager living with us for a while. A thirteen-year-old niece. Nice girl, does her fair share of the washing up, showers the dog, even cooks occasionally. A bit finicky with her eating for my liking, but I’m working on it.

I walked into the TV room the other day to find it freezing cold with airconditioning (she doesn’t have to pay the electricity bill) and as dark as a mole’s armpit. The TV was on, so I sat down to have a look. The Vampire Diaries. An American TV series.

I don’t know if you have had the pleasure, but allow me to explain the central premise. Two young men who happen to be vampires live in the very strange town of Mystic Falls, a supernatural place of witches and weirdness.

This being an American youth series, everyone in it is beautiful – boys, girls and adults – but there aren’t too many of the latter because adults are like boring and kids are cool. You know the kind of thing. Beverly Hills 90210. Looks United 10, Brain City 0.

Eliciting information about this show from my niece is not easy, because she is Venezuelan and speaks Spanish, but she knows more about it than she does about, say, geography.

Damon and Stefan (the vampires) are, as far as I can tell after one episode, good vamp and bad vamp. One (don’t ask me which) appears to have his fiendish urges under control, while the other is desperate to drink some human blood. To this end we find him in a nearby clearing in the woods with a blonde who doesn’t seem afraid of him, even as he tells her what he’s going to do to her carotid artery. There is a technique, he says, and it can be done neatly, with little mess. He has to strongly advise her to be scared and run away, which she does, but then she comes back and he duly has a pint of O Positive direct from her neck and she doesn’t seem to mind that either.

Clearly I have missed a lot of information due to not watching the previous episodes, but I’m afraid life is too short to correct that now.

teen girls
Okay you three: go and wash your faces

Being a teen soap opera, not only is everyone gorgeous, but they are also unhappy, falling in love with the wrong boy, biting the neck of the wrong girl and so on. And apparently there is a power shortage in Mystic Falls, so every scene is lit by a torch on one side of the face only. Spooky, dude.

My niece invited me to watch again the next day, but unfortunately I had a date with Chelsea and a Champions League match against Porto. She declined my equally magnanimous offer to watch it with me.

She went into her room and did a bit of Facebooking (I assume that’s what she did, anyway, because she posts something every day). Chelsea won 2-0 and everybody was happy.

That’s another bit of culture shock, actually, because my now-grownup kids are sons. Plus, they didn’t spend much time holed up in their rooms. And even if they had, I would have been able to exercise my right to barge in there. I’m trying to be a good male role model for this girl, but it’s very different. I’m suspicious of her friends, who are likely to try to drag her into rampant adulthood before she – or do I mean I – is ready for it. The only schoolmates she has brought home so far (to bake a cake) were three of the nerdiest boys I’ve ever met, who insisted on calling me ‘Sir’. Obviously this was a smokescreen designed to lull me into a false sense of security.

Una paloma blancaaaaaa…

Undaunted after the vampires lost to the football, the girl organized a karaoke session using the television and YouTube, with a remote control unit as a microphone. Me, her, my wife and grandma.

My natural inclination to play the fool was quickly stamped upon. “Take it seriously”, they ordered me, recording it on a phone to show to classmates and probably put on Facebook eventually. I gave them And I Love You So, the Don McLean version, serious as you like, and it brought the house down.

My niece did something in Spanish that I had never heard of, my wife did something I had heard of but didn’t recognize and grandma pretended she didn’t understand.

I’m with you, grandma. What is going on?