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

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Squirrel bites blogger

While idling through the cemetery recently (one of my interests, a somewhat ghoulish one, is reading gravestone inscriptions), I noticed the squirrels were quite tame. They would come right up to you looking for nuts.

So today I press ganged J into visiting the cemetery again, this time with a camera and some nuts stolen from our bird feeder.

There were squirrels hopping about all over the place, and as soon as you crouch down and rustle, they come leaping towards you.

Now I never had much time for the grey squirrels which forced our indigenous red species into near extinction, but when begging for a nut on hind legs, they are quite sweet.

Until they bite that is.

Holding out some nuts, one squirrel attempted to liberate one from my hand but instead nibbled my finger. Owww!

Another point of interest about Chingford cemetery: we found several graves for the Krays: Reginald and Ronnie and their mother Violet.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Viva Las Vegas

Have arrived back from nearly a week in Las Vegas. Hurrah!
I went there for the annual sales & marketing conference. It was the third time we'd been to Vegas. I heard the recession is hitting the place hard. There didn't seem to be fewer gamblers in the hotel's casino, but the stakes were lower.

I'm proud to say I once again departed without having spent a cent on gambling, but Las Vegas fleeced me in other ways. The prices! Now the dire plunge of the pound has had some bearing, but the prices really were extortionate. Two pastries and two coffees in an average coffee shop: twelve pounds. Six drinks in a bar: sixty-eight pounds.

Now the first time you go to Vegas, it is simply jaw dropping. Amazing. These photos are from the Palazzo adjacent to our hotel The Venetian, and the shops at the Forum. Both have artificial skies and curious lighting along with Roman statues and fountains (The Forum) and "St Mark's Square" with gondolas and Venetian glass shops (The Venetian).

The hotels along the strip are themed with gaudy facades and attractions intended to lure you inside. Once inside, they look remarkably similar with acres of slot machines and gaming tables. The same pasty faced people from the night before could be seen gambling when we got up early for breakfast and had to trudge through the casino each day.

Smoking is permitted in the casinos which comes as a real culture shock now. And to compensate, the hotels tend to waft around revolting and cloying perfumes to try to mask the smell.

Vegas seemed to me this time an anachronism. In these times of recession with companies going bust daily, a place where everyone's hopes and dreams lie on the throw of a dice seemed foolish and empty.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A few bright jewels in formulaeic "Oliver!"

I am a little puzzled. Analysing all the different elements of the lavish new production of Oliver! at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, it would seem to be a tour de force: wonderful comic performance by Rowan Atkinson; superb sets and lighting which really create an atmosphere of old London; very strong singing voices across the cast, and of course the delightful Lionel Bart songs.

And indeed on the second night the cast did get another standing ovation.

But somehow it all felt a bit flat to me. There were isolated nuggets of warmth and sparkle, but overall I felt it had been honed to such precision over its long preview season that the cast is already going through the motions. It didn't feel like a new show. There was no sense of the horror of the poverty and deprivation suffered by Oliver, or the brutality of Nancy's murder. It was a saccharine sweet Oliver performed at breakneck speed.

The first half was marred by a cringeworthy interchange between Mr Bumble and the Widow Corney, and the clumsily staged escape of Oliver from the funeral director. The big routines in London and in Fagin's Den were executed with precision, although it was hard to recapture the exuberance of "Consider Yourself" on stage with a small cast (albeit a cast of 80, the largest in a London show).

The highlight of the second half was the rendition of "who will buy" which was colourful and exuberant. It seemed as if the cast had relaxed after the interval and were starting to enjoy themselves.

Rowan Atkinson succeeds in bringing a new dimension to Fagin - very difficult when you consider who's played this character in the past. He applies a wonderfully delicate comic touch, particularly in exchanges with one tiny child.

Bill Sikes is underplayed by Burn Gorman (Guppy from Bleak House) and it's a good decision based on all the over playing that is going on. His demise is hugely disappointing.

When Nancy first appeared, I immediately thought that Jodie Prenger had managed to shift some more weight, but then I realised that it wasn't Prenger. Big disappointment after reading about her wonderful first night. Tamsin Carroll, not in the first flush of youth, was a very workmanlike Nancy, lacking charm but possessing a huge voice.

Oliver, one of three, was played by Laurence Jeffcoate, a winsom child with a superb voice, pure and true. His rendition of "Where is love" was far superior to Mark Lester's in the eponymous film version.

Finally a word on Mr Brownlow's costume. It looks as if the wardrobes of Phantom and Toad of Toad Hall were raided for his curious brightly coloured frock coats and capes. Most bizarre.

So overall, a well executed show following a familiar formula. Very bland and adding nothing new.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Kate isn't a saint

I was amused to see one of the harpies (ie a woman columnist for one of the nationals) last week claiming that actress Kate Winslet fulfils all the criteria to be an icon to men and women. Yet today Kate is castigated by the boilers for blubbing when she won two awards at the Golden Globes on Monday.

True, she was embarrassingly snivelly and incomprehensible, and yes, it did bear comparison with the hideous performances of Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry. Yes, these ladies should try to get some perspective. But it's not a crime, and the harpies should cut Kate some slack.

They've put her on a pedestal for some reason and still labour under the misapprehension that Kate is a normal Reading lass who had sausage and mash at her wedding and has somehow struck it lucky in Los Angeles with her glittering film career.

They don't seem to realise that Kate has moved on!

Sausage and mash was at her first wedding reception - and the marriage ended. Her second wedding, to Sam Mendes, was a different affair. She's a much more toned, glossy and groomed Kate than she was back in Titantic days. She maintains her figure with a harsh regime of diet and exercise. She might love her food but these days she knows she won't get work unless she is a US size 6 at the max.

The fact that she appears in big budget blockbusters and has Oscar nominations cascading down on her bears witness to how hard she has worked and how she understands the system over in LA.

So if she acts like a "lovey" and starts blubbing at the Oscars next month - assuming that her Golden Globes are precursors to The Big One - don't criticise her. It's what superstars do!

ps. I don't have a lot of respect for the tabloid lady writers - Jan Moir, Amanda Platell, Liz Jones and their predecessors, Lynda Lee Potter, Jean Rook. They're generally a disgrace to women and far worse even than some of the Neanderthal male writers like Clarkson and the ridiculous Rod Liddle.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Swooning at the Lakeland catalogue

I read an amusing account of how a woman eagerly devours seed catalogues, transfixed by the pages of beauty and casting her mind forward to summer when the days are long and the bees are buzzing.

I too like looking at seed catalogues and also swoon at the David Austin rose catalogue. But what I really enjoy is the Lakeland catalogue. I must confess I don't often buy anything, although their quality is top notch and at Christmas I love the rose & violet creams.

No, I like to read the catalogue and fantasise about a life which would involve lovingly making my own jam and chutneys, and the bread on which to serve it; never burning my arms from the oven because I'd be wearing Coolskins; producing special battle ship or butterfly shaped birthday cakes; always having the right spray or unguent to keep the oven, kitchen and windows grime-free, and always having the sharpest knives and the freshest ground coffee.

Dining would be fabulous with everything piping hot, either in a hostess trolley or insulated serving dishes, and the table would groan under the weight of damask, sauce boats, runners and napkins.

I would rediscover (?) the joys of cooking with a pressure cooker, of steaming my fish and vegetables and perhaps even ditching my oven in favour of the mysterious Czech Remouska, a portable oven which apparently cooks the lighest sponge cakes, crispy chicken and perfect pizzas.

Washing up would always be a doddle because nothing would ever stick to my pans, and the oven floor would be lined with that special Teflon wrap. And the summer catalogue, oh I love the summer catalogue with its pages of all fresco eating, picnics, jugs for Pimms and fire pits.

In fact, looking out now at swirling snow (most unusual for London), I'm wishing I had the Lakeland summer catalogue in front of me now.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Even the Lord will struggle

The two texts sent by my brothers last night during "Your Country Needs You," the Eurovision song choosing programme, speak volumes.

"Why don't they give us nil points and just let us go on with it" and "absolute shite."

In a strange show that had a useless Moneypenny type character and saw Andrew Lloyd-Webber having silly conversations with Vladimir Putin and various ambassadors about voting for the UK, the "cream of British talent" was rounded up and ceremonially forced to caterwaul to Lord Webber and his companion, a "famous music producer."

The Public and its video entries clearly hadn't passed muster (the talent pool exhausted by X Factor and Britain Hasn't Got Much Talent), so a few West End understudies known by Lloyd Webber were roped in too.

The resulting six acts are depressingly similar to the standard we expect from the BBC and should be binned along with Scooch, Jemini and Andy Abrahams. And here lies the rub. In Lloyd Webber's tour of Eastern Europe, he discovered that a) they all take it a lot more seriously than we do, b) they accuse us of not taking it seriously enough, and c) they don't vote for us because we field amateur singers and bad songs.

Simple. And before you smirk and laugh at the standard of other Eurovision entries, at least the Russian winner last year is a huge act in his own country. Not someone who sings badly in dingy clubs, a rip-off of The Stylistics or a couple of twins who cry at the slightest provocation. Can we seriously imagine them holding that huge Moscow arena, and a hundred million viewers in thrall? A ridiculous notion.

For such a big show we need not only The Song that Lloyd Webber is going to write, but The Act to do it justice. A proper group or singer, not has-beens. Plus, instead of begging Eastern Europe to vote for us - which is as likely as a snowstorm in June - we should be forging an alliance with Germany, France and Spain. We four fund the Eurovision and we're all in the same position with lowly scores. And if we all have another bad year, I vote we withdraw our funding and exit the damn thing.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Lord to the Eurovision Rescue

Poor old Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Having told the BBC he didn't want to do another casting show this year he was then lumbered with the Eurovision Song Contest, both writing the song and choosing the act. He admits it's a poisoned chalice but, credit to him, says he's had a few of those in his career so what's another one?

I don't care much for his musicals - they're overblown and schmaltzy to me - but having a "name" involved with Eurovision is progress. Plus he's managed to secure the vote of Russian President Vladimir Putin. One vote we can count on! Hurrah. I wish though we weren't going for complete unknowns. It's such a big show with so many viewers that I can't imagine an unknown is going to be able to be able to give their best, with nerves and stage fright. A lot of our unknowns have performed very badly (Jemini, anyone? Our first with "nil points").

Anyway the show is on tomorrow - Your Country Needs You - so let's hope this year we get a good act and a good song, although that doesn't necessarily guarantee a good result!
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