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

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Life will never be the same for poor Susan

As Slumdog Millionaire drew to its close and we sat in a fairly stunned silence, as you do at the end of a marvellous film, I realised we might catch the last 15 minutes of Britain's Got No Talent.

We hardly watched any of it except for 30 mins earlier in the week when we wanted to see what all the fuss was about with Susan Boyle. She must have been very nervous because her voice was tremulous and lacked control for half of the song but then she pulled it together.

Anyway, I hadn't seen Diversity in that brief 30 min snatch, so I was amazed to see a group of dancers had beaten Susan. The boys were thrilled about their win and how it will change their lives, but I think, sadly, their moment of fame will be the Royal Variety Performance and then guest appearances in summer shows on various piers. I can't imagine Simon Cowell will be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of a group of male dancers.

Of course he will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of Susan Boyle. His work is already half done because she is already a global phenomenon. I expect he and his people have already mapped out what they expect to do with her, and the planned duration of her career. Maybe an album, a live tour? Then dropped like a hot brick.

Susan seems a confident jolly person on TV but the reality, as presented in various tabloids last week, is that she is vulnerable and coping badly with this sudden fame. Four letter outbursts and the police being called was one lurid story. I hope she has good people guiding her because fame the Cowell way is often fleeting and contracts are probably very unfair to the naive performer.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Can't move for poets

I've always claimed to enjoy poetry but if the truth is told, my knowledge is fairly sketchy and concentrated mainly on those we studied at school - Larkin was the highlight - and a few others including Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Wilfred Owen, John Masefield and Paul Durcan.

So, shocking gaps (sorry Mrs Bush) and I certainly won't be making Faber & Faber rich. Coincidentally, upon learning about the BBC's Poetry Season, it seemed that suddenly poets were all around us, to quote Wet Wet Wet. In one issue of the Times, Chris Woodhead mentioned his favourite poet Geoffrey Hill. Alice Oswald was reviewed. Carol Ann Duffy became Poet Laureate. And there wss an obituary of one Ursula Fanthorpe, poet aged 79.

I was ashamed not to know any of those poets, not even Carol Ann, so I have requests flying out on Read It Swap It and I've been perusing Ebay. I've discovered dozens of poetry websites- whatever would we do without the internet! Poem Hunter has a top 500 poems and the top 10 is quite baffling, including a Roger McGough (brother of Lily the Pink?) and a Roald Dahl, and topped by Maya Angelou.

On the subject of the BBC's Poetry Season, there was a programme where children recited poems, won by an Iranian born boy for whom English is a swcond language. Heart warming indeed. But I don't think I'll ever be able to listen to Masefield's Sea Fever ever again. I will always remember the theatrical arm movements and earnest gurning of some of the competitors. "I MUST go down to the seas again".....

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bank holiday mixed fortunes

That's mixed fortunes as opposed to mixed fancies, a la Blenda Blethyn. For J it was a very good weekend. He ran the Hatfield Oak 10k in a record time and believes the older he gets, the faster he gets. So there's hope for everyone.

It was a good weekend too for the cat. She managed to bag both a mouse and a bird yesterday, although I was a bit distraught to find the blue tit still in its death throes. Both were carefully parcelled up and removed (by me).

It was an OK weekend for me: I did manage to get J to go to a carpet store and, thanks to the fact that I generally make up my mind very quickly when shopping, made the purchase in record time so he didn't have time to start huffing and puffing.

But there was also a lot of toil involved: tidying, ironing, shopping, hoovering. Buying and planting some goodies for the garden. Clearing out the spare room. Trying to find homes for everything that was in the spare room, without the house looking like Steptoe's Yard.

To his credit, J did spend most of yesterday in said spare room installing power sockets. Now he is in "research phase heaven," the most prized state of existence for a man. It's when they've been given the go-ahead to research getting a new electrical appliance, and means he can start surfing the web in earnest and looking at all the reviews. This will hopefully keep him so preoccupied I'll be able to watch Springwatch without a fight.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Justice for the abused children in Ireland

It's a terrible, depressing story: endemic sexual abuse across boys' institutions in Ireland. Girls supervised by orders of nuns, chiefly the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse but frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.

The enquiry has taken nine years to complete and it's probably too late to bring to justice a lot of the perpetrators.

But let's not forget that these vile inhuman people claimed to be Catholics, so under their own system of beliefs, those who sin burn forever in Hell.

I wonder if they thought about that at the time?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Carol McGiffin's bare bottom

The traffic stats for this blog make amusing reading in terms of the search words that sometimes bring visitors here.

Some poor schmuck arrived after a hopeful search for Miss McGiffin's bare bottom. I once wrote about how she would make a great dinner party guest. It seems she has a tantalizing effect on the male. Many seekers of "Carol McGiffin naked" have also found their way to these pages.

I was sharing some search word secrets recently with Bill Blunt on the tags that really pull in the visitors. Real crowd pleasers. For me it's Elizabeth Hurley's Indian wedding and John Torode. Check out Bill's blog where he shamelessly featured both of them in a most amusing post.

Torode doesn't seem to have a website of his own so hapless searchers find themselves looking at my scathing review of his restaurant, Smiths at Smithfield. As for Hurley, I remember writing about the overkill nature of her nuptials but wasn't expecting it to be such a rich source of page views. My prediction for Hurley is that she and Arun will probably not be together this time next year. Then I shall write about Liz Hurley's Indian divorce.

As for Torode, he was eclipsed somewhat on the recent Masterchef "professional cooks" variation where Michel Roux Jnr joined the "ingredients expert" (grocer) Gregg Wallace. Torode does a good line in smacking his chops and nodding but Roux was more knowledgeable about the technicalities. So I predict Torode may be spending more time in the kitchen.

Other search words that continue to deliver are: Sharon Maiden (who featured in the seminal comedy "Clockwise," and is often Googled by people who've seen the film and wonder what happened to her); single men with cats (as if it's a nasty illness), bottle stalls, and the world's largest horse circa 1968. Whose name still escapes me. If only I could get the answer.

It's a bit depressing really. Hardly Goethe is it? For eternity my blog ramblings will be posted, espousing on such superficialities as the Eurovision song contest, single men with cats and conundrums like why do teapots always leak. Actually I've never written on the latter but it does trouble me, so perhaps this is my next topic de jour.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eurovision Yawn

For the 3 years in which I have tirelessly kept a weblog, I have become known as an expert on the Eurovision Song Contest. The one blogger bold enough to challenge the voting system and to declare the UK entry rubbish each year.

So my silence on the 2009 extravaganaza has surprised my reader. In fact my brother texted me indignantly to say he had missed the first semi-final, having been unaware it was on - because I hadn't told him via the esteemed pages of this blog.

To tell the truth I will miss the final on Saturday so I have gone cold turkey on the whole thing. I won't be watching the second semi tonight, and I missed the first one.

In terms of our chances, well, the song's a dirge, performed by a screamer, but at least it was written by someone famous so the East Europeans can't sneer. And I gather that Jade Ewen (pictured) has been on a European tour to try to boost our chances. Plus there's a change to the voting so countries will have panels in a return to the good old days, but there will still be a phone vote so the money comes gushing in. And let's face it, BT needs the revenue.

Anyway, let me share this nugget from the first semi-final. The following countries are through!
Bosnia and Herzegovina

Unfortunately that does mean Belgium is out. Sorry Kurt and Nicky. Of course we, Germany, France and Spain go through automatically because we pay for the damn thing. The Netherlands feature in tonight's. May the best dirge win.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Renee Award

As they used to say on "That's Life!, I am indebted to Melissa at Smitten by Britain for awarding me a new blog award, the Renee Award. It was created by Bella in Japan in memory of her friend Renee and is intended to "honour someone who is incredibly inspirational in her intelligent and witty writing."

Well, I will pass the baton to Maddie Grigg at The World from My Window, life in rural Dorset with wit and panache. Maddie and I trained together as journalists in another life and we're seeing each other next weekend for the first time in seven years. There will no doubt be much reminiscing about the house we used to share in Plymouth with its outside toilet (not much fun when it snowed) and the curious shower in a cupboard.

And I will also award the Renee to my friend Lucy at Thoughts and Worries from the Wrong Side of the Hill. Lucy writes in a mouth drooling way about restaurants and food - and thanks to her I discovered the wonderful restaurant Caldesi in Campagna (Bray) which knocks spots off The Fat Duck, also in the same location.

I am perched on a shooting stick

I'm in the forest sitting on a shooting stick (surprisingly comfortable) with a monopod between my legs, waiting for the runners to come by. Perfect weather for the Orion Harriers Summer Handicap, a five mile run. J actually won this two years ago and it was a proud moment when he collected the cup at the prize giving event.

But this year he did too well in another race (came third) so his handicap was reduced. I've advised him to be rubbish at all their other races so he gets the best possible handicap. He was fifth when he came past me, with a mile to go, so a good performance anyway.

I'm not sure how J would judge my performance with the camera, normally his role if he doesn't run. I thought some of them were quite good but he muttered very darkly about how I had positioned myself near horse poo and he had to edit it out of every photo. And some of the runners weren't in focus (sorry Ann) but I blame the camera for that. More photos here.

As always J turned to me at the end and said "they're a nice crowd aren't they? You should join," which is his eternal plea, but there is one drawback: I would have to run. And after being told that I run like Tiny Tim, ie on tip toes, this is as likely as a snowstorm in June.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Silly Commuting - a guide for beginners

I mentioned to J last night that I would be blogging about the cycling hierachy and the way he and cycle-to-workers (male) go to extraordinary lengths to overtake each other.

He was adamant that he shouldn't become a figure of fun in my blog, but I insisted stoutly that he has the right of reply in the comments section.

J is obsessed about his cycling and recently used his cycle-to-work purchase scheme voucher to buy the hybrid bike of his dreams, a Cannonsdale Bad Boy. This decision was made after weeks of vacillating between the Bad Boy and the Boardman, and briefly, another brand whose name escapes me which fell out of favour when the salesman told J it was a "sit up and beg bike, not the high peformer he should be looking at".

Equipped with his new bike J has since purchased some strange and to my mind lethal shoes which attach themselves to the pedals. When he stops, he has to release his feet from the pedals. Some weird sunglasses arrived today. Then there is the fancy gold standard lock, the helmet with a prism mirror that enables him to see who's approaching from behind; shorts with what looks like a nappy in the bottom, and a whole raft of fluorescent bits and pieces, water bottles and ruc sacks of various sizes that he carries his work shirt in.

Apparently there's a known hierachy in the cycling world depending on the type of machine, the way the cyclist is dressed, how hairy their legs are, their age and the way they're cycling. It's known as Silly Commuting Racing and you can check it out here. The whole purpose is basically "to attract birds." J describes himself as an 8 and sometimes comes home cock-a-hoop having raced a 2 ("a roadie with shaved legs") and emerged the victor.

As he painstakingly explained in the King's Head last night, there are certain rules to this informal challenging. You can't go on the pavement (a relief for we pedestrians) and you can't use the traffic lights as an excuse to pull away faster. And very important, you shouldn't show any pain (unless your face looks that way anyway.)

Apparently it doesn't apply to women cyclists unless a) they have hairy legs and b) they're Nicole Cook.

I'm glad to see Gordon Brown is worrying about the cyclists on our roads, but it seems they have a kamikaze streak in their DNA. It's always a relief to me when I hear the ping of J's bell as he signals his arrival when he gets home at night.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Readers: do you spend a fortune on books?

I read all the time. I even carry a "spare" paperback with me to ward off the nightmare situation of being in any sort of delay with no reading matter. At night while J watches Sharpe endlessly, I read.

Not only do I read a lot, but I read very quickly. People are sceptical about this but I stoutly contest that if we both took a GCSE on the subject matter, I would do as well as the plodder who takes weeks to finish a book.

I study reviews in the papers and sometimes order a book based on what I've read, without having seen the book in question. This quite often applies to hardbacks I just Have to Have, the most recent being The Book of the Interwar and Edwardian House, Wetlands (couldn't wait for the paperback) and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

The trouble with all this reading is that it's an expensive hobby. But let me share my three Top Tips for getting hold of books and reducing your EU Book Mountain without spending a fortune.

1. Swap your books. I do this informally via colleagues at work. I hit a rich seam in Nicky but unfortunately she's in Belgium and our travel restrictions mean that we rarely see each other now. I have a huge pile of her books to return. I also use Read It Swap It, an excellent UK swapping website.

I'm now a "super swapper" on there, having swapped over 100 books. I don't keep my book list activated all the time - only when I want a particular book or if I'm starting my holiday pile. For a two week holiday, I need a book a day, unless it's a huge book, so I start gathering books and piling them up in readiness.

I can't bear books that look shabby or well thumbed so I only opt for swaps where the book is described as "like new" or in excellent condition with no damage. I once went for a book described as "acceptable" and it was so disgusting it went straight in the bin.

It's amusing to put a hot new book on there and see what a feeding frenzy you start. Be very picky then about the book you want in return - you'll have plenty of choice.

If there's a book you want, and it's just come out in paperback or airport edition, add it to your wishlist and then you'll be notified when someone has it to swap.

Make sure you get very good quality wrapping supplies. I recently bought some cut price brown paper and tape and one of my books was damaged in transit. I always use bubble wrap on hardbacks because their edges pierce brown paper.

And on Read It Swap It, make sure you communicate to the swappee if you're going to be late posting. People can get surprisingly antsy about this and hand out a bad rating. I've had a couple of "oh no!" moments where I realised I no longer have a book that I've just agreed to swap, but I find that if you're quick to make contact and offer them another book, people are satisfied.

2. Sell your books. I use Amazon to sell pristine hard backs. Quite often, reading the book once is enough for me. I don't need to keep it. So I sell it on Amazon. A very easy process and you'd be surprised what prices certain books can command.

3. Give them away. I like the idea of Book Crossing, where you leave books on public transport and in cafes and track their progress, but I find it a bit irksome having to buy the labels and register the books. Instead I just take them to the charity shop, although some of them don't like getting books so you have to make sure you choose the right one.

I'm conscious there's a fourth option which is go to the library, but while I used to do this, I've never joined the local library. I was put off when they insisted on three forms of identification. I'd taken my driving licence and passport and couldn't believe they wanted to see a utility bill as well. But my mum is an avid library goer and when I'm going down there for a visit, she accumulates her own pile for me.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Much needed revisionism for Anne of Cleves

I have long been fascinated by Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne (or more correctly, Anna) of Cleves. The famous Holbein portrait, which captivated the fat middle-aged king, hangs in my dining room much to J's chagrin.

Most people know the story: enthralled by the portrait, Henry agreed to marry Anna, a German princess, without ever having seen her. She came over to England in a long journey, was rapturously received by the public, and then rejected by Henry for being ugly, smelly and dull witted, as told by various historians.

I have always pondered though on the fact that Anna stayed in England, was given several palaces and continued to dine with Henry. In those times of political skullduggery and intrigue she must have had great skills of tact and diplomacy.

When Henry abruptly divorced her, she wasn't sent home but as his "sister" was given lavish homes including Hever, which belonged to one of her predecessors Ann Boleyn. She made sure she didn't offend Henry by sending him a sweet note after the divorce which flattered him to think she actually loved him.

Anna became an expert cook and gardener, befriending Henry's two daughters Mary and Elizabeth. She even graciously received Katherine Howard, the foolish teenage girl who followed her, and became a confidante and friend of Henry.

She was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, not hidden away, as befits a queen. And she remained, along with Katherine of Aragon, the only queen of Henry's that the English people loved.

So I was thrilled to read a book by one of my favourite writers, Mavis Cheek, who explores Anna's life and the injustices served upon her by the mostly misogynistic
male historians, one of whom saddled her with the description "Flanders Mare".

As Cheek recounts in the novel Amenable Women, partly spoken by Anna, she had been very positively described and received by dozens of courtiers and ambassadors before she was rejected by Henry. She very quickly learnt English and some of the skills needed at court as she travelled over to England. She was equally as repulsed by Henry as he appears to have been by her. He was vastly obese by this stage and had a suppurating leg. A far cry from the Henry served up by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors.

The Holbein portrait of Anna is one of the most marvellous pictures, full of hidden language and signs. It is far more evocative to me than the portrait of the Mona Lisa which only draws our eye because she is missing her eyebrows.

I hope that future historians will start to get the story right as far as Anna of Cleves is concerned. She was the great survivor, the queen who kept her head despite displeasing the king, and who went on to win the hearts of many. Sadly she died at 40, but as Cheek's novel explains, she was honoured 40 years later by the elderly Queen Elizabeth. A wonderful read.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Uproar in the allotments

If you think Facebook and Twitter are the current big thing, well you're sadly mistaken. It would seem that gardening, allotments, bee keeping and chickens are what's hip and happening. I've lost track of the number of people who have mentioned they indulge in one or more of the above. I would love one of those cute little Egloos, but so would Molly (pitured). Bee keeping will be my retirement pastime. Let's hope bees are not extinct by then.

Gardening does delight me, or rather, the buying of plants and containers and the photographing of results. Digging and weeding is less appealing, as is pest control (spraying, slug removal etc). My gran used to snip the slugs in half with a pair of scissors but I'm far too squeamish for that. I'd like to say that I use nematodes but you can't beat a good handful of slug pellets.

With gardening becoming so trendy, there is naturally quite a lot of snobbery. Apparently a lot of the old guard, who use Latin names when snapdragons would suffice, are up in arms about the new format of Gardener's World, where we are now shown how to sow seeds and create raised beds, and, gasp, there was even a feature on gnomes.

My solution is very simple. Keep Gardener's World the way it's always been, for the serious gardeners, and branch out with some new gardening progammes for novices. There will be more of us growing vegetables, so why not get in early?
My vote is to bring back Charlie Dimmock. We haven't seen nearly enough of her lately. Just Charlie, though. We don't need Tommy Walsh, decking or water features. A few veg, some raised beds and how to grow blueberries and goji berries would be very appealing. And maybe one or two gnomes.
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