Toilet Reading: Total Guitar

Tagline: Play Better Now!

Price: £5.50

Who is this magazine for? This magazine is for me when I was 17. Which is to say, a profoundly average guitarist with more talented mates.

Total Guitar

Stuart, the editor, trying to pour cold water on the old ‘rhythm vs. lead’ debate.

I bought a few issues of Total Guitar because my great and talented friend Andrew York did so. In our depressing jam sessions, he knocked out the chords to ‘Long Train Running’ and ‘Nightrain’ like one mean-ass (subs: does mean-ass have a hyphen?) son of a bitch, while I scraped out Under the Bridge intros with all the gentle sass of Chopin’s Funeral March. Eventually it became necessary to reduce the frequency of these humiliating sessions through any available excuse; illness, sore fingers, unlikely enthusiasm for watching Yorkie play Myst for up to 14 years at a single sitting. Myst, by the way, is a puzzle-based computer game designed, in my view, to highlight the comparative thrill of tax returns.

The mag, I assumed, would hold the answers to my redemption and seamlessly paper over my cracks of incompetence. Unfortunately, as Yorkie later pointed out, all Total Guitar’s pages guaranteed was the appearance of the phrase ‘warm, jazzy tones’ at least once in every edition of the magazine. My own playing failed to scale any heights beyond the bovine dexterity required of Green Day’s Basket Case. But twelve years on, I was keen to see whether that warmth and jazziness had been retained.

Just as an aside though, why are magazines so keen on the word ‘Total’? I for one would like to see a lot more ‘Utter’ on the shelves of WHSmiths. Although in this particular case, perhaps Utter Guitar sounds a little too much like a province of northwestern India.

What did you get for your £5.50? £5.50 is a lot of money for a magazine, but Total Guitar’s publishers know well enough that your typical guitarist is used to paying handsomely over the odds. This is a hobby where your plank of wood with strings on it will probably set you back at least £400, unless you plan on being gently patronised by the blokes in the music shop and actively laughed at by greasy-haired teenagers. And you’ll need an amp. And a new set of strings every few months. Effects pedals as well, to get your wah and fuzz on. Even your plectrums – tiny bits of plastic that a non-player would think were litter if they found one on the floor – are a quid a time.

Steeply priced the mag may be, it does come with a free gift – a natty CD of ‘essential rhythm techniques’. The mag itself is split into four sections; Monitor (a mixed bag), Features (longer versions of Monitor), Gear (reviews) and Techniques (more hardcore drills, and what I’m afraid I’m going to call ‘licks’). There is a pleasingly genuine emphasis on learning how to get better throughout Total Guitar; PR guff about bands this is not.

Or at least, not overwhelmingly. Dave Grohl appears on page ten, as he has in every single one of Total Guitar’s 262 issues. As much as I like his hairy face, the man’s a drummer, for pete’s sake. Get him out.

Features: The meat and drink of Total Guitar’s features fall in to three categories: stuff about bands, stuff about guitars and things required to make them sound totally awesome, and lessons. The latter is the least interesting, partly because it’s educational and therefore intrinsically a hard sell to a failure like myself. More damningly, it’s also because you tend to find phrases like ‘we’re in pure Mixolydian territory’ or ‘generating diatonic 6th intervals’, terms that sound like things a pressed obstetrician might shout during a challenging childbirth.

The articles about bands are designed to make you feel like you’ve been trapped in conversation with that guy in Sixth Form that stopped listening to Elbow and Radiohead as soon as they produced songs that tediously normal people listened to for pleasure. Radio Alcatraz anyone? Pale Seas? I’m sure they’re both excellent, but I only listen to new music when I hear it on adverts. Of the artists included in the ‘Top 20 albums of 2014’, I recognize seven, one of whom is Pink Floyd, a band with members substantially older than my dad.

It’s probably unfair to accuse the mag of band snobbery though; the problem may simply be one of pulling power. For example, I find it hard to imagine there being high fives around the editorial room at the announcement that Total Guitar had bagged a three-page exclusive interview with some bloke who used to be in Feeder.

The kit features were where I held out most hope for finding some warm and jazzy quotes. Sadly none could be found. And like much of the magazine, there was no criticism for anything here. Any gentle negatives were qualified, and nothing dipped below four stars.

They had their opportunity to dump hard too, reviewing three Squire models. Who knows, maybe these guitars really were worth every one of their four or five stars, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Argos sells Squires. I would have severe misgivings about giving any stars to the Elizabeth Duke of axes.

Adverts: As you would expect, Total Guitar goes in pretty hard on ads for beautiful pieces of wood at comedy prices. A Fender Strat from the 60s – with stains and a scuffed up finish no less – will set you back what you might expect to pay for a second-hand family car.

Midge Ure

From his expression, I’m not even that sure Midge is going to buy one.

Elsewhere is a half page devoted to flogging the Midge Ure signature model guitar. Poor old Midge. Just getting over being named after a microscopic Scottish irritant is tough enough, but having to be the straight man to Bob Geldof for thirty years is a kick in the stones that no man should have to endure. Sadly, his guitar is one that I find pretty hard to imagine the next generation of rockers clamouring for.

Letters page: Total Guitar spoils us with no less than two letters pages. The first, ‘Feedback’, is your standard grab bag of moans that make the mag look good (‘Where’s my precious TG mag? WTF is going on at Tesco?!’) and paeans to readers’ guitar heroes. Johnny Marr gets a shout-out, accompanied by a picture of him looking like a model from Man at C&Angry.

The second, ‘Ask TG’, is a guitarist’s spin on the classic problem page. Rather than the usual fodder of erectile dysfunction and errant partners, this deals with more technical problems, such as how to avoid falling into playing the tired old Phrygian mode during metal songs. We’ve all been there.

Brilliantly though, the style is still basically still the same as a normal problem page, from the embarrassed, despairing air of the correspondent (‘I’ve been working on my alt-picked riffing for a while, and I feel like I’m getting nowhere’) to the sympathetic but forthright responses (‘we’d advise you use a firm pick – bendy picks tend to flap about’). Change no more than a few words and you’re right back in erectile dysfunction country.

Rating: 9/10

Total Guitar is still doing what it did in my youth; slick, well-informed work that makes me feel lazy and inadequate.

Bring back the warm and jazzy tones and I might just pick up my Les Paul again.

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Toilet Reading: Wedding Cakes

Tagline: The ultimate guide to choosing your wedding cake.

Price: £4.99

Who is this magazine for? You’re getting married – congratulations! Here, take this spade. What you need to do is dig a good-sized hole, say about two feet wide and four feet deep, and put all your money in it. If you can, try and put some other people’s money in it too; family, friends, it doesn’t really matter.

Now douse it all in flammable liquid – petrol is good, but brandy for fancy – and light it, with each of you holding a white candle to the notes until the flames reach a good height. Et voila! You’ve saved yourselves a year or more of organising strife.

Alternatively, you can buy the Wedding Cakes magazine. Because who hasn’t been to a wedding of a close family member or friend and thought, ‘You know, that wedding could have been a touching celebration of their love and a privilege to share with them, but unfortunately, I’ll never, ever forget that their cake was cagwazz*.’

What did you get for your £4.99? Wedding Cakes gets off to a confusing start, with the opening page proudly stating that the mag has been ‘published a month earlier so you can see all the trends for the season ahead.’ A month earlier than what?

massive wedding cake

This is actually a Russian roulette cake. One of the tiers is made of dog shit. But which?

Leaving time-travel to one side, the very first picture gives clear indication of what to expect. This cake has 7 tiers, three bunches of flowers and is tall enough to be a supporting pillar for an especially camp summerhouse. It also looks as appetising as a supporting pillar for an especially camp summerhouse. These are cakes that have gone way beyond trying to appeal to the traditional senses of taste and feel, instead focusing entirely on the look, and, who knows, maybe the sound of their glorious presence. Under no circumstances are these cakes designed to see the inside of your colon.

Despite the tagline, it is important to be aware that Wedding Cakes is not actually a guide to choosing your wedding cake.  It certainly doesn’t answer my pressing cake related enquiries. Is buttercream icing passé? Stacking how many tiers would constitute showing off like a prick? Must you use traditional cake mixture, or are other types of cake acceptable, such as urinal?

No, it is just hundreds of cake pictures. Possibly thousands.

Features: There is some occasional respite from the resplendant waves of cake. In the ‘Get The Look’ section, we find out achieving that ornate, gilded rococo look is simply a matter of slapping on quite a lot of delicious ‘warm brown paste food colour’, edible glue and dust food. Was that a chorus of ‘mmm’s’ I heard out there? I think so.

ornament cake, wedding cake magazine

This one is filled with delicious chunks of porcelain.

Turning this yummy combination into a wedding cake is explained overleaf. This process is expected to happen over a period of four days, which is more time than I’ve spent in some full-time jobs.

The ingredients are split into two sections; edibles (eight items, which include – and I’m quoting directly here – ‘cakes’) and equipment (over 20 items, taking up most of the page and including things like celbuds, foam mat and a ‘ball tool’). The timeline provides another clue as to what these cakes are really for. ‘First half of day 1 – bake cakes. Days 1, 2, 3 and 4 – spend 84 hours turning cakes into furniture.’ Total number of instruction steps – thirty-six. Total number of these steps related to baking edible cake – zero.

real wedding photos

This is what a real wedding looks like. If yours did not look like this, IT WAS NOT REAL.

Elsewhere, we have a ‘real wedding’ story where blushing bride Emily mentions the urns decorating the reception room the same number of times as her husband’s name (he’s called Ernie). There’s also a guide on how to create a ‘wonderful woodland theme’ on your big day. Paraphrasing only slightly, this guide consists of three tips; use berries in your cake, try and get some wood on the table, use a table.

What else? Ah yes, more pictures of cake.

Adverts: Flicking through the mag turns up suspiciously regular mentions of a company called ‘Squires Kitchen’. I’m willing to believe that the premium cake decorating market is fairly small, but Squires does seem to have a finger in every one of the elegant pies on offer.

wedding cake magazine, squires kitchen

I’m on to you, Squires.

There it is on the back cover. Here it is featured in all three of the recipes. And here’s the subject of the ‘meet the designer’ section, giving SK’s flower paste a totally unplanned shout out as the cake decorating item she’d would take to a desert island.

Her opinion is to be taken with a pinch of dust food however, partly because she attempts to explain what a mood board is by saying it’s ‘kind of a real-life Pinterest’. And partly because she would take SK’s flower paste to a desert island.

Letters page:  No letters page I’m afraid. How about some more pictures of cake?

Rating: 5/10

It’s pictures of cake.

If that’s what you’re looking for, there’s plenty to enjoy; I daresay no other magazine boasts more cakey pictures across a back catalogue of 54 issues. But unless you’re a floral paste rococo curl fetishist, this is unlikely to be the food porn for you.

Bowl lickers can bog off.

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* © Hannah Knight

Toilet Reading: ‘Heat’

Tagline: This week’s hottest celebrity news.

Price: £1

Who is this magazine for? Boasting a circulation that comfortably outstrips most of the newspapers, Heat is one of the big guns. It has a branded radio station, TV channel, exercise DVD and online gaming site. In fact, readers are invited to ‘breathe in the goodness’ of these multi-channel options on the mag’s very first page, a sensation that I imagine is much like walking through the front door of Lush.

Essentially, Heat is for people that like telly. Not TV or television. Telly. Television is David Attenborough illustrating the world’s natural beauty. TV is Friends, maybe, or 30 Rock. Telly is Hollyoaks and Take Me Out. That’s Heat. And who’s there on page 1 but Paddy McGuinness, whose mysteriously enduring on-screen career continues to confound all logical explanation. He’s like one of those optical illusions with the vase and the face – your eyes know he’s there, but the brain can’t help but feel confused and a bit sick.

Anyway, how can something as ubiquitous as Heat qualify as a ‘specialist magazine’, the more irritating among you might ask? Well, mid-market it may be, but Heat is undoubtedly a specialist in what it does – high-octane glossy celebritat. Heat has been making women feel insecure for over 15 years now, rare longevity in this cut-throat segment. Besides, mere average magazines cannot boast of achieving ‘the lowest moment in British journalism‘, and still sell 814 issues.

What did you get for your £1? To give Heat some credit, there’s no question that it comfortably beats all the other mags I’ve read so far on the important measure of pages per penny, clocking up nearly one page per pee.

Madge, Heat magazine

Poor old Madge. From Neighbours dame to ‘too crap for Heat’. Heat! 

Being a well established player, Heat has built up a stable of tried-and-tested regular items. ‘What Were you Thinking?’ sensitively deals with the fashion errors of well-loved celebs, kindly advising readers to ‘try not to vom on the nice magazine’. And then there’s ‘Fill in the blanks’, where we find an interview with a woman called Sam Faiers, whose face and responses exclusively reveal that she is made out of cardboard.

Sam Faiers, Heat magazine

If cardboard could talk, this is what it would say.

Besides the features, which we’ll come on to shortly, there’s an X-Factor heavy crossword, a hard-hitting news section (which confuses you by including a picture of Obama, but then reassuringly notes that his picture is there because he is ‘hot’) and an entire telly guide.

The telly guide makes the editorial team’s allegiances clear by writing accompanying copy for each programme in proportion with their likely interest to the typical Heat reader. University Challenge, Only Connect and Newsnight get a combined total of zero words.

TV Guide, Heat magazine

Note the particularly insightful write-up of Rich, Russian and Living in London.

Features: Because it is gossip mag law, Skeletor appears in the first feature, the thrust of which appears to be some reheated quotes from last year, plus the fact that she may have asked an estate agent to look at some stuff. And then, because it’s also gossip mag law, there’s a load of old toot about how Jennifer is definitely going to dump all over whatever Angelina is doing this year. Apparently, Aniston’s only eating egg-white omelettes with spinach and bacon in 2015, and according to our guff correspondent Rhiannon Evans, that guarantees a spicy catwalk encounter at the upcoming Oscars.

Geordie Gaz

Gaz is the Byron of our times.

Aside from the regulars, there’s some insightful musings from Geordie Shore’s Gaz, who claims to be a secret millionaire. This may be because he has not quite grasped the difference between pounds and pence.

There’s quite a lot more besides, but to be honest, it made me quite angry. The Heat article formula has the creativity and deft touch of an aircraft safety briefing; stupid rhetorical question, joke that Miranda scriptwriters would reject, paragraph of context, the ermagherd shock ‘twist’, joke that Two Pints of Lager and Packet of Crisps scriptwriters would reject, blah blah, pop pop, woo woo.

I’m not going to mention the reviews section, except to say that if you can’t get five stars in Heat (and nearly everything does) you really must have produced quite the turd.

Smelly woman in Heat

‘Because showering takes a while’? Would Aniston say that? I suppose Madge from Neighbours might.

Adverts: As you’d expect from a magazine focused on the visuals, the ads in Heat have a somewhat skin deep feel to them. That said, they clearly don’t always necessarily expect the same hygiene standards of readers as they might from celebrities.

Elsewhere, the back-to-back adverts for Cow&Gate and Nicorette imply a concerted January push to capture the ‘regretted shag at the work Christmas party’ market.

There aren’t that many standalone adverts, but that’s because it’s far easier to shill your pap under the guise of thin articles like ‘Best Dressed Toddler’. Things like £70 Timberland boots, for example.

Letters page: Surprisingly there isn’t one. This may be because the message Heat conveys loud and clear is that normal people aren’t worth your attention. That’s partly because normal people eat fags and stones rather than egg-white omelettes, and partly because they don’t put out press releases for lazy subs to copy and paste.

Rating: 1/10

God, it’s awful. Your Chickens was infinitely superior.

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Toilet Reading: Love Crafting

Tagline: There isn’t one. I read Issue 5, so perhaps the Love Crafting team hadn’t got round to writing one yet.

Price: £4.99

Who is this magazine for? The difference between ‘making’ and ‘crafting’ is subtle but important. To make something is to combine a series of materials or ingredients into a useful object. To craft something is exactly the same, except with the omission of the word ‘useful’. This magazine is for people who love the latter.

Love Crafting is pitched at women who feel the shenanigans going on in Spirit and Destiny are too rich for their blood. As the editor Katriel – a nice looking woman who looks like Tamsin Greig might do during an uncomfortable first date – says, ‘if there’s one thing we look forward to in wintertime, it’s choosing a new project to enjoy.’ Patchwork is given a specific shout-out in her opening note because ‘it keeps your knees warm,’ narrowing the mag’s target market down to women who would spend a fiver on a magazine but prefer not to heat their homes.

Pulling those threads together and sprinkling it with anecdotal evidence that craft is allegedly a bit trendy now, it is likely that Love Crafting is being pitched at grannies and student wannabe grannies – which for the rest of this article I’m going to be calling grannabies.

There are more clues in the staff list – another all woman cast list with a male managing director, boo – and the features themselves, which invariably involve the sort of things that crafty grannabies foist on others. Love Crafting is responsible for a lot of awkwardly false thank yous.

What did you get for your £4.99? One irritating thing you get a lot of, which I have to get off my chest right now, is articles describing their efforts as ‘makes’. In this context, a ‘make’ clearly means a pleasantly crafted bit of thing. But when you think about it, pretty much anything is a ‘make’. This computer. A sandwich. A word a 2-year old might use for poo.

Leaving that to one side, what you mostly get for your fiver is basically a recipe book. Instead of listing ingredients and the steps required to turn them into delicious food, the mag lists types of material you can transform in to artfully combined bits of material.

Babushka

Brazen cloth-based hussy.

What kind of combinations you ask? Well, you can make a babushka, which I thought was a Russian word for prostitute but it turns out I’m probably mistaken, a teddy bear, some cushions, some smaller cushions that look like cake but aren’t in fact cake, a quilt, and some ‘stashbusters’, which sounds thrillingly superhero-like but turns out to be floral pencil cases.

Pincushion cake

Chewier than you’d hope.

Helpfully, each of the recipes comes with a handy tip or two. Unfortunately, tip number one reveals that Love Crafting isn’t for a novice, suggesting as it does that I could use ‘felt leftovers’ to make my babushka. The only leftovers I have to hand today are bits of yesterday’s haggis, which is a bugger to French knot.

At the back there are some template cutouts to help the grannabies along with their makes, some puzzles for when the arthritic fingers call a halt to the stitching, and an excellent quiz that I will come to shortly.

Features: Although it is undeniably rather gentle, I wouldn’t want you to think Love Crafting lacks bite and depth. The second make (for tape measure covers) is a fine example of what could be described as metacraft; taking craftiness to another level of uselessness in a powerful evocation of Heidegger’s arguments against metaphilosophy.

That piece also comes with a provocative standfirst: ‘Who says sewing accessories can’t be gorgeous?’

Yeah, who goddamn it? Because if someone is saying that, I will fuck them right up.

Scary teddy

Is there anything scarier than a teddy bear with no eyes?

Those lovely tips fluctuate between the slightly patronizing (a reminder to make sure one’s needles are sharp can only be helpful for those bitterly weeping as they fail execute tight stitches using cooked spaghetti) and the perplexing (‘Fleece is relatively new to the fabric scene, debuting in 1979.’ I am reasonably confident that sheep were using it as far back as the Fifties).

Monster doorstop

This guy will be appearing in the next Saw movie.

The main problem with the recipes was that there was no sense of difficulty level. To me, a fat-fingered orangutan, I’m sure they would all be comfortably beyond my means, even if I was provided with a hundred-length of felt, the world’s sharpest needle and the only alternative distraction of Mrs Brown’s Boys. But there was no indicator to separate the grannies from the grannabies. Would that rose tinted cushion be marked at a ‘Betty’ level of challenge? Or a mere ‘Kirsty’? Either way, the 35-step instruction for rag dolls must surely get a top rating of ‘Ethel’.

My favourite bit was the quiz, which was in the classic ‘Mostly As / Bs / Cs’ mold. Love Crafting invites you consider what might happen if your sewing machine turned into a time machine. Given that scenario in my case, I imagine there would be quite a lot of crime and maybe some inappropriate touching. That wasn’t on offer, especially not with sample questions like: ‘There’s something missing from your outfit. For that finishing touch you add…’

A – A fur stole and a flouncy, stitched flower (Flouncy? How dare you?)

B – A bustle with a top hat with a veil (A thousand times yes!)

C – Purple wedges and a tartan scarf round your waist (Note to self: must remember to polish wedges.)

D – Your Google Cape and Apple solar powered glasses (Never let it be said that Love Crafting isn’t on top of the latest technology.)

It turns out I’m a space-age seamstress. The mag sagely recommends I turn to the teddy bear recipe on page 72 as it’s a timeless classic. The Google Cape recipe must be in the next edition.

Adverts: There are very few adverts in Love Crafting. The back cover has an oddly useless advert listing all the places in Britain where you can buy a Janome sewing machine, possibly belying a lack of confidence it has in readers deploying the power of Google, cape-wearing or otherwise. The inside back cover has an advert that appears to be touting an eBay for ‘makes’.

Craftsuprint

£9.09 is worth quite a lot in poutine.

The only ads inside that magazine itself are for other magazines – which seems a little defeatist – and craftsUprint. Run by ‘Crafty Bob’, CraftsUPrint claims to be the World’s Largest Crafting Megastore. But rather craftily, ‘Crafty Bob’ appears to be supplementing his income with racy games like tombola and bingo on the side. Still, if Linda Robitanille of Ontario, Canada can win £9.09 on there, I might just nip online to stock up on bobbins myself.

Letters page: Love Crafting has no letters page, presumably because the hands that could be writing them are far too busy on their applique.

Rating: 8/10

Love Crafting is a good magazine. It’s full of content that can presumably keep idle but talented hands busy for weeks. It’s a professional job, nicely written and laid out. And there’s a refreshing lack of guffy adverts or reader-generated content – which, let’s be honest, is always substandard, because it’s written by people like you.

If there is a criticism, it’s that Love Crafting doesn’t really cater all that well to the novice, or indeed the malcoordinated orangutan market I represent. But then again, why should it?

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Christmas Toilet Reading: ‘Radio Times’

Land of Dope and Tories will review a publication from the weird and wonderful world of specialist magazines. This month: Christmas Radio Times

Tagline: ‘It’s the legendary double issue!’

Price: £3.60

Who is this magazine for? Christmas, isn’t it? Bloody Christmas. And Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the telly. So this magazine is pretty much for everyone. Unless you’re using Netflix, obviously. Or watching YouTube clips of drunk babies. Or illegally streaming The Interview. Or settling down to the best of r/twerking.

The humble telly is looking pretty fragile right now, teetering on the cliff-face of obsolescence. So thank the Lord for Christmas, where across the country millions of gatherings will be punctuated by irate cries of ‘Stop looking at that bloody screen! This is family time! Watch the telly.’

Of course, in the good old days when a Jimmy Saville Christmas special would mean an episode of Jim’ll Fix It rather than Panorama, telly was a different beast. There were four channels. The screen itself wasn’t sufficiently large and richly defined to perceive each individual skin pore on Cilla Black’s face. And as a consequence, the bumper Radio Times had heft, to be sure, but was a reasonable 80 or so pages, half listings, half plugs from the stars of the BBC and ITV nativity stable.

This year’s edition is not like that.

What did you get for your £3.60? The bumper Radio Times sets out its stall right on the cover. 292 pages. It weighs about as much as a bath towel, is nearly as absorbent and of roughly the same level of interest.

A lot of the world’s greatest literature comes in at comfortably fewer than 200 pages. Of Mice and Men. The Old Man and the Sea. A Room of One’s Own. Even A Christmas Carol, and Dickens usually writes as if he was paid by the word. Yet the Radio Times sails past them, in what must be seen in magazine circles as the Iron Man of copywriting.

The basic formula hasn’t changed – but the world has. The listings section has ballooned to Gilgamesh proportions. To some extent, you can’t blame the mag for this. After all, there are hundreds of channels out there now. But there has to be questions asked about an editorial policy that grants three full pages to local radio listings over the festive period. If someone can prove to me that – somewhere, anywhere in the world – there are more than zero fucks given about knowing that Helen Blaby will be occupying the tricky lunchtime slot on Radio Northampton on Tuesday 23rd December, I will eat this magazine. And Helen Blaby is welcome to participate in this bet.

As well as the listings, there’s also what I hesitate to describe as ‘filler’ – features on the new and exciting / patently retreaded Christmas specials you will be forced to watch instead of pwning noobs on Borderlands 2. There’s also a quiz or two, a puzzles page with a suspiciously strong tie-in to BBC quiz shows,

Features: To give the Radio Times some credit, they pull in some big hitters, albeit brought together in a pleasingly ragbag way. I’ve read a lot of good things about the present Archbishop of Canterbury, so have no complaints about his present this year – having the pleasure of being sandwiched between Judi Dench and Miranda Hart. Charlie Brooker appears in what must be his most disappointing interview ever; he’s wearing a Blue Peter badge, spouting anodyne niceties and is photographed looking like a startled art dealer about to be given a parking ticket.

The best feature is the first one, with a load of celebrities explaining what they’d like for Christmas. Full of insight this, mostly because it finally brought home to me who’s buying all that rubbish that perplexingly appears in the shops. Linda Robson – you know, the thinner, boring one from Birds of a Feather – wants ‘silver jewellery, so a necklace of bracelet engraved “To Nanny” or “To Mummy”.’ High fives all round at Argos. Richard Osman apparently wants the McBusted album, because he’s a card, so he is. And Greg Davies – yeah, I’ve got no idea – would ‘like a juicer because I’m sensationally fat.’ Fair play  to Greg; I wouldn’t say he was sensational, but if he pops a couple of beef joints in the juicer he should have high hopes for 2015.

AdvertsRadio Times advert space must be available at premium prices – you’ve got stupid people in a catatonic state thumbing through this for a fortnight, surrounded by tat they don’t want. No-one could be more ready to buy.

As you’d expect, the supermarkets are out in force. Tesco plays it safe with a turkey, Lidl pushes the boat out with pate, while Morrison’s goes big with four pages including one on sprouts, presumably on the grounds that they quickly ran out of nice things to take pictures of.

It’s generally very conventional, middle of the road and family friendly. The mag does know how to please the core fan base though, with a strong finishing straight of classifieds covering stairlifts, walk-in baths and those really uncomfortable looking chairs. The kind with wooden arms and a floral pattern where a good stain tends to improve them.

Letters page: No letters page!

The plebs probably get pushed out at Christmas to make more space for David Walliams, who is keen to remind you that he is still not dead.

Rating: 10/10

Well. It’s Christmas, isn’t it?

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Toilet Reading: ‘Spirit & Destiny’

In a regular series, Land of Dope and Tories is reviewing publications from the weird and wonderful world of specialist magazines. This week: Spirit & Destiny

Tagline: ‘Your spiritual guide to life’

Price: £3.20

Who is this magazine for? People need something to believe in. A god perhaps. Fate. Brian Cox. For some, it’s fairies (always called ‘faeries’ for some reason), ghostly images of Native Americans and, well, the poorly-drawn tarot cards of someone called Radleigh Valentine. Spirit & Destiny is for those people.

And when I say people, I mean women. In Spirit & Destiny‘s 98 pages, only three men feature. One is a ‘spiritual warrior’, who contributes an article spiritually focused on references to his successful business ventures. One is an internationally acclaimed psychic who looks like a boil-in-the-bag Peter Capaldi. And the other one is the Dalai Lama.

A quick glance at the team reveals that the male involvement in the magazine extends no further than a bit of light sub-editing.

Spirit and Destiny

‘Oh, and the MD of course. Because we couldn’t have the girls worrying themselves with all that malarkey.’

And when I say women, I mean white women. Spirit & Destiny is as diverse as an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that means it is intolerant of diversity – that’s a hard position to maintain if you are committed to a regular ‘Neighbourhood Witch’ column – but it does suggest this mag is not for the urban metropolitan ponce.

What did you get for your £3.20? A lot of magazines will include a horoscopes section amongst their features. Spirit & Destiny prefers to fit the occasional feature around the horoscopes. 14 pages are devoted to the bibblings of astrologist David Wells, a sinister looking type who looks like the wrong ‘un in an episode of Midsomer Murders.

However, the features do not disappoint. Drum-birthing, vision questing for beginners, how to manifest your perfect life, pagan wedding rituals, transpsychic pigs – you couldn’t make it up, although in the last case I just did.

Away from the set-pieces, there are substantial sections on wisdom and advice (which covers communication with animals, angels and shaman), mind, body & spirit (featuring diet advice that is suspiciously enthusiastic about supplements rather than, say, food) and the old favourites – regular columns, letters, competitions and the usual earthly magazine detritus.

The aforementioned ‘Neighbourhood Witch’ column – which really ought to have been named Wicca-pedia – gives hints and tips on season spellcasting (this month: ‘a sky clad candle-thorn spell for uncovering deceit’) courtesy of Ann-Marie Gallagher.

As a witch, Ann-Marie is a little sub-par. She doesn’t even wear a hat. The good news is that apparently all the ingredients you need for magic – a piece of cardboard, a jar of red ink, a soft beeswax candle – can be picked up at Wilkinsons for less than a fiver. Newt doesn’t feature once.

Features: And so on to the features. The pick of the bunch is drum birthing, in which a grumpy blonde woman attempts to salve a marriage blighted with bickering by creating a shamanic drum.  She is pictured in Kent woodland, eyes closed as a pair of crusties wave smoke about, scrape shapes in the mud with a bit of twig and sing at a bit of drum skin. Her husband is conspicuous by his absence from these pictures, presumably as he is hiding behind the yurt, smoking fags and muttering ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake.’

Anyway, Grumpy comes away enriched, and says she’ll now ‘just do a wee spot of drumming whenever Andy and I are getting on each other’s nerves’, which is sure to calm the situation down (‘Oh, for fuck’s sake’).

An honourable mention must also go to the distressingly batshit Pam Grout who, despite have a name that would suit a character from Porridge, is in fact a best-selling Kansas novelist, pushing affirmations as the cure for all mortal ills. The schtick – want something  enough and it will manifest itself – is undermined by three things; the fact that Noel Edmonds buys into it, the two concrete examples of failure that Ms Grout volunteers and ignores in the article itself, and the fact her piece includes the sentence ‘I’m using spiritual laws to show that there are unseen forces at work, just as physics does,’ which could be a citation for the Nobel Prize for bollocks.

Vision questing, by the way, is ‘an ancient way of finding spiritual guidance and learning your life’s purpose, which you can use to tackle issues that trouble your mind and sap your energy.’ I stopped reading at that point, but apparently it can make you the world’s most ecstatic flutist if you’re not careful.

Spirit and Destiny

‘There’s something unhealthy about this picture. It may just be the Photoshop opportunities.’

Adverts: What becomes pretty clear after flicking through Spirit & Destiny is that the spiritual world is often a crutch that many lonely people cling hard to for solace. So of course there’s a whole pile of hawkers slavering at the opportunity to capitalise on their hope.

The insidious side of Spirit & Destiny is not so much the adverts, which generally fit into one of the two default magazine archetypes – small ad premium rate phone lines, full page glossies of shiny women pushing transparent guff – it’s the product placement within the articles. Every feature ends with a plug. An aromatherapy article manages to flog sixteen different products, from books to mimulus, in three pages.

Spirit and Destiny

‘The boil-in-the-bag chap I mentioned earlier is simply asking people to mail him cheques. To a Kensington address, the bastard.

And this shit is insanely expensive. A reed diffuser (a smelly room perfumer that I know about because I’m aggressively in touch with my feminine side) that you can buy in a supermarket for five quid is going for £13.49. Buddha pendant that might have come out a mid-range cracker? That’s forty quid to you madam. Breathing therapy – and I’m really not making this one up – will set you back £150 for a ninety-minute session.

Letters page: Sprit and Destiny bags a pair of letters pages, a rare joy. After a couple of attempts, I’ve decided I don’t have the writing power to do justice to the Star Letter, so here it is in full:

Spirit and Destiny

‘Angela is the one on the right by the way.’

Elsewhere, the letters fall in to three categories; talking to dead people, talking to not-people (angels, etc), and questionable success stories (‘reiki fixed my dog!’). There is also an advice section applying spiritual wisdom to time-honoured women’s magazine problems – men being bastards, dead-end jobs, issues with the in-laws. The views given are generally the usual stuff, but with occasionally sharp turns into oddness, as if two conflicting radio signals have been jammed together.

For example, having provided some sound advice on whether to introduce a child to her estranged father, the magazine’s expert then suggests: ‘before you introduce this news, light a red candle to honour the Celtic fire goddess Brighid, and ask for her aid…And of course, remember her feast day on 1 February by bringing snowdrops in to your home.’

Rating: 2/10

I’m not a spiritual person. As a hyper-rationalist, technophile tosser, taking the piss out of this world was a bit of a free hit. But I’m not a chicken person either, and that was an infinitely more enjoyable read.

Spirit & Destiny is the thin end of the wedge in a huge industry that preys on vulnerable people, touting snake oil and bullshit to people who’d be better off with a listening ear and a bloody good hotpot. It’s a polished and really quite readable magazine. But that disguises the fact it’s basically a costly placebo brochure, and that’s a little depressing.

Still, as a Sagittarius, I suppose I would say that.

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Toilet Reading: ‘Crafty Carper’

In a regular series, Land of Dope and Tories is reviewing publications from the weird and wonderful world of specialist magazines. This week: Crafty Carper

Tagline: ‘Get Crafty, get catching!’

Price: £4.10

Who is this magazine for? Saggy, bulbous and the colour of a month-old potato, the carp is a hard fish to love. Fu Manchu fangs and a chronic overbite blight their vacant faces. Their bodies cut through placid waters with the sleekness of a Volvo estate.

And yet, many love them dearly. Enough people, apparently, for more than one magazine to be dedicated to carp fishing. More than five, in fact. There’s Big Carp. Advanced CarpTotal Carp. Carpworld. CarpTALK, where you can talk carp.

The question then, is not what kind of person the Crafty Carper is aiming for, but what kind of carp fisherman. The clue is in the pricing. Undercutting much the competition by as much as ten pence,  this magazine is for carp fishermen who sail close to the wind, who ride on the edges of life. They play the margins, roll with the punches. The grafters and the crafters. Loki’s anglers.

What did you get for your £4.10? I’ve been fishing three times. I have never caught any fish. Indeed, my fishing career to date has consisted of dangling bait hopelessly into the water before reeling in clean hooks. I’m essentially a technology-enhanced fish waiter. So I was keen to find out what all that unnecessary equipment could do in the right hands.

Crafty Carper is glossy – a practical choice for people marooned for hours on rainy river banks. Clocking in at 130 pages, it is a substantial read. Lots of features, a handful of competitions and fiendishly small font; this is a magazine that does not hide the fact it is  for people with lots of time to kill.

Unfortunately, Crafty Carper falls in to the trap that often snares magazines with a zany title – it finds the title joke a little bit too funny. The contents page offers Crafty Tricks with Plastic, Crafty Columnists and Crafty Competitions.

Crafty Fox

Nothing is that crafty. Not even this fox.

This kind of laziness can only be explained by the slightly po-faced treatment of many other rich seams of childish humour in the world of carp. Apart from the anagrammatical obviousnesses, carp fishing is a world of floaters, chod, and getting one’s rod out. Sadly, the sub-editors are too absorbed with trying to crowbar the word ‘crafty’ in wherever possible to put away these multiple open goals.

That’s a pity. But on the other hand, had the innuendo-count been more tightly policed, it’s hard to imagine this would have made it on to the first page.

Carp fishing

French carp you see, they’ve only got one thing on their minds.

Features: Carp is the most widely eaten fish in the world. However, recipes were thin on the ground in Crafty Carper, possibly because carp tastes of mud. That kind of obstacle is hard to overcome with even a particularly accomplished cheese sauce.

Most of the features, unsurprisingly, focus on mano a fisho combat, with a emphasis on big ‘uns. I would be lying if I said any of these stories stood out, with each one following the same basic narrative arc. ‘I drove to the lake. I waited for a bit. I nearly caught a fish. I caught a fish. I’d do it all again.’

From these stories, I learned three things. First, ‘big’ in the carp world means about 40lb or more. That translates into about six babies. Second, there is only one acceptable way to hold a caught carp, which is as if it was six babies.

Fish carrying

Cradled like a first-born.

And third, no matter how dull fishing stories are, they’re Hunter S. Thompson compared to bait stories.

Adverts: Fishing was one of humanity’s most ancient and simple crafts. Not any more.

Modern fishing is dominated by middle-aged men seeking escape from their wives, families and office hours (almost no women appear in the pages of Crafty Carper). Fish marketing is therefore almost entirely devoted to creating products that make these men think that they are in fact members of the SAS.

There are two basic tactics at work. The first is the judicious use of numbers, squared off typefaces and clipped promises that make fishing line replacements sound like high-grade munitions.

The more sneaky tactic is to offer products that a real man – like the ones in shaving foam adverts – wouldn’t be seen dead not having. If you don’t possess these things, he’ll emerge from his silver Mercedes to laugh in your face at both your comic ill-preparedness and microscopic penis / fish. But nobody needs a ‘siren bite alarm’ or a ‘carp shack bivvy’, whatever Mr Gillette says. Humans have had bite alarms forever. We used to call them senses.

Life in the SAS can get lonely. This is disturbingly indicated by the adverts at the back.

French carp

I did say those French carp only had one thing on their minds.

Letters page: Crafty Carper has no letters page. Mere words, those imperfect building blocks of communications and understanding, simply cannot not express the elemental pride of holding a big ugly fish.

carp fishing

Paternal pride doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Rating: 6/10

Crafty Carper is a good catch, if repetitive tedium enlivened by occasional excitement is your bag. And in this case, I suppose it is.

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Toilet Reading: ‘Obstacle Race’

In a regular series, Land of Dope and Tories is reviewing publications from the weird and wonderful world of specialist magazines. This week: Obstacle Race. 

Tagline: ‘The No.1 magazine for obstacle course racing’

Price: £4.95

Who is this magazine for? For some people, plain old running simply isn’t futile or difficult enough. The grim squirt of endorphins garnered from making a trip from A to B under their own steam – one that could just as easily have been made in a comfy, air-conditioned car – lacks the necessary zest.

Anyone can run, they think. I am an elite being. My Match.com profile describes me as gritty, determined, wastin’ no time for time wasters. I use exclamation marks a lot, but wouldn’t recognise an actual joke if it bit me firmly on the arse. My friends have long since tired of my overbearing will to win and craven need for attention. But I need something more, something that helps me to fight this inexplicable emptiness I feel in my heart.

I need obstacles I can smash through, to conquer. And, so help me God, I need lycra.

What did you get for your £4.95? For me at least, the biggest obstacle to overcome was the price tag. Five quid for fewer than 100 pages is a tough sell, particularly when 2% of that is invested on a profile of ‘Mr Awesomeness’. For that kind of money, I want something I can treasure for a number of years and consider naming in bequests for when I pass away.

obstacle course

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Awesomeness.

I did not get this.

The mag follows a pretty traditional formula: features (about obstacle races), reviews (of obstacle races), adverts (for obstacle race stuff) and regulars (yes).

I was always going to struggle with Obstacle Race because I find the whole idea of purposeless running morally dubious and carcinogenic. But there were two things that stood out as especially annoying.

The first is the type of obstacles the mag talks about. When I was at nursery school, an obstacle race meant crawling through a hoop, walking along a thin bench, and possibly putting on an unusual hat and skirt combination that smelled vaguely of mothballs. Good, honest English surrealism, but also things that required at least some peripheral brain power to negotiate. Pain was a possibility, but not the object of the race.

Obstacle race

This is a proper obstacle race.

 

In this adult version, the obstacles are basically mud, walls and the dark. Thinking is not required, beef-witted determinism is. If it doesn’t hurt, you’ve done it wrong. Whereas the kids races would be won by the wiliest and speediest, the ideal adult candidate is nerveless chunk of pork animated by electrodes. One of the reviewed races has a paintball zone in it. It’s only a matter of time before they start using a Gatling gun.

The second irritating thing is the tone. There’s an awful lot of ‘visualising your goals’ and ‘man up your mind-set’ (From a woman! You go girl) management guffpap going on.  Combined with nonsense like ‘really muddy mud’, ‘absolute top quality’ and ‘to my surprise, I could air squat pretty well’, and the net result is the deadening feeling of being lectured at by a Commonwealth bronze medallist turned C-list motivational speaker.

Good subbing should cut the number of words on offer by at least a third, but in swapping defiantly for definitely, sweet potato for a side order of Sweet Potato and having a pretty loose grip on commas throughout, the subs have got other things to worry about. Your Chickens wouldn’t have put up with this shit.

Features: There are four race reviews in the third edition of Obstacle Race, but they all essentially follow the same pattern:

  • I got up very early.
  • The race started.
  • There was some mud.
  • There was some water.
  • I finished.

This leaves precious little scope for comedy, or interest, so I propose we move on.

Adverts: There are amazingly few adverts in Obstacle Race, which explains both the price and excess of content. The handful that have squeezed in are for races (including one called ‘The Suffering’ – sign me up), shoes and the forum ‘Talk Mud‘, which I assume is a safe online space for the discussion of obstacle-based foreplay.

Letters page: Obstacle Course has imposed a 100 word limit on letter submissions. So to be generous to the writers, I’m going to put the fact that their contributions would shame a nine-year old down to that.

It's always nice to make someone's date.

It’s always nice to make someone’s date.

Certainly no sense of community argument here. Which is a shame, because I for one would like the lid to be busted off that ‘barbed wire vs chicken wire’ obstacle tunnel debate.

Rating: 3/10

Lots of people who run obstacle races do it for charity, and that’s lovely.

But that doesn’t prevent the sport, nor the magazine that celebrates it, from being painfully dull. Duller than keeping chickens. Duller than shooting birds.

Don’t make me read it again.

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Toilet Reading: ‘Shooting Gazette’

In a regular series, Land of Dope and Tories is reviewing publications from the weird and wonderful world of specialist magazines. This week: Shooting Gazette

Tagline: ‘Driven Shooting’s Finest Journal’

Price: £4.10

Who is this magazine for? Now, if that lovely Peter Wilson chap who won a gold medal for GB taught us anything, it’s that shooting is a sport. Not something where animals or people get hurt. Just a nice sport. Like fencing. Or horse dancing. Peter shot clays, which have the heft and taste of a three-day old Greggs steak bake. What they most definitely didn’t have was a central nervous system.

Shooting Gazette is pitched towards a different type of gun enthusiast. To be clear – this not pitched at the Danny Dyer ‘ere, geez…’eez got a shooter!’ end of the market. No, this is a magazine for gentlemen. Gentlemen who enjoy blasting birds out of the sky.

What did you get for your £4.10? As you’d expect for a mag that is aimed at people who either own a country estate or are good mates with someone who does, production values are high. The 122 pages of January’s edition are glossy. The full-colour group photos of white men wearing identical green wax jackets and stout boots are plentiful.

shooting party

A typically diverse shooting party.

The writing is solid. The correspondents are called Will, Giles, Ben, James and Barney. This is a toilet read of substance.

The mag comes in four sections: gazetteer (regulars, news-in-briefs, and The Great Debate, of which more in a second), features (eight this month), reviews and a ten page supplement on gun dogs. Rather disappointingly, gun dogs are not guns shaped like dogs. Or dogs shaped like guns.

The tone and content of magazine is summed up perfectly by The Great Debate page. This is Shooting Gazette‘s take on a classic magazine trick, where you get two columnists to write diametrically opposing views about some trifle. Usually these are titled in emphatic capitals: ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ or ‘FOR’ and ‘AGAINST’. In Shooting Gazette the battle lines are ‘Yes please’ and ‘Rather not’. (This raging debate was on the acceptability or otherwise of woodcock shooting. The case against largely boils down to the fact that they’re a bit shit to eat.)

My favourite section is the reviews. Now I know review sections are usually for expensive, over-aspirational stuff that PR friends have lent to the mag’s staff for a jolly. But the fact that a 230 grand Ferrari, houses for a snip at under £2.8m and B&Bs kicking off at £145 per person per night might pique the readers’ interest is…well, I was going to say revealing, but what you actually feel is simply ball-aching resentment at these stonkingly rich bastards.

Features: There were two reasons I picked up Shooting Gazette for this week’s Toilet Reading. The first is that there was only one copy in my local newsagent, and I took great pleasure in denying N4’s only resident pheasant-potter his monthly periodical. The second was the cover promising an article on ‘Classic shoot day gaffes’.

It turns out that there are social faux pas lurking in every shoot. Some of the errors I had expected (shooting the host’s wife, forgetting your gun, tramping fresh dog shit through the gun room), but there were plenty I hadn’t even considered (having your dog gather up someone else’s shot birds, forgetting to thank the ‘beaters’, not taking any pheasants home with you at the end of the day because your pantry is already too stuffed with delicious, cold money). This piece was not quite  the You’ve Been Maimed comedy feast I  hoped for, but at least I now know what to do if I ever get invited to a shoot. Not turn up.

The other features were less amusing and comprised of travel brochure shots of verdant, frigid British countryside full of tweedy men pointing guns at the sky.

shooting, foggy

Lovely day for it.

Adverts: Guns are sexy aren’t they? Really sexy.

gun advert

Phwoar. It’s like a beautiful cravat. The cravat of death.

Interestingly, second hand guns are sold in a very similar way to second hand cars in local newspapers. One flattering photo in a good light, lots of dense text and obscure acronyms, and at least one vintage gem on the page that’s going for a truly fuck off price. ‘A pair of vintage Berettas, sir? That’ll be £110,000.’

Mind you, these are people with so much land that more than one company has placed classified ads for their services in building car parks.

Other than that, there’s all the wellies, dog food, 4x4s and gun cartridges you could hope for. Unless you want anything in a colour that isn’t green or brown, in which case, you can just jog on right now.

Letters page: There was a letters page. Unfortunately it was quite dull, and made you feel as if you were stuck at the bar of a country pub listening to Don telling his story about the last pheasant he ever shot for the fifth time. 

More entertaining was columnist who huffed out 700 words about the needlessness of health and safety guidelines, blustering to the conclusion: ‘I blame the lily-livered schools.’

Rating: 5/10

Shooting Gazette is a polished magazine. But it’s a hard one to love, and not because of  the hobby it cheerleads for. It assumes the reader has deep knowledge of the highly elaborate social hierarchy of the shoot, and regularly descends into Quidditch bizarreness with talk of ‘beaters’, ‘keepers’ and ‘picker-uppers’. There are a total of three woman pictured in it. There is not a single non-white person anywhere.

It’s a dying sport. But the Gazette is a fine obituary.

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In praise of Harringay Market

There’s no point in denying it. I’m a definitively middle class person. I’ve got a myWaitrose card. I know what my favourite brand of hummus is.  I’ve been known to wear those jumpers with a collar and cuffs sewn in to give the impression I’m wearing a proper shirt underneath.

Stupid jumper with collar sewn on

But I’m not! It’s bare skin under here bitches!

One of the other big giveaways is my love of the local market. Traditional British markets were something of an embarrassment for years. In Europe, markets have always been full of wooden stalls selling delicious things and traditional toys (by which I mean the type made before toys were designed to be fun), manned by ruddy-cheeked honest tradesmen. In the UK, your standard market was a hotchpotch of creaky trestle tables offering tea towels, Soviet-era pants, and hot dogs made from mashed-up pigeon, overseen by men in string vests sucking on menthol fags.

Crap market stalls

Here, by the way, are some classic examples of the traditional Market font, which by law must be used on all vegetable pricing.

These days, markets have of course gone upmarket. Rather cleverly, people running them have realised two things. The first is there’s nothing the honest middle classes love more than giving back to the local community in a way that salves the conscience without expending too much effort. The second is that to have a proposition that will appeal to the whole family, you should completely forget about the unpleasant shopping element and just focus on food.

lobster

Nothing too fancy mind you.

Harringay Market is a perfect example of the type. Set in a primary school – so a big tick on the community front.

Harringay market

It even borrows the school’s chairs, so you can revel in nostalgia / realise how much bigger your arse has got in the last two decades.

Very sensibly, it offers very little that can’t be eaten or drunk. No mashed-up pigeon either; for about seven of your pounds you can take your pick from a cheeky gnocchi with venison ragu, a Korean-inspired burger with kimchee, or (the favourite) a prawn katsu curry. Sadly the katsu people don’t turn up as much these days, which I’ve chosen to take as them sulking about us not buying their accompanying gyoza dumplings one week (it was one time guys! Come back!).

Yes, it’s completely the ponce de la ponce, and yes, it doesn’t have the same sweaty authenticity of the Green Lanes kebab houses just a homemade brownie’s throw away.

But it’s a very pleasant place to wear my collared jumper.

And when all's said and done, who doesn't want a mulled ginger beer?

And when all’s said and done, who doesn’t want a mulled ginger beer?