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

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's snowed a bit, we're not prepared as always, get over it!

I was getting increasingly irritable at the BBC footage from St Pancras station. The reporter was doing his utmost to provoke good natured passengers who had been waiting for hours in the cold.
"What do you think about the way the UK has handled this?" he probed relentlessly, but the charming Europeans refused to give way. "Has it ruined your Christmas?"

Every time a train breaks down, we're told by peevish passengers that the train company should have had space blankets and drinks on board. Well seeing as snow is entirely random, not guaranteed, and hits these islands for, oh, two weeks a year, tops, what about passengers being more prepared instead, on the off chance?

Then there are the airports.Yes they could all invest hugely in snow ploughs and de-icing rigs and goodness knows what else. But there isn't that much money sculling around, is there? Can you imagine if BAA did just that, and then their profits went down and there was no snow. The newspapers would of course have a field day, and start trotting off statistics about the likelihood of snow.

The last thing that really bugs me is when people start talking about Finland and other countries, and how well they prepare. Yes, they have winter tyres, snow chains, the full Monty. But they also know that they WILL get snow for several month. It's a dead cert. So they have to prepare for it. For us it's like a roulette wheel at Las Vegas.

Photos show those people made of sterner stuff, J's friends the Orion Harriers, on their Sunday run through Epping forest.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Strictly Come Dancing: The Glittering Finale

Tonight our three finalists will emerge from the spray tanning booth for the last time, dripping in bling and dancing their little hearts out for the chance of lifting the very kitsch glitter ball trophy.

Kara Tointon was said to be the favourite on BBC Breakfast Time this morning, but really it's anyone's game. I can't remember a final where we have had three finalists of almost equal quality.

J is convinced that Tara will swing it. She is the most consistent and is the highest scorer overall. But I can see Pamela lifting that trophy.

Strange things happen in the final. Underdogs who were "ok" during the series but never blew us away, such as Chris Hollins and Tom Chambers, end up winning. The judges tend to give out tens to everyone, and it's up to the public to decide.

The good old public likes to go for an underdog. They prefer to vote for men. So Matt has a very good chance, given that he presents Country File and occasionally the One Show, and used to be on Blue Peter. He probably has a lot of the old dear vote.

The public also likes A Journey. So in terms of journey, Pamela has the best one. She's lost two stone, regained her va va voom, and looks fabulous at 61 to boot. Plus she was always so cheerful; always looking as if she loved the dancing, even in training.

So all Kara has going for her is being technically the best dancer. Is that enough to make the public vote for her? I don't think so. She hasn't had much of a journey: as I said before, dancing is probably in her blood, having been part of her stage school training, and she was always super fit. There's the hint of a romance with him and Artem, which gives her a few extra points with the public.

But at the risk of being wrong two weeks running, I'm going for Pamela to win. Although Matt could seize it too. I am a little nervous about Pamela's show dance, having seen the sketch of her dress on It Takes Two. A very conservative number, unlike Kara's which has been engineered for lifts galore. Tonight all will be revealed! (Not literally of course - the costume designers are far too skilled for that!).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tree Spotting

I'm intrigued by other people's Christmas trees. I love looking through open curtains to see a tree glinting away. If your tree has ancient heirloom ornaments, I am very jealous. Particularly if it has those half cut out retro baubles (you know the ones).

Our own tree went up at the weekend. Sadly there are no heirloom ornaments. I quite often decide on a new colour theme and buy accordingly. Last year I added red baubles to the gold. I have a second tree, a white one with either silver and blue, or neon bright, baubles, but this year it's staying in its box owing to the fact that my colour choices for the dining room will be red and gold, so it wouldn't match.  (It's all very complicated.)

The only ornament that is vaguely heritage is the little bird which I bought about 10 years ago at the Kathe Wohlfarht Christmas shop in Oberammergau. Imagine, a shop that sells Christmas decorations all year round! It reminds me of a tiny bird we had on our tree when I was a child. That tree was in two sections and about 6 feet tall. The lights were huge coloured bulbs, some with a sugary effect. Mum gave the bottom section to Grandma, although it was a funny shape on its own, and for years the two parts of the tree were ceremoniously decorated in two separate houses in Plymouth. Our tree always had a very shabby fairy on top with a white crepe paper dress that had become beige over the years.

What's your Christmas tree like and what's your favourite ornament?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Strictly Come Dancing: Who goes? You decide

An intriguing results show tonight as two couples are eliminated. I'm going to make the bold claim that Kara and Scott will be the celebrities finding the exit sign.

Based on the judges' scores, the two lowest scoring couples were Gavin and Katya and Matt and Aliona.

I suspect however that Gavin and Matt probably have more fans than anyone else in the contest (with the exception of Pamela, who has built a  unique fan base) so I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of them stays. I would expect Scott to be the victim, and perhaps - here's a shocker - Kara.

She was the highest scorer and it will take a massive under performance by the public, but I still think it's possible, particularly if people who don't normally vote, like me, pick up the phone for their favourites. I actually voted for Matt last night because his routines have been thrilling, he's such a talented and nice guy, and the judges have under-scored him.

Scott peaked too soon and has been struggling to regain his form of three weeks ago. His Charleston was well executed but nothing exceptional. It won't hold in the memory in the way of the Chris Hollins / Ola Charleston, or even that of Pamela and James.

Kara is an interesting one. Having thrown herself the lifeline of an alleged romance with her partner, which always does well with the public, I still remain unmoved by her. To me, she looks like the product of a stage school background where dancing is a large part of the curriculum. She is an actress and very fit  (she featured in a health magazine recently.) So her "journey", to use that dreaded word, was less challenging than that of farmer, presenter and former gymnast Matt, or former comedienne turned psychologist Pamela.

Pamela is a complete revelation. Every week she turns in sensational routines and every week she remains joyful. Even in training, we rarely see her slumped and depressed. In these ageist times where everyone over the age of 50 tends to be dismissed as past it, particularly by the BBC,  I defy anyone to fail to be impressed by Pamela's energy, vivacity and youthfulness.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Only one graduate in Apprentice final five

It's almost arrivederci for two of the most enjoyable TV programmes of the autumn, Strictly Come Dancing ands The Apprentice. I'm going to preview both of the semi finals, starting with the Apprentice.

What's striking about the five finalists in the Apprentice is that four of them didn't go to university. So, rioting students, perhaps there is no need to waste three years doing Media Studies and then saddling yourself with a debt. The internet offers far more potential to budding entrepreneurs than we had in my day.

They do seem more entrepreneurial than the usual finalists. I think people were shocked when Liz went out, but although she came across as hugely capable, confident and talented, I didn't see that spark of ingenuity. Having read Lord Sugar's autobiography, I see now what sort of people would attract him. It's not necessarily just someone good at selling, because Liz was that (although as an investment banker, I was surprised she was so good at selling.)

He wants a hunger for selling and the ability to negotiate. Also the ability to see a pile of rubbish and sell it very quickly.How else did Amstrad become so successful.

I am beginning to fear that Stuart Baggs The Brand, the 21 year old with a field full of ponies  (!I'm not a one trick pony, I'm not even a two trick pony. I have a field full of ponies") or Joanna, the woman with the most irritating voice in Britain, are the two most likely Apprentices this year.

We were all amazed when Joanna made it through the first episode, and I was appalled by the way she kept yelling at Jamie last week. She is a woman with the interpersonal skills of a sledgehammer.

Meanwhile Jamie seems quite charming and is clearly a good negotiator, but comes across as slippery as a basket of eels. He's been his own boss for four years and doesn't like being told what to do, so I don't think he would do very well at Amscreen.

I like steely Stella but even though she did a fine rendition of Knees Up Mother Brown, Lord Sugar will always find fault with her for being 'corporate".The programme last night that looked at the five finalists and their backgrounds was quite an eye-opener on the Stella front. She had a very tough upbringing and was almost put in a children's home until her great aunt decided to take her in.

Then there's Chris. He's the only one who went to university. He comes across as a well meaning posh nitwit, really. But I was surprised to hear both Nick and Karren Brady sounding very positive about him. I felt sure there was nothing "strategic" about his offer to the tourist company last week to give them 20% of his team's total winnings. He had that rabbit in a headlight look, and I don't think he knew what else to offer.

Next week's episode is one of my favourites when Sugar's business acolytes interview the finalists and tear them to shreds. I'm thinking Stella and Joanna will stand up to it best. What do you think?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

FIFA: Down with this sort of thing

If there's one thing that makes me mad, it's injustice of any kind. I am seething about the FIFA decision on the next World Cup locations, and the way England garnered just one vote.

On paper England was equal top of Fifa's own technical assessment of the four bids. We were top of an independent assessment of the best commercial bids and the presentation on Thursday was widely acclaimed as the best of the 2018 and 2022 bids.

None of that mattered however because FIFA, one of the most ridiculous, inept and discredited organisations in the world, was determined to give England a lesson. Why? Because our journalists had the temerity to expose the corruption at the heart of the whole process, and the fact that FIFA officials can be bribed for money.

I would have expected FIFA to have reacted to the news by sacking officials and issuing a statement saying they intended to get to the bottom of the allegations.

As you would expect from this bunch of idiots  (remember some of their foolishness during the World Cup), they didn't, but they took their revenge by punishing the whistleblowing nation.

And this nonsense about giving Qatar the World Cup to grow football globally! Yes with a population of just over one and a half million, I'm sure it will have a huge impact there.

Let's hope for the sake of soccer lovers thast Russia is able to deliver the stadia and hotels in time for 2018. They didn't score highly on this in the technical assessment.  But I suppose when, like Russia and Qatar, you have oligarchs and oil behind your bid, money is no object.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Strictly Come Dancing:The voting has gone to pot

Erin Boag was aghast on  Twitter and so was I. Scott Maslen's zombie-like performance, complete with errors, managed to score some nines from the judges. Er, hello? Surely that's like saying "ok Ann, you did all the steps - albeit badly - so let's give you nine points for trying."

I've never seen such a blatant case of favourtism. Compare that to the reception given to Matt Baker's superb dream sequence with the ghostly and ethereal Aliona Vilani. Struggling to find fault, the judges criticised his facial expressions.I couldn't understand, and nor could many on Twitter, why he didn't score any tens.

Frankly if Scott is struggling to manage SCD with EastEnders, then he shouldn't have taken on both. I'm getting tired of the constant references to his exhaustion. Get over it or get out.

I was hoping the petulant Gavin would be shown the door last night but instead Patsy went. And she had been expecting to go right from the start. Gavin seems in constant denial. After telling us all how he hated the jive,  and then performing it as if he hated it, he then accused the judges of under-scoring it. He wasn't sitting where we were. Craig was quite right when he said Gavin was now challenging Ann Widdecombe.

Ann has clearly nailed her colours to the mast (the Titanic's) by saying she intends to make it to the final, and win. Poor Anton is in two minds now. He's always wanted to claim the glitter ball, but with Widdy?

Lest we all think the lady is a soft cuddly marshmallow granny, let me remind you that she denies climate change, opposes abortion, women priests and equal rights for homosexuals.

I'm hoping the final will feature Matt and the divine Pamela, and no doubt Widdy will be there as well. It is, a psychologist opined this week, the public getting their own back at stuffy judges.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

(Another) Amazing Lunch: The Ledbury

The Ledbury is a Michelin two star restaurant in Notting Hill, London. Chef Brett Graham started cooking in a simple fish restaurant in Newcastle, Australia, aged 15.After moving to Sydney for three years, he came to the UK and was Young Chef of the Year in 2002. The Ledbury was awarded a Michelin star in its first year, and the two stars it now has are well deserved.

Quite simply, the food is sublime!

Such amazing textures and depth of flavours. My starter of Ceviche of Hand Dived Scallops with Seaweed and Herb Oil, Kohlrabi and Frozen Horseradish danced and sang in my mouth. There was a wonderful explosion of taste and texture, with the gently thawing horseradish and the delicate aniseed flavour of the seaweed. Quite extraordinary.

Stop the Pigeon
My main course was Poached Breast and Confit Legs of Pigeon with Cevennes Onions, Foie Gras and Liquorice. The confit legs arrived on a separate plate, artfully arranged on twigs.  Now I don't normally eat offal, but the pigeon heart and foie gras, on the skewer, were so melting and delicate I would happily have devoured a flock of pigeons.
The Pigeon's confit legs
We sampled the cheese trolley before the dessert. Excellent selection of cheeses and none of that "washed in wine" nonsense. I navigated around the minefield that is a Goat Alert, although I did partake of the goat with the chef's amuse bouche, but fortunately it was very mild and not too goaty.

My dessert was Brown Sugar Tart with Muscat Grapes and Stem Ginger Ice Cream. The ginger of the ice cream was so piquant against the sweetness of the tart. A marriage made in heaven.

I would happily return to The Ledbury. Superb service, a lady Sommelier, and a beautiful room. What more could you ask for? I would put it on a par with Gidleigh Park (but more experimental), and infinitely better than the over-starred Le Manoir Quat'Saisons.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The story of the rock salt on our roads

Photo: The Salt Association
As we were eating our breakfast today, and I was driving J mad by asking what a tiger would do if it came across Molly (a much smaller and domesticated version of the species), the TV news channel was earnestly talking about salt and how councils are stocking up.

I was distracted from the tiger argument (much to J's relief) by the discovery that salt is bought from Egypt. I then Googled "wheere does road salt come from?" and it became one of those fascinating and immersing topics.

My mum, the Giz, was yesterday pricing bags of salt v grit in her local hardware store.

I discovered that rock salt has formed at various times in the geological past as a result of the drying up of the sea. The evaporating water left behind beds of sea-salt.   In northern Europe, thick deposits of rock salt were lain down during Permian imes (290 million years ago) across a wide area stretching from eastern England, under the North Sea eastwerds to the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Poland (Poland is famous for its salt mines).

In the UK, salt of Permian age is mined in Cleveland. Younger salt beds, of Triassic age (200-250 million years old) is mined from the Cheshire basin, Cumbria and northern Ireland.

Even more fascinating, rock salt mines have the right conditions to make excellent repositories for archive documents.

And the good news is, according to the Salt Association, we're not likely to run out of salt. The UK's salt mines have about 225km (140 miles) of tunnels - almost as long as the M5 motorway. And that's without turning to countries like Spain and Egypt for supplies. All we have to hope is that our councils have learned from the lessons of earlier this year and stocked up.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

No stirring

Today is Stir Up Sunday, the day for making your own Christmas puddings. Stir Up Sunday is also the informal term for the last Sunday before Advent. Tradition has it that every member of the family should have a stir and make a wish. And the length of time before now and Christmas means the pudding has plenty of time to mellow and mature.

There won't be any stirring in my household, I'm afraid. Nobody seems to like Christmas pudding. I don't mind it because I am an absolute stickler for tradition, but this year I've bought an individual pudding from Lakeland. It isn't the round shape shown in the picture - does anyone ever make them this shape nowadays?

My mum used to occasionally make her own Christmas puddings and Christmas cake. But it was a thankless task because my elder brother didn't like nuts or peel, and the younger brother wasn't keen on marzipan.

I doubt if very many people at all will be stirring up the tradition today. A survey said this week that most of us  have no confidence about cooking, and millions of pounds' worth of home-made meals end up in the bin before they're eaten, including Christmas puddings (which cost an average of £10 to make.)

Will you be making your own pud and how do you like it served? Clotted cream was always the gold stansdard in my Devonian childhood, although I let the side down by wanting "Nestle's cream". I can't stand brandy butter and custard seems to make it a very average delight. I discovered last year you could still get a type of Nestle's cream, so I'm afraid I will be having that with my Lakeland "Billy No Mates" pudding.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Scent of a Woman

How many times have you fallen in love with the idea of something - and then found the reality doesn't deliver?

For me it was a recent experience with a perfume.

I have discovered perfume blogs - and what heaven they are! Such knowledgeable people, writing about top notes and dry downs, and so wittily and well written.

I used to be a mega perfume fan and would eagerly dash off to stores which had the first supplies of hot new releases, among them, I remember, Knowing, which I still love; Boudoir and Cabotine de Gres (pooh!).

Anyway,  most of the perfume blogs have a very good search function so I spent ages happily finding old perfumes I used to wear and reading the reviews.

I'd noticed in a couple of fiction books I was reading that the heroines seemed to be synonymous with a fragrance called Fracas. So I started looking it up.

It's in the top 10 of the world's top perfumes in the exellent book Perfumes: The A-Z guide by Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin.

I saw from blogs and comments that it's very distinctive; you have to be in the mood to wear it; it is extremely sexy. "White flower heaven,"  "class in a bottle" "rich, fragrant, captivating" are a few of the comments.

The perfume, by Robert Piguet, dates from 1948 but is available from some stores including Harrod's.

I was in a frenzy of anticipation to try it and it seemed like an eternity before I could get into Harrod's to try it.

Some of the blogs caution that you should be sparing with Fracas as it can be overpowering. So I made sure I only had a small squirt.

And what a disappointment!

Perfectly pleasant but somewhat insipid. No sign of the punch I was expecting. I recognised the smell instantly: it's hard to describe but you will have smelt it on others. I kept sniffing my wrist hoping the dry down was going to be better, but no, it faded away like a sigh.

But what this exercise did do was re-ignite my interest in perfumes. I am now reading up on the latest trends, which, folks are oud and amber, and look forward to trying new releases for Christmas. And maybe I will start to review them here.

My all-time favourites are Diorella and Knowing, both chypres. I wish Dior would bring back Diorella in eau de parfum formulation! Considering it is also in the world's top 10 fragrances, it's surprising you can only get it in eau de toilette.

I also remember nostalgically other perfumes which were all the rage when I was young, which I didn't wear at the time: Aqua Manda, Kiku (in its round yellow bottles), Anais Anais and In Love by Hartnell.  My mum's neighbour used to wear Coty's L'Aimant and we always knew when Holly our cat had been in her house because she stank of it aftewards!

Here are the perfumes of my life. What are yours?

The perfumes of my life
The first ones - pre-teen and teenage:
Pretty Peach by Avon
Sea Jade by Yardley
Midnight by Dorothy Gray
Charlie by Revlon

In my 20's
Cinnabar by Estee Lauder
L'Eau d'Issey by Issey Miyake
Chanel No 5

Chanel Cristalle
Chanel No 19
Oscar de la Renta

In my 30's
Cabotine de Gres by Gres
Lumiere by Rochas
Byzance by Rochas
Magie Noire by Lancome
Jicky by Guerlain
Violette by Penhaligon's
Diorella by Dior
Boudoir by Vivienne Westwood
Flowerbombe by Viktor & Rolf

In my 40s
Aromatics Elixir by Clinique
Eau Dynamisante by Clarins
Diorissimo by Dior
Knowing by Estee Lauder
Malabah by Penhaligon's

Some perfume blogs to visit:


Monday, November 15, 2010

The Elizabeth Hurley Diet

I am on what I call the Elizabeth Hurley diet. I am not eating the same things as La Hurley, although there has been a fair bit of intelligence about how she keeps her trim figure. A few raisins; tea plates instead of dinner plates, and trips to Holland & Barrett for "detox supplies" is what I have gleaned.

No, what I mean by the Elizabeth Hurley diet is that when I want to be tempted and eat something, I think: "would Elizabeth do that?" The answer is invariably No, because she's always getting in shape for another bikini shoot (even though she says every year she's getting too old).

I find it works a treat!

If you don't empathise with Hurley, you could perhaps try the Kate Moss diet. This centres around her statement: "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels."

Any other tips?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Autumn Walk

We had a quick walk in the forest today to appreciate the colours. For J it was also an opportunity to try his new camera and lens.


Monday, November 08, 2010

A day to remember

J with the red roses
I have wanted to go to Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons for a long time, so with a milestone birthday this year I knew I had the perfect opportunity.

It was booked back in April and we finally got there yesterday, day of my birthday.

The attention to detail is second to none. The moment we arrived, staff came out to welcome us and take our cases. We were then shown straight to our room. No nonsense with checking in and presenting credit cards!

Our room, Crystal, was wonderful. We had the celebration package and a table groaned with twelve perfect Grand Prix roses, a bottle of Champagne on ice, a bottle of Madeira, hand-made chocolates and a selection of fruit.

The marbled bathroom had a huge walk-shower, a huge bath with candles and big crystal bottles of unguents plus heavenly scented slabs of soap.

We immediately went for a walk in the gardens to catch the last tentative rays of sunshine. Here is my picture of the lily pond in the Japanese garden.

There are wonderful sculptures everywhere, reclining figures, figures relaxing with books. At this time of year the main vegetables growing in the veg beds were chard, beetroot and cabbage.

After a heavenly scented bath with candles and Strictly Come Dancing (Jimi voted off -a travesty!), we had a pre-dinner apertif and perused the menu. There were three options: the decouverte tasting menu, the classic menu and the a la carte menu of seasonal specialities. We chose the latter.

Now, if I am brutally honest, I must tell you that the food didn't quite live up to expectations. One of the things I love most about haute cuisine is the complex layering of flavours and the unexpected frisson of delight when you sample something unexpected. But reader, I must tell you, the food at Le Manoir was one-dimensional. The menu promised all sorts of exotic capers but in the main one or two flavours dominated and drowned out the rest.

Cauliflower soup
Chef Gary Jones' amuse bouche was a cup and saucer of cauliflower soup, a confident start with a strong garlic truffle oil providing the oomph that cauliflower needs. 

We both chose plancha-seared Cornish lobster with warm Jersey Royal potatoes, Oscietra caviar, cardamom and red pepper jus.

Cornish lobster
My initial reaction was that the heavy hitter in the cauliflower soup was also at play here, drowning out the flavour of the lobster. J said quite spontaneously that the lobster was a little disappointing.

My duck
My main was roasted Gressingham duck breast with braised chicory and confit of yuzu fruit; jasmine tea and raisin sauce. This was ruined by the very thin sauce poured over the duck and a very powerful orange sauce. Although orange isn't mentioned anywhere, I guess yuzu fruit must taste very similar. The duck itself was a little tough and the vegetables actually quite soft.

J's beef
J fared better with sirloin of beef, which isn't shown on the online menu so I can't tell you everything it came with. In typical J fashion, he did note there could have been more potatoes.

We didn't have a dessert but went straight to the cheese board. The trolley was left languishing by our table for about 10 minutes before the waiter said "oh, looks like I'd better do this." Fortunately the cheeses were not too fragrant, otherwise it may have been a little off putting for the couple next to us.

A nice touch was the banana and passion fruit sorbet complete with candle and Happy Birthday motif for me.

Rounded off with "chocolate discovery" for me (hot chocolate) and tea for J in the lounge - which took about 30 minutes to materialise -  a thoroughly lovely experience but somehow making me think the chef has maybe become a little complacent. It was nowhere as good as Gidleigh Park in Devon, which also has two Michelin stars, where I went a few weeks ago.

Waking this morning, tea arrived dead on 8am as scheduled and breakfast was delicious. We plumped for the full English but Le Manoir excels in healthy choices with delicious fruit salads and seeds, fruits and nuts all meticulously labelled with their countries of origin. The sausage was, I am sure, 90% meat with none of that nasty rusk. 

All in all, a fabulous experience but if Le Manoir is to deliver Raymond Blanc's vision of unsurpassed customer service and gastronomy, they need to step up just a gear or two.


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Strictly Come Dancing travesty prepares to unfold

I have been very restrained up to now and not mentioned Strictly Come Dancing, or The Apprentice ("what's that?") once.

But now that the glitter has settled on SCD, and we know who's good and who we like and don't like, I couldn't resist adding my two'pennorth.

Strictly Come Dancing, for the benefit of my US chums, is the TV show that led to what you call "Dancing with the Stars." The UK version includes two of the judges who grace your show, Len and Bruno, plus we have the acerbic Craig Revel-Horwood - "in three words, my darling, OMG" - and the foolish former contestant and Muttley impersonator Alesha Dixon - "you was brilliant."

This year the BBC changed the rules and the public decides who goes out each week. You will remember that previously there was a dance-off between the bottom two, and then the judges decided. The hapless John Sergeant managed to survive for quite a while with the public keeping him safe, but eventually quit when he realised there was a chance he might end up in the final.

This year the judges have no decision-making power, and so I am convinced that Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP, will make, and possibly win, the final.

I don't deny that it is very entertaining seeing the routine that Anton Du Beke creates each week. Highlights have included Ann being lowered to the floor in a harness like a gigantic flapping Dumbo, and on Saturday, in a memorable paso doble, being hurled to the floor and then bouncing  like a scene from The Dam Buster, followed by Anton swinging her around like a sack of potatoes (pictured.)

It is, as Len said on It Takes Two, rather like a motorway crash when you're on the other side of the road but you can't help looking.

I'm sure the BBC changed the rules to encourage more votes to make more money. Many people are obviously keen to keep Ann in, and unlike John Sergeant, she doesn't seem abashed about not being very good.

But we need to remind ourselves this is a dance competition, and there are contestants who are fabulously good, and amaze us with their stunning routines each week. I don't think it will be fair if Widdecombe wins at the expense of Scott Maslen, Jimi Mistry, Pamela Stephenson or Matt Baker, all outstanding in my view. And bravo to Pamela for showing that women over the age of 60 can still be vibrant, sexy and fabulous.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Apple bobbing for Halloween? Too dangerous

We all love a good story about the excesses of "elf and safety.

This Halloween, there's a warning from Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust that some of the ancient games associated with the pagan festival are dangerous.

Apple bobbing, for example, runs the risk of "a high velocity impact with an apple". Not to mention serious eye injury from unclean water. The recommendation is to wear goggles, disinfect water containers and remove apple debris before dunking your head into the water.

One eye expert even suggests children should remove the apples with their hands, not their mouths, but I can't see much fun in that as a game. I suppose you could play it all year round. "Johnny, please pick up some apples for Mummy," at Sainsbury's each week.

It's not only apple bobbing that is dangerous. Fancy-dress contact lenses come in for attack, as they can cause irritation, and as for lanterns, well, people occasionally hit their head on them.

Take care this Halloween and hopefully enjoy the pagan revels without too much damage!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Baby gorilla born at London Zoo

I know you all like a bit of good news, so here's a heart warming story about the first baby gorilla to be born at London Zoo for over twenty years.

Mother Mjukuu and baby, left, are both doing well. The  baby's aunties, Zaire and Effie, were at the birth and have remained with Mjukuu throughout.

Staff at the zoo are now figuring out the delicate operation of introducing the baby to his stepfather, Kesho.

The tiny baby will grow into a 25 stone silverback gorilla.

Feel free to send me your good news snippets!


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Guest blog: Carry On Embrocating. My second Amsterdam Marathon

I'm handing over the blog today to my spouse, the mysterious J, for his account of his second Amsterdam marathon (his 22nd marathon in total). J went with members of his running club, the Orion Harriers.
Take it away J.

This was my second trip to the Amsterdam marathon, scene of my 1st sub 4hr triumph in 2007.
Training for this run had been indifferent, so I had no real feel for my optimum pace for this race. Ideal conditions, cool with winter sunshine.

Good atmosphere at the start, Julie and I prepped together and got a good pen position quite close to the start line. Got off to a good start, let Julie go after a few minutes and settled down to an average 5mins per Km pace which was a pleasant surprise to me.

Kept close eye on HR (heart rate) but stayed with this pace, so again my performance on the day was well above expectations from training. Went through 1/2 in 1:46:37 well on pace for a pb (personal best), my aim was to keep in the low 5 to 5:30 Km's during the later stages and this was working well.

Around mile 24 got bad cramp in right calf and had to pull up couldn't keep going. Tried calf stretch and tried again -- no good, did some hamstring stretches which eased the problem and allowed me slowly get started again. After a few minutes gamely jogging back to pace the same thing happened to left calf - seized up, more stretches got me going again slowly. At this time I was convinced I'd blown any potential for a pb so settled in for a slow finish.

When I got to the 40km sign (only 2 km left) and saw the current time, I realised there was still a chance to get close to a pb. Legs were by now not doing well with cramps coming and going over the last 2k's, tried to raise pace all the way in, very emotional including talking to myself ovr the last k to keep the effort going. Once over the line not sure of eventual time, when I checked my Garmin it showed 4 secs outside a personal best -  very disappointing. So lost around 4 mins to cramps and stretches, overall got to be delighted with this run and the time - didn't look anywhere as good as this in training. my 3rd 3:43 marathon on the trot....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

John Barrowman - reviewed by Giz

My mum, known to us inexplicably as "Giz," is 77 but in possession of all her faculties plus a great deal of energy. She is social secretary to two or three widows' associations and her social life seems to be a merry blur of coach trips and lunches. She books speakers and is currently booking for 2012 (I am not joking).

Last week she went with three ladies I uncharitably call "the beige set" to see John Barrowman at the Plymouth Pavilions.

My mum always wears bright colours: she says she refuses to merge into the background and be ignored. The Beige Set, however, always wear beige (and not just because it's having a trendy moment.)

Anyway, Giz and I exchanged a flurry of texts after the show. I taught her how to text a few years ago. She has taught most of her friends, athough is very scathing of the one who still writes in capitals all the time. She has a package of 800 texts a month and most of them are to me.

Here is the conversation in verbatim. Remember we were texting, hence the spelling:

Me: How was JB?
Giz: Wonderful. Wot a performer. Audience went mad 4 him. Jodi Prenger 2.
Me: Any screaming?
Giz: Yes loads. Shouting we luv u Jetc. Few stoic men. Kept saying he was gay. Nice being 4 of us cos they r nice ladies.

So there you have it. I've always wondered why it is that older ladies swarm to see John Barrowman and scream, even though it's well known he's gay. Answers on a postcard please.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Weston-Super-Mare's Pier reopens

Today's good news concerns the pier at Weston-Super-Mare. Two years the pavilion was destroyed by fire, but now it's been rebuilt and will reopen tomorrow.
I've written before about my love of the pier. They are so iconic, so quintissentially British. And usually when they are destroyed by fire or fall into disrepair, they aren't replaced.

Just recently, Hastings Pier was in the news after it was burnt down by arsonists. What is it with these people?
Anyway, back top Weston-Super-Mare, where people are expected to queue overnight to get to be the first to visit the refurbished pier. 
First opened in 1907, the pier is a grade II listed building. More than £39 million has been spent on it.
My earlier story in 2008 about piers, following the destruction of Fleetwood Pier by fire, is here. Join the National Piers Society here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pink Floyd: the Good News

I'm feeling like Cyril Fletcher in That's Life. Today I am indebted to......Nicky in Belgium for today's good news snippet.

Nicky discovered that Pink Floyd were reuniting, which, depending on your view of the band, may be good or bad news.

But what's good is that they're doing it for charity, unlike a lot of greedy oldsters (yes Spandau Ballet, Status Quo and Genesis, I mean you.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Best lunch ever at Gidleigh Park

One of my hobbies is eating my way around Britain and I have been to quite a few notable nosheries including Le Gavroche, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, Maze and The Fat Duck.

But these all paled into insignificance against Michael Caines' two Michelin starred Gidleigh Park restaurant  near Chagford in Devon.

Giz and I went there for Sunday lunch and it was just exquisite!

The hotel is in beautiful grounds in a very peaceful location. It is relaxed and elegant, with the superb, unotrusive service that you expect in a place like this.

After canapes in the lounge as we chose from the menu, we were shown to our table and first to arrive was a complimentary artichoke soup in a tiny glass accompanied by superb artisan bread, crusty on the outside and soft and melting inside as so many bread rolls aren't.

My first course was salmon confit and my main was Devonshire sirloin which came with a cep shaped ravioli filled with delicious braised shin. I would like to tell you all the different components but unfortunately the particular menu we had isn't shown on the website.

We both had an apple plate to finish, which had three apple desserts lined up: tarte tatin, lemon mousse and a lemon biscuit with ice cream, plus a tiny jug with warm apple jus. To die for!

I've added photos of what I ate. Not great quality but I had to take them with my BlackBerry. The camera was with J, who at this time was running the Amsterdam Marathon and finishing at 3 hour 43, which is very good.
We opted for coffee and petit fours in the lounge. I was expecting a couple of hand-made chocolates but it was like another course: three tiny perfectly made desserts on a wooden tray. An apple doughnut, a blackcurrant posset and a chocolate, hand tempered. We couldn't have eaten another thing, so just as well we didn't go for the tasting menu.

The only drawback to this wonderful place was the very windy and narrow country lane leading to the hotel. Unsuitable for heavy vehicles, it had hardly any passing places and for a townie driving a new car was a bit of a white knuckle ride. But well worth it for the experience that followed.

Three decades ago, the otter population was at risk of extinction because of chemicals and poor quality waterways. Now the riverbanks are filled to bursting with otters. Good news indeed!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Plymouth gets Christmas makeover

As you read this, dear reader, I will be gallivanting in my ancestral home - Devon - and relaiming my Four Square mayorship of the power station next door to my mum's house.

So it is apt that today's good news story features my former home city of Plymouth.

Plymouth is to get its Winter Festival complete with ice rink.

The Winter Festival will start with the Christmas lights switch-on on Thursday, November 18. It will feature the Christmas Ice Rink on the Piazza, festive shows at the Pavilions, Christmas markets, Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal, the Christmas Carnival, late-night shopping, festive street entertainment and a special 'Santa fun run'.

I will hopefully get to see some of this when I go down to Plymouth later this year to deliver the presents.

John Barrowman
 And if my mum wasn't excited enough about enjoying the delights of Gidleigh Park, our lunch destination today, she will be beside herself next Thursday when she and one of her widows' associations go to see John Barrowman at the Plymouth Pavilions. A full report to follow. Gird your loins.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Heifer rescue went well

A heifer, not necessarily the one
that was rescued
 Continuing the theme of good news stories, I am indebted to Fran of South Cerney for this heart warmer about a heifer rescue that went well.

The Wilts & Gloucs Standard reports how the heifer was hauled to safety by firefighters after falling down a well at Crudwell. The 12-month-old animal plunged through the cover of a 10ft deep well at Hayleaze Farm, but landed upright in the water and mud.

A crew from Malmesbury was on the scene first and made it safe before a specialist animal rescue team from Stratton arrived. Rural safety officer Adam Martin explained: "The cow was in an extremely confined space and would have been very frightened by what had happened, so the challenge was to get her sedated and then lifted free.

"The water was drained from the well, which allowed the vet access to carry out sedation. It was then safe for us to get down to her and put strops around her."

All's well that ends well.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Today's good news

I can tell you that I have bitten off more than I can chew with my pledge to find some good news every day.
A trawl of BBC news and local paper websites revealed a litany of bad, bad news.  Eventually I found a heart warming titbit at the Croydon Advertiser.

For 70 years, the South Norwood and Woodside branch of the Women's Section of the Royal British Legion have been meeting up once a month to socialise and organise fundraisers.

The ladies are celebrating their 70th anniversary and preparing for Poppy Day. But they desperately need new members. "We've not had any young people join us for a good 20 years," said Secretary Ann Sparshott. "We need some young people in to help us with the fundraising and the lifting and carrying which comes with putting on our events.

"The support the Legion provides is going to go through the generations. It's rewarding to hear when people get the help they need. It brings tears to your eyes. I think it's a brilliant cause."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

And now the good news

The triumphant rescue of the Chilean miners yesterday was a wonderfully uplifting story that had people all around the world sobbing as we shared in their joy.

It got me thinking about how rare it is that we rejoice in a good news story.

The media happily feeds us stories of hoodies with knives, drunken promiscuous teenagers, men killing their own children and so on without putting them into perspective. The impression is that society is out of control and nothing good ever happens.

Any good news stories are buried away or become "fillers" if they're used at all.

So I'm going to try to find a good news story every day. It won't be good news as in Tom Daley wins two gold medals, or interest rates come down. That's the sort of good news that is shared by the media. I'm talking about stories of human interest and kindness. Here's hoping I can find some! And please share any of your own stories.

One story that has stayed with me over the years was an item about an Albanian refugee ship. No countries would accept the refugees, who were on an unseaworthy vessel out in the ocean. They had been turned away by an Italian port. But when they landed at a Greek island, instead of turning them away, the locals rushed down to greet them with blankets and sandwiches.

In a similar vein, last winter's heavy snow brought out the goodness in people who offered rooms to strangers who were trapped in their cars.

That's the sort of stories we need folks!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Today's award for being out-of-touch and slightly preposterous: Andrew Marr

BBC political correspondent Andrew Marr is in the news himself today for describing bloggers as 'socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy young men' who give journalism a bad name.

Speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Marr said: "A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people.".

Er, hello?

I'm not sure what sites Marr has been visiting, but Mashable, noted authority on social media, tells us the majority of bloggers are women.

There are a few "angry" sites: for example, http://ihateryanair.co.uk/ is also in the news today, which is a good example, but sites like these are usually doing a good job. Power to the people! Companies, utilities and politicians can't get away with anything lilke they used to, because of the vigilance of pesky spotty people on the web.

Of course Marr is approaching this from a defensive stand point. Does blogging present a challenge to newspapers and TV news over the next few years?

Undoubtedly yes, in terms of speed of breaking news. No TV station or news agency can respond as fast as Twitter, as we have seen with recent major stories. Nearly everyone has a camera phone, therefore we can all make and share news as it happens.

But blogs and online media present news in small chunks, and I believe that paper copies of newspapers will still thrive because people want their analysis and comment.

In the meantime, I suggest Mr Marr visits some of the blogs in my blog roll to see that some of the content is written by entirely sane people with perfectly good complexions, and none of us living with our mothers.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

We go to Buckingham Palace

J's picture of the Queen Victoria memorial, Pall Mall
That's stretching the truth slightly, but we did go to the Queen's Gallery which is within the palace. We had a day off for J's birthday and I booked the visit to the  Victoria & Albert Love & Art exhibition a few months ago, after we saw the film Young Victoria.

I don't know about you but I've always thought of   Queen Victoria as a dumpy, sour faced woman in black. But it turns out, that was in the second part of her reign after her husband Albert died, aged just 42. In the years they were married they were very happy and the exhibition shows the works of art, sculpture and jewellery that they commissioned for each other.

Was the Queen at home?
 Victoria more or less lost interest in art after Albert's death. She commissioned some wonderful works to commemorate his life, including the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, but the rest of her life was spent in mourning, with the room in which Albert died lovingly kept as it was.

I loved the picture of Victoria that was given to Albert as a birthday presen (left). Her shoulders are bare, her hair cascades over her shoulder and she looks sensuous and wanton.

Very few examples of her costumes survive but the exhibition had a sumptuous dress which showed Victoria had a tiny waist when she was slim.

I loved seeing the watercolours and drawings that she did. She was a talented artist but being Queen it was difficult for her to paint so she mainly indulged in her hobby when she was with her family.

The exhibition has been extended until early December. Check it out here

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Who talks about sad men?

Reading a few biographies lately, I was struck by a recurrent theme. Fathers are nearly always described as remote, cold, unhappy, shouty.

In Lynn Barber's much trumpeted read, her father gets little compassion but is berated for drinking, shouting and rudeness. Barber doesn't attempt to analyse why this was the case and is equally scatching about her "sour, bitter" mother.

TV presenter Fiona Phillips talks of a happy childhood but her relationship with her father was also challenging. He was detached and remote.

Then recently, Liz Hodginson asked why are men over 60 so boring, with nothing to talk about?

I wonder what would have happened if a man had dared write that about women over 60. There is a lot of reverse discrimination nowadays which seems perfectly acceptable. TV ads can happily poke fun at men for being inept round the house. Feminists write endlessly about the lot of women, and it's a "lot" which has changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years.

Looking back, I wonder if the unhappy fathers of biographies were tired of being the breadwinner; of having to perform routinely dull 9 to 5 jobs to ensure their families were fed? There was little opportunity in the 60s for breaking out of the mould. Generally only the priveleged were well educated.

Did the grind of a dull job and the retirement with little to offer except a nagging wife and a shed lead to the "boring men" that Hodginson talks about?

My own father fizzed and enthralled as a younger man, a Royal Marine with the charisma to host events and chair local community meetings. But after leaving the services at 37, he gradually lost his joie de vivre as he took on a succession of jobs he didn't enjoy. His health began to deteriorate and he became a classically grumpy old man.  We knew so little about him. He rarely talked about himself or his past.

Younger men today, we read, don't have it any easier. Their role has been changed, probably against their will, as women were liberated from being housewives or typists. They have to compete for the best jobs against women as well as men, and some companies impose numbers on how many men can be hired in order to hire more women, regardless of who's best for the job.

From a young age boys constantly hear how inferior they are to girls. It was apparent in the TV programme "Gareth Malone's extraordinary school for boys" where the boys could scarcely concentrate and were largely incapable of reading, let alone debating with girls of the same age.

Allowing boys to hide behind Wiis and other gadgets clearly doesn't help their interpersonal skills. The nanny state of compensation culture doesn't allow them to burn off energy and parents get castigated for letting their children walk or cycle to school on their own, even if it's only a short distance.

If all this was happening to women, and women were so unhappy, there would be a huge inquest. But who feels sad about the men?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Give Ed a break

My personal preference was David, but what's really getting my goat is the vitriole aimed at Ed Milliband because he thwarted his brother's ambitions by standing for the Labour leadership in the first place.


Now with certain things - inheritances and the monarchy - the eldest son always gets priority. Some weird old feudal thing.

But I don't see why, if Ed made his career politics exactly as his brother did, he can't go for the top prize too.

Leaderships don't come round very often and particularly not when there are meglomaniacs like Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair.

I'm sure the psychologists are going to have a field day. There was excited gossip on the Andrew Marr show today about how Ed always copied David. But here's the thing. (An expression I hate). David had his chance a couple of years ago when he made an attack on Gordon Brown, without naming his prey, but then backed off. He could have made his move then and maybe Labour wouldn't have lost the election. But we'll never know.

My only advice to Ed, following his appearance on the Marr show today, is that he doesn't want to sound like he supports the Coalition government. I know it's hard to find differences between the three leaders, all young, highly educated middle and upper class men as they are, but unless Ed finds a differentiator, we'll be stuck with Cameron and the gang for years.

Thank goodness for Harriet Harman is all I can say: the only senior woman politician and a good #2 to Ed. She is the only minister to have effected any real change for women in over 30 years, with the last being David Steel and his abortion act.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A great performance from Joaquin Phoenix

I find Joaquin Phoenix far more interesting and appealing than cute boys like Brad Pitt. He's edgy and enigmatic.

I just love the way he and Casey Affleck successfully pulled off a massive hoax, lasting for two years.

It started when Joaquin appeared on the David Letterman show and was virtually monosyllabic with wild hair (left). He was retiring from films and promoting his new career as a rapper. Letterman, in frustration, ended the interview "Joaquin Phoenix could not be with us today".

It was all part of him creating a character.

A "documentary" directed by Affleck shows the breakdown  of the star and his descent into drug taking. When "I'm Still Here" first came out, it seems a lot of people were fooled.

Even the Sunday Times was unsure if it was a spoof, but the writer, a couple of weeks ago, revealed that Phoenix had slipped into the cinema where a preview was being shown and was laughing at all the amusing bits and looking pleased with the reception the film got.

I'm relieved that it was all a stunt, and that Phoenix has been having a bit of fun. It was very brave of him and it's probably been one of his greatest roles.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Getting to know Raquel

Glam at 70

That's Raquel Welch, not Raquel Wolstenhulme.
I've just been reading her book "Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage". It's not exactly an autobiography: there's quite a lot of biography, but then it suddenly becomes a treatise for women with Raquel's views on all manner of things, plus a few chapters where Raquel gives her beauty and fashion tips.
I've always been a bit fascinated by Raquel Welch. As she says in her book, she's been fairly enigmatic without giving many interviews throughout her career. She's able to give a list of men including Richard Burton, Burt Bacharach, Burt Reynolds, Warren Beatty (it goes on) and teasingly asks us which one she had a relationship with. And we probably don't have a clue.
I find that she's even more of an enigma after reading the book.

The other Raquel (Wolstenhulme)

Made famous by that shot of her in a fur bikini, Welch apparently became very stroppy whenever directors expected her to take her clothes off. Maybe that's how she got the reputation she has for being difficult. Anyway, you have to admire her principles. It seems that she wanted to be a serious actress, and indeed, has always thought herself to be a serious actress, but because of that wretched photo, everyone treated her as a sex symbol. Very irritating.
In her beauty and fashion tips, she talks at length about plastic surgery and injectibles, but doesn't say whether or not she's had any of it. She does own up to using "Frownies," tiny bits of cardboard you stick on wrinkles at night. I think she's trying to kid us all that she's had nothing done. But you don't look like she does at 70 without a bit of help.
I did warm to her after she admitted to putting on 15 extra pounds during the writing of the book, because an injury meant she wasn't able to exercise. Phew, the woman is human! I was beginning to doubt it after she gave a example of her daily diet. You know the sort of thing: breakfast, egg white omelette. Lunch: salad. Dinner: steamed fish.
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