A few more books at bedtime, plus one for the cruise ship
23 September 2023 | 4:41 pm

 “A Book at Bedtime” is the name of a long-running radio programme that is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 each weekday evening. Its 15-minute slot, that goes out just before bedtime at 10.45 pm, presents readings of fiction, including modern classics, new works by leading writers, and literature from around the world.

This article is the third in a rather drawn-out series of the same name, and like its predecessors looks back at some of the books I’ve read over the last year or so. There’s much to be said about “a book at bedtime,” especially as one can lose oneself in another word, before drifting off into a restful sleep. Climbing into bed, and snuggling down under the covers, with just enough room to hold and read a book, is certainly a good way to relax and to forget about the trials and tribulations of the day just passed.

My most recent “Book at Bedtime” article saw the light of day in December 2021, so almost two years ago, and as Mrs PBT’s and I countdown the days to a lengthy period afloat – a period when there should be ample time for further reading, here is a quick look-back over the books I’ve digested over the past 22 months.

Rural Rides - William Cobbett

William Cobbett (1763-1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer, and journalist, who is best known for his book, Rural Rides. Cobbett was a radical anti-Corn Law and social campaigner, speaking up on behalf of the rural poor. He was newly returned to England, following a spell of self-imposed political exile in the United States, and between 1821 and 1836 Cobbett made numerous journeys, by foot and on horseback, through the countryside of southern England. On his travels he observed the English countryside and agricultural practices at close hand and saw many examples of injustice and poverty which angered him.

Cobbett believed that reforming Parliament and abolishing the rotten borough system would help to end the poverty of farm labourers, as he matured into a radical left-wing politician. He was also a farmer who ensured his labourers had access to the three Bs: bacon, bread. Rural Rides is Cobbett's remarkable account of what he saw and is a detailed portrait of rural England at the time. It remains one of the greatest celebrations of agrarian England.

Knowing quite a few of the places that Cobbett visited on his travels, makes Rural Rides even more interesting for me, and his description of the countryside either side of the Medway Valley, to the south of Maidstone is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and was his third book. It is claimed to be one of the great classics of twentieth century literature and stands as the supreme achievement of Fitzgerald’s career. It is rather a short book, and if you want a tip, don’t read the introduction before diving into the narrative. Why? Well for starters, it’s nearly as long as the novel itself, and like many similar introductions, written by various pompous, “literary fellows,” it makes little sense until you have actually finished the book!

Set in the Jazz Age, in a fictitious small settlement on Long Island, near New York City, the novel makes use of a narrator Nick Carraway, who writes in the first-person about his observations and interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby. Billed as an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s when, according to the New York Times, "gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession," the novel depicts Gatsby's obsession to reunite with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan.

Why is Gatsby so great? Because that's what Nick tells us. If Gatsby told us, we would just think that he is a rather boastful, and shallow character. Instead, Jay Gatsby, is the embodiment of hope, and no one can dissuade him from his dreams, even though the novel has a tragic ending (spoiler alert). The story of this slightly naïve, but fabulously wealthy dreamer, and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, is one that embodies the age it was written in, as well as the American dream. Small wonder that it’s referred to as a brilliant literary masterpiece.

I picked up this book at St Pancras International, intending to read on the train to Brussels and Cologne, where I was travelling to for the International Dental Show. Instead, by swapping seats, I manged to sit opposite one of my colleagues from the sales team. She was good company and being Irish had plenty to say as well. We sloped off at Brussels Midi for a crafty beer, and nearly missed our connecting Thalys train to Cologne, but that’s another story.

Finally, we come to the book I am reading at the moment, and am currently 219 pages in to a 821 page novel. The book is Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, and Tom will be accompanying me on the cruise.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Often known simply as Tom Jones, the above is a comic novel by English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding. It was first published in February 1749 in London and is said to be among the earliest English works to be classified as a novel.

Tom Jones was hugely popular when it was first published and tells the story of the foundling Tom and his journey towards adulthood and marriage. This journey is a complicated one, as well as a comedic one, involving an intricate and interwoven plot that is full of different twists and turns.

Tom is a foundling of mysterious parentage brought up by the local squire, Mr. Allworthy on his country estate. He falls in love with Sophia Western, the beautiful daughter of the neighbouring squire, although along the way he succumbs to the charms of several local girls. After a series of misadventures, he is banished from Mr Allworthy’s house, and finds his way to London, to make his own fortune. Sophia follows him to the capital to escape an arranged marriage, and the adventure really begins.

The novel's events occupy eighteen books, but despite its age, is very easy to read. Described as a vivid Hogarthian panorama of eighteenth-century life, spiced with danger, intrigue, and bawdy exuberance, Tom Jones is one of the greatest and most ambitious comic novels in English literature, and I look forward to discovering what the book’s hero get up to next.

 Cask, the Real Story of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture

Should I manage to read the remaining 600 pages, or if I fancy a change, I shall be taking along a copy of Des de Moor’s recently published tome –  Cask. The book has received mixed reviews to date, with some complaining it is too long, and others saying it is too technical. One reviewer even described it as lacking feeling. I shall of course, read it without any pre-conceptions and present an honest review at the end. I doubt somehow, I will be able to plough my way through a further 300 pages of text, so that appraisal will probably appear later, rather than sooner.

The not so "smart" road to nowhere
21 September 2023 | 9:04 pm

There are some experiences in life that we either wish we hadn't had or, if we haven't had them yet, we don't want them to occur. Unfortunately, last weekend I found myself living one such experience, and whilst it turned out alright in the end, it is not something I would wish to repeat.

I've held a full driving licence since the age of 19, although it was several years later that I purchased my first car. Money was tight in those days, especially during my student years, but living in a city such as Manchester, where public transport was plentiful and relatively cheap, there was no need for me to get behind the wheel.

Since acquiring my first vehicle, a Mark III Ford Escort estate, purchased second-hand from the company I worked for at the time, I’ve enjoyed many years of pleasant, enjoyable, and relatively stress-free motoring. One of my worst fears behind the wheel, apart from the obvious one of being involved in an accident, has been that of breaking down somewhere at the side of the road. Being stranded somewhere, miles from anywhere during a long road trip, with an incapacitated vehicle, and unable to continue and complete my journey. Even worse would be for the car to suffer a fault whilst travelling in fast moving traffic, along a motorway, or other dual carriageway road.

I wouldn't say I'm a motoring geek, but I do check my oil and coolant levels from time to time and the same applies to my tyre pressures. These checks are particularly important prior to setting off on a long journey. Well, I was on a short car ride on Sunday, when the worst happened, and my vehicle developed a fault whilst I was driving along the motorway. Before going into detail, I'd like to set the scene, and explain what I've been doing I'm where I was travelling home from, so please bear with, as they say.

Early on Sunday morning, young Matthew and I had driven over to Chiddingstone Causeway, in order to grab a breakfast at the village hall. We left Mrs PBT's behind, tucked up in bed, as she is definitely not a morning person these days, and wouldn’t have thanked us, if we’d woken her up. We arrived at the hall shortly before 9am, where there was already quite a number of eager diners sat down inside.  We had to wait about 30 minutes for our breakfast to be served, but it was worth the wait, with several rashers of properly matured bacon, a farmhouse sausage, fried egg, toast, and tin tomatoes.

A small number of volunteers do the cooking for these breakfasts, which take place once a fortnight. All profits generated go towards the village hall fund, so with me working in Chiddingstone Causeway, it's nice to put a little something back into the local community. With breakfast done and dusted what should we do afterwards? There was very little that needed doing outside, as the with the growing season coming to an end, the garden is now more or less taking care of itself. Besides with rain forecast there would be no need to water anything either. This is where the kernel of an idea took shape in my mind, and because it involved a visit to a different branch of the hardware chain store that Matthew works at, he jumped at the idea.

My plan was to take a drive over to the mid Surrey town of Dorking, take a look around the town, and visit the local branch of Robert Dyas, before heading home. Prior to parking up in the town though, I told Matthew we would drive the short distance along the A24 towards the foot of Box Hill, park up at the Mercure Hotel at Burford Bridge, in the shadow of the well-known local landmark. We would then walk the short distance to the point where the North Downs Way descends from the summit of Box Hill and crosses the busy A24.

I wanted to take a look at the famous Stepping Stones which is where the NDW crosses a shallow stream by means of a series of flat and strategically placed stepping stones. I had missed this small, but significant stretch of the trail, when I walked from Betchworth station to the halt at Boxhill & Westhumble. That particular hike took place on New Year's Eve 2021, and it was whilst descending from the summit of Boxhill that I took a wrong turn. I only realised my error when I was about a third of the way down, but as the going under foot was very slippery, due to the long-wet grass, I decided to keep going and eventually reached the bottom, where the footpath brought me out from just behind the Burford Bridge Hotel.

Annoyed at having missed the famous stepping stones, I promised myself, for the sake of completeness, to return one day and see then for myself. Last Sunday seemed as good a day as any, and it wasn't that far to walk from the car park either. Matthew still managed to complain, moaning that I was leading him on a wild goose chase, even though it didn't take us long to find the famous stones, the clue being a small National Trust car park. We walked down to the stream and had a look at the crossing.

The setting was quite picturesque, although the stream didn't seem as wide as some of the photos I’d seen. This may have been due to the lack of rain in recent months. I took a few photos before walking back to the car, past the famous Rykas Café, and the hordes of bikers it attracts. 

We then headed into Dorking, for my first visit in many years. We had a stroll around this attractive town, which allowed Matthew time to call in at the local branch of his store, whilst I grabbed a flat white, from a local independent coffee shop opposite. By the time I’d received my coffee to go, and met back up with Matthew, it had started raining, so we hurried back to the car feeling a bit foolish for having left our coats on the back seat.

It was time to head back to Tonbridge, and although we had made our way cross country from Chiddingstone, on the homeward trip I decided we would take the motorway. After entering Reigate, we drove up the steep Reigate Hill torch towards Junction 8 of the M25 and joined the motorway. We were motoring along fine, until we reached the stretch between the Godstone turning and Clackets Lane services. As we were driving along, I was explaining to Matthew what “smart motorways” are, and how in my book, the powers that be had rather foolishly removed the “hard shoulder” in order to provide an extra traffic lane.

This was all well and good, I said, until something goes wrong - not for one moment thinking something would go wrong, but unfortunately it did!  We were travelling around 60-65 mph in lane 2, when the car started juddering and I experienced a loss of power. it wasn't a complete loss, but what on earth was going on? My vehicle is powered by diesel, and a warning light had been flashing on the dashboard, indicating a fault with the glow plugs, so this was an obvious clue to the cause of the problem. We’d already passed the A22 turn off, and the next junction was the turn off for the A21. It's quite a complicated junction and was some miles away, so what to do next?

Being in a vehicle, whose engine was malfunctioning, was not a position I wanted to be in, but equally there was nowhere safe to pull over, and stop. Fortunately, Clacket Lane services were not too far away, so I decided we would leave the motorway there, providing the car kept going, and call for assistance from there. On the way, we noticed one of the yellow-painted, so-called “refuge spaces” designed as somewhere cars in difficulties can pull over and stop. Matthew was surprised when we didn’t make use of this area, so I told him that it was far too dangerous a place to stop. We limped on until we reached the service station, parked the car, and phoned Britannia Rescue.

Despite the promise of a tow truck within about 20 minutes, we ended up waiting a couple of hours for one to arrive. This wasn’t a problem, but it was rather annoying. The main thing was we were both safe, and the car was physically undamaged. It was an obvious fault – according to Google, and with the recovery vehicle on its way, the car plus Matthew and I would be driven to a garage of our choice, where we could leave the vehicle for the fault to be investigated and repaired.

It didn’t quite work out like that. Sure, we parked the car outside the local Skoda main dealership, deposited the key in the external safe, and caught a train back to Tonbridge. The following morning, Matthew drove me over to the dealership, and I formally booked my vehicle in. I sat there and listened to the sob story from the girl on the counter, about how busy they were, and how they couldn’t possibly work on the car for two or even three weeks.

I explained that I required the vehicle back, in a drivable condition, by the end of the month, as we needed to drive down to Southampton to embark on a lengthy cruise. That had virtually zero effect on the stony-faced receptionist, so I told her if they were unable to repair the vehicle before the allotted time, I would have to leave it with them, as me being out of the country did make collecting it, just that little bit awkward!

The car is still at the dealership, and Mrs PBT’s has booked a taxi to drive us to the cruise terminal and back. Not quite what we wanted, but as I was able to cancel, and claim a refund on the overnight hotel stay, and 20 days parking, that goes some way to offset the cost of the taxi. Looking on the bright side, breaking down where we did was far more preferable than the vehicle malfunctioning on the drive down to Southampton. That’s before even recount the number of cases my good lady wife is planning on taking.

As far as “smart motorways” are concerned, whatever government numpty, or treasury official came up with that crazy idea? According to campaigners, there have been at least 79 deaths linked to smart motorways, and in January 2022, the rollout of new stretches of “all-lane running” (the type we were on), was paused for five years, in order to collect more information and make existing schemes safer. Ministers have now gone further and cancelled the building of new smart motorways.


Summer slips slowly away
17 September 2023 | 8:21 pm

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Having struck gold last week at Lidl’s, I was not so lucky a week later at Aldi, the other German cost-cutter. Lidl had certainly turned trumps with their Wiesn-Tragerl 10 bottle, presentation pack, containing beers brewed to celebrate this special time of year in the calendar of beer lovers in both Germany, and increasingly in other parts of the world, as well.

Following on from my success with the Lidl’s packs which, according to seasoned bloggers, Boak & Bailey, was the cause of much excitement – hype, or hysteria amongst beer enthusiasts in Britain, thanks to social media allowing them to share an odd collective moment, I headed down to rivals, Aldi. This followed another couple of social reports I stumbled upon, including one from the Craft Beer Channel, indicating that Aldi were selling Paulaner and Erdinger Oktoberfest beers, along with Spaten Helles for £1.99 a bottle.

I’d missed the boat, or certainly most of it, as on Friday evening although Spaten Helles was still available, the offerings from Paulaner and Erdinger had already sold out. Oktoberfest is certainly proving a real hit, this year, here in the UK, and as if further proof was needed, son Matthew arrived home from Lidl’s laden with a number of typically Bavarian food items, all appropriate for the time of year. Last weekend we enjoyed some pork Schnitzels, and we've also chomped our way through several servings of Bratwurst. We've also got some of those spherical and spongy Bavarian potato dumplings Knödel, which we will have tomorrow served up with some goulash.

Finally, we have several tubs of Obatzda, a kind of soft cheese based on Camembert, but flavoured with various herbs and spices, forming the ideal beer garden snack. Matthew bought a sufficient quantity of this cheese to withstand a siege, but with a reasonably lengthy shelf life I'm sure it will all get eaten. As I say, Lidl’s certainly went to town with this year’s Oktoberfest celebrations.

Now some boring stuff. We had the boiler serviced yesterday, and it's hard to believe that it was a year ago that we had this new, and much more efficient model installed. The only thing that needs doing on that front now is to have the chimney swept, so that we can light the log burner. That won't happen until we return from our cruise at the start of the last week in October. We've also booked our Flu vaccinations for the end of next week. I think this will be the third year I've had this particular jab having never bothered until recently, but when I remember just how ill and debilitating flu can be, it's definitely worth it.

One of the other things I've done recently, is to join a beer club. The club in question is the Braybrooke Lager Club, operated by the Braybrooke Beer Co, a specialist lager brewery situated on Braybrooke Farm, just outside of Market Harborough. Founded in 2017 by three friends with the stated aim of making really good, proper lager. This is achieved through the use of state-of-the-art equipment, great care, and the best ingredients available. The result is a selection of unfiltered, unpasteurised, and naturally carbonated beers that have complexity whilst retaining the refreshing drinkability every great lager should have.

Members of the Braybrooke Lager Club receive a box of 12 bottles delivered free to their door every month. It is a mixed case of the brewery’s core beers (including their famous Keller Lager), specials and collaboration beers plus guest lagers. There are plenty of other brewing companies I could have supported, but I really liked what Braybrooke were doing so was quite happy to subscribe to the club. I should perhaps have read the small print, as the bottles are 330 ml size rather than the 500 ml I was expecting. Small matter said Mrs PBT's, if it's something you’re keen on, and you're going to enjoy the beers, then sometimes it's worth paying a little over the odds for something a bit special.

Moving on, and there’s bad news concerning yet another brewery closure, with the Wychwood Brewery, in Witney, Oxfordshire, the latest casualty. Wychwood’s flagship brand is the well-known Hobgoblin ale, although the brewery also produces beer for other companies. The current output is around 50,000 barrels a year, nearly all of it cask. Wychwood is also the United Kingdom's largest brewer of organic ales. The brewing plant is sited at the old Eagle Maltings which at one time produced malted barley for the nearby Clinches Brewery. Its current owner is the Carlsberg-Marstons Brewing Company, a multi-national giant formed by a joint venture between Carlsberg UK and Marston’s PLC, who are both shareholders.

Unfortunately, since their formation in 2020, CMBC have a track record of closing breweries, despite boasting of 300 years of shared values, history, and heritage in UK brewing. Jennings Brewery, at Cockermouth in the heart of the Lake District, closed last year, and back in June the closure of the Ringwood Brewery, in Hampshire was announced. Now Wychwood too, is due to bite the dust, with closure scheduled for November. The weasel words uttered by the chief executive of CMBC to excuse the closure of Wychwood, have been quite widely, but they are just that, platitudes and pathetic hand-wringing excuses from a company that has little or no interest in brewing ale, traditional, or otherwise.  I shan’t waste ink, or my time, by repeating them all here, although here’s a quick taste. “We can consolidate our brewing network to achieve greater efficiency and productivity supporting outgoing investment in our people and businesses.” The rest of this Orwellian themed double-speak is out there, all over the internet, should you desire to read it.

Moving on to books, and especially ones to read whilst away. "Cask – The real story of Britain’s unique beer culture," has just been published.  Written by respected London Pub Guide author, Des De Moor, Cask is a comprehensive, 334 page book about this country’s unique contribution to the world of beer. Within its pages, Des covers a wide array of beery topics, presented as a series of chapters with subject titles and a narrative about each. Strangely enough, Des turned up at the tour of Hukins Hops, I attended last year. One of the reasons he was there, was to gather further material for the book on Cask he was writing, so it will be interesting to see what he has to say about hops.

Veteran blogger Tandleman, gives a thoughtful, and well-balanced review of the book on his site, so it’s well worth taking a look, here. In the meantime, I have ordered a copy to take away and read on our forthcoming cruise, and I will let you know my thoughts, when I return. With the “C” season rapidly creeping up on us, Des’s book may well be the perfect present for the beer-lover in your life, so look out next month, and see what I have to say.


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