Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Snow Dragon - Fortnum & Mason


F&M may have disappointed with their tea advent calendar (see earlier post!) but with this brew they are onto a winner.

This was a present and after trying it, I rationed its use because I didn’t want it to run out too quickly…and I’m too bone idle to visit F&M when I’m in London!

The tea is somewhere between a silver needle and a green tea and you do get that asparagus, grassy essence of a green sencha tea, infused with the honey notes of the silver needle when you taste it.

The tea comes from the Yunnan province of China; young leaves are picked during the last frost, then they are seared in a wok and dried into long, snake-like (or dragon-like) leaves. As you can see from the photograph, the leaves range in colour from dark, twig like browns, through to pale, almost silver twists. The tea has a fresh scent, but it is more reminiscent of forest leaves than grassy fields, mixed with the warming scent of honey or vanilla.

I have no pictures of the tea leaves when they have unfurled into full, bright green leaves; nor the pale golden liquid that the tea produces, which has the slight shimmer you would expect from a silver needle. (I forgot to take any until I'd drunk the last of my supply!) As you would expect, this light, fresh tea is not overpowering, and therefore perfect for those hazy summer days!

Ripe Pu-Erh Snow Chrysanthemum Cake - by Yunnan Sourcing


Authentic Pu-erh tea comes from the Yunnan province of China. It can be found as loose-leaf tea or processed into round cakes or bricks. As well as the well-known traditional dark red tea, it can also be found as white or green tea variants. Pu-erh is particularly special because it can be aged like a fine wine for decades. As time marches on, it develops a more complex depth of flavour which is often very rich and earthy.


As Pu-erh tea is supposed to be good for the body, eliminating toxins and fat from it, and being a good aid to digestion. It is supposed to reduce cholesterol and clear the arteries of a plaque build-up. It is even supposed to be good for those who may have a hangover, and if you look at it after it has infused, it does look like a good strong cup of coffee! After the over indulgences of Christmas, is it any wonder I’ve gone back to drinking it!


The tea packs a punch, it is strong and earthy with a scent and taste of the autumnal forest. The smell of mushrooms, damp soil and leaves, combine well with the addition of chrysanthemum flowers in this blend. The flowers have added detoxicating benefits and a sweet, floral scent, which makes for a rich, complex sweet and spicy taste.



Pu-erh tea is also good value for money, as you can get several infusions from the same tea. You do need to take care when brewing however, as if left too long, the tea can gain a bitter, coffee-like after taste, so all the beautiful complex flavours are lost. Stored properly in a dark, dry environment, Pu-erh tea can last for many years. 

https://yunnansourcing.com/collections/pu-erh-tea

Prince Edward Lavender Green Tea – by Pluck


This green tea mixes grassy and floral notes to produce a pale green tea which is refreshing but still helps you to relax and unwind after a long day. It contains a hint of ginger, but it is the scent and taste of lavender which makes this tea unique.

Pluck is a speciality tea company based in Toronto, Canada, so without the generosity of my Canadian friend, I would never have sampled this tasty delight. The name comes from the fact that high-quality tea is plucked by hand, rather than cut by machine.

Pluck work with local growers, and the Prince Edward Country Lavender farm, near Toronto, grows the Hidcote lavender which is dried and then blended to make the Prince Edward Lavender Green Tea. 

My top tips:

It’s a delicious tea to serve with warm Lemon Curd Madeleines made with lavender sugar as a Sunday afternoon treat!
Alternatively, try baking with it! Infuse butter or warm milk with the tea and make shortbread or fairy cakes with the infused milk or butter.

https://pluckteas.com


Friday, 25 January 2019

The Black Sheep of Burkedom

Lady: “Are you going to the Operation Smile Christmas Carols this year?”
Me: “No.”
Lady: “Why not?”
Me: “Because I’m not.” (turns to start another conversation with someone else.)

Those of you who think you know me…how do you see me? Those of you who read the blog…what do you think I’d be like if we met? What words spring to mind? Confident? Aloof? Witty? Chatty? Happy? Introvert? Extrovert? Rude?

I’m an Ambivert. I can be a great listener, or if the mood takes me, I can be a great conversationalist. Now even the shyest introvert or the noisiest extrovert isn’t 100% like that all the time…all of us have a bit of extrovert or introvert in us however hard we may deny it...it’s just that most of us are more inclined one way or the other.

So how do I know I’m an Ambivert? Well I’ve taken many tests over the years starting at school to see what career I would be best suited to, to ongoing tests during my working life for “progression purposes.” It’s always the same, 50/50, straight down the line. I’m not shy, but in some situations I’m a happy observer – I don’t feel the need to be the centre of attention – that way you learn more about the people you’re with.

I enjoy conversation, but I hate small talk. I can do it when I put my mind to it, but on most occasions, I can’t be bothered. If someone is interesting enough, the conversation will start to flow organically and be more meaningful. Whilst those I know will say I’m loud (certainly not a shrinking violet) I will be reserved with those I don’t know very well and especially in situations when there is an extrovert commanding attention. Although sometimes the overwhelming extrovert can bring out the worst in me and it becomes a duel for supremacy.

I love spending time on my own. I have the confidence to go to the theatre, to travel abroad, to go running down quiet lanes on my own…BUT…then I start to wonder what I’m missing out on and why people aren’t contacting me to arrange social gatherings, I do like both you know! And I do like meeting new people, I really do, although I do prefer to have friends with me in those situations, but in many circumstances, they’ve taken over and I’ve missed opportunities to converse with interesting people (and people haven’t had a chance to find out what I’m actually like.)

I am opinionated, but I am interested in what others think too; so, I like to hear them out before I speak. And woe betide the person who shouts me down because their opinion is “the only correct one” and who refuses to listen and consider anyone else’s opinion…where is your empathy button? I’ll put up with this behaviour for so long, but there will come the time when I must wash my hands of these people for my own sanity. I prefer balance, if someone is talking, I want to listen, if they are quiet, I’m happy to talk…and yes, I’m not perfect, I will talk or shout all over someone if I’m not given any other option!

So, there we go…I’ve introduced myself…it’s a pleasure to meet you. Let’s see what else we learn together and why I now feel the time is right to share my dark secrets with you.

“All I wanted was a word, a photograph to keep” (Madness – Michael Caine)

On the morning of my A-Level English exam, I persuaded my friend J to go to Chester with me so I could get Stephen Hendry’s autograph. I have no idea why…I wasn’t a fan of snooker, but he was cute! The queue was long, and we only just got back home in time for me to sit my exam. I fear that had I missed the bus and my exam, my dad would have murdered me…fortunately he never found out about this little adventure!

In the same year, filming had taken place for Robin Hood in Frodsham. My school was used by some of the actors to get changed etc before shoots. This was the version starring Patrik Berger and Uma Thurman…names I hadn’t heard of, but thanks to an advert for Coffee Mate, I had heard of Owen Teale (Will Scarlet) so I went to the pub and got his autograph…that was more fun than staying in lessons. (Yet again, poor dad was non the wiser!)

Skip forward a couple of years and a band called Let Loose were coming to prominence. Readers…I joined their official fan club!!  I was sent a badge (there’s GOT to be a badge) a newsletter and some black and white studio shots of the band. Shortly after, I saw that they would be playing at the Student Union in Preston where I was studying. I managed to grab them after the show for their autographs; I handed over said B&W pics for them to sign, proudly announcing I was in their fan club! (I was a bit tipsy and to be fair never saw them again.)

They were fun days, but I never actually knew anyone who was REALLY into the same things as me. I had really good friends, true sports who were happy to share various experiences with me (however bored they were!) If I wanted to watch Let Loose, there was someone who would go with me. If I wanted to get dressed up to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show 21 times (it was its 21st anniversary and it seemed like a really good idea at the time) I had friends who would go with me. (They were also game enough to go and annoy poor Jonathan Morris backstage most nights – the doorman was a star for always letting me and C in!)

Cheering one another on. Not trying to outshine…

I still hold a membership card for Liverpool Football Club, although after Brendan Rodgers took over the helm the trips to Anfield became less frequent and I started getting obsessed with a different theatre of dreams! Going with a group of people to Anfield and discussing the game over egg and chips in the local café is possibly the closest thing I ever got to being involved with a group of people who were “obsessed” with the same thing; people who were passionate and wanted their team to do well. There was a sense of great community – everyone wanting the same thing – no-one trying to outshine one another.

So how did someone who had never really bothered with the trappings of fandom, end up so embroiled in the world of the Tom Burke fans? I’d been joyfully watching Tom Burke’s career unfurl on the TV after he appeared in a show called POW. (Not a great show if I’m honest, but the episode with him in was mesmerising and made me cry!) No-one I knew had ever heard of him, and to be honest, even now there are still many people who look at me blankly…yes, even after Cormoran Strike! I had joined the heady world of social media for the first time and people were wanting to engage with me. We tweeted the hours away with pictures and conversations about this new hit show on TV, The Musketeers. People had their favourite Musketeer; Tom, Luke, Howard, Santi. It was a strange new world and I really didn’t understand the concept of “followers.” Who would be interested in what contributions I had to make? If I’m honest…I still don’t understand the concept or why people engage with me as they do!

Twitter became a fun and cosy place to be, watching an episode of Musketeers and tweeting about it later. I’d do various screen shots and edits of Athos (Tom Burke) as conversation starters, and I “met” some wonderful people online. Twitter wasn’t used as it was supposed to be, it was more of a social gathering. People were having conversations every time an episode aired, and many people joined in with them. It was like having a chat around the table in the pub, a happy community.

Even the most strong-minded people can have their moments

But as time moved on and people started to meet Tom and The Musketeers became a part of TV history, things started to change. Initially people lost interest in the fan site forum, preferring instead to leave both that and the public gaze of Twitter and move to more secretive WhatsApp groups. At first it wasn’t too bad…it was a large group of friends, but it soon became dominated with outspoken comments that were sometimes found hurtful by people. I noticed more and more folk leaving the group. Then sub groups started forming, conversations to be had with the select few. These filtered down into even smaller niche groups. The sad thing was that most of those conversations weren’t particularly private, they could have been held in the original group, but now a power struggle was going on; which group should you align yourself with. There wasn’t a great deal of choice in the matter, a group would be set up and you would be put in it. You didn’t ask, you switched on your phone and noticed you were in a new group chat.

Whilst I knew it was wrong to be so secretive, it was enjoyable hearing people’s stories about their meetings with Tom, however airbrushed some of the tales might have been. At the end of the day, I hadn’t created or asked to be part of a specific group, so I took advantage of my position; but then the tide started to change.

Now it may surprise you that whilst I love and adore Tom, I don’t feel the need to go and see him in everything he does. If I lived in London it might be a different story, but I don’t. I’m sensible about what I choose to go and see. If I am travelling all the way to London and staying in a hotel, I want that trip to be productive and value for money; so, I might fit a Tom trip in with an exhibition I want to see, or another play I have been wanting to watch. I didn’t go to watch him at an event when he was reading Charlotte by David Foenkinos as it would have been a costly trip to make for just a couple of hours; and whilst I wanted to watch him at another event reading from The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart (I already owned a copy of that book and I was interested in meeting Sue Perkins too) I wasn’t going to cancel my prior engagement I had with a friend.

It turned out that not going to every event that Tom was involved in became the reason I decided to finally cut ties with the supposed fandom. People would report back on Facebook or Twitter the various conversations they had had with Tom.  Tom had said he didn’t want photograph requests anymore. Tom had said he would much rather have a conversation with people rather than selfies and autographs. Tom had said this. Tom had said that.

On one of my solo jaunts to London to watch some non-Tom related theatre, I ended up having dinner with someone and I got told another one of those “Tom said this” stories. He had been upset that that he couldn’t remember the name of a fan. Now this was nothing new. I remember someone joking with him at The Deep Blue Sea that we should all have name badges; he’d replied that we should! There was nothing secret in his frustration that he couldn’t remember everyone’s names; and he shouldn’t be embarrassed, I still can’t remember the names of everyone I work with…and I see them all regularly!!!

It transpired that Tom wanted an aide memoire to be created. A random number of people on a poster of some sort with names and photograph’s attached. I was honoured to know this information because it was classified, for want of a better word; only specific people knew about this "aide memoire." On an unrelated WhatsApp chat with someone, I mentioned the poster. The reply hit me like a bullet in the chest. I was NOT supposed to know about the poster. My name had come up and it had been agreed I would not be told about it. I was astounded by the response. I was, apparently, a trusted friend, but I was still someone who should not know about the poster. This was their secret...they would make it...they would deliver it.

Did I miss something?

My father in law had been diagnosed with terminal Mesothelioma mid-2017. As time progressed the bad days were getting worse; the good days were getting fewer. I couldn’t be bothered with the mind games that were being played, the snide comments written on social media, and I certainly didn’t have the time to wade through copious WhatsApp messages. I therefore missed the usual type of group conversation about organising a “Burke” trip to Exeter where he was taking part in a Q&A session with Judi Spiers about Don Carlos; the first production he was undertaking with his new theatre company, ARA.

Or at least that is what I was told.

Someone had asked the question in the sub-group if anyone was going to Exeter. A couple of replies were posted saying it was too far, that it was too expensive for one night. I read those comments a day or so after posting, but then the conversation had moved on to other non-Tom related discussions. I checked the main group where these types of events had been discussed in the past; the question hadn’t even arisen.

I found it hard to believe. No-one was going to see Tom Burke? In all my time in the fandom, there was always someone organising a group trip to visit Tom. A group trip meant more people could go and support Tom, costs could be shared, cheaper accommodation could be found.  

There’s more plotting, scheming and backstabbing in some parts of Burkedom than in the Complete Works of Shakespeare!

I didn’t have time to mess about seeking out who was organising what and why it was so covert. In the good ole days it would have been above board, posted on the main WhatsApp group. If someone was unnaturally quiet a private text would be sent to them asking if everything was alright…had they seen the post…did they want to go? We used to be a large, supportive group, of both Tom and each other. This distinct lack of openness was playing heavily on my mind. Rather than trying to find out who was going and who wasn’t, I decided if all was well at home I would drive down to Exeter, watch the Q&A, stay at the university (cheap & last min bookings available) and drive back home next morning. It wouldn’t cost me that much to stay in a university room, and I would get to hear all about Schiller’s work and about the play I was watching at the end of the year. (In a way I was also looking forward to being on campus again, reminiscing about my old university days and thinking how ironic it was that I didn’t make many of my lectures back then, yet now I was happy to travel the length of the country for one!)

Fortunately, I was able to make my trip. I made myself at home in my university room which looked remarkably like the one I had lived in over 20 years earlier! I made my way to the bar on my own, bought a beer and I sat quietly reading a book (this really was like living out my past!) I heard a group enter the bar, voices loudly laughing and joking with one another. As they found a place to sit, they commented on the travel arrangements of those who had not yet arrived. Tom appeared shortly afterwards, and I heard them rush to say hello to him. As he turned away from them, I got up and walked over to the group to say hi…these were people I knew well. Shocked faces greeted me, one lady even said, “you could have given me a lift if I had known you were coming.” How on earth could I offer a lift to someone if I wasn’t party to any arrangements; if I didn’t know they were going?

As he walked back past this small group of fans, Tom stopped briefly to say hello to me and went off to get ready for the Q&A. For a second, I felt welcome, like I was where I belonged…and then suddenly a bright light dawned in my brain; why this black sheep couldn’t be part of the secretive fold anymore...the innocouos plastic bag they had ready for Tom had a poster in it.

A few days later, I removed myself from the WhatsApp sub groups that were in regular use. I directly asked somebody why the trip had to be so secretive; I wanted to know if my gut feeling had been right. I was disappointed by the evasive answers I received. I counter argued the defensive answers given to me because they made no sense at all. A final response came back… “we can’t be friends.”

We can’t be friends???? What the hell is this? We’re not 6-year olds in the playground. Or is that what we’ve come to…that playground mentality of having to be in the right gang to be popular whilst everyone else is side-lined? That childish feeling of supremacy!

I can’t be surrounded by hypocrites, liars and schemers…

Whatever was going on, I decided that if this is how the fandom was starting to pan out, then I wanted no more part in it. It was bad for my mental health trying to second guess what the hell was going on. I’d already got fed-up of being introduced to Tom at events as “the pretentious one.” There’s having a joke with someone, but after a while jokes wear thin and you begin to wonder why there is the constant need to belittle you in front of someone you admire.

Don Carlos dawned. Tickets had been bought so far in advance that it would be a waste of money not to honour them…but in reality, the excitement of going to watch the play had worn thin. I was dreading evenings of fake civility. I was welcomed within a group knowing that I was only there because Tom might think it strange if I was sat on my own. As we spoke as a group, mid-conversation I was told quite emphatically that a point I had made was wrong. In the past I would have stayed quiet, even when I knew the point I had been making was correct; now I was blowing a gasket, and yes that gasket exploded in front of Tom. Once DC was finished, so was I…not with Tom's work (poor bloke) but I kissed goodbye to the fandom that had previously brought me so much joy.

One of the evenings I was actually greeted by someone with a big hug and a “so pleased to see you” comment. Really? You are so pleased to see me that you exited our WhatsApp group, which consisted solely of me and you only a few days earlier without warning! If you don’t want anything to do with me that’s fine, a simple hello would have sufficed. How I wish I had actually said that out loud!

Why do all good things come to an end?

It would be amazing to go back to the halcyon days of when the fandom first started running…but you can never go back, you must move forwards. I cannot and will not play the sycophant. I enjoy having a chat with Tom, but I don’t aspire to be his best friend.  My head can no longer listen to people who tell me they’ve “accidentally” ended up outside his house, creeping away and then craving reassurance that they’re not stalkers. The fun of the fandom, getting together, dressing up, doing nutty things, has died for me.

I still remember the first time I met Tom and the joyful feeling I had afterwards. I find it so sad that hopeful fans, who may only have one opportunity to say hi to him in their lifetime, face the risk of being told to go away by his other fans. What happened to the excited groups holding a conversation together, when did it change to such a battle of supremacy for Tom’s favour?

I know I sound very pessimistic, but I do hope that some change can be brought to bringing the fandom back to the pleasant place it used to be. I am not naïve though, and whilst I hope for its future, whether I can stay a part of it remains to be seen. To a large extent I have lost trust and faith in it all. I know that if a more public profile was adopted, there would still be secretive factions plotting and planning to ensure they get their “Tom time” above everyone else.  To me it feels that Tom is no longer a talented actor who people share an interest in anymore, he has become a commodity, something to be fought and leered over. Do I want to be a part of that? Not really. I’m lucky enough to have met him. He’s a lovely bloke who doesn’t deserve a group of fans so determined to outdo one another.

Now of course this is only the tip of the ice berg, 2018 was the year of the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is just a response to a number of questions I’ve being trying to avoid. Whilst I have enough material saved to make your toes curl and your hackles rise… I won’t be sharing it. Certainly not now at any rate…although I’m sure it could make an excellent play one day - if anyone’s interested of course!

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Murdered to Death - Theatr Clwyd


I finished my 2018 theatrical year with an amateur dramatic performance at Theatr Clwyd and that’s exactly how I’ve started this year!


Murdered to Death is an Agatha Christie style spoof. Set in the sitting room of a 1930’s country manor house, the owner, Mildred, is the murdered hostess who had gathered together an assembled cast of rather dubious characters for her weekend dinner party! 



Bunting, the aged butler, would rather be knocking back the best sherry rather than opening doors for visitors; the “bally” English colonel Charles Craddock with the quintessential stiff upper lip; his long-suffering wife; Pierre, the untrustworthy art dealer with the dubious moustache and French accent to match; and the aristocratic lady he “met” on the train. Of course, no Agatha Christie type tale could be told without a meddlesome amateur sleuth turning up. Enter Miss Maple…with her bag of knitting…just keeping an eye on events as they unfurl… ever ready to help the hapless Inspector Pratt and his bungling bobby sidekick!

Performed by the ever popular Pheonix Theatre Company, a small and award winning Mold drama group, Murdered to Death is a classically light-hearted romp through the detective genre. There are shocks and belly laughs along the way until the murderer is finally unmasked. Whilst highbrow theatre is all well and good, sometimes it’s nice to just be entertained, and on a dark, cold, wet night, that is just what this cast did!

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Silver Needle White Tea - The Mecca

The Mecca is a tea and coffee merchant in the town of Aberystwyth, Wales. Now sadly I have never been there, but my friend visits that part of the world quite regularly and she says that it is a fabulous little shop with friendly, knowledgeable staff. She freely admits that she knows nothing about tea, but they were so informative, they were able to provide her with a great selection to gift to me! 

Silver Needle White Tea is made from the buds of the tea plant; no leaves or stems are used, making it the best white tea there is on the market. For this reason, it is also the most expensive of the white teas.


The tea buds are harvested by hand before they have opened, they have a sharp tip and are covered with fine silver hairs, hence the name Silver Needle. The finest flavoured Silver Needle teas come from the first generation of buds between the months of March and April. The harvesting only lasts a couple of days and is therefore known as the Imperial Harvest.

The tea when prepared is a pale yellow; in sunlight it shimmers, as some of the fine hairs in the cup reflect the rays of light. It is a mellow and delicate tea with a slightly sweet aftertaste and very refreshing. 

The flavour comes from the way the buds are processed. Ideally, once picked the buds are left in shallow baskets to wilt in direct sunlight. Three days later, the buds will be dried out at a low temperature before being packed and shipped to its various destinations. As the tea is not overly processed, it is considered a healthy tea; rich in polyphenols, aiding digestion, protecting the heart and boosting the immune system. 


It is a very special tea and one to consider when you want to treat yourself, despite the higher than average price tag! Sadly, The Mecca does not have an online shop...so I guess I am going to have to make a special journey there myself one day!

You can find their details on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/themecca.aberystwyth/

(Mighty Chai) Ginger Chai Tea - The Wee Tea Company

A couple of years ago, when being a Tom Burke fan meant large group gatherings, insane banter and much merriment, a charity tea party was held. It was great fun, themed around Alice in Wonderland and a Mad Hatter's tea party. Lots of people rolled up their sleeves and played their part in making it a fun and successful afternoon. I was lucky enough to win a gorgeous basket of goodies in which there was a packet of Ginger Chai Tea.

Now there are plenty of Chai tea blends available, but this one is from a company in Scotland called The Wee Tea Company (it already has an extra star just for the name.) The Wee Tea Company was set up by Jamie Russell and Derek Walker as specialist tea blenders, however, they also grow their own tea in Dalreoch in Scotland. Whilst the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis might be considered to be more at home in China or India, it's actually happy growing on the Scottish hillsides. Think about it - Darjeeling is grown on the Himalayan mountains!

Now the tea I had was in a white box and called Ginger Chai Tea – since going onto the company website, it appears to have changed its name to Mighty Chai, although the ingredients are just the same as what I sampled.

The tea is based on a traditional Masala Chai, however, it has extra ginger in the mix, making it a really warming brew. It is particularly refreshing on a cold, wet wintry night and it will certainly warm your cockles up! The makers suggest using warm milk and honey for a beautiful spicy beverage, but I don’t take milk in my tea, preferring to drink it “as is.”

It is a strong black tea mixed with ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves giving it a truly exotic scent. So sit back, close your eyes and transport yourself to the heat of the Orient as you sip this hug in a mug!

https://weeteacompany.com/index.php/ginger-chai.html


https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wee-Tea-Ginger-Chai-Loose/dp/B00EYZXPQI

Tea Lover's Advent Calendar - Fortnum and Mason

I have a tea notebook, which I fill up with comments, but then I forget to post them on the blog! My aim in 2019 is to do much better!

I was bought a Fortnum & Mason tea advent calendar in 2017. I was thrilled and made notes each day about what I found hiding behind each door. I thought there was no point in doing a write-up 12 months later, but that was before I looked at the 2018 advent calendar and it was exactly the same packaging as last years “sold out” version.


I didn’t bother with the 2018 calendar – not only did it cost £25 for 24 tea bags, but whilst the 2017 calendar was a beautiful gift, I was a bit disappointed with the contents considering the price.

https://www.fortnumandmason.com/products/christmas-tea-lovers-advent-calendar-59g-2017

For a start a Tea Lover's Calendar should just contain tea, not a few tea bags and a number of herbal infusions. It should also contain 24 different teas, not various repeats. There are hundreds of teas out there, and this is not a cheap product, so I was hoping to find a few hidden gems I could purchase a caddy of when visiting F&M next time I was in London.


Let us take a trip behind each door and see what lay waiting for me on the countdown to Christmas 2017:
  1. Rose Pouchong – a large leafed Keemun Mao Feng tea, scented with rose petals. The Tea was redolent of Turkish Delight, or rosewater depending upon how romantic your sensibilities are. It's a new favourite for me to add to my list.
  2. Assam TGFOP – leaf tips of Assam tea bush – a full bodied and robust tea, perfect for that breakfast brew.
  3. Rhubarb & Raspberry INFUSION!
  4. Earl Grey – a blended black tea flavoured with bergamot oil, the quintessential afternoon tea brew…good with cake!
  5. Darjeeling FTGFOP – the leaf tips of Darjeeling producing a full-bodied taste reminiscent of Muscatel grapes.
  6. Moroccan Mint – peppermint leaves are mixed with green gunpowder tea which produces a lovely refreshing after dinner drink (great when there is so much rich food around at Christmas.)
  7. Countess Grey – a combination of orange pekoe tea with bergamot (I prefer this to traditional Earl Grey.)
  8. Liquorice, Mint & Lemon Verbena INFUSION! Tasted better than it sounded – which is good because it was duplicated on the 19th!
  9. Royal Blend – this traditional black tea from Ceylon and Assam was first blended for King Edward VII in 1902. It has a smooth honeyed flavour and is very palatable.
  10. Chai – a black tea, containing various herbs and spices – cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, cloves, star anise and fennel. A soothing tea for the stomach which, like the mint tea, is good to have at this time of year.
  11. English Camomile INFUSION!
  12. A repeat of the Royal Blend.
  13. A repeat of the Rose Pouching.
  14. Apricot, Honey & Lavender INFUSION!
  15. Breakfast Blend – Assam tea from Brahmaputra Valley in NE India. It’s a robust, strong, malty brew and perfect for Breakfast as it name would suggest!
  16. A repeat of the Moroccan Mint.
  17. A repeat of the Earl Grey.
  18. Gunpowder – a green tea which resembles gunpowder pellets. The tea is very delicate and doesn’t actually contain any gunpowder!
  19. A repeat of the Liquorice INFUSION.
  20. A repeat of the Chai.
  21. Sour Cherry and Orange INFUSION!
  22. A repeat of Darjeeling FTGFOP
  23. Ruby Red Christmas INFUSION!
  24. Christmas Tea – well it had to be didn’t it?! A black tea which has been mixed with the taste and scent of Christmas; cocoa nibs, clementine and Christmas spices. It’s a smooth and slightly tea for Christmas Eve.



Over the 24 days of the festive period, there were in fact only 11 teas to sample in a “Tea Lover's Advent Calendar.” 

There were 6 infusions (one of which was duplicated) and 11 teas (6 of which were duplicated) at the cost of £25. Value for money? Not really. My stand out teas were the one’s I had not tried before; the Rose Pouchong which I now keep an eye out for if I go for an afternoon drink on a summer day; the Moroccan Mint (which has a much better punch than a traditional cup of peppermint “tea”) and the Royal Blend – something that can be pulled out for the more “traditional tea” drinker.

I rather hope the 2018 version contained more of a mix of products…but as the box was the same, I somehow doubt the contents miraculously changed into 24 unique teas to try!


Sunday, 20 January 2019

Super Naturally Good Tales!


Winter is the perfect opportunity for catching up on your reading list, especially Christmas when it is dark outside, and inside Christmas lights and flickering candles create the perfect ambience for a ghostly tale. Whilst M R James and Sheridan Le Fanu are my usual Christmas go-to authors, it’s nice when unexpected delights fall into the Christmas reading pile. Here are four thumping good reads to pass the dreary nights of winter with.

Now fans of Tom Burke will know that the author Arthur Calder-Marshall is Tom’s maternal grandfather, I’ve been interested to read some of his work for a while, so I was delighted when I came across a couple of second-hand books written by him.

If you love a good haunted house tale, then this first story is certainly a book for you, it is suitably eerie and will give you the required goose bumps when reading!

The Scarlet Boy – Arthur Calder-Marshall

The tale is narrated by George Grantley. He receives a letter from his friend Sir Christopher “Kit” Everness in 1959, proclaiming it was time for the Everness family to settle down, and would George assist them in finding their dream home. The family specify that the house has to be in Wilchester, close to a day school as their daughter, Rosa, hates the boarding school she goes to, and be a large, run down property with a garden that they can make their own.

George agrees to the task and learns that Anglesey House is up for sale and he thinks it would be perfect. George remembers the property from when he was a child, playing with his friend Charles Scarlet. Although they were friends, George remembered that Charles was a wilful and vicious child, wanting to play games involving torture. It was as though Charles was possessed by the spirit of someone else. He had a tree house in the garden and whilst still a child he fell and broke his neck. George had always been fond of Charles’s mother as she was “beautiful and gracious” unlike his own mother, so he continued to visit the house even after Charles’s suicide.

“A disturbing adult novel of an innocents encounter with unearthly evil...”

George tells Kit that he has found a house for the family, but rumours abound that the place is haunted. Kit takes no heed of George’s warning and so the family moves in…

Whilst on the surface the book is an eerie ghostly tale, there are underlying layers about family relationships, people’s faith, beliefs and the paranormal. After the family have settled in, Rosa is overheard talking to Charles and another child who had taken his life a long, long time ago, and when Rosa disappears, a struggle needs to be fought between the forces of good and evil.

There were elements of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” in Arthur Calder-Marshall’s tale, and in this next book, the encounters to be had are as equally disturbing as those in the James novel, mixed up with a bit of The Woman in Black!

The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell

When Elsie married Rupert Bainbridge, she could not foresee that within a few weeks of marriage, her husband would be dead, and she would be sent to his country estate to lay him to rest, and to wait out her pregnancy.

Set in Victorian England, Elsie’s journey sees her leaving her London home at a matchstick factory to take an eventful carriage ride to “The Bridge” through foggy, muddy, countryside. Much to her horror, Elsie realises that her late husband’s country pile is a crumbling estate, and the villagers show open hostility towards her. Her arrival at the house is no better as the servants appear irritated by her intrusion into their daily lives.

Rupert’s coffin lies at The Bridge, pending his burial at the local church, and with only his cousin for company, Elsie sets out to discover the secrets of the property she must spend her confinement in. Inside the house is a locked door to which there is no key. She asks the housekeeper to obtain a copy and one day she sees the door open. Thinking the doorkeeper has unlocked the door, Elsie discovers a room with a painted wooden figure in it. The creepy thing is, the key has not yet arrived, and now the wooden figure has been removed from the room, the door is now locked again, and this Silent Companion looks remarkable like Elsie herself!

Everyone at The Bridge is terrified of the figure, although Elsie laughs off all the rumours as idle superstition – it is only a wooden figurine after all, but then she notice’s the eyes keep following her, and as each day passes, new Silent Companions arrive.

As the book flicks back and forth between Elsie’s residence at St Joseph’s Hospital and her memories of The Bridge, you are unnerved yet compelled to keep reading. "I trust people and they abuse that trust." It is an atmospheric page turner, full of spine-tingling revelations as you become more and more engrossed with the intense horror of how vivid and complex the human mind can be.

What are Silent Companions?

Silent Companions, or Dummy Boards, were life-sized, flat, wooden boards, painted Tromp l’oeil style to resemble figures. They were highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in England and The Netherlands. They were often placed in the corner of rooms, or on staircases, to surprise visitors to the grand houses. It is also thought that during the summer months when the occupants were away, they would be placed strategically around the house to protect the house and keep thieves at bay. Dummy boards showed all aspects of life, from servants to noblemen and even the family dog!


The Magic of My Youth – Arthur Calder-Marshall

Back to Tom’s grandfather! The Magic of My Youth is an altogether different novel from The Scarlet Boy. Autobiographical, it tells the tale of when Arthur met the legendary Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “Beast of the Apocalypse” and magician of black magic.

The foreword of the book states how Arthur never intended to write the novel, but that following a day of making notes in an exercise book, twenty-five years after the meetings with The Beast had taken place, memories were surfacing, and as they flowed, a book was taking shape. “Lengthy conversations are not remembered verbatim over a quarter of a century” but what follows is a book full of recollections of meeting a man who has been described as the most evil man on earth.

Arthur Calder-Marshall was interested in both the occult and Crowley during his years of adolescence, a time when young people try to find out who they really are. His brother would relay tales to Arthur that he had heard from a wife whose husband had been sacrificed by Crowley in the Abbey of Thelema and Vickybird, an eccentric poet who claimed he had been turned into a zebra whilst in the middle of the Sahara! With tales such as these, who wouldn’t be interested in Aleister Crowley?!

Set in the glittering 1920’s, a period “when to be ‘earnest’ was to be unfashionable” Calder-Marshall had the idea of hosting Black Masses in his rooms at Oxford and inviting Crowley to give a poetry reading…it was this invitation that would open the door to his meetings with Crowley.

“Crowley’s literary work was in fact curious only by reason of its dullness” A C-M

Well like a moth to a flame I had to see if that was true, so I sat and read both The Book of Lies and The Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley. Dull is one way of describing both works, confused is another! Either way, I’m not intending to write a review of them! (And for those thinking I’m about to be sucked into a path of evil for reading such literature, I would say that you cannot give a considered opinion of any writer, if you refuse to read their works without an open mind first.)

Unlike Crowley, Calder-Marshall had a great aptitude for writing. His curiosity about magic in a time when Bloomsbury was filled with writers and artists partying and drinking their nights away is captured in these pages; as a young man battles with his beliefs, knowing at the end of it all, all he really wants to do is write!



The Devil’s Paintbrush – Jake Arnott

I first “met” Aleister Crowley in another of Jake Arnott’s books, The House of Rumour. I had seen a photograph of Tom Burke carrying the book, and being of an inquisitive nature, I bought a copy! I loved the juxtaposition of real-life people and events being worked into a piece of fiction, and after buying Arnott's book The Fatal Tree on pre-order, I made it my mission to keep an eye out at second hand book stores for some of his earlier works. The Devil’s Paintbrush has been patiently waiting for me to find the “right time” to be read!

Major General Sir Hector MacDonald (Fighting Mac) was a distinguished Victorian soldier. Born in 1843, the son of a crofter, he joined the Gordon Highlanders regiment and worked his way through the army ranks until he became Major General. Many in the army looked down on this working-class boy, who achieved everything he did on merit, rather than pedigree. He was a master tactician and was credited with saving hundreds of British soldiers lives in 1898 in North Africa and was rewarded with a knighthood.

He was the people’s hero, especially back home in Edinburgh. In 1903 he was sent to Ceylon to instil discipline into the army. He was disliked by those around him, and rumours circulated about his sexuality. If he was gay, he would be outed and thrown out of the army; don’t forget this was a period when homosexuality was a criminal offence, and the punishment was harsh, as seen in the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895.

MacDonald was sent back to Britain following allegations of “dubious acts,” however, he was sent back to Ceylon almost straight away to face a court martial. He travelled to Ceylon via Paris, The Devil’s Paintbrush takes up the true story of his encounter with Aleister Crowley; all be it an elaborate retelling of Fighting Mac’s one night in Paris!

In Le Chat Blanc, a Parisienne restaurant, Aleister Crowley (occultist) meets Sir Hector (British hero) and this unlikely duo transport the reader back to the battlefields of Sudan, and the backstreets of Edinburgh where Sir Hector met the young Christine Duncan.  

It is a beautifully written book knitting together fact and fiction, taking a historical figure that has long been forgotten and giving him a voice to air his story. Arnott develops a picture of not only the General but also Crowley himself; two very complex and different personalities. The predicament MacDonald finds himself in is examined with compassion, whilst the depraved drive of Crowley is explored without moralising. Arnott shows that being inherently good can be just as debilitating as being evil. As readers we’re not asked to take sides, but to consider the full picture of two flamboyant characters as Fighting Mac’s tragic secret leads the book to its poignant ending.



I thoroughly enjoyed reading these four texts, and my theme of supernatural readings is set to continue with The Man Who Sees Ghosts by Friedrich von Schiller. Having read a number of Schiller's plays in anticipation of Tom performing in Don Carlos last year, I'm interested to read Schiller's only novel...especially as it set in Venice, one of my favourite haunts!!