Friday, March 23, 2012

A martini in a British pub? Impossible!

Beautiful! All the sorts of water this writer really loves...sea water, and fire water. (Wiki Commons)

A martini in a British pub? (Shirley, you jest...with my apologies to the late Leslie Nielsen.)

On some website someplace, I saw a reference the other day to ordering a martini in a British pub. It must have been a joke. There is no such thing as a martini in a British pub.

A British pub will give you a glasssmall, large or hugeof any sort of alcoholic beverage made from hops and/or barley and maybe wheat and most certainly apples and pears. Indeed, cider is an alcoholic drink in England, as is perry, the pear version thereof.

You can get virtually any sort of liquorScotch, Irish, Canadian, sometimes Bourbon, Gin, Vodka, Rumpoured into a small glass, with or without a tiny ice cube (or more if you really, really insist). It will be a measured shot, measured by the UK version of  “the revenooers” for the purpose of collecting Her Majesty’s taxes on your inebriation attempt.

The tax man ruins a good buzz
You can get a wide range of specialty liquors, too, such as the ever-popular Bailey’s, Amaretto, Chambord…that sort of thing. Whichever of that sort of thing you order will also be served in a small glass, neat, as a measured shot. Which isn’t, frankly, enough to wet a bird’s whistle. Considering the alcoholic content of virtually all of such libations is so low, they ought to pour customers a water-glass portion, or at least a good couple of shots. But that would never do, all booze having been created equal as far as the almighty British tax man is concerned.

Despite the odd servings decreed by the tax man, you can clearly order, drink and especially pay for inebriating spiritous liquors in a British pub.

Stemmed glasses: Martinis, manhattans, cosmos….
What you can’t do is get a martini. Or a manhattan. Or an old fashioned. Or a tom collins. Or a cosmopolitan. You might, just might, get a Cuba libre. But you’ll be scorned, by gad.

As for the martini, even if you order it in a restaurant owned by the maker of a very venerable brand of gin, Plymouth (beloved of the British Navy for its strength and bite), you will get some horrific concoction including white vermouth and what the British call lemonade, which is actually more like a bottle of Sprite gone bad. I know this for a fact.

It seems, you see, that just as the British call a vacuum a Hoover (“I’ve got to hoover the floors, since the dog made such a mess” and so on), so they call French vermouth martini, mainly because the most prevalent brand of French (that is, white) vermouth in the UK is made by a company calledta da!Martini!

No elegant booze in the hinterlands of England
There are, to be sure, grand and wonderful cocktail bars in London. There’s even a swell membership club in Soho (London Soho, not New York Soho) called Milk & Honey that has all sorts of bona fide cocktails on its menu, although they do not specify a classic martini. Still, I would bet they’d make it for a member. And you have to be a member to enjoy an elegant quaff in a stemmed glass.

There’s also a Trader Vic’s in London. It’s rumoured to serve a staid, older crowd, so I expect that, in addition to the paper-umbrella festooned drinks and those served in a monkey-faced glass, you could get a classic martini. And you don’t have to be a member.

A new and popular boozy haunt in London is Mark’s Bar. While customers polled like it, they only like it 3 stars’ worth; the professionals give it 5. I’ll go with the pros on that; the bar attracts a lot of tourist riffraff, and what do they know, so how can you trust their opinion? I’ll bet they’d even ask for a Caesar salad with Thousand Island dressing, as they often do in Key West, or so I was told by a Casa Marina waiter some years back.  Anyway, visit the website for one of the most beautiful photos of cocktails I’ve seen in a while. I’d have put it up, but it’s copyrighted. Sigh.

I don’t live anywhere near London. But when I visit, I stay at The New Cavendish Club, members only. It’s a perk of my membership in the Society of Authors. As another SofA member said to me one morning as we both stayed there, it’s about time writers got some perks!  It is, and The New Cavendish Club is a darn good one. It almost makes me glad I chose to become a writer. And do, please, pay attention to all my words. I did write almost. The New Cavendish Club bartender will make a classic martini if asked. Or you can have a glass of champagne, and if it has gone a wee bit flat for being opened the day before, they’ll just open another.

In Tavistock, the closest sizeable town to me, you can get a martini at The Terrace. I know. I had one. But that’s the only place I can think of, and possibly that’s true because it is a restaurant owned by a pub owner and he knows his way around booze, even if he won’t mix you a straight-up drink served ice-cold in a stemmed glass in the pub side of the building, only in the chi-chi restaurant side.

It’s OK by me, though. I'm taking a photographer friend there for a birthday lunch next week…and hoping to get her looped a little on martinis so she’ll offer to shoot my next book jacket for free.


Other articles about, and with recipes for, tasty drinkies, including blue drinks, blender drinks and disgusting drinks.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Writing without a clue

From Wiki Commons: Legend below, left  

    Pointless babble
   Pass-along value
This morning, I checked out a bunch of author websites I found through Twitter.

Doing that saved me money. I won't have to buy lunch because my stomach is too upset to eat. Why, you might ask? How could author websites do that?

Simple. On sites of two Agatha Award winning mystery writers, I found egregious grammar and usage errors my fifth-grade teacher would not have allowed to get by.

One author said she loved her writer's group because they were more picky than her family, who let all sorts of grammer (sic) errors slip through.

The other author wrote about her two dominate (sic) cats.

I didn't have the stomach, you should excuse the pun, for more. I had to stop to maintain my sanity and my breakfast where it was. But it had revealed to me how greatly the publishing industry still needs editors and copy editors. And why the American educational system has gone to hell in a handcart. How can anyone even propose to be a writer if they can' should excuse the boldness...write the English language with any degree of accuracy and skill?

I am appalled. I am, on the heels of all this, somewhat happy that I'm fairly old. I might get through this life before people stoop to grunting and pointing instead of verbally explaining what they mean.

Or maybe not. I saw a TV advert last night that was so vacuous--in England, land of extraordinarily well-produced TV spots compared to what the United States suffers through--that I feared for the continued existence of the race. Really. See for yourself:

Lame, no? Maybe advertising needs to get its cocaine mojo going, because its creativity quotient has sunk to new lows, along with its ability to use language to persuade. Nothing about this advert is visually persuasive, and the drab language...well, it is what I would expect from a fairly low-functioning fourth grader in terms of its "heehee" quotient.

I expect it won't be long before writing in books descends to the level of the advert above. That unhappy day may be hastened by the appearance of the Espresso Book Machine

Among other things, this machine may be the death knell of used book dealers; it can print, for ten bucks, an out-of-print, out-of-copyright title a used book dealer would sell for $47, apparently. Of course, whoever installed the 100-grand machine would have to have some darn good book traffic to make the machine pay. But it's coming. It's coming as surely as POD, once a gleam in publishers' eyes, came and via which Crash Course was produced. It is coming as surely as the end of paid journalism in the wake of the Internet and Wiki came.

I saw the Wiki phenomenon coming as far back as the early 1980s, when I bought my first computer. "Nicky," I said to myself, "It's time to change from journalism to fiction, because information is about to be free, but people will always pay for a good story." And I ignored it. Until now. Almost too late.

Or maybe it is too late. The population has been so dumbed down that they don't even require that the authors whose work they read actually know how to write in their native tongue.

But maybe there's a bright side. Maybe the current sad state of affairs opens a niche market: Mysteries for readers who are annoyed by lousy grammar, clumsy diction and malapropisms.

Nah. Even the category name is too long.

Never mind. I'll just keep working on Rat Bastards so it can join Crash Course on and before amazon.anything is vanquished by the Espresso Book Machine. It's Gutenberg to the logical conclusion, I expect.

Next stop: Thought transfer, no writing required. Noooooooo.........

NB  The legend for the chart above suggests that no matter what one does, one is going to deal with futility and pointlessness on Twitter, leading no doubt to feelings of anomie and for all we know suicide. I know Twitter often makes hara kiri seem attractive to me!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Shelf Barker's Diet, Unplugged

Scotch eggs, which could be made with Mrs. Shelf Barker's Luganica; some doctors say this is heart attack food. Shelf says it's darn good. (Wiki Commons)

Apparently, if I want Shelf Barker to live a long, happy life with minimal bathroom breaks, so he will be able to voice his unique brand of intelligence in a couple of adventures a year, I should, according to the doctors, take away all his favourite foods, including:
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Orange juice
  • Prunes
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Spicy foods
  • Onions
  • Aged cheese and cream cheese
  • Condiments
Also listed as dangerous to one’s health on the HealthCentral website  were artificial sweeteners and processed foods. But Shelf doesn’t eat those anyway. Regarding the first, he’s not an idiot, just a driving instructor. Regarding the second, see the first.

But the rest of it? Here’s what Shelf would say:

  • Alcohol: “I’ve got to relax after a day on the roads with the likes of hedgerow man. Who’s that? The 17-year-old who, on pulling into his own driveway at the end of his third lesson, scraped my entire  learner car down the hedgerow.” (Hint: Hedgerows in the UK aren’t made of hedges. They are made of rocks, thinly veiled with vegetation, but quaintly named.)
  • Coffee: “What? You want me to fall asleep at the wheel? I really do need to be awake and alert while teaching, as annoying to my higher self as that might be.”
  • Orange juice: “Possibly you recall that England is sun-deprived. How else will I acquire sufficient vitamins to survive the stress of my life?”
  • Prunes: “OK, few people really need prunes. But look at it this way; the only exercise I get is yelling “STOP” so my muscle tone isn’t always as hardy as I might need it to be, what with sitting on my bum all day. Lounging about, you might say.”
  • Fizzy drinks: “And I should rehydrate myself with what? Water? WATER? Please. The only chance I have to get rehydrated is during petrol stops. If I began bringing a bottle of water to the car rather than two Cokes, I’d get NO respect from the boy racers.”
  • Spicy foods: “You do recall I am married to an Italian woman, right? She cooks little enough; turning down a meal would probably be the first step toward divorce. And as I mentioned, she’s beautiful. And she puts up with me.”
  • Onions: “It might be better to avoid onions. But I long ago realized that eating a good few onions before some of my worst nightmare students got in the car would at least help them keep their distance. There was that one whose hand kept wandering toward…well, never mind. Onions remain.”
  • Aged cheese and cream cheese: “See Spicy Foods.”
  • Condiments: “Only little kids eat sandwiches and chips without sauces of any sort. I’m old enough that my saliva is worn out, and I need some sauce on the bread to help the Spar store sandwich slide down. Not that Spar sandwiches aren’t good; they just need a little help from some mayo or brown sauce.”
 “It’s hard to figure out what the medical profession is thinking. You should see the list of foods (a mere five categories, one of which is water; is that a food?) they suggest to calm down an overactive bladder. Maybe they aren’t thinking, at least of anything except ways to get people to clean out the larder and restock it, until next time the medical profession gets a wild hair about this or that. Maybe they’re in cahoots with the major food companies. Maybe that would be a fit inquiry for BarkerBarker Investigations Ltd. Maybe I’ll have to suggest it to The Cobra.”

Crash Course is available in paperback from; shortly from To order a paperback in the UK, just click here. Not only will you get a nice, clean copy; it will be signed by the author at no extra charge!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mom's Taxi...A Bump in the Night

(Wiki commons)

It wasn’t until I began thinking about promoting my new mystery, Crash Course, that I realized where my fascination with driving horror stories really came from. I thought it had come from reading all the online complaints by other transplanted Americans concerning their experiences with driving in England. Or worse, with passing the required driving test. Americans have to take it and pass it within a year of moving to the UK. Canadians? Not so much. Which is odd; I’ve always considered US and Canadian drivers to be about equal. Chalk it up to commonwealth solidarity. 
Anyway, I happened to see an old photograph of my mother on a trip through some scanned pictures this morning…and it came to me. It is all my mother’s fault. My heebie jeebies about the test, obsessing about it, and doing all sorts of other things that led, in the end, to my writing a murder mystery about a driving instructor…they were all my mother’s fault.


Driving test in NYC


My mother was only 17 when she married my father, and had not yet passed her driving test. She signed up to take it and, on the appointed day, arrived at the test site in a borough of New York City. She did all right throughout the test, or so she thought. But then the examiner asked her to parallel park, which she also did quite well. But there was a problem. She did it in a fire hydrant zone, marked in yellow on the kerb. When the examiner got out of the car, he tripped over it. She failed.
The second test went all right, too, until she apparently narrowly missed hitting a bus. She told the examiner that she “could drive all right, but not judge.” She failed.


Mom's automobile safety procedures


The third time was the charm. Well, sort of, since she passed. But she was a nervous driver all her life, even when she wasn’t driving.  Especially when she wasn’t driving.  Straight-arming the dashboard was a favourite manoeuvre, as was muttering, “You’re going to kill us all” when the driver (me, my father, my brother…anyone) approached too close to the vehicle ahead. 
How close was too close? Put it this way, if you could actually see the other car’s tail lights, you were too close. Apparently, my mother favoured a sort of mystical form of driving in which one sensed the other cars through the etheric. At least when someone else was driving, a condition she unaccountably aimed for as often as possible. That was, of course, OK with us as we really didn’t care much for a 30mph pace regardless of conditions, imprecations about other driversvirtually all other driversfor…umm….driving, and taking the odd turn the wrong way on a one-way street. While my mother was a dear and often amusing woman, she was a dreadful motorist.

At least she never hit anyone. Looking for horror stories this morning, I came upon this one on the internet from the UK: “Ran over the instructor’s son. Luckily I only broke his foot; could have been a lot worse.”


Pulling down the garage


I wonder if that examiner in Queens, NY is still around. I’d show him that, and possibly he would feel better about his own conduct in passing my mother. I’m not sure if he did a good or a bad thing…but the only thing my mother ever broke was the garage door. She had bought herself a pickup truck; she claimed she could see the road and other drivers better that way. (Or perhaps she figured a truck was big enough and high enough that she would survive any of the stupid things she knew OTHER drivers did.) Backing it out of the garage one morning, she hooked the garage frame with the bumper, back when trucks actually had metal bumpers, and took the whole frame out.
“Lou, why didn’t you stop when you hooked it?” my father asked her, surveying the mangled metal in the driveway.

“I thought it would be easier for you to fix if it was all the way out,” she replied, climbing back into the cab as Dad shoved some excess bits aside so she wouldn’t wreck her tires as well.

I, sleeping in my room above the garage, just smiled and went back to sleep.