Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Dum spirat, hora gustat

Why are you sitting there?

According to some of the most popular book titles over the last couple of years the last thing you should be doing is sitting in front of a computer.

I think (though I stand to be corrected) that it is all the fault of Patricia Schultz travel writer and producer of an American Travel Channel’s reality show. In May 2003 her book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” was published and became an instant best-seller. Not, I hasten to add, because it was treated as a travel guide and target by any of its purchasers. No, people who bought it simply wanted to dream about what they might do one day. A dream with pretty pictures, clever text and novel ideas. A dream which was also ideal at fuelling the great demand for that wonderful concept known only to the species homo sapiens – the Guilt Trip!

Since May 2003 it has been totally inadequate to sit quietly and enjoy the moment. One had to be up and doing things. How could you just sit there while you could be watching whirling dervishes in Turkey, visiting Japan's Sapporo Snow Festival, or having coffee in a former Hungarian brothel that's now a cute artisan’s bakery run by tiny singing lesbians. Now there are even “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” calendars with a daily picture. Each month features a dream journey with one large picture at the top of the spread, a map and list of highlights, plus dozens of smaller photographs in the grid below (all in full colour, of course). The castles and breathtaking scenery of Bavaria's Romantic Road, a tour of the Imperial Cities of Morocco, a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express, a nostalgic trip along Route 66. One review I saw said “Every destination is inspiration to stop dreaming and get going!” I assume that meant get off your backside and go there. (The alternative interpretation of leave as soon as you get there is an even more depressing concept!)

And, to round it off, there’s a “1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List” which is simply a blank notebook for you to insert your own travels in. I’m not sure that – “Pensby Post Office for Pension; Heswall to get light bulbs from Woolworths” really merit using it so I don’t think I’ll bother.

Even staid British nature programmes now keep urging one to stop watching the television and ‘get out there’... The programme might have been designed for you to watch in the comfort of your armchair with a glass of wine and the log fire crackling but unless you are actually freezing your reproductive parts off on some moorland plateau in the vague hope of seeing a Capercailzie at 2.5 miles you are, implicitly, a failure.

Life has become a check-list. What you want to do and the fact that you can get your kicks reading blogs is irrelevant. Instead you should be rushing round ticking off one of your lists. But, of course, your lists aren’t to be found on that old reporter’s notebook in the kitchen or even on some clever little computer program. They are to found in some of the copycat books... There’s “1001 Paintings you must see before you die” by Stephen Farthing; “1001 Albums you must hear before you die” by Robert Dimery, “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Ackroyd, “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” by Steven Jay Schneider, “1001 Foods: You Must Try Before You Die” by Frances Case and even “1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die” edited by Neil Beckett. To those you can also add “1001 Natural Wonders: You Must See Before You Die “ which became “1001 Natural Wonders: Places You Must See in Your Lifetime” by Michael Bright - a clever little tweak to the theme.

There’s also “1000 recipes to try before you die”. The fact that there’s no 1001st recipe suggest that perhaps that is the one that kills you. “I told you not to try the puffer fish”. By the time we get to shopping as an objective we come down to a mere “101 Things to Buy before you die”. Mind you, I suspect if your tried buying 1001 exotic things there would be a danger of your partner killing you for being such a spendthrift before you could make your target.

Best of all though – at least so far as the title is concerned - is undoubtedly the New Scientist’s “100 Things to do before you (plus a few to do afterwards).

On the web you can even have a go at "1001 Lists to Read before you die".

For me the whole “...to do before you die” phenomenon has two major flaws. Firstly, no matter how you view death, the concept of having to complete something before you die is a bit depressing. You might as well start a list of jobs to do about the house with “stay alive”. I want to get all my slides scanned into the computer before I die. I also want to take photos of all the resident butterflies and dragonflies in the UK. Whilst I’m not going to get worked up about it on my deathbed and lament my shortcomings I certainly don’t need the added pressure of not having drunk 1001 wines or played golf on 50 courses (especially as a non-alcoholic non golf-player). 'Take guilt trip' does not need to be the top of any of my lists.

My second objection is the idea that the moment we are in is never considered to be enough. You cannot be enjoying place 17 on your list because you’ve got to be on your way to place 18. It reminds me of how upset I got with some American tourists who had ‘done’ the Lake District’ on 12th August 1966 (by visiting Wordsworth’s grave) after ‘doing the Cotswolds’ the previous day by seeing Birdland in Bourton-on-the-Water. I felt that no matter how many months I spent walking the fells I would never have 'done the Lake District'.

This moment is really all that matters in the whole of your life – after all no matter how old you are there’s no way of knowing how long you’ve got ‘before you die’. So if you want to be sitting in front of the screen reading my blog and you are enjoying yourself just forget the pressure to be up and doing. Never mind carpe diem (seize the day) try dum spirat, hora gustat (enjoy the hour – as long as you breathe!)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Smarties – The Truth!

After doing what I thought was quite a reasonable posting about the Smartie (below) I have found out three facts were incorrect. Three rather key facts.

Firstly. the Smarties in my hexatube are 14mm on their large axis. Not 15mm. Secondly, there were only 33 Smarties in my hexatube. There is no way a hexatube could contain’ an average of 48’. Thirdly, my tube cost 44p against a 2005 price of 33p. So much for not putting the price up! Inflation of 33% in three years. A bit above the target for the annual inflation rate of the Consumer Prices Index of 1.8% this year.

Friday, 14 November 2008


Shortly after doing my Blog posting on Gatorade I bought a ‘tube’ of Smarties and the question of ‘artificial colours’ raised it’s head again. I apologise to Gatorade if their blue one is not artificially coloured – after all, I discovered that the blue Smarties are naturally coloured.

Firstly, can I point out – for those who, like me, haven’t bought Smarties for years - that the tube is no longer a cylindrical cardboard one, capped with a colourful lid, which usually had a letter of the alphabet on it.
(Above photos by kind permission of Crispy Liz whose wonderful site about Smartie packaging includes some Smartie tube swaps for the real enthusiast).

I loved the old Smartie tube - when you were finished with the sweets you could give it a quick squeeze or karate-chop to fire the lid across the room at some speed. This usually resulted in one being told that it was "all very well until somebody loses an eye". No doubt if Nestle had continued with the old tube they would have had to put a health warning on it advising against doing that. They would also presumably have had to defend themselves against legal claims from parents of children who choked on the lids. I presume we never tried eating the lids because there wasn't any money in it in the old days.

In February 2005, the Smarties tube was replaced with a hexagonal design. The rationale behind changing the design was, according to Nestle, to make the brand "fresh and appealing" to youngsters; the new 'hexatube' is also lighter and more compact. Doubtless it is a lot cheaper to produce though the price did not drop - Nestle remarking simply that they were not putting the price up! I wouildn't quite agree with Helen from the UK who described it as "Quite simply the worst catastrophe to befall modern man". Nevertheless one does wonder where this trend will end - will Polos have their holes filled in? Are Marmite jars safe?

More importantly – though this wasn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article – their new packaging is recyclable. Nevertheless, Smarties are not quite Smarties without their round tubes and little plastic lids. Over the last 25 years, Nestlé has manufactured five billion Smarties lids. Some lids are very rare and are now regarded as collectors' items. The last 100 tubes to leave the factory in York had a certificate inside them.

Nestlé Smarties have been manufactured since at least 1882, originally by H.I. Rowntree & Co. The tube shaped packaging has been in use since 1937. Smarties are no longer manufactured in York; production has now moved to Germany, where a third of them were already made.

Like the Earth, Smarties are oblate spheroids! They are just a bit smaller, having a minor axis of about 5 mm (0.2 in) and a major axis of about 15 mm (0.6 in). They currently come in eight colours: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, mauve, pink and brown.

In one of the earlier ranges of colours, there was a light-brown Smartie. This was replaced in 1988 by the blue Smartie. Before 1958, the dark-brown Smarties had a plain-chocolate centre, while the light-brown one tasted of coffee. The orange Smarties contained, and still contain in the UK, orange-flavoured chocolate. I had never realised that the chocolate in the orange ones was different – had you?

In 2006 it was announced that Nestlé were removing all artificial colourings from Smarties in the UK, owing to consumer concerns over the effect of chemical dyes on children's health. Nestlé decided to replace all chemical dyes with natural ones, but as they were unable to source a natural blue dye, the blue Smarties were removed from circulation, and white Smarties were introduced in their place. White Smarties were later removed from the range but no reason was given.

Now blue Smarties have been re-introduced using a natural blue dye derived from cyanobacteria from the genus Arthrospira (popularly but inaccurately known as Spirulina). This seaweed extract is cultivated around the world, and is used as a human dietary supplement as well as a whole food and is available in tablet, flake, and powder form. It is also used as a feed supplement in the aquaculture, aquarium, and poultry industries.

Violet Smarties are dyed with cochineal, a derivative of the Cochineal insect which is listed in the ingredients as carminic acid. Its presence means that Smarties are neither kosher nor vegetarian.

One of the parental revolts was against E numbers. In casual language in the UK and Ireland, the term "E-number" is used as a pejorative term for artificial food additives, and products may promote themselves as "free of E-numbers" even though some of the ingredients (e.g. bicarbonate of soda) do have such a code. I noted on the packaging that one of the current ingredients of Smarties is Copper complexes of chlorophyllins. That has the E number E411 (which puts it in the emulsifier, thickener, or stabiliser range) but I see that Nestlé choose not to use it on the packaging....

Smarties are not distributed in the United States, except by specialist importers. For the last 60 years, the Ce De Candy company has manufactured a hard, tablet sweet under the name Smarties, which is unrelated to the Nestlé product. M&Ms are pretty much the US equivalent of Smarties and are now available over here as well.

And finally –

Around 570,000 Smarties are made each day.

According to a BBC website 307 tubes are eaten per minute in the UK. Perhaps that is why they have redesigned the tube - to make it easier to eat. Even so, I suspect it must lead to a lot of people arriving at A & E to be attended to for choking.....

There is a poll on the Nestlé website that allows one to vote for their favourite colour. I voted for mine - yellow - it then showed the current voting. Yellow, it sems is the least popular. I hope they don't get rid of it. Perhaps I should begin a "Campaign to Save the Yellow smartie" before it's too late.

On average approximately 16,000 Smarties are eaten every minute in the UK. (Does this take into account the odd one that slips away and hides down the side of the setee?).

There are an average of 48 Smarties in each tube.

If all the Smarties eaten in one year were laid end to end it would equal almost 63,380 miles, more than two-and-a-half times around the Earth's equator. They would also melt quite quickly at the Equator!

Question - for GB - do they sell Smarties in NZ and, if so, in what packaging?

Kathryn Ratcliffe holds the world record for eating Smarties in 3 mins using chopsticks - she managed 138....

Sunday, 2 November 2008

My Christmas List

I decided that I would, for once, begin my Christmas list on 1st November. This is something I have always planned to do in the past but which always gets put off until mid-December by which time it’s too late to do a newsletter to tell people what has happened to the family during the year; I’ve forgotten half the people to whom I should send cards; I have a last minute panic looking for addresses that have gone missing; and I miss the posting abroad dates. So far the list has three names on it but it’s a start!

The next job will be to go up in the loft and find all the boxes of left-over Christmas cards. Every year I mean to use up the old cards (both an economy gesture and an environmentally friendly one) but by the time I get them down from the loft I’ve bought new ones.

Marilyn, a friend of mine has taken the brave decision to stop sending cards and makes a donation to charity instead. The only concession I have made – and it’s one I have done for about twenty years – is to cut up the cards we get to make gift tags for the next year. Mind you, I now have enough gift tags to put ten on every present I’m likely to give this millennium.

What is believed to be one of the first mass-produced Christmas cards - dating back more than 160 years - can be found among the extensive special collections of Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology. The lithographed card caused a controversy in some quarters of Victorian English society when it was published in 1843 because it prominently featured a child taking a sip from a glass of wine.

Approximately 1,000 copies of the card were printed but only 10 have survived to modern times. Bridwell Library acquired its copy in 1982. The card was designed for Henry Cole by his friend, the English painter John Calcott Horsley (1808-1882). Cole wanted a ready-to-mail greeting card because he was too busy to engage in the traditional English custom of writing notes with Christmas and New Year's greetings to friends and family. The card pre-dated colour printing so it was hand-coloured. Cole printed more cards than he needed so he sold the extra ones for a shilling each. Bridwell Library's card was signed by Cole and addressed to the engraver of the card, John Thompson (1785-1866).

Widespread commercial printing of Christmas cards began in the 1860s, when a new process of colour printing lowered the manufacturing cost and the price. Consequently, the custom of sending printed Christmas greetings spread throughout England.

Perhaps one set of cards hardest to understand today were produced in the 1880s in a series by Raphael Tuck named "Silent Songster". They showed dead robins. At the time, the series was very popular and was imitated by several other firms in subsequent years. Even the accompanying inscriptions are strange. They read "Sweet messenger of calm decay and Peace Divine" or "But peaceful was the night wherein the Prince of Light His reign of peace upon the earth began". One can only surmise at their purpose. Perhaps it was a mixture of shame for the slaying of a robin or wren over Christmas (Hunt the Wren was a seasonal activity!) and a compassion for birds during the cold winter months.

Nowadays, by contrast with the late 19th century, cards are relatively expensive, postage is ridiculously so and we are now writing newsletters to go inside them - thereby returning to the traditional English custom of writing notes but with the added bonus of an expensive - often environmentally unfriendly - card.

To return to the subject of my preparations. By the end of the week my list of who I need to send cards to should be complete. Unlike my friend Liz, whose card will arrive on 1st or 2nd Decemeber, I shall no doubt then sit back and leave writing them and everything else to mid-December and curse myself for being late again...