Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas greetings

Yes a merry Christmas to each and every one of us! I don't go in for this nonsense of "happy holidays" or "let's not mention the C word in case it upsets other religions."

The Magwich has been consumed (the pork pie: pay attention at the back!), the crackers pulled, the paper hats worn, the Da Vinci Code viewed and the Trivial Pursuit DVD untouched (grrr).

Now we're in what I call "the hiatus," when Christmas is over but not quite finished. You're fed up with leftovers and anything involving raisins or icing; the dustmen aren't coming for days and the bin is overflowing, and the nation doesn't return to work for days. The only sport seems to be fighting at the sales, which used to be called January Sales but now start on Boxing Day (an apt word, given the nature of the scrum, according to some of the papers today).

Oh well, better make the most of a few days off. Plenty of time to make some cards. I have enough trimmings now, thanks to some of my Christmas presents and a visit to Hobbycraft, Romford, today, to produce all my birthday cards for 07. I will be experimenting with resist stamping, shaker cards and Twinkling H20s. And now I've finally got the addresses of John's relatives in Ireland, I will need to get started!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Trial by Media

The Suffolk police chief revealed that a man held for questioning re Ipswich murders was being released, and his name wouldn't be disclosed at this time.


In the words of a Monty Python skit, well his real name is xxx, he is xx years old, he lives at xxxx and he works at Tesco. The minute he was arrested, the stable doors opened and the horse bolted: photos from his website, his mother's house, the man himself talking innocently to the BBC. Maybe the rules have changed, but when I was a trainee reporter, you didn't name a suspect until they had been charged. Once charged, you are still innocent until proved otherwise at trial.

But now, even though this man has been released, the old adage "no smoke without fire" will no doubt apply in a formerly quiet rural town which is now looking over its shoulder; he has been made out to be odd, by the press; a loner, someone we can all look down on (whereas in an earlier, kinder time, he may have been regarded as a philanthropist for trying to ease lives ravaged by drugs and prostitution).

My biggest worry is miscarriage of justice. We seem to have more of them these days. I have always firmly believed that Barry George is wrongly incarcerated, that he does not posssess the skill and intellectual ability needed to have murdered Jill Dando. But he was an easy target and once the media had carried out their trial, the jury was easy to convince, with nothing more than circumstantial evidence. Remember Colin Stagg? The killer of Rachel Nickell still walks free. Then there were the tragedies of Derek Bentley, hanged for shouting "let him have it," and later exonerated for the murder of a policeman; and Stefan Kiszko, who died not long after being released from prison for a murder he didn't commit.

So credit to Suffolk police for the strides they are making in the investigation -- another man is now charged with the murders -- but isn't it time the press and TV took a step backwards and examined their consciences?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The path to old gitdom

I sometimes see John's teenage children looking at me in That Way...you know, that somewhat bemused, occasionally exasperated way that teenagers have of looking at you as if you're a historical relic. Not surprisingly, it's a look you see more often when you're trying to be young and trendy and you're maybe talking about your other self on Second Life, or the latest musical offering from the Towers of London.

I've never been reticient about revealing my age (look at the title of my blog) or saying that I'm middle aged, although I always secretly hope I don't look my age. I remember thinking n my teens and early 20s that someone who was 37 was well past it. I remember Giz lamenting the fact that a divorced friend of hers never met any new men. I thought scathingly, "well she's 37 - no wonder!" I used to think that having a mortgage was the absolute epitome of Old Git-Dom, meaning you had conformed and sold out big time.

Of course over the years more and more symbols of Old Git Dom get added to your arsenal. Slippers, for example, and not the frou fou marabou trimmed type either. The desire to wear comfortable shoes when out on a shopping expedition. The embarrassing retention of facts from the 70s. One's partiality to a scooner of sherry (try telling everyone it's actually trendy to drink sherry chilled....). The strange discussion held over the Sunday roast, over what type of joint it is ("silverside" "British?" "No, Irish".)

But the most important thing that comes with age is confidence. I'm confident enough to wear slippers and tell you all, and not give a stuff. When you're young, you think you're cutting edge and trendy but really you're just following everyone else like a sheep, wearing the same outfits, using the same phrases.

I shudder at the tyranny of being young and trying to avoid the agony of being an outsider, an eccentric, old-fashioned, square or whatever. As you get older, you don't worry about what people think of you. You're proud to be different. And the great thing is that everything always comes back into fashion. So the high waisted jeans that I've had for five years, and kept wearing when everyone else's were showing their knickers and muffin tops (not a very flattering look, but that's sheep for you), are now high fashion again. Cool, huh? I won't hold my breath about the slippers though.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Arthur Cushing

I had sad news yesterday. My first boss, the former editor of the South Devon Times, Arthur Cushing, died at the weekend. I had sent him the annual Christmas card & letter, and received an email from his daughter Katy telling me Arthur had had cancer for six months and died peacefully in St Luke's Hospice, Plymouth.

I told Ms Julie (Julie Skentelbery, my pal since our Mirror Group Training Scheme days) who recalled how Arthur had sent us to the shops to get his tobacco, and how once, in a rare rage, he had impaled himself on the spike (where all the used copy was placed) when shouting at Chris Bartlett.

Arthur was a very mild-mannered man usually. Goodness knows how he managed to stay so patient, when his beloved newspaper was staffed only by hapless trainees straight from their six week induction course. He was an old school, old style editor, with attention to integrity, grammar and building relationships with the local community and police to collect stories. How I hated being sent on a "prowl," where I had to befriend the local undertaker amongst others. I was always puzzled about the etiquette of this; should I enquire "how's business?" or beat around the bush over a cup of tea for half an hour?

Arthur didn't drive so he was very appreciative when Julie and I took him to the Seven Stars or the Cherry Tree for lunch in her Morris 1000, which had a giant stone in the boot (for sentimental reasons) and a non-operational speedometer. The landlord of the Seven Stars, Mr Stout, was extremely generous with his portions and his name bore witness to that.

Initially when I started work at the South Devon Times we were based in West of England Newspapers' main building in Honicknowle, Plymouth. It had a state of the art printing press which barely gathered speed for the small run of the SDT. Arthur would get mildly stressed on press day as the proofs came back, more subbing was needed and the printers were getting difficult. Then, around 4pm, he would rush into the office beaming, holding some copies in his hand.

The Sunday Independent shared the same offices and the staff considered themselves much superior, so inevitably someone would be scathing about the headline. It's true that sometimes we struggled for news. I remember one of my more dubious stories was "Lettuce soon a luxury." A lot of the content was supplied by a network of old ladies who supplied stories about the Women's Institute, Townswomen's Guild and various religious groups. Some of these ladies were quite fanatical about the paper , particularly one Kathleen Luscombe in Ringwood, South Hams, who would ring up and shriek down the phone that the paper hadn't yet arrived there.

Arthur finally left the SDT and went to Muscat to edit the Times of Oman. He was thrilled to have a chauffeur driven car. After he retired, he would write occasionally with news of his travels.

I will raise a glass over Christmas in memory of Arthur, the man who launched my journalist career and that of many others, among them Val McDermid, Robert "Ned" Bowden, Nikki Slight, Henrietta Knight, Alan Nixon.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas in Munich

I spend a lot of time in Munich for work, and of course I lived there for 18 months in the period 1999 - 2000. But my mother (Giz) has never been there, because my father was too poorly to be left on his own. So I took her to Munich last week for a couple of days to see the Christmas markets.

It's such a beautiful place, probably my favourite city in the world. It turned out that Giz wasn't too impressed by the first Christmas market, at Marienplatz, so I didn't force Tollwood on her (huge market on the site of the Oktoberfest). Instead she wanted to go to a museum so we went to the Deutsche Museum. I've never been there before. The boats and canoes were very interesting (not meant ironically). We also went to the planetarium, though the commentary was entirely in German so we didn't understand any of it except occasional refrences to "Milch Strasse" and "Marz."

I had hoped to take Giz to a fabulous restaurant, the Bogenhauser Hof, but unfortunately it was fully booked. We did go to an Indian restaurant, newly named Ganesha (formerly Namaskar) not far from the Hilton where we were staying.

All in all a nice time; and on Saturday, back in London, we went to the Holbein exhibition at Tate Britain, which was marvellous (although sadly Anne of Cleves was not present), followed by The Nutcracker at the Coliseum with English National Ballet. This was a new version of a ballet we've seen several times before. It was very colourful and quite special.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Festive Fun

Went to the annual Intel marketing Christmas party last week. Held as always as Sudbury House Hotel, Faringdon, and a severe case of deja vu walking in and seeing the same Christmas tree, the same table laid out with glasses, and so on. It may have even been the same turkey - very hard to tell with that tough old bird!

We had a Ladeez Table and certainly made the most noise, particularly with our rendition of "and a partridge in a pear tree" which far outshone the other tables, who'd gone mute at the prospect of singing (that's engineers for you).

We Ladeez didn't do too well with the quiz though. The questions were quite hard, not so much about celebrities or shoes, or even how many transistors on a processor, but far too many about the EU and golf.

Despite being exhorted not to cheat, mobile phones were soon flashing around the room, querying Google or phoning a friend. How else would Rick's table have scored 39 out of 40? Not that the Internet is always very reliable. Our Internet-supplied answer to the question "which leader coined the phrase 'Iron Curtain' was Goebbels, which we didn't think was right, and it wasn't (the correct answer was Churchill).

Anyway, we still ended up with 50% of the prize, one of two bottles of Champagne, thanks to Peggy's extraordinary skill at liberating bottles from tables.

Ladeez Awards
1) Mario Testino award for Photography: Kirsty Hammond
2) Best face when blowing up a balloon: Laura Conger
3) "Got to pick a pocket or two" award: Peggy Van Nieuwenhove
4) Most generous boss award: Rick
5) Booby prize for first to bed.....the author...zzzz

Anyway, it was a great night and wonderful to see some of our friends who recently left.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Princess Diana: when will it ever end?

At the risk of being controversial, I am extremely bored with all the hoo-ha surrounding the Princess Diana inquest, the ridiculous allegations about conspiracies and anything that Mohamnmed Al-Fayed has to say.

We should have had a complete and open inquest several years ago and drawn a line under the sorry business. There was clearly a lot of bungling between the British and French authorities, but that doesn't necessarily spell out "conspiracy." The word I would choose is "incompetence." Meanwhile the delays and prevarication about open or private inquest fuels the bonkers Daily Express which is obsessed with conspiracies and murder theories.

Without pre-empting the inquest, the facts seem to suggest that Diana died in a car crash. She wasn't wearing a seat belt. There was no reason to suggest any conspiracies. The driver was several times over the drink drive limit. Diana was divorced from Prince Charles and hardly a threat to the constitution. Some reports say she wasn't very seriously attached to Dodi Al Fayed. Then there's a report she was pregnant - but nothing suggests this was the case.

I was never a Diana fan, and since her death, a cult seems to have developed around her where she has taken on almost mystical qualities. "The princess of the people," warm and approachable. Well yes, but compared to the rest of the royal family, stiff and repressed, she couldn't be anything else. The charity work. Well sorry, but I never felt the same about it when I read that newspapers were always being tipped off about when to see her going about her secret charity work. Then there were the photo opportunities. The hang dog self-conscious pose at the Taj Mahal. The TV interview with the crazed eyeliner rimmed eyes. The behaviour. Throwing yourself down stairs is not a normal way to behave, nor is developing bulimia to attract attention.

I can understand why the royal family would drive anyone to despair, but she can't have been that naive that she didn't realise she was pre-destined for the role as bride because of her pure status and breeding stock potential. She knew about Camilla, and probably thought she would drive her older and less attractive rival away. But Charles likes pseudo intellectual debate, and surrounded himself with acolytes like Laurens Van Der Post. And he goes to dreary places like Balmoral, whereas Diana was a young woman who yearned for glamour and fun, not intellectual debate and trudging around Scotland in wellies.

Then there were the boyfriends. She certainly seemed to make up for lost time once she and Charles separated. Hewitt, Gilby, Will Carling, some doctor, an infatuation for Oliver Hoare (she made hundreds of calls to this married gentleman, and police were embarrassed when they investigated and found who was making them). And the various lurid writers of her life promise us there are many more romances with high-profile figures.

It's all as tawdry in retrospect as the sad little memorial in London and the even sadder little island when she is buried at her brother's estate, failing to draw the crowds. In my view, time to develop some proportion and perspective, and to move on.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Leaping salmon

Three days on the salmon diet and only one pound lost! That's weight-wise: financially of course, many more pounds. Salmon as prescribed by Dr Perricone, twice a day, doesn't come cheap.

I suppose the curry on day two didn't help, but John was most insistent on a Friday night curry. I made concessions by not having a Bombay aloo, but I couldn't switch from a Bombay chicken to the dieter's alleged friend, the chicken tandoori.

I do the three-day Perricone salmon diet every now and then. I'm not a fan of faddy low-cal diets but this one seems to work: it's delicious, fairly filling, and usually gets good results. The diet isn't sold as a weight loss diet. I added up the calories and it comes in at around 1200. The diet is billed as the "three day facelift in the fridge." Perricone believes that skin ageing is caused by inflammation and the sun. And the diet really does seem to improve the skin. Kim Cattrall is a big fan apparently. For breakfast you have an omelette made with one whole egg and two egg whites, and porridge. For lunch, salmon fillet with lots of lettuce doused in lemon juice and olive oil (surprisingly delicious); for dinner, the same, plus a green vegetable; for snacks, almonds and slices of turkey breast, and an apple or pear.

I was driven to the diet after trying on a few party frocks and finding the size 12s a little clipped.

I lost two and a half stone in 2004 and have successfully kept it off, except for three pounds that have crept on and doggedly refuse to go. What isn't so good is that I don't go to the gym anywhere near enough. So I went for a run yesterday, in the rain and wind, and even spent some time in the gym today (and not just on the sun bed).

The forcing function is two Christmas parties on Dec 7 and 8. As the magazines gleefully tell us in December, it's all about showing gleaming skin, wearing sparkly eyeshadows and bling, and buying the drop dead frock.

I think I managed to get hold of the latter in a rare trip to Newbury. I lived in Newbury from 1994 to 1998 and have very fond memories of the town, pre-bypass, and its quaint little department store Camp Hopson. Well, what a change, in all respects. Now by-passed, Newbury has a more up-and-coming town centre, and Camp Hopson has been totally remodelled. No longer a fusty Grace Brothers, it's a bright shop to rival any House of Fraser. And in the Kaliko concession I found my perfect frock, midnight blue with sequins. I then had to buy some shoes, and I'm still looking for the midnight blue evening bag, but with two trips to London this week, I'm sure I'll succeed.

No more salmon for me, but I'll keep up the good work in Gillian McKeith style (my guru): porridge for breakfast with blueberries ands flax seeds; home made soup with seeds for lunch and fish or chicken with veg for dinner. There's no magic formula to losing weight than simply eating less and exercising. Lots of people eagerly asked me how I did it, back in 2004, but that really was the answer. I've also bought diet books which promise miracles - F Plan, Atkins, South Beach, New York - but I've realised that just eating less, and not being tyrannised into giving up your favourite foods, is what works. So while I happily cook my way through Gillian's recipes and have developed quite a taste for spinach and quinoa, I still have the occasional bag of crisps and the odd jacket potato and glass of chardonnay.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Nick names and talking in code

I pity the poor people who become involved with my family. As we're prolific divorcers, there have been quite a few over the years. We might appear normal, stoical even; but as soon as you get a group of us together, we start talking in code and everyone has a nickname or two, so only the bravest of newcomers survives.

John is a relative newcomer to the inner circle. He and I have been together now for nearly three years. This weekend we're going down to Plymouth and he'll meet my younger brother Chops and his family for the first time.

Let's start with the nicknames. Why use someone's real name when it's much more fun to think up a name that's more appropriate? Having said that, I can't remember why Chops is Chops, or why my mum is Gizzard. We think it may be a reference to Kenny Everett's character Gizzard Puke (not very flattering!). My elder brother is Snurge, after the villain in Princess Tina comic. My dad was Stamps. He was not a philatelist, but prone to stamping about. There was a character in an Enid Blyton story called Stampabout who was bad-tempered. His sister glued him to the chimney pot (as you do). So that's how Stamps got his moniker. Snurge's girlfriend entered into the whole thing with gusto and has a couple of nicknames, Bunch and The Inspector, the latter because she's keen on DIY and always inspecting things.

I have a couple of nicknames, of course. Chops calls me Gull and Snurge calls me Crone or Bone. Bunch calls me The Baroness (from the Sound of Music). John is still John, although in texts he's become J, so this might stick.

I was just talking to Giz on the phone and in 30 minutes we used several of our "code" references. A lot of these are from Monty Python. We routinely refer to the comfy chair, "never a willow," "I've got my own apron," "be fair Pascal" and "somebody said mattress to Mr Lambert."

We also have a lot of our own made-up expressions. If Giz and I am looking for an eaterie, we have a cautious sniff at the door first. If we say "old fat" in unison, it means that particular establishment will not be enjoying our custom. If someone is grumpy, we say they're Tough Ted (a very long story).

We might refer to "the vessel with the pestle," which comes from one of our favourite films The Court Jester. Snurge, Bunch and I am sadly word perfect with the script of Carry on Camping and will often drop references into conversation. Food and drink does not escape. At Christmas we always have a Magwich (a pork pie, from Great Expectations).

John will be very bemused if Giz and I decide to play Consequences this weekend. This ridiculous game, where a piece of paper is passed between us and we have to identify a man, a woman and what they said and did, is totally incomprehensible to anyone else. The man might be someone like Mr Upty, the made-up name we gave to a man in the 60s who gave some leafleting work to Snurge the schoolboy.

Tomorrow J will meet Chops in that Aladdin's Cave of Christmas decorations, the Endsleigh garden centre. My advice to him would be to ask Chops if he's been doing any pacing (he paces up and down when he listens to music) and if he's bought a new mobile lately. J works in the world of mobiles; Chops is a dream consumer and is forever buying a new one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Cats and Men

Cats and men have a mutually suspicious relationship. It's said that men are very wary of single women in their 30s and beyond who live on their own with a cat. I think the same would be true of single men living with a cat. Or single men living with their mum.

I've always had a cat. Currently it's Molly. We've had Molly for a year. We don't know too much about her history. She turned up at Julie and Paula's, in Swindon, bedraggled and thin. They took her to a vet and it turned out she was pregnant. They wanted to keep her but she was terrorising their elderly cats, so after the kittens had gone, I drove Molly from Swindon to her new home in Chingford.

Initially she was quite wild and wary; now she's calmed down, likes being kissed and likes listening to football commentaries. When John stopped listening to the Spurs match on Sunday, she stood up, looked at him indignantly, chirruped crossly and strode upstairs.

Molly was a bully in her Swindon days, but in Chingford she's terrorised by all the other cats. I am forever chasing Pedro out of the lean-to when I hear the soft ping of the cat flap. Then there's an ugly black and white bruiser who lurks under my car, or in the back garden, waiting for Molly. She never stays in the back garden now: her territory seems to be across the road, which is worrying as the road is used by a rat run and is quite busy.

Molly and John are wary of each other. When he sometimes tries to pick her up or stroke her, she bites or scratches. But occasionally she jumps up on his lap, and his face lights up.

In my experience, cats seem to prefer women. Men lurch around too much and their voices are loud. And they always brush cats off beds.

The addictive world of the blogger

When I first logged on to Blogger and decided to create a blog, it was easy enough to choose a template and just start writing. But then you become frustrated at not having any readers; you start to do some research, and before you know it, you're learning fast about rss feeds, spiders, tags, directories and so on.

Over the last few days I made some huge steps, simply by talking to a colleague of mine, Marc Alagem, who is a webmaster supreme and used to be in my team at Intel. Now, I don't know or write in HDML, and so I had no idea where to put my tags (which I knew I needed to become picked up by search engines). Marc kindly sent me the exact wording and where I needed to put it on my Blogger beta template.

Through the Blogger help group, I've also discovered various sites where you can promote your site, for example http://Technorati.com, http://Blogflux.com, www.globeofblogs.com. And I'm now found at www.feedburner.com, though sadly I have O feeds.

I'm also joining web communities, such as www.digg.com, and visiting similar blogs to mine to leave comments (I'm told it's a great opportunity to advertise your site).

It's all very exciting, albeit rather time-consuming. Still, anything to keep me away from that infernal card making.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Let's hear it for the ridiculous trio: Hurley, Posh & Moss

The three women I consider to be the most ridiculous in Britain have been much in the news this week, as always for nothing more than posturing or bragging.

Let's start with Hurley, possibly the most ridiculous of the three. She's actually a successful businesswoman, selling swimwear, after being a failed actress, but even though she's now in her 40s, she's still trying to get column inches for her looks. Her wedding, we are told, will take place in March. And not just one ceremony. Oh no, she has to do this in both England and India, and will need, gasp - no fewer than 12 outfits for the UK event!

It strikes me poor old Hurley is hurtling towards Baby Jane syndrome, where she ages over time but still tries to look the same. Is she defined only by her looks and her ability, as she put it, to fit into tiny clothes? Why does she have to splurge on this monstrous wedding (or perhaps it's free of charge courtesy of Hello magazine, provided other celebs turn up).

She's no arbiter of style or taste; she's been wearing white jeans for the last 12 years! And her evening dresses are so boring, always cut to the thigh and showing her neat little bosom. Yawn. Put it all away darling and concentrate on making millions. We'd respect you more.

Then there's Ms Beckham. Her marriage is in trouble again, apparently (Grazia). Her new book, The Extra Half an Inch, has shot into the book chart at number 10. Yet extracts are fairly laughable. This cossetted and pampered princess, who always looks glum despite her lux lifestyle, tries to convince us that she's just an ordinary Essex gel looking for bargains.

Well, she still comes across as an ordinary Essex gel even though she spends thousands pulling together a look: the right shoes, handbag, jewellery, etc. It's all too contrived, too much of an effort. Lighten up love and look less false. The hairstyle was a good move. Now get rid of the perma tan and fake nails.

Meanwhile, someone who does dress effortlessly is Kate Moss. Sometimes she can look stunning. But she also gets into a rut: the skinny jeans and waistcoats this summer got a trifle boring. My main beef with Moss is that she's revered as some sort of icon, whereas she's a terrible role model for the young. I remember a shoot for Vogue several years ago. Her nails were filthy and she had that gaunt, emaciated look that promptly became lauded as "heroin chic." Since then we've had the drug addiction and the ridiculous charade of the lost contracts which were miraculously restored a few months later; the ridiculous boyfriend and threatened marriage (which we can all see will end in tears in about 18 months time), and the arrogant posturing and trashing of properties (rented cottage in the Cotswolds).

Lately, Moss has been showing signs of wear and tear. It was inevitable that her lifestyle would catch up with her. Spending thousands on spa treatments won't repair the damage done by smoking, drinking and drug-taking.

When has Moss done anything good? At least Hurley is visible supporting breast cancer. Beckham self consciously told a TV programme about her and Day-vid" that they have their own children's charity, but they hadn't told anyone about it (until that programme). Moss just comes across as a hedonistic, selfish slattern, precisely why she is lauded by the Grazias of the world. But it will look less cool the older she gets. My advice: adopt the Gillian McKeith regime and take up a charity (but don't adopt any African children).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Sound of Music" in London reviewed

We saw a preview of the new production of The Sound of Music in London a few days ago. And the word from the crowded auditorium? A triumph!

I did question the wisdom of Andrew Lloyd-Webber when I heard he was planning to stage this show, given the fanatical popularity of the film version. But the Sound of Music has always existed as a stage production, and as proof there are two extra songs. The Baroness gets to sing!

The crowd was at 90% on this preview night and highly excited and boisterous. Maria, played by Connie Fisher, the winner of the BBC show "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" received rapturous applause in welcome, as did opera diva Lesley Garrett.

The most satisfying thing about the production was the vocal and musical quality. Both Fisher and Garrett were superb, Fisher confounding me as I'd never really rated her voice on the TV show. She doesn't suffer in comparison to Julie Andrews. Garrett was superb in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," the show stopper that closed Act 1. Looking around, I could see quite a few of the audience were wiping away tears. And that's the triumph of the show. The film is a real tear-jerker; why I have never really figured out, but fortunately so is this stage version. Without the genuine emotion it induces, the whole thing could be perceived as very schlmatzy.

Other highs were the imaginative scenery and staging; the over-the-top conducting and the children. Maria has an easier ride with the children than she does in the film. The only way we know they've been unpleasant to governesses in the past is the mention of one of them climbing up to Maria's bedroom from the garden with a toad in each hand.

The lows are Captain Von Trapp and the treatment of Lonely Goatherd. Von Trapp was played by an understudy, Christopher Dickins, and he was very wooden, although I suspect it's equally to do with the writing of the part than the actor's performance. There was no chemistry with him and Maria, and hard to see how the script even allows for that. She is convincing as Lloyd-Webber wanted in terms of "she climbs a tree, she scrapes a knee" but she seems like a very naive young girl and it's hard to imagine what the Captain saw in her.

Lonely Goatherd in the film is a puppet show. In the stage musical, it's a scene with Maria and the children in the garden with servants going about their business. I didn't think it quite worked; I kept waiting for the servants to join in. But John thought it was very good (he is less addicted to the film version).

As for Maria, Connie Fisher held her own which was challenging against Garrett. I'm not quite sure why Garrett gets to sing "My favourite things" in the first scene - it doesn't seem right for the Mother Abbess, but seems like a vehicle to give the established star more to do. Fisher was trying a little too hard, but she'll relax over time, and time is what she will have. This show will run and run!

Oh, a handy tip for dining if you're going to see this show at the Palladium: the Shakespeare's Arms, at the top of Carnaby Street, has upstairs dining and it was very good. Attentive and friendly service, real ales and good wine list. I had a stilton & wild mushroom tart followed by sausage and mash.

Friday, November 03, 2006

M&S food ads are too tasty by half!

Somebody stop them! Those gorgeous, luscious Marks and Spencer food ads with Dervla Kirwan's seductive voiceover.

Such is the power of these ads, they even make you fancy food you wouldn't normally touch with a bargepole, viz a viz, from the latest ad, broccoli and leeks with a Stilton sauce.

Apparently every time a new campaign starts, M&S has record demand for the various items.

I imagine Sainsburys and Aldi must be as sick as the proverbial, because they both have new ads featuring close-ups of food, but neither look anywhere near as appetizing as those delicious morsels at M&S.

It's great that M&S have got their mojo back, not just with their ads across the board, (Twiggy et al), but with their fashions and homewares. If only they would improve the lighting in the ladies' changing rooms, they would sell even more stuff.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

More doom and gloom about UK teenagers

Another shock horror report today claims the UK's teenagers are the worst behaved in Europe: they drink more, take more drugs, get involved in anti-social behaviour, and are more promiscuous. Another report today claimed that "ASBOS" are becoming a status symbol.

These reports follow others in recent months which have highlighted high levels of obesity in Britain's youth and that Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies.

I'm sure the tutting readers of the Daily Mail would instantly blame parents or the government; some may blame schools. I don't think it's a case of blame, but changing sociological factors.

Nowadays we have more women working, and as a result, we've had to change the way that meals are cooked and eaten with the growth of convenience foods.

We've seen a huge rise in the number of consumer electronics appliances, starting with the TV through to the computer, the mobile phone, hand-helds and game consoles. These have replaced the parlour games, outdoor activities and good old conversation of old.

And we have become more selfish and materialistic. We throw out goods simply for being unfashionable; we do the same with our elderly. Happy to use 60% of the UK's grandparents for minding the children while we work, we are less happy to have the parents living with us when they need support and we're more inclined to put them in homes (which, we also know from reports, have even lower standards of food quality than school meals).

Add to this the mix of religious hatred and mistrust, the political correctness that is overplayed to the detriment of this country's own indigenous religion- as seen by BA banning staff from wearing the cross, or various loony councils banning the word "Christmas", and you have a society in the UK that is heading for catastrophe.

There is also a greater class divide than there used to be. The chattering classes, with their organic food, fairtrade t-shirts, private schooling and 4x4s are even more contemptuous of those caught in the poverty trap.

We need to restore some sense of balance. Children don't have to eat junk food all day. They don't have to sit glued to their TV or PSP either. It's clear we need to improve people's education on nutrition and good parenting, and we need to think of community based ways to do that, not foolish "nanny state" directives or supermarkets being expected to show people how to eat fruit. And the key here is that we should all take responsibility.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The lure of the bottle stall

It was as English as the sound of wood on willow, the summer fete with its promise of a pony ride, an ice cream and a mystery prize if you were lucky from the bottle stall.

There was a summer fete nearly every week at a local amenity called Harewood House. The fete was usually opened by a minor celebrity. So minor that even I was asked to open a jumble sale when I was a lowly reporter on the South Devon Times.

I always made a beeline for the bottle stall. I couldn't resist this game of chance where you handed over a couple of coins and nearly always won something. Unfortunately, as the bottles were things people gave away, the prize was not always to be coveted. Giz, my mum's face was a picture when I once presented her with a bottle of anchovy essence. Followed by, another time, a bottle of "Cresta" (advertising slogan: It's Frothy Man).

I was also very keen on the books stall. For 5d I bought "Glamour School," which gave beauty tips 50s style, with pictures of celebs like Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. I remember one tip to this day: "beware the kiss of the sun - it's a fiery one!" and it's a pity I haven't heeded this advice.

I was always too wary to step into Gipsy Acora's caravan. It was plastered with pictures of Acora with various celebrities like Roy Hudd and Dora Bryan. My dad (Stamps) knew Acora - he often went to the local pub and they played dominoes. Stamps was mildly amused that David (Acora) never seemed to be able to predict the outcome.

Several years later I did go to see Acora in his Barbican shop in Plymouth. With his dramatic turn of phrase, he gestured with his hands and told me I would be looking into a coffin as the leaves fell. We waited for autumn but there was no looking into coffins, that year or in fact ever.

The other highlight of the fete was the entertainment, morris men, lurchers or little girls from the Marnic School of Dancing. I was envious because Giz had never let me join the dancing school (too clumsy, she said) and one of my friends, Jane Wigginton, was a leading light. Her decision was probably sound, because I ruined the maypole dance in my school's 1972 pageant, the life of Joshua Reynolds, when I went the wrong way. There was mass disarray and the pattern of the ribbons looked less like a spider's web than the bottom of Giz's sewing basket.

I was always careful to avoid anything home cooked, being very suspicious of pasties or cakes that may have been cooked by scenty old ladies, whose perfume or Velouty powder cream inadvertently transferred itself to the foodstuff.

I've been to a few car boot sales, always looking for the game "I want to bite your finger", but somehow I don't think they'll ever hold the nostalgic pull of the quintessential English summer fete, even if it was held indoors owing to inclement weather.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Missing starlets

Whatever happened to Sharon Maiden and Tracy Hyde? Gillian Bailey and Janet Maw? You're thinking, "who?" Unfortunately, or fortunately, I don't know which, I have an excellent memory for names back in the mists of time, and I'm often pinging Google to find out whatever happened to xxx, an actress who was introduced in a particular film, or whatever happened to xxx, a toy, beauty product or food item from yesteryear.

Sharon Maiden for example was introduced in one of my all-time favourite films Clockwise. Yes I know, I shouldn't own up to it - I should be claiming that my favourite films are "Red" "Blue" "Laughing tigers shooting pandas" or whatever pretentious foreign stuff it is de rigeur to claim to like. Ms Maiden appears to have sunk into obscurity after Clockwise.

Tracy Hyde was introduced in the film SWALK, also known as Melody, which was a post-Oliver vehicle for Mark Lester. I was mildly obsessed with him and went to see all his follow-up films, SWALK being one of them. (It was terrible, by the way - a romance between two 12 year olds).

Gillian Bailey is no starlet, she's older than me, but she starred in "Double Deckers" which was huge when I was a kid, and she went on to appear in many things, although I haven't seen her on TV since she appeared in Precious Bane with a disfigured face.

Janet Maw was also a very popular actress in the 70s and 80s, appearing in lots of things, but never seen nowadays. She seems to do a lot of audio books now.

And then there are things. Things like Velouty powder cream which old ladies use. It's only about £1.50 - and very hard to get hold of. Why do things like that permeate my mind?! Or lotions and potions that I used as a teenager to get rid of spots. Whatever happened to Torbetol, Trinsonovin, Cepton, Valderma? Perfumes: Aqua Manda and Kiku. My first perfumes, Yardley Sea Jade and Dorothy Gray Midnight. I sometimes look on eBay to see if any of these things ever turn up. I struck lucky once with the perfume my mum used to wear years ago, Memoire Cherie by Elzabeth Arden, long since discontinued. I found a vendor in the US selling a soap. I bought it and surprised mum with it, though she confessed later it didn't seem to smell the same and people's tastes change.

I'd be interested to know if you ever wonder about people or things in the same way!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I wish I'd never got started!

At the start of the year when all the part works were getting promoted on TV, I decided a new hobby was in order and ordered "Creative Papercraft" with its various free gifts (binder, selection of hand made paper envelopes, etc).
Big mistake!
Before I knew it, I was standing dazed in Hobbycrafts, Romford (I didn't even know where Romford was and had to look it up on the map) with a shopping basket full of numerous ribbons, handmade papers and embellishments. I made a couple of cards, very amateurish now I think, just embellishments stuck on.
Unfortunately Creative Papercraft must have gone out of business. I haven't received a magazine since June and they haven't been using the direct debit. Too many free gifts, I suspect. So in lieu of that, I've been buying crafting magazines. What a burgeoning sector! But as I eagerly flick through them, I soon get crestfallen. The cards they feature are either too difficult, requiring me to use techniques like embossing, teabagging or quilling to name but three, or, if I believe I can make an attempt, they always require new and different paper stock and trimmings, which sends me fleeing to http://craftobsessions.co.uk (amazing service, arrives the next day with a personalised card from David & Brenda).

I must confess I do love looking in my craft box, which holds all my papers, trimmings, ribbons, glitter, beads, stamps, paints, etc (it will soon become a trunk)and sometimes I even attempt the odd card or two, though I dread to work out how much each one costs.
And it just gets worse. Somehow I now have in my possession a scrapbook kit, and this is a whole new area with its own websites, magazines and handmade papers. Aargh!

The art of running marathons

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John started his latest marathon training schedule at the weekend. He runs all the time, but in the run-up to a marathon starts a more intense programme. He is hoping to be one of the chosen ones to run in the London marathon in April. If his application is unsuccessful, he'll run in Boston instead. He has a list of the world's top 10 marathons and is working through them. In total he has run 14 marathons; on the list, he's completed New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Stockholm, Rotterdam and Honolulu.

Honolulu was fun - I didn't think John would be keen but because it was in the top 10 he agreed to have a fortnight's holiday with the marathon bang in the middle of it. It started at 5am and I was outside the hotel in the gloomy early morning light to take one of my inept photos as John ran by. I then got an excellent spot at the finish, although it meant I had to stand around for hours.

John's ambition is to complete a marathon in four hours. He's come close, but it still eludes him. Last year he joined local club the Orion Harriers to try to improve his time, and it's helped in terms of camaraderie and organised sessions. Saturday's run was a club race, a seven and a half miles cross country. I was filming for J's vblog. He wasn't very happy with his time and was covered in mud and scratches from brambles.

Last year J ran four marathons, far too many because the body takes a long time to recover. So he dialled it down this year and did two, Rotterdam and Stockholm, with some half marathons as part of his training. I went with him to Rotterdam and Stockholm. Rotterdam is one of the fastest courses, but unfortunately he got dehydrated after missing a water stop. Stockholm, back in June, we turned into a long weekend and took Rachel.

The picture hows Rachel, John and I at the Hastings half marathon earlier this year. It was cold!!!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mum very impressed with new Intel TV ad

She is not in the target demographic, and can't even be called a silver surfer as she refuses to try a PC, but my mother is very taken with the new TV ad. Usually she dismisses Intel's ads as "silly," so when I told her about the new campaign I pointed out it's aimed at young people (with the implication that she wouldn't like it).

She saw the ad that's running in the Uk (all the ads worldwide were directed by a top UK video director) and inmmediately texted to say she liked it. I thought she was just being perverse, but a couple of days later, and more exposures to the ad, and she texted again: "That ad is a real head turner, I can't get over all the different things that are going on in it."

I suspect she has missed a whole vocation as a focus group member.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Madonna and Baby

We probably don't need yet another voice to add to the shrieking banshees of the tabloid press as they castigate Madonna for her adoption of baby David from Malawi.

Just one thought on this subject. Madonna lives in the UK. It would have been far better for her to adopt one of the thousands of children (not babies) ignored by adopting couples every year who only want babies.

These children, many of them with behavioural problems, are doomed to children's homes or countless foster families. They need just as much PR as African orphans, just as much as they deserve a caring home. But they're probably not as trendy as the African baby, the latest style accessory for women like Madonna who can literally buy anything they want.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What's gone wrong with Amazon? Oh and iTunes

I always loved Amazon.co.uk. I started using it soon after it launched, and I made BIG use of it during the 18 months from 1999 that I lived in Germany.
But what's happened to it?
Recently it's become increasingly slow; so slow that I've sometimes had to give up. I notice, as an IT professional would, that it's now powered by a different company. Is this the reason? The whole USP for a site like Amazon has to be instantaneous response and the ability to carry out a meaningful search. But Amazon has become a hopeless jumble sale.
It used to be a well structured and UK focused site (Amazon.co.uk that is).But to share an example, I just carried out a search, one I've done before (it's my Holy Grail), looking for books about the house design in the UK in the 20s and 30s. You would think there would be lots of books but I can never find any. I am fascinated by houses like those in Chingford, where I live, where each street seems to have different designs of stained glass windows. Plus the Tudor effect. Was that an Essex affectation? Anyway, I digress. I narrowed my search down, and I consciously chose not to tick the box "US architecture." So I was surprised that the search seemed to throw up books mostly from, you guessed it, the US.

Then there are all those wretched sponsored links and adverts. Eww. I know we love Google here on Blogger (if only I generated enough traffic to make some revenue from my humble blog!), but it seems to me that Amazon should focus on the areas where it can conquer. It's finally making a profit and to my mind it could do so much more with the books and music side of the business (surely the cash cow). But no, instead there are irritating sponsored links and additional sales lines and credit cards.

And the thing that really gets my goat? You can't communicate with them. I searched through the help topics, thinking that eventually there must be an option to email Amazon. Or a way of giving them feedback. There isn't. It makes me mad, this dissociation with their customers. Presumably we are all idiots who only email them about lost books. We can't give them any feedback or advice. And yes iTunes, you're just as bad. I was furious about downloading "Fooled around and fell in love" to find out it was a naff instrumental version and they didn't have the version that was a hit. That was available on the itunes US site, but of course you can't download from the other sites because they charge us more in the UK. I also wanted to download Bill Nelson (the 80s cult artist not the country & western singer) but his material is also only available on the US site.

So my advice would be: monolithic e-tailers, because we can easily decide that actually we prefer personal service (and bookshops with coffee bars) and leave you to enjoy another internet crash.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Recalling OK magazine - the original

I am a compulsive and obsessive buyer and reader of magazines. It's a constant source of irritation to me that I didn't make the logical step after my journalistic training of going into magazines. I did try once, when I was at Radio Devon and I needed to move to London (my then husband having already done so), but I received a "no thanks" letter and didn't pursue it further. Linday Nicholson, who did the same newspaper training course as me (she was the year ahead) became editor in chief of Good Housekeeping.

The magazine thing started when I was a kid. I always hated comics like the Wheezer or whatever it was called (Beano, Dandy, Bunty etc) and went straight into the hard stuff, Teddy Bear comic followed by Princess Tina. The only memorable thing in Princess Tina was a villain called Snurge. I still call my elder brother that. I also flirted with young girls' titles like Pink, which had fabulous free gifts.

After PT, it was a rapid progression to Jackie. I was never much of a Jackie fan. It constantly featured pinups of saps like Donny Osmond, David Essex and David Cassidy when I was more interested in David Bowie and Chicory Tip. I dropped Jackie as soon as Hi! and OK! appeared. You can buy old copies of OK! on eBay (I did recently). It's not the celeb version we have nowadays. It was quite ahead of its time then, as it featured sex problems which Cathy & Claire in Jackie didn't. Hi! was a similar magazine. Neither of them lasted very long. I also read Mirabelle and Fab 208 magazine occasionally, but I didn't listen to Radio Luxemburg very much. It was too crackly on my transistor radio.

Snurge was reading Melody Maker, which I considered old hat and full of BOFs (boring old farts). So I started buying New Musical Express. How I swooned when there was a memorable double page article on Woody Woodmansey, the drummer from the Spiders from Mars.

My seminal magazine moment came when I was on holiday in Hayle. It must have been around 1975. I was bored, and looking at the magazine racks. I picked up Honey, and instantly liked what I saw. I remember even to this day: a big 2-page spread on how to make a real pizza with the headline "Belissimo!" Honey was probably a little old for me at that time but it seemed just right. I became an avid reader of Honey, 19 and then Over 21.

I've seen quite a few titles come and go. Obviously OK, Hi, Over 21, Frank, Woman's Journal, Living. I'm not always very true to my demographic. I was buying Cosmopolitan until about two years ago, New Woman until about 5 years ago, and still buy Marie-Claire occasionally, all with a much younger target reader.

These days I buy an eclectic mix of Eve, Woman & Home (my current favourites), Red, She, Good Housekeeping, Gardener's World, various craft titles, You Are What You Eat and Business Week, plus weeklies OK and Hello (shocking isn't it). It's thanks to my magazine obsession that I'm never short of an offbeat conversation topic at dinner parties. I find that the minor European royals, courtesy of Hello, and the dieting secrets of the stars (OK) are an endless source of fascination.

If I'm really desperate, if I'm going on a long flight or it's that lean period when all the magazines are out, I might get Perfect Home, Q, Grazia, Good Food or Glamour, or American magazines. The American magazines are interesting because they're a bit like a step in time: they're more like Cosmopolitan used to be in the Marcelle D'Argy Smith days when it was all a bit soft and boy obsessed, with no hard reportage. There are some titles I wouldn't touch with a barge pole: Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harpers, Wallpaper, Tatler (file under "Emperor's New Clothes").

Oh, and I forgot to mention the best magazine of all: Smash & Grab, which was the comic I used to write with David Westgarth when we were kids and borrwing his dad's Olivetti typewriter. There are no back copies of that one, sadly.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Going back a few years, when stamp collecting, Subbuteo and Airfix models were the hobbies of most young boys, most young girls were collecting penfriends. I had another hobby at that time which was sending off for free samples from comics and magazines like Jackie. Linco Beer shampoo and Albion Milk of Sulphur soap stand out, and you could always get free stamps from some outfit in Goole, but they would then pester you for money and you would have to get your mum to write them a letter.

Anyway, back to the penfriends. For some reason the centre of excellence for penfriends was somewhere in Turku, Finland, which was the name of the company or exchange that matched you with appropriate penfriends. They were usually the same age and sex. It was all very genteel.

There was no Internet then, or texting, or even PCs, so having penfriends meant writing in longhand, fortunately not on papyrus, and sending photos.

The good people in Turku provided me with two penfriends, Helga Kunz in East Germany (before the Wall came down) and Cheryl Morris in Massachusetts, US. You couldn't have had two more different girls - you could tell that by their photos alone. Cheryl looked very pretty and wholesome, posing confidently like a trainee cheerleader. Helga stood cowed, her eyes fixed on the floor, flanked by two enormous breasted women, her aunt and her grandmother.

I didn't write to Helga or Cheryl very frequently and the letters were mostly formal exchanges. I was then introduced by a teacher to a penfriend in France called Marie-Claude, but our letters soon petered out because I was supposed to write to her in French and she was supposed to write to me in English. As soon as I had asked her about Johnny Hallyday (who according to my French text book was a teen French idol, but illicited a "bof!" from her) and how you cooked artichokes, I had exhausted my possibilities.

As I got into my teen years, I wanted penfriends who were a bit more like friends, giggly and like minded, willing to talk about boys and pop groups and clothes. Through the auspices of magazines like OK (not the current version) and Hi! I got matched with Karen Walker in Swindon and Julie Cox in Pevensey, Sussex.

Karen was the only penfriend I actually met. We were both about 15, and she and her family came to visit me in Plymouth when they were on holiday in the area. Karen lived in Swindon - I had no idea then what a big role that town was to play in my future life. We used to write quite frequently and she would tell me all about her outings to the Brunel Rooms in Swindon and the boys she'd kissed, and I no doubt did the same, referencing Rees youth club and the Lutheran Church youth club (I didn't go to the church, only the club, honest).

But when we met, it was a big letdown. We were both quite shy. I was newly permed, I recall; it was de rigeur then to have a perm like Kevin Keegan. Our mothers did all the talking, and I don't think a further letter was exchanged after the meeting so you can tell it didn't go well.

Julie Cox, meanwhile, she was a blast. She was freckly with long brown hair. We wrote huge long gossipy letters to each other and sent postcards from holidays. She was 18 months older than me, which seemed a lot then, and she was a huge Queen fan (I didn't see the attraction). She used to tell me all about life in Pevensey with her friend Anita, who lived in Polegate. Her longest letter was about seeing Queen in concert. By contrast, I had only seen Sailor and Andy Fairweather-Low in concert, and for both I had to leave early to catch the last bus.

I was reminded me of Julie Cox recently when J and I drove through Pevensey not long ago. I'd never been there before - it has a very scenic castle. I've often tried to locate Julie through sites like Friends Reunited, but no joy. We had a fairly short lived correspondence, and sadly I don't have any of her letters. But I always remember my excitement when a big brown envelope with her chaotic right hand slanted writing fell through the letter box. Julie Cox, what are you doing now?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Fashionistas make me furious

Yesterday's Sunday Times suggested that even celebrities cringe and cower in the presence of the fashionistas, the predominantly female dowagers who sit glaring and wearing sunglasses in the front row at fashion shows. Demi Moore, Ashton Kuchter and Victoria Beckham were shown looking nervous as they took their place alongside such gorgons as Anna "Nuclear" Wintour from Vogue.

It's not surprising that VB looked so nervous, having been comprehensively savaged for the dozens of outfits she unveiled in the US recently. Having decided she's good at fashion, and that it's to be her new career, poor old Posh wasn't expecting a roasting from the likes of the ascerbic Liz Jones, more famous for being married to a womanising sap than for her fashion journalism.

Every year at this time, the Sunday Times and all the monthlies go fashion mad, exorting us to snap up the latest trends - leopard print shoes, giant handbags, smock coats, waist high trousers, yawn. If you're over 40, it's all a bit "same old" because we wore all these trends, and those of next year and the year after, in our teens. There's nothing new in fashion. At the end of the day, is it really important, compared to the big issues of the world, if we wear A line or tulip shaped skirts? Yes it is in the narrow, cruel and judgmental world of the fashionistas. Woe betide you if you have been safeguarding your health with a normal diet. You need to be a size zero before you can even deign to present these rags to us on the catwalk.

It's enough to send a sane person straight into Marks and Spencer. And it's no wonder M&S is seeing a reversal of its fortunes when you consider how easy it is to go into one of their big stores, try on some of the latest trends which you've seen on models like Twiggy and Erin O'Connor and leave without having been humiliated or sneered at by shop assistants,a practice which is the norm if any normal sized person should go into shops like Chanel, Prada or any other designer boutique.

The world of the fashonististas is so crazy that its role models are people like Kate Moss, a promiscuous drug taking slattern. Sure, a bit of hedonism is fine when you're young, but surely when you're a mother in your 30's you're a bit too old to act so irresponsibly? As for her fashion sense, those skinny jeans and waistcoats she wore all summer were a bit old hat (even Victoria Beckham did it). The only new thing she's doing is carrying a Superdrug plastic carrier. I'm sure it was simply because she nipped out to the shop and didn't take one of her giant designer bags, but to the fashionistas it was a seminal Fashion Direction, and they're probably all now hurrying off to Superdrug. So much for individualism. Long live the Emperor's new clothes!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Goodbye to a wonderful summer

Later this week we're off to a European resort for three nights to enjoy a final roasting in the sun. I won't reveal where exactly because it's been positioned to J as a surprise. All he has to do is fit everything into 1 suitcase (I resolved not to take 2, it's only three days) and drive us to Stansted at an unearthly hour on Thursday.

It's been a wonderful summer and this was an attempt to prolong it. Although it's sunny now as I look outside, there has been an autumnal nip in the air for two or three weeks now. In the mornings, when I leave for Swindon at 6am, it's quite cold, and on the long journey I can see the leaves on the trees changing colour. It's as if summer is holding out her hand but slowly slipping away.

I used to be a winter person and actively looked forward to winter, knowing what to wear (opaque tights, woollies, long coats), being able to stay in and not feel guilty, sitting by the fire, reading, looking at Christmas catalogues.

But now I look resentfully at the approach of winter thinking of the car frosted up at 6am, the rain, the bleakness of the landscape, the tedious boredom of it for the next six months. And Christmas! Don't even get me started.

This summer was wonderful - two weeks in Ischia, Italy; a week's cycling in Wales; a long weekend in Stockholm where J did the Stockholm Marathon; Picnic in the Park with Bjorn Again (and an awesome hamper from M&S), BBQs in the garden with Pimms; the Bolshoi in London.
The hosepipe ban was a bit tedious but give me a long hot summer anyday over our usual excuse for a summer.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Selina was right: TV is deteriorating

Earlier in the week I saw a programme on Five featuring Selina Scott, "Don't Get Me Started," featuring her rant against the poor quality nowadays of British TV.
And she's so right.
I felt quite ashamed after the programme because I did watch Big Brother 7, even though I felt slightly uncomfortable about it, realising that this is the modern equivalent of throwing the Christians to the lions, or, as her show stated, the equivalent of Bedlam where rich people would pay a few shillings to watch the lunatics in the asylum.
But in the last few months I have become increasingly depressed about the standard of our TV, once the greatest in the world.
In the last week, we've sunk to new depths. Charlotte Church, once the voice of an angel, is now the voice of the sewer, overblown and coarse at the age of 20 with a neat line in the f** word. A programme on Five featured the memorable title "F** Me I'm Getting Fat." And coming this week, a new programme on ITV2 featuring three young men whose only claim to fame is that they are lotharios who can't commit to relationships. Calum Best (unemployed, claim to fame is deceased father who was an alcoholic), Paul Danan (was in a little-watched soap a few years ago) and Fran Cosgrove (claims to own a nightclub) travel through the US seeing how they can get by without money.
If you scan the TV listings, it's difficult to find any good quality, new dramas. You can find re-runs of "I, Claudius" and re-runs of good, but old, comedies. Even documentaries have been dumbled down. They come in two flavours nowadays. The first is "big cat/bear/wildebeest" specials, where a shrieking and over-excited team pursue animals relentlessly across the savanna. The animals are always involved in life and death struggles, presumably manufactured with editing. The second is the classic historical documentary, dumbed down with riduculous computer generated graphics - for example dinosaurs, gasp! - chasing TV presenter, or re-enactments with poor acting of the fire of London, Pompeii, etc.
Selina was also right about the trend for cruel TV, where stupid members of the public are ridiculed and disgraced for their poor dress sense or parenting ability. Fortunately, I think the tide is turning on this one. The recent C4 programme "How to look good naked," whilst featuring a gratuitous title, did at least build the self-esteem of the women it featured with kindness and no plastic surgery.
There are a plethora of TV channels, but without exception they show mediocre dross. And yet teenagers seem to lap it up, the cringeworthy US imports of ABC1, the exploits of "rent a celebrity" Jade and Chantelle on Living TV.
My dream would be a channel called "Quality TV," showing programs about art, history and nature without the dumbed-down factor; quality drama; experimental comedy. TV for grown-ups with intelligence. No programmes featuring "The Public" and no revenue-generating telephone scams. Surely there's a market for that?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Radio Devon anecdotes (1)

Hawses for Courses
I was a journalist at BBC Radio Devon from its launch (1982) until 1988, working first as a reporter and then a news producer. The latter included a lot of newsreading. To start with, I was very self conscious about my Devon accent. A more experienced producer, Helen Hughes, advised me to think of different spellings of words: for example, hawse instead of horse. It worked well. However, there was a monthly curse of the unemployment figures, where the "rip and read" always started "the number of people out of work and claiming benefit has risen / dropped" (delete as appropriate). I didn't like words with 'R' in, so I always changed this to "number of people without jobs."

Raining Men

One of our DJs, Ian Brass, had a wicked sense of humour. I had a news story about a man who threw himself over the top floor of the Newton Abbot multi storey car park, unfortunately landing on someone and causing serious injury. After I'd finished the news summary, Ian followed up with the song It's Raining Men. I'd like to say that was the only time, but after I'd broken the news about the Challenger disaster, I heard "Space Oddity" as I left the studio.

Not Thought to be Seriously Hurt

As I got more adept at newsreading, I started live editing, where I would read the bulletin and edit the copy as I went along. For example, sometimes I forgot to take the snippet about today's weather in with me, so I would ad lib depending on how it looked outside. Or I would not have time to edit a piece of copy about a court case from one of the local news agencies, and would edit it live to avoid the legal errors they always included.

On one occasion, I was nearly at the end of a bulletin when a colleague burst in with a piece of paper and mouthed "news just in." I delivered the phrase with great relish and proceeded to read out how a man had been killed in a road accident. The copy had handwriting all over it and I was suspicious it was incorrect, so I hastily ended the piece "the dead man is not thought to be seriously hurt." I groaned as I closed the fader, realising what I'd done. I sneaked into the main newsroom but fortunately Trevor, the news editor, was listening to our competitors Devonair and hadn't heard my faux pas. Then the phone rang. I picked it up: it was A Listener. He asked if could speak to the newsreader. I gritted my teeth and said "she's not around, can I take a message?" He chuckled and told me to tell the newsreader that she had made his day.

Cycling in Wales

Those of you who know me from a few years ago will be more than mildly surprised to know that I've just cycled 120 miles up and down (it seemed like mostly 'up') the Welsh hills.

Since meeting John two-and-a-half-years ago, I've had to put my couch potato days behind me and start a new lifestyle which includes cycling, running (though I have to get beyond 5km), the gym and eating healthily.

But nonetheless, as I am a very reluctant cyclist, and training consisted only of a one hour session cycling behind John as he ran along the canal, I was filled with trepidation at the prospect of a six night cycling holiday with John and his 15 year old daughter Rachel, herself no slouch in the saddle. They recently did the London to Cambs cycle ride and she came third in the Pedal in the Park, ahead of serious cyclists.

The holiday started at the farm HQ of Wheely Wonderful Cycling in deepest Shropshire where friendly Chris & Kay gave us our bikes, confortable touring machines (Rachel had a mountain bike) and we sheltered under the awning waiting for the rain to stop. It didn't, so we set off for the first stop, a pub for lunch. Except that when we got there, at 2.30, it had stopped serving food and we couldn't even get a sandwich out of them. So fortified with crisps and nuts we set off again in the rain for Presteigne. The hotel dated from Tudor times and had some very strange and interesting twisty staircases. Fortunately the heating was on - we needed it to dry our clothes and hats - and it took a hot bath before circulation was restored.

The next day saw us cycle for 21 miles to Hay-on-Waye, the town of books. The day after, 21 miles to Builth Wells and a very elegant country house hotel; an easier day of 15 miles to Rhyader and then the killer day, 33 miles to Knighton. The route, the Welsh national cycle route, was mostly quiet country lanes (and hills) with hardly any traffic. There was one short off road section where the mountain bike excelled. There we saw two dead sheep. I wondered how they got there - the rest of their brethren were grazing below, fenced in.

Fortunately on the killer day the weather was kind to us; the forecast had been for torrential rain. We seemed to be ahead of the rain all day. But it was very bleak at times. The first 20 miles seemed to be all uphill. The plus side was that the remaining 13 miles were mostly downhill - but too steep for me to be comfortable. All you could hear was the screech of my brakes as I inched my way down the hills, John and Rachel already waiting at the bottom.

Ah yes, bottom. A gel saddle cover was not enough to prevent the agony of cyclist's ass for the first two days. If I could give any advice to novices like myself it would be to acclimatise yourself on a bike beforehand to try to avoid being saddle sore. It's a killer, and something I will happily consign to Room 101 if Paul Merton ever asks me.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Me and David Bowie

David Bowie for me began in 1973. Well actually it was 1972, but 73 rhymes better. I was a blank sheet aged 11, waiting to make my own discoveries of popstars, authors, fashion, life. Top of the Pops came on and it was the now eponymous show that featured David Bowie & the Spiders from Mars performing "Starman." (I've since read that Ian Mccullough from Echo and the Bunnymen discovered Bowie from this performance). I watched transfixed. Now here was the popstar for me. I didn't like the saccharin appeal of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond: here was a genuine British eccentric, so colourful, so controversial. I immediately scoured my mum's Freemans catalogue and ordered the LP (yes, vinyl) Ziggy Stardust, paying 10p a week. I was so thrilled with the album, which I played hundreds of times in my tiny bedroom on Sid, the old Alba record player, that I promptly put myself into debt by ordering Aladdin Sane, another 10p a week.

I wasn't allowed to see David's Ziggy retirement tour when he visited Torquay. A big injustice at the time, but I was only 12 or 13 and Torquay was a far way from Plymouth. But I read about it in NME and it became one of the things I've always held against mum ("you never let me see David Bowie" "you used to make me drink cold tea" "you never bought the basket I made at Sunday school," etc).

I finally did see David in 1983 on the Serious Moonlight Tour. I saw the ad in NME and immediately requested a ticket for London but received Milton Keynes instead. At the time the ticket was in my eager hand, I hadn't passed my driving test, but the thought of being able to drive to MK in my Datsun, a hand-me-down from my dad which cost me approx £1,600, spurred me on and I passed with three weeks to go before the gig. I booked accommodation at The Cock, Stony Stratford (not far from Milton Keynes Bowl), and, armed with an AA route map, set off for the great adventure, a Plymothian aged 22 with zero experience of motorway driving.

For some reason I hadn't brought an outfit to wear. I didn't like to wear jeans back then - I thought they made me look fat. So I found myself in a rather staid ladies' boutique in Stony Stratford looking for something to wear. I bought the most horrendous jade green pair of trousers with a jacket in a rigid unmoving fabric. I wore these with my red shoes (made me think of the video for Let's Dance with the aborigine girl in the red shoes) and a turquoise t-shirt. When I turned up for the gig, very early, I felt a bit out of place: everyone else seemed to be wearing jeans. Somehow I went the whole day, several hours, without speaking to anyone (chronically shy), or buying anything except for an official t-shirt. I didn't buy any drinks in case I needed the loo, and I wanted to keep my spot. It wasn't too near the front but it wasn't too nar the back either.

It was a sunny day and I enjoyed the support acts: Madonna, hardly famous then, prancing around singing "Like a Virgin." The Beat, who I'd seen before. Icehouse, whose appearance was preceded by a flying banner from an aircraft. I became a big Icehouse fan after this. And finally, David Bowie.

This was what I call his commercial time when he looked gorgeous, wore sharp suits and played music that sold in millions. He changed suits about three times, leaving Carlos Alomar to play virtuoso guitar solos. I was transfixed the whole time. I think we danced, swayed, clapped. "We" being the adoring audience of thousands. At the end, the huge moon-shaped shapes at the side of the stage opened and dozens of helium balloons were released. I was so thrilled to catch one, and so disappointed when it got taken from me at the gate. I couldn't believe they needed them for the next performance.

It took ages for me to find my car. In the excitement of arriving, I hadn't clocked which field I was in. Suddenly it all felt very flat because I had no-one to share the experience with. There were no mobile phones then and it was already half past eleven. So I crept back to Stony Stratford and my hotel room.

The next morning, the breakfast room was filled with people wearing the official t-shirts, smiling at each other in acknowledgment. I felt proud to be part of a tribe. I drove home light in heart, occasionally even doing more than 70 mph.

I've seen him three times now but the first time was the most special, even if it was also the loneliest.
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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Big Brother - thank God it's nearly over

As it limps towards the finish post, is this the end of the line for Big Brother? It's been longer this year and even more tedious than last year.

As always, every year I resolve I won't watch it this time. But somehow I succumb. This year, it started the day before the Eurovision Song Contest so I'd gone to my mum's in Devon to watch the songs and it was a no-brainer we would watch BB. Yes, even though I'm near the age of the hapless Susie (and I'm still smarting from the housemates sneering that she was too old to take part), my mum is even older (obviously) and she still watches it too. She even watches Love Island. I couldn't take on two reality series at the same time. Too much of a commitment.

Anyway, back to BB. It's pretty safe to say that Nikki will go back into the main house, so I'm confident to predict the winning order: #1 Pete, #2 Nikki, #3 Glyn, #4 Richard, #5 Aishling. I'm assuming Imogen will be evicted this week. About time! She may be pretty, but soooo dull. I can't believe she's supposed to have a degree. The thing that irks me most about the housemates is their level of intelligence. There's never any interesting debate about anything, or if there is, we don't see it. Some of the tasks show their woeful stupidity. I can't believe how, with so many empty hours stretching before them, they don't have interesting debates about art, literature, sociology....anything!

And I'm with Susie on the swearing. Must be an age thing. I used to think that if (God forbid) I ever ended up in the BB house, I would introduce them to some debate on good food, wine, music, literature, ballet (maybe only with Richard, thinking about it).....but I guess the reality would be that I wouldn't play spin the bottle, the prospect of kissing Glyn being too horrific, and I would drink tea endlessly.

BB used to be a good psychological study. It was fascinating seeing all the misfits trying to interact with each other. But after the first couple of years, they all became wise to performing for the cameras and had tactics to try to win. Mikey, for example, tried to make himself visible in the last fortnight by arguing with everyone. It backfired and he got evicted. That was a magical moment, as was Sezer's eviction. I was so thrilled that the two arrogant muppets were put in their place. Nikki's eviction was a mistake and BB's fault for giving the public too many to choose from. They should have turned it into "you're voting to SAVE...." instead of voting to evict.

Pete used to be endearing but I'm very cynical about his sudden revelations about his mother, the crying and the news that his dad suddenly wants to get in touch. Seems a little manufactured at this stage. I'm not sure why everyone seems so enchanted with Glyn. His whiny voice and constant cries for "foooood" drive me crazy. His poor mum will be dealing with a monster when he gets out.

So, not much longer to endure. I don't even watch it every day now, so tedious has it become. I hereby commit that I will watch the next celebrity version (only 3 weeks long) but next year I may hoist my colours on the good ship Love Island.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Bolshoi Ballet in Swan Lake

On Saturday (Aug 5) went to see the Bolshoi in Swan Lake at Covent Garden. Haven't seen the Bolshoi before. For the last two summers, have taken my mum to see the Kirov. Coincidentally they were also in London at the same time but because they've changed their name to the Maryinsky, I missed the programme announcement. Anyway, we were excited at the prospect of seeing the Bolshoi. Their version of Swan Lake is much acclaimed, and the Russian productions are always special with sumptuous costumes and gorgeous sets and scenery.

Big disappointment!

I've seen many ballets over the years and this one was probably the most boring. The two leads were soloists, not principals, and the young male had no charisma whatsoever. It seemed like the company was going through the motions; there was no passion, no sparkle. The orchestra was too slow. I kept thinking "put some heat under it!" like Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Even the costumes and set looked tired. Usually in Swan Lake (we've seen several versions) there's some trickery or devices to make you think you're watching water and swans. There was nothing notable in this version. A tatty curtain with a swan painted on it was lowered every now and then, but that was it.

I looked eagerly in the Sunday Times to see if they'd reviewed the production but they'd reviewed the Bolshoi's new production of The Pharoah's Daughter. Very enthusiastic review and said the Kirov had been outshone. Perhaps they put all their investment into the Pharoah. Swan Lake has been in their repertoire for ever; perhaps they should shelve it for a few years.

Next year we'll be seeing the Maryinsky (hopefully).

The best version of Swan Lake I ever saw was at the Coliseum with Rudolf Nureyev. It was in the early 80s and he'd lost it in terms of his ability to dance, but he was still very commanding and charismatic. Odette/Odile was a Japanese dancer and she was amazing. She actually danced some of the segments that he should have danced. I'll always remember how she fluttered across the lake like a bird.
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