Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Socks that suck

Flickr: Mr Tickle - Wachoo Wachoo Tribe Congressman
QI-watching Rob Brydon fans will understand that there has been a certain debate over socks just lately. He favours the longer sock; I've been trying the Angora knitted version sold by newsreader Selina Scott. I went for the slightly formal version and paid around nine quid per pair (I should stress that the ones in the picture are just something I found on Flickr and not the socks in question).

The idea was that these would be harder wearing than the standard Marks and Sparks jobbies I'd been using. They were indeed more comfortable and for that money I'd hope so too; they appeared to need washing less frequently too, which is a good thing although just how much time and water you save by washing socks a bit less frequently is up for debate. The real strength of the angora sock is of course for the boot-wearing hiker.

It was disappointing, then, to find a dirty great hole in the things last night on the heel. I'd expected that they'd last, for the price. My wife informs me that I can darn them and they'll be fine, but on closer inspection they're wearing thin too.

I probably won't be spending that much again on socks, then. Another way of spending equal amounts is to get them from Dragon Peter Jones, who has launched the stripey versions he wears on telly. He's 6ft 7 and can get away with them. I've tried a pair of similarly stripey jobbies and they made my legs look plain stumpy (there's an argument that it's no use blaming the socks).

I think I'll be sticking with the plainer versions from now on. The longer sock does sound good, though.

Friday, 18 February 2011

How to shave 2: the blade

The previous entry on shaving tells only half the story - skin preparation and using the right stuff on it is important of course, but the right razor is equally so. My favourite shave by a mile is from the barber's chair as I've said; you relax, an expert takes care of you and you feel as though you're worth a million by the time you leave.

This would get costly as a daily occupation. So I've tested three different home shaves recently (at my expense, by the way, no freebies or bribes involved). You could call them reasonable, costly and flaming 'eck. Naturally I'm sticking with flaming 'eck.

First the cheapie. King of Shaves' Azor just does the job. It's available, as you can see, from £1.99. Replacement blades, for a good one, cost £9.49 for a pack of eight. It doesn't buzz, the head's not that flexible but you get a reasonable shave out of its three blades. You need to get used to the angle but that doesn't take long. The only thing is the cost of the replacement blades will add up.

Gillette's new Fusion ProGlide Power Razor has about a squillion blades, buzzes like a good 'un and gave me a considerably closer shave than I'd been used to from its predecessors. Like all cartridge based razors its replacement blades can cost a small fortune; six-pack for £16.89 from Amazon, which when you consider the razor itself costs over £10 less will make a lot of people think. A less expensive manual (no-buzz) version is available. I couldn't help but think a lot of people will end up paying a load of money for a bit of gimmickry over time. Which led me to believe it's not necessarily the one for me, although I do like the way it lights up blue when you start buzzing (see what I mean about paying a lot for gimmicks?)

The guys at The Valet put me onto the Merkur Futur. They sell it less expensively than Amazon and offer advice on using double-edged safety razors for newbies like me, so do shop around if you want to get one. It's expensive and noticeably heavier than the others; it's designed so that you keep it for years, preferably for life, so it's solid and well balanced. Merkur will sell you blades but the ones from Wilkinson Sword are just as good at £1.90 for ten. They don't last as long as the cartridge versions but they don't have to at 19p each.

The Merkur requires a different shaving technique from the others, and it needs a little perseverance. Have a look at the last shaving blog I did. Follow those instructions but when you get to the shave, remember to rest the round metal part on your face. I do mean rest rather than press. Apply no pressure at all and move in the direction of your hair growth - it's like using a fountain pen when you're used to using a biro, it's a much gentler pressure. You might not actually think you're touching your hair, which is normal and means you're getting it right.

You can adjust the angle of the blade for closer shaves - I've started on a 1, it moves up to 6, which I'm told is almost like using a cutthroat razor. Shave twice and replace the blade at least once a week - you can do that when they cost pennies. Rinse rather than rub the casing for cleaning - or take the blade out first, these things are pretty savage.

I've been using mine for a couple of days. I'm getting at least as close a shave as I did with a succession of Gillettes - probably better - and I'm fairly certain I'll be producing a lot less waste by disposing (carefully) only of the blades. It'll take time but over a few years not replacing the razor and buying blades for pennies, at some stage it'll become economical as long as I'm not tempted by another toy.

The drawback is of course that you need your fifty-odd quid to start off with, and it's ages before any economies kick in. You pays your money...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

How to shave

Many men's magazines have a stock in-trade of periodically telling us how to shave. I absolutely love this; I've got to the age of 45 and have always kind of thought I'd mastered this dark art by now.

Visits to a barber and a bit of experimentation have proven me wrong. Previously I'd used a bit of shaving gel and a Gillette cartridge type razor. I couldn't help but notice the barber shave I had a few weeks ago was a damned sight closer than my usual, so I asked a few questions. Here's some of the stuff I found.

First, wash with hot water and a cleanser - you'll open the pores up and soften the hair.apply an undercoat. I'd been using shaving oil which is fine; I'm now using a tub of Proraso, Google it, it's very refreshing on the skin and wakes you up if nothing else. It has menthol and eucalyptus and smells like it, although only when you've got it on. It nourishes the skin a bit and allows for extra smooth razor glide.

Then put some shaving soap on with a brush. Ordinary soap will make your skin dry up; something that moisturises a bit is ideal. I've taken to using Bluebeard's Revenge, which is allegedly scientifically formulated to reduce stubble growth for those of us with loads of five o'clock shadow. I'm no scientist but I know it stays foamy and doesn't dry up so is comfortable to use, and doesn't pong. This is my idea of what a shaving preparation should be like.

The use of a brush is important as it makes bristles stand up. People like me who've massaged a bit of gel in first have been smoothing our hairs down before shaving, which doesn't actually make a lot of sense. The next step is actually shaving. The ideal technique is to go in the direction the hair grows, otherwise you're juddering a sharp blade against your skin. Aim to reduce rather than eradicate hair, you need to be a bit gentle. Then lather up and shave again, this time maybe going sideways but never against the grain of your hair growth.

Rinse with cold water if you're not squeamish - it'll close the pores back up and start protecting your skin. Use a moisturiser once all the soap is gone and you've dried yourself off - technically you've just assaulted your skin and you need to start repairing it. Don't, repeat don't, splash aftershave all over - if you want to smell nice then the chest will get warmer and expel heat (and therefore scent) quite nicely, as will the back of the neck; skin that's just been shaved is more likely to react badly to a scent being applied as it'll be sensitive for a few hours.

Later in the week I'll discuss different blades.

My thanks to George at The Valet who quite unknowingly acted as a source of much of that. He will of course be delighted to note I was listening!

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Valentine's 7: Skin and hair products

So we're blokes, and on average that means we're not going to do a lot in terms of skincare and hair care. I've already quoted research on how many of us nick our partner's toiletries in the "Men are Useless" entry a couple of weeks back so you know my views on that.

There's a good argument, though, for partners using gift-giving times for something a bit personal, very much like a skin care range or some such thing. I've been trialling the Osmium For Men range and it does what it says on the tube - fine to use, the look of the skin improves and it doesn't shine on you.

Where I have a difficulty is in the "meeting of science and natural products" bit. I'm no scientist as anyone who's ever asked me any scientific questions will attest. However I do wonder about all this obsession with "natural" - when did skin moisturising become a natural thing to do? It's completely artificial. Ingredients in the range include orange, wheat protein, ginger, turmeric - OK, these are natural but I wouldn't want to vouch for whether they're good for skin.

I'm also going to try a range based on Spanish figs. I'll update you when I can; meanwhile I'll be more interested in whether it makes me look any better rather than whether someone thinks it's "natural" to splurge some goo from a tube and spread it on my face.

Brylcreem standard paste
An old brand making its pitch to a younger audience is having none of this "natural" stuff in its marketing. Brylcreem is no longer just the oily "seen the latest edition of Mad Men?" gunk it was - there's paste gunk (which I'm using at the moment and which has happily taken the place of something costing four times as much) for light spiking and shaping, strong gel for hold, wet gel for (duh) a wet look and clay for people wanting a really solid hold.

These are all reasonably priced, starting from under a tenner and they do the job. There's a cricket ball packaging of the standard paste available (pictured) if your loved one wants an idea for a budget Valentine's gift and it's honestly pretty good stuff and has held my hair in place nicely. The only downside I can see, and this really is a matter of personal preference, is the scent. Brylcreem has always had a very distinctive aroma; it's clean and slighly soapy and when the various males of the species started using it in the 1920s (before we'd adopted deodorant as a mainstream occupation, and for all I know soap as well) this would have been a blessed relief. We're now into the era of numerous niffs being available to us in the form of multiple colognes and eaux de toilette; I'd rather have something odourless on my hair to avoid clashing.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Valentine's 6: Gadgets for guys

Writing about coffee machines is something most blokey blogs do eventually so I thought I'd better get it out of my system. Today I'm looking at the less romantic, more practical but ultimately slightly geeky side of Valentine's gifts for us men - and coffee machines are prime among those.

Yes, the Sodastream is back and they'd love you ladies to go and get one for your bloke. We'll use it a bit but fizzy drinks aren't the same staple as coffee once you're past a certain age. By all means the Flip Mino HD camera I've been sent to play does a lovely, inexpensive job of capturing high definition video. If you've become parents recently it could be exactly what you need - size of a cigarette packet so the kid won't find it intimidating, point and shoot.

But there's something about a coffee machine that's rather nice to have and I've been testing the De'Longhi Icona bar-pump coffee machine. At £111.70 (sponsored link from Amazon there, although they didn't send me the machine) it's a non-trivial purchase but if you were thinking about espresso and capuccino machines it's a good one.

Operation is easy - you get the hang of how much coffee to put in quite quickly. The water reservoir is deeper than most so you're allowed seconds if there are two of you, which better than many on the market. Steaming the milk can be a bit of a trial - if the arm of the steamer could have been further away from the main body of the machine it might have been easier to steam in anything other than a very narrow jug. We ended up with Lattes whilst aiming for capuccinos more than once. But it brews the coffee well.

My only minor gripe is that I'm fond of ordinary percolated coffee and this just isn't the machine for it. It doesn't claim to be either - and if you're simply after something that makes easy espressos and capuccinos and is easy to clean, this is a good option.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Valentine's day: A rum deal

Long-term readers of this blog will know I'm partial to a moderate drop of single malt whisky. There is a lot of variety in this and you don't just get the same thing over and over again - but all the same you can feel like a change.

"Not drinking a spirit" is of course a change you might welcome, reasonably enough. As a country we drink too much. I was intrigued, though, when I was contacted by the people at Mount Gay Rum. They have three bottlings on offer at the moment; the ultra-expensive £125 a throw 1703 Old Cask selection (which I haven't tried), Extra Old (pictured, £37.49, which I have) and Eclipse (£16.99).

The Extra Old was a bit of a revelation to me - reminded me of the first time I tried a single malt that was to my taste, when I'd previously been used to rather harsher blends. There is intense sweetness but also a buttery richness, plus an overwhelming sense of warmth. A lot of this will be down to the 43 per cent alcohol - treat this with care and drink only in moderation. It's seriously delicious as an occasional treat.

Eclipse is more of an easy drinking rum, you'd feel better about putting it into a cocktail or - if you insist - pouring coke or blackcurrent cordial all over it (I would never recommend doing that to any drink on which you've spent more than £30 per bottle).  The Extra Old has opened up a whole new area of interest for me, and if you want a good quality substitute for a post-dinner liqueur for a change it's well worth putting on your Valentine's wants list.

Last time I'd tried a premium rum was at a food show in London. The stand was full of seriously relaxed Jamaicans, who scoffed a bit at the one I was going to try - "In Jamaica we'd call that a lady's drink," they told me, casting political correctness aside completely. I tried it, and am still surprised their ladies can walk.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Valentine blog 4: Ties that bind

There's an interesting blog entry on A Suit That Fits (sponsored link, costs you nothing) today about ties and their origins. I'm more concerned with getting the right balance though - and whether to go "designer" or not.

My usual answer is "no, it costs too much" - although I did pick up a Polo Ralph Lauren in the January sales (wife thought it was very nice until I wore it and she saw an "egg stain" on it from a distance - or "crest", as the designer no doubt intended it). There's a second way to get something designery like the Christian Dior jobbie on the right, for example, and that's to go second hand.

The only issue with this is that the kids have got hold of "second hand" and renamed it "vintage", which means it's still not cheap. That's one thing; the other is the variation in quality. I picked up a Hermes tie from eBay to test the theory out earlier this year. I did indeed pay closer to twenty quid than the ninety Hermes itself would have wanted, but the tie will need dry cleaning as it niffs a bit.

That's fair enough, you go to eBay, you take what you find. This is why a site that's been drawn to my attenton, Lalita Vintage (not a sponsored link, for what it's worth) is a help because it has someone independent looking at quality control. Plus, fast though my tie delivery was, that was due to luck; Lalita is a commercial concern and if your stuff turns up late you're within your rights to complain.

The ties are well worth a look, and I'm seriously considering dropping hints about one of the wallets myself.

My thanks to Lalita for the picture of the designer tie.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A shave at the barber

Call me inexperienced but I'd never had a shave at the barber before. I'd just used a decent razor (the new Gilettes give a close shave but are pricey), a bit of shave oil and some gel or cream, and got on with it.

Then we were having the bathroom done a couple of weeks ago and suddenly a morning shave was an epic experience. First, get in early enough so the workmen weren't around (OK, I'm a home worker, I usually have the luxury of waiting until everyone's out). Then see which taps are working, whether the basin's connected to a waste pipe...

So I went to a newish barber that's set up in our area, The Valet (not a sponsored link, I'm getting nothing for this I promise). Near me, on the Addiscombe Road, this is more than a barber - it has a full treatment room for blokes wanting facials, massages and other treatments, but I wasn't in the market for that on this occasion. I sat down, was brought a coffee (could have had a beer or wine but it was a little early and I had the car), and looked through the bloke's fashion mags and newspapers on offer.

I wasn't kept waiting for my turn in spite of it being a busy Saturday and their squeezing me in as I'd booked on the day. The shave itself was a bit of a revelation. You can read about the Hot Towels Deluxe shave on the company's own website but I had my head wrapped in a number of lemon-scented hot towels, two lather shaves with an open razor (sounds so much less intimidating than "cutthroat" but there was no blood!), finishing off with a tepid towel to close the pores up again, a face massage and some moisturiser. I'd left by the time I realised they'd overlooked the splash of cologne at the end but wasn't all that worried.

It was possibly even more soothing than the facial I had last year and which I blogged on here, and that's not a comment on the facial. The company was good and less rushed than my usual hairdresser in spite of the amount of people they had to get through; the background music was there but quieter, there was a screen with news headlines running in real time beside every barber's chair. I suppose I felt a little more relaxed because unlike most hairdressers or indeed the spa where I had my facial the ambiance was pretty male-oriented here (some of the stylists and from the look of it senior management were female - I stress this is a question of ambience, not sexism). It took around 45 minutes, I could have stayed a great deal longer.

My wife informed me that my face was smoother than she'd seen it before (and she's known me since I was 13) and the skin clearer; I felt thoroughly pampered and half-built bathrooms were literally miles away.

On checking I find that I can have all of the above plus a haircut for less than I normally spend on a cut at Rush in Croydon. My wife has asked me what I'd like for Valentine's Day - it's very simple, just pick the phone up and book me in.