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

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Whacking mobsters

I have never been so popular. I am getting daily friend requests on Facebook. And the reason? A game called Mafia Wars that has really taken off and has a FB site with 13 million members.

It's a game that attracts both sexes and all ages. It really is beautifully thought out. Your friends become "your" mafia if they play the game; you give away "gifts" such as paintings for their vault, extra energy or weapons; you seek help when you're in a gang fight, and those who help get extra points.

My top mafia includes Karen who was my penfriend when we were 15 - we recently found each other via Friends Reunited (and she's very good, over level 200 whereas I am a lowly 23); Fred in Sweden who was a colleague 10 years ago and Taj,a colleague in Munich. My bodyguard is a stranger from the US, a level 233.

The basic premise of the game is to earn money from doing jobs (heists, robberies etc) which you spend on weapons, vehicles and properties. You accumulate loot and art works and fight rival mafia. As you progress, your character "improves" as you award yourself more points for energy, stamina and health. When you get really good you go off to Cuba but that is denied me at present.

J is not happy about this development of me becoming "a gamer" and has started timing my stints on the upstairs PC. He's actually relieved now if I'm using the PC to buy shoes. "Are you playing that game?" he asks suspiciously.

I have tried to explain some of the addictive features of the game which include unprovoked attacks and robberies by other mafia.

I quite often find that my mafia of 36 was attacked in NY by a mafia using a Really Bloody Mop, a sawn-off shotgun, three hand grenades and a lucky shamrock. And it's quite gutting if you lose. You're tempted to put the offender on the hit list rightaway but as Fred rightly said, "the hit list is for losers". Instead I must concentrate on the big ticket items like assassinating a political figure or invading a Tong-controlled neighbourhood. Why don't you join me?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Plague Island

It would appear that the perception of other countries is that the UK is an island in the grip of a pandemic of Plague proportions.

A friend in Hungary was told by a doctor that if his family came to the UK, they would be dead within half an hour.

We hear how badly some British school chidren were treated in France, hounded out of their hotel in swimming costumes, forced to wear masks.

And today on the news we discover that the new NHS Helpline has been swamped by calls and more staff are being recruited to deal with the volume.

We need a bit of perspective. Swine flu has killed 31 people so far. Most if not all of them had an underlying condition. Influenza kills around 60,000 a year, every year, in the UK. Flu is bad news for the elderly, pregnant women and people with "underlying conditions" (asthma for example). But for the vast majority of us, it's going to be an unpleasant inconvenience for a few days. Surely no need for most of us to panic or to phone any helplines. Stay in bed and drink fluids!

I'm also going to scream if I hear anyone else say "I think I may have swine flu." You know when you've got the flu. You don't struggle bravely to work and persevere. You are physically exhausted and have to drag yourself to bed. Most of the time it's a bad cold.

Perspective folks, perspective.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

There goes summer

I bet they're a bit anxious at the Met Office. Having predicted a heatwave this summer, the terrible reality of July is probably evoking memories of the time when they said we wouldn't have much wind and then the country was flattened by what seemed like a hurricane.

June was lovely, yes, but July has reverted to form. In the midst of one of our normal summers, the type where you remember with nostalgia "May 21", a US colleague said to me: "But how can you stand it?".

I pondered on this. Being British the weather is something you get used to; it's a cross we have to bear. I am never really optimistic about the weather. So many times I have wanted good weather and it disappoints. My wedding day. The two occasions we went to a picnic concert. The first hotel holiday I had as a child, in Bournemouth (just one sunny day). And snow at Christmas? As rare as hen's teeth.

So when I go abroad for summer sun, I expect, nay demand! sunshine. It's what thrills me the most on the first day, looking out at a perfect blue sky. We have always had wonderful weather on holidays abroad, except for this year, when, in Mallorca, the first three days started off cloudy and chilly. I was beside myself! J was very phlegmatic as we sat on the terrace looking at the rain. To him it didn't matter if we were reading our books in the sun or on the hotel verandah in the rain. And fortunately the sun came out in the afternoon and it was just the first three days.

Let's hope it picks up here soon, for the sake of all those people who are "staycationing". I have decided to wing it as far as a picnic concert is concerned. I haven't booked yet but if it's nice on August 1 we may well go Back To the 80s at Audley End.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

British men the most unromantic in the world

...according to a report in the papers today. Well no surprises there for most of us, eh girls?

The report says that while most men assume that being romantic means spending money on big gestures, actually women prefer unprompted romantic acts. Being brought a cup of tea in bed, or having a bath run for us after a hard day.

The paper carried a list of the top 10 romantic gestures, and J noted that he hasn't done any of them.

He has improved on the gift buying front. His presents (unsolicited) in the past have included a washing line, a peg bag (sounds like a theme developing) and a garden spade. But last year I was stunned when he brought back a handbag for me from Faro which he chose himself. It looks very designer-y and gets lots of compliments. And recently he bought me a DVD player which was a nice surprise, although it clears his conscience when he watches Sharpe and Hornblower because he knows I can watch a film upstairs now.

J is very good at is working through a list. A few Christmasses ago, I gave him a list of suggested things to buy me. I was amazed when he bought all of them. He still gets emails from The Glitter Pot where I sent him to pay crafting stash.

I suggested tearing out the "top 10 of romantic gestures" so he could refer to it, but his muttered response was something akin to "poke it" so I'm not expecting any cups of tea in bed or flowers sent to work anytime soon.

British men the least unromatic


Monday, July 13, 2009

All aboard the Michael Jackson bandwagon

There are 15 books about to be published on Michael Jackson. The first is published today and according to BBC Breakfast News, it's broken the record for being written and published in 2 weeks from start to finish. Apparently, and Harper Collins were quite unabashed about this, a freelance writer was incarcerated in a room until he had written "new material" so they could be the first to cash in on Jackson's demise.

I'm intrigued to know what new material can be generated sitting in a room. A "re-interpretation" of recent press articles I would suspect. Last night's Channel 4 documentary about "what really happened to MJ" was a waste of time. Some reporter who claims to have known MJ well, who had the most monotonous voice in christendom, took us to places where he rehearsed and talked to the people running AEG. And guess what? Nobody told us anything new. The title of the programme was grossly misleading.

I'm not going to buy any books on Michael Jackson until there is one that quotes definitively all the members of his family (including his father), the children and parents who were involved in the legal actions, his two ex-wives, his superstar friends Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, doctors who were treating him at the time of his death and the pathologist who did the post mortem. In other words, the only people who actually know the truth.

I won't be buying any books from tell lurid tales patched together from former mnagers, former agents, former dancers or former nannies.

Wendi was robbed

We were gutted that Wendi Peters lost out on winning Celebrity Masterchef. Jayne Middlemiss should never have won. Didn't the judges take into account all her histrionics and tears every time she had to step outside of her confort zone? I am beginning to wonder if Messrs Torode and Wallace are unduly influenced by female charm, given that last year's winner Liz McClarnon was someone who had never even cooked before she turned up in the contest --- and just happens to be a gorgeous blonde.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Alesha judged to be a bad move

I can't wait to hear the insights of the new judge on Strictly Come Dancing, the "washes and brushes" singer and one-time winner of SCD, Alesha Dixon.

Renowned choreographer and former dancer Arlene Phillips, whose ascerbic comments and ability to stand up to the other male judges were part of the show's success, has been elbowed aside to allow the show to appeal to a younger demographic.

Oh yes, the young people who no doubt sit around watching TV on Saturday evenings when by rights they should be out getting bladdered or watching the yoof channel, BBC 3.

I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when the other judges Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Craig Revel-Horwood were told that Ms Dixon was going to join them. If Len specialises in dance technicalities, Bruno in the overall performance and Craig in the choreography, what's left for Alesha? Dresses, served up with her trademark Muttley laugh.

If the BBC seriously thinks that Alesha is their weapon to win the ratings war against the latest old rubbish from Simon Cowell (Popstars the Rivals, Britain's got Talent, The X Factor - who knows, they all blur into one hackneyed formula), they're mistaken. Alesha may be cool but only among the under-7s. She doesn't cut it against Queen Wag Cheryl Cole, or even Dannii Minogue and her amazing frozen face.

If the BBC had really wanted to jazz up SCD they should have got rid of Bruce Forsyth. Yes I know, national treasure and all that; I am after all a member of the "Why the hell hasn't Bruce Forsyth got a knighthood" group on Facebook. I was always a great admirer of this all-round entertainer, and saw his one man show when I was just 15.

But enough's enough: he's way past the retirement age and every year his chants of "doddery I am not" get less convincing. A really sharp male presenter (and not the ghastly Vernon Kay either) would do far more for the ratings than Muttley Dixon and her brushes.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

John Torode's wig, more on stench pipes and is it cricket?

Now that I've mentioned stench pipes we're seeing them everywhere. Vaguely linked to the subject I am currently enthralled by my new book "The Big Necessity: Adventures in the world of human waste" by Rose George.

This is the last taboo subject, according to George, and her meticulously researched book challenges our assumption that decent sanitation is our right, whereas in many parts of the world it is still a privilege.

Does he wear a wig?

As I've mentioned before, Google searchers for Masterchef judge John Torode often end up here because I wrote about him many months ago. I notice that Google is still delivering but this time people are searching for "does John Torode wear a wig?"

Meanwhile Carol McGiffin (Loose Women) still delivers hits, both for her bare bottom and more recently for her engagement ring. Someone searching for "the biggest human bare bottom" also found themselves at my site and was probably sorely disappointed. No bare bottoms here.

It's not Cricket

It's not on that the England cricket team plays in Wales and the Welsh national anthem gets played. I guess it was inappropriate to play the British anthem, so in my view the match should have stayed in Old Trafford.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Kicking up a stink

It all started at the King's Head. Sitting in the window and staring out at the main road, and beyond it, two brand new semi-detached houses, I noticed a tall, old pipe similar to a lamp post, next to one of the houses.
"What's that?"
"Stench pipe," said J, authoritatively.
Well I had never heard of such a thing, although he assures me every house has one and they eliminate gases from the sewage system. I texted my mum Giz, who replied: "Cesspit? Dunno and don't want to know either".
I had to Google it and discovered that there are several Victorian stench pipes which are regarded rather as works of art and made Grade II listed buildings. Here is an example:

Although examples still exist, nowadays this type of stench pipe is now obsolete because every house nowadays has to have its vent pipe positioned discretely amid its plumbing. If the subject should intrigue you, as it does me, the Northern Echo has been writing about stench or stink pipes for a while.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

My life in books

It's what old hacks call "the silly season," that period in summer when it goes very quiet except for the odd superstar's death. When I was a journo, it meant revisiting tedious stories about beasts of Exmoor.

In a nutshell it's a time when occasionally there's nothing much to write about.

I could tell you about our 10 day sojourn in Majorca except that it would be a brief post along the lines: 1) 8.30 had breakfast; 2) 9am bought papers; 3) applied suncream and sat on lounger; 4) went for lunch; 5) bought ice-cream; 6) sat in the shade reading; 7) had shower; 8) went out for dinner.

So instead I'm going to indulge myself by writing about my favourite books. They're my favourites of all time, so some may actually not be favourites now, if you get my drift, but were favourites a few years ago.

Not in any particular order:

1) Never No More by Maura Laverty
I have a weakness for whimsy and stories written from the guileless perspective of a child. This book combines both. Laverty was an Irish writer who was notable for cookery books. This is the charming account of life "in the bog" by 13 year old Delia who lives with her beloved gran who cooks treats like boxty in the pan. I've always thought it would make a wonderful film along the lines of Chocolat (perhaps because there are gipsies in the story.)

2)The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns
In a similar vein to (1), a child's perspective. Comyns was a wonderfully eccentric writer and hugely overlooked today (in my view). The chairs in question belonged to the Colonel, a gruff old gentleman living in the big house. And were they really made of skin, as the children had heard rumoured?

3) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I would happily consign all the Brontes to Room 101 except that I was crazy about this book when I was around 15. It's a real adolescent's treat, the idea of a plain but virtuous girl eventually winning the love of gruff old Mr Rochester (although he's blind by then so it's not a very good feminist message!).

4) The Women's Room by Marilyn French
When this first came out it had huge stickers on it saying "this book changes lives". It's a feminist tract about a woman from the 1950s, Mira, and how she overcomes the oppression of the life she chose for herself. You'll see by the way I worded that I don't have much time for the book now. I re-read it recently and wanted to shake Mira and tell her to get a grip.

5) Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
Predictable one this and boy did I adore it when I was aged 13 - 14, particularly as it was serialised on TV around that time. Although I too spent long hours upstairs writing stories, I didn't identify with Jo. I had a sneaking regard for Amy with her limes and her vanity (putting clothes pegs on her nose.) Re-reading the book, I am struck by how preachy and saccharine it is now that I am a seasoned old cynic.

6) The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz
The true story of Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz who was arrested by the Russians in 1939 and sentenced to 25 years' hard labour in the Gulags, for spying. After a three-month journey to Siberia in the depths of winter he escaped with six companions, realising that to stay in the camp meant almost certain death. They travelled on foot for over 40,000 miles in inhospitable places like the Gobi desert, and Rawicz saw the Yeti. A marvellous book.

7) The Elves & The Shoemaker (Ladybird)
Now I can still remember the first sentence: "Once upon a time there lived a shoemaker and his wife. They were very poor, and as time went on they grew poorer and poorer".
The reason it stuck with me is that this is the book that taught me how to read. I was a late starter (nowadays I would have been tested for dyslexia and no doubt sent to a special school) and it was my dad who taught me, painstakingly taking me through this book for weeks and weeks. In the end my mum reckoned I had memorised it, but one day I could suddenly read every word. After that moment, I became an insatiable reader and according to my teacher Mr Mogford, went immediately to Dickens (I doubt that myself although I remember clearly the next book I read which was about the tightrope walker Blondin and how he cooked an omelette halfway across Niagara Falls.)

8) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
I love all Hardy's books. To me they lack the twee rhythms of Dickens and paint breathtakingly realistic portraits of people rather than characters with silly names. I love Jude because we all know people like these: the shallow Arabella who ensnares Jude; his priggish cousin Sue; the well-intentioned but weak hero Jude. And the shock twist takes your breath away. It is also unrelentingly gloomy, another reason to cherish it.

9) I Sent a Letter to My Love by Bernice Rubens
I was introduced to the work of Rubens with this novel which came my way when I was a book reviewer on the South Devon Times (one of my better duties.) Rubens wrote very dark comedies and showed the tragedy of unlived lives. In this novel, a middle-aged brother and sister living together start corresponding to each other, unaware who they're writing to, and a romance develops by letter. Poignant and occasionally bittersweet.

10) Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough
I don't just read fiction and this one was a surprise hit with me. I love reading about astronauts and space travel and this book is about the ill-fated Mir space station at the end of its 25 year life. I read open mouthed about a fire and a near-collision, plus the hideously cramped conditions for the cosmonauts who included Briton Michael Foale.
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