Archive for December, 2016

I live in a very pleasant bubble. Living in Manchester, I’m not alone. I have a job I enjoy that rewards me sufficiently to have a comfortable house, run a car, have enough money to pay my bills and way in life, with enough left over to enjoy trips to the theatre, eating out at restaurants and other treats. And, as I said, I’m not alone. Manchester is a good place to live if you have the cash to enjoy it.

But, as you enjoy the city, shopping in the smart stores, eating in well appointed restaurants, hanging out in trendy bars, it’s easy to miss, or choose to miss, people who are not in a position to enjoy all the city can offer. Manchester has a homelessness problem. Possibly attracted by the city’s reputation of being successful, they come maybe hoping that they can share in our good fortune. But, once you are on the streets, no home means no address and that is enough to exclude you from work. And homelessness is a complicated issue. Solving it is not a matter of putting a person in an apartment and letting them get on with it. These people have complicated problems often involving abuse, drink and drugs. They need support to cope with living indoors.

If homelessness wasn’t a big enough a problem to solve, the city also has a population of people who are not actually on the streets but they are struggling to cope. Often they can be families who are struggling to heat their homes and put food on the table. It’s astonishing that in a city as obviously rich as Manchester where visitors are amazed by the huge amount of building projects going on, streets lined with exclusive stores and expensive restaurants and in awe of the cultural and sporting scenes in the city, that people are going hungry. A First World city with some very Third World problems. The children of people in this position often don’t prosper at school and the problem perpetuates itself. It takes a lot of hard work to break this cycle.

It’s all thrown more sharply into relief at Christmas. The Christmas Markets thread their tinselled way through the city’s streets packed with shoppers preparing for the big day. The restaurants and bars are packed with revellers. There was once a time when Manchester was busy only on a Friday and Saturday nights. Nowadays you can go in any night of the week and the city is busy and buzzing.

I’ve done my fair share of shopping, eating and drinking in the run up to Christmas. I’ve worked hard and now it’s time for me to enjoy the city with family and friends. But I have, at the back of my mind, that there are people a lot less fortunate than myself in the city and they won’t be enjoying the Christmas I will. Usually, if I remember, I’ll buy a Big Issue or give some small change to someone sitting on the pavement on one of the busy streets. I always intend to do something more substantial but I never really get to do it. I need some structure.

But this year has been different. Scrolling through my Twitter feed in late November I came across a post from the co op organisation. The co op, for those abroad who don’t know it, isn’t too difficult to explain. It started in 1844 in the Rochdale area of the city when a group of people, the Rochdale Pioneers, got together to buy good quality food at a cheaper rate so it could be sold to the workers in the Rochdale mills at reasonable prices. Up until then access to decent food for the working poor was haphazard. 172 years later, and a move to city centre Manchester, the co op still thrives with stores across the country among other initiatives. All looked after from their spectacular office block on Angel Meadow. The co op have never lost their original ethos of working in a way that benefits its’ customers, its colleagues and the communities it operates in.

So back to the tweet. It was about #ReverseAdvent. Most will be familiar with the idea of an Advent Calendar. You open a little door and you get a little treat and count down the days until Christmas Day. What the co op wanted us to do was the opposite. I applied to be part of it and received a bright, co op blue box, some basic instructions, a £5 voucher to get me started and, instead of getting a treat, you put one in the box for each day of Advent. Having filled your box you had to find someone or an organisation that would accept it. I, through some connections in Chorlton, arranged to have mine delivered to a refuge for women who have been suffering from domestic abuse. I don’t suppose they go hungry in the refuge but it may do help them to learn that some people do care.

It has been a fun and interesting way to support someone else this Christmas. I’ve been tweeting pictures of my filling box each day through the Advent season as well as putting up regular posts on my blog. You didn’t need a posh, bright blue co op box to do it. Get a cardboard box, wrap it in some Christmas paper and fill it then take it somewhere where someone will appreciate it in the run up to Christmas. 2016 hasn’t been the best of years with some terrible things happening in the world but I’m convinced that away from the headline grabbing disasters and the untimely deaths of talented people, there have been millions of tiny acts of kindness like the #ReverseAdvent idea.

It’s been a lovely idea that the co op, especially Jordan (and his mum), has come up with, getting ordinary people to engage with helping others at Christmas. I am pleased to have had a small role in it. Many thanks. I may have got as much out of it, if not more, than the people to whom my filled box will have gone to.

The last day of #ReverseAdvent 2016. I’m taking the box to my chosen receiver as soon as I’ve posted this. It’s been fun to do and I’m pleased that someone less fortunate than myself and many of the people I know will benefit from it. A big thank you to the people at the co op for organising this event.

The final item for my box are Gold Dusted Christmas Puddings. A suitably blinged up addition for the final day for someone to enjoy over Christmas.

The box is now full. I’m slightly worried about the weight and how I can carry it from the car. I hope the base doesn’t give way.

Day 23 of #ReverseAdvent. We’re nearly there. Today a Christmas Pudding is going in. It’s a rich, fruited, spiced pudding that has to be steamed. Some people love it (I do), while others find it a bit much after a first course and a main course of turkey dinner. I like it with brandy butter or a thick cream. Wonderful!

I’m still managing to find some space in the box.

I’ve been in ASDA today for my sins. It’s the busiest food shopping day of the year and, as I drove in, the BBC told me that £3 billion will be spent in the nation’s supermarkets. That’s a lot of sprouts. The first customers were being let in as I arrived at 6am. The produce department had, mostly, been set up and we were able to finish it off  before the big push. The store manager likes it looking good usually, a good display of well set out fresh produce puts the customer in the right frame of mind to buy it seems. But today it was all about ‘pile it high and get it shifted.’

By 10am it was busier than the busiest Saturday afternoon. The stores are only closed for Christmas Day and Christmas lunch is really just a slightly more fancy Sunday lunch followed by a nice afternoon tea all washed down with rather too much wine. It’s not difficult but people were buying as if expecting the Siege of Leningrad. We could barely keep up with the amount of vegetables we were shifting.

And what sort of parent thinks that their children think a trip to ASDA on the busiest day of the year is a treat? It’s not Disneyland ffs! And those trainers (sport shoes) with little wheels in are in vogue at the moment. And the last thing you want in a crowded store are a few out of control kids careering around the aisles on our nice smooth stone floors. 

I stuck it out until noon when the afternoon reinforcements arrived. I did the ‘Merry Christmas’ with a few buds and came home. Am not moving now until the 27th! Here’s my colleague, Chris. He’s a young guy but has managed to grow an impressive, hipster beard. ‘Beard Baubles’ are a thing this festive season apparently. Decorate your local hipster!

Day 22 of the #ReverseAdvent box and we’re getting close to the end. I’ve decided to put some treats in for the last few days. It’s a Chocolate Yule Log today. It’s a cake treat that we like to consume at this time of year. Delicious though they are, they are a pale relation of the Yule Logs in the olden days. Their origin is back in the Dark Ages. Yule is a Viking/Anglo Saxon/Norse word for the pagan midwinter festival that morphed into Christmas. On the first day of Yule a huge log would be dragged into the great hall of the local chieftain and set alight. It would burn for the next twelve days (like the twelve days of Christmas) keeping the festivities warm and light, banishing the nasty things that lived in the dark. On the last day of Yule, a small piece of the log would be collected and hidden away to light the Yule Log the following year. Maybe in grand country house, this tradition carries on but our centrally heated homes don’t lend themselves to the tradition sadly.

In to the box it goes.

We were in ASDA this morning buying food for the weekend. It was busy and the food was flying out of the stores. They were having an offer on vegetables with bags of carrots, sprouts, parsnips and broccoli selling for 20p! We bought enough for the weekend and will freeze the rest. It was a bargain. 

NOT going into #ReverseAdvent box is this item that I spotted in ASDA. They are those little bags that you are encouraged to use to collect your doggie’s droppings when out for a walk. Keeps the city clean of course. For Christmas they have brought out these that, once they are filled with the offending substance, look like Christmas Puddings. Not only that, they smell of Vanilla Custard! 

The Winter Solstice today. The shortest day and longest night. In the northern hemisphere of course. In the south it’s midsummer. But here, from now on, the days get longer and the nights shorter. We begin to look forward to Spring and Summer. It’s always been a special day in our calendar. Our ancient ancestors held it as a sacred day and marked it with feasting and great fires to chase away the dark and the nasty things that they believed lurked in it. Christianity tried to take over the celebrations and grafted Christmas onto it hoping the older, pagan ways would die out. That didn’t happen and we still celebrate this time of year by feasting and filling our homes and streets with light. And pagan customs like the use of holly and mistletoe and fir trees continue and have even made their way into churches. 

And it’s day 21 of the #ReverseAdvent. I’m running out of space so I’m putting in a small bar of posh chocolate. I will have to try and resist the Irresistible bar of Dark Chocolate with Orange.

Into the box it goes.

A little pot of Dijon Wholegrain Mustard. It’s such a delicious and versatile condiment. We use it to lift cold meats, mix with some cheese in a toastie or swirl into mashed potato to have with sausages.

Into the box it goes.

Most of the Christmas markets close today. The Albert Square one closes tomorrow. It gives the traders time to get home often to far flung bits of Europe for their Christmas . I’m always a little bit sad when they go. They will be back next year of course. They have been a great success and have been voted one of the top ten on the planet again. 

There have been rumours of attacks on Christmas Markets for several weeks now. Extra security has been put in at the ones in Birmingham and Bath. I’m not sure if extra security was put in for Manchester. Manchester is the largest and most famous Christmas Market in the UK and would make a prestigious target for people who plan these things.  I’m sure the security was ramped up but they kept it low key for the comfort of the visitors. I’ve mentally been going round the markets this morning, especially the parts where they come into contact with busy roads. Trucks aren’t allowed in the city centre in the day. They cause congestion so they come in during the night to make deliveries and such. And back in 1996 the IRA delivered a huge and devastating bomb to the city in a truck. So a ‘truck’ incident would be unlikely. But a person could do just as much damage with a car out of control. 

My thoughts are with Berlin and its people this morning and the terrible news of the attack on their Christmas Market. We aren’t planning a trip to the Manchester Markets but if we were I wouldn’t let the atrocity in Berlin put me off. If it did that, they would have won.

A tin of Chilli Con Carne with some rice, sprinkled with some cheese makes a quick and tasty meal for #ReverseAdvent Day 19.

I had to juggle the box about a bit to get the tin in.

Day 18 of #ReverseAdvent and some Truely Irresistible (says so on the container) Drinking Chocolate. Nice to have at this time of the year with some hot milk before bedtime. I like to put in a dash of whisky or brandy. Hot Chocolate Cocktails!

Into the almost full box.

The Christmas plants and flowers had taken a real battering at ASDA on Saturday. They were in a mess. It took me the best part of two hours to sort out the mess and incorporate the new ones that had arrived in the night. Fortunately the store doesn’t open until 10am on a Sunday so I has plenty of time. I spent the rest of the time moving them about to fill gaps and get some more out of storage. When I left it still looked good. It had been a quiet day. Sunday’s are usually busy. We thought that people were out getting the last of their presents and this Sunday was too far from the big day for people to begin to get their fresh food and vegetables. The rest of the week will be blue murder.

A box of delicious Mince Pies for the #ReverseAdvent Box today. We love our pies in the UK and millions of these small pies are eaten here at this time of year. They are filled with mincemeat which is a mixture of sweet, cooked dried fruits and spices. In the (very) olden days actual meat was included but now, apart from a little suet, there is none included anymore. I love them. I will have to forget these are in the house or I might find myself having to replace them.

Into the box they go. It’s getting full again.

The picture from the Christmas Markets is Dutch Plant Guy’s pitch on Albert Square. It’s where you can buy packets of spring bulbs for your garden. Always nice to have a few tulips from Amsterdam.

We went out yesterday afternoon and into the evening. We tried to get into the Cat Café in the Northern Quarter. It was fully booked so we couldn’t get in and there only seemed to be two of the cats about and one of those was having a late afternoon snooze. We did the last of the Christmas shopping and had a wander around the Christmas Markets. We decided to have some food and went to Thaikhun in Spinningfields. It was, as always, delicious.

It’s all about the meal deal. Today’s item is some Sea Salt and Black Pepper Crackers to go with the jar of chutney I put into the box a few days ago. Add some nice cheese and you have a delicious snack.

Into the #ReverseAdvent box with all the rest it goes. 

Some delicious Toffee Waffles from Dutch Cookie Man at the Manchester Christmas Markets this year.

I get to look after all the Christmas plants and flowers at ASDA this time of year. They always do nice arrangements.