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

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Friday, October 18, 2013

The drama of cakes!

Who would have thought that a gentle little TV programme about baking would have become such a hot-house of gossip, speculation and vitriol?

I'm talking of course about The Great British Bake Off, the final of which is next Tuesday.

Before this series started judge Paul Hollywood had scandalised Twitter by apparently having a romance with his co-host of the US version, a Mexican named Marcela Valladolid.

Hollywood's wife added to the low simmer of angst by giving tearful interviews where she claimed it had all come out of the blue, etc etc, and then sued him for divorce citing adultery.

The series started and, phew, it was still the same. Mary Berry was still rocking colourful jackets;  Sue and Mel were still like a couple of mates from the pub, and Hollywood was still flashing his blue eyes and going on about soggy bottoms.

But the contestants were different this year. Either that or the way they filmed them was different.  I noticed a lot more competition between them;  when one was being judged favourably, another would purse her lips.

Even worse, the front runners were very arrogant about their ability quite early on in the series. Whenever Jennifer, Kimberley or Beca were given any sort of criticism they would put on a questioning "really?" look.

Jen would say nearly every time that she "made it at home several times and it was perfect" so she didn't understand why it had gone wrong.

Then there was the Ruby factor.  Ruby Tandoh is a 21 year old student who tells us she only started baking six months ago. That might explain why she is forever decrying her bakes and telling the judges what's wrong with them before they start tasting. This week she added an overlay of tears.  Psychologically, it makes it very difficult for the judges to be tough on her. Especially as Hollywood is supposedly smitten by her.

I'm not sure I've seen that. They flirt a little, but I suspect it's his reputation going before him.  Ruby acts like millions of attractive young women have acted for centuries. She's coy; she cries; she giggles. She simpers. If he falls for that, well, we all know there's no fool like an old fool.

Apparently Hollywood gave an interview to the Times yesterday and he's still proclaiming his innocence over the adultery and divorce business. He hints darkly there is more to it than people know.  Perhaps he and his wife weren't sleeping together. Frankly, do we even care?

He was pretty unchivalrous about Valladolid, suggesting she was wrong for the US version. Let's hope she doesn't retaliate.

Frances
The show moves to BBC1 next year and I hope it stays exactly the same.

Ruby
Meanwhile for Tuesday's final I would love to see wacky Frances win. I love her creativity, and I liked  the way she snapped back at Beca "who wants to be boring?" when Beca said that Frances was on some planet all of her own. It is perhaps telling though that on the BBC GBBO website, the photo of Frances is smaller than the others.

Kimberley
Kimberley is far too smug and Ruby, well, it's too soon. She may be prodigiously talented but I fear it would do her no good at all to win at such a young age and be thrust into the spotlight of cookery books and TV appearances.

Who are you tipping to win?

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Unexpected item in the bagging area"

Self service checkouts were in the news today. Apparently the retailers are introducing more of them because they reduce their costs. But consumers are less keen.

I didn't like the way that the reports implied that consumers have problems using the check outs, and are entirely responsible for delays.

I nearly always use the self service check outs, except if I have a lot of shopping.  I like to save time. I'm pretty fast at scanning the items and looking up prices for loose vegetables or fruit.

But let's go through one of my recent transactions, in Sainsbury's.

First.  "We need to verify your bags."  I always take my own bags, but with a self service checkout, this is actually a bad thing. Why the bags need to be verified I do not know, because if you're paying at a normal check out, someone doesn't peer into your bag to see if you have stolen something. Anyway, have to wait for the assistant.

Second.  The type of baked good I had selected was a loose item, with no bar code, and wasn't listed on the look up guide.  You either have to take the risk of selecting something similar, or wait for the assistant.

Third. A bottle of wine. Have to wait for the assistant.

Four. I'd picked up one of those multi-pack magazine offers. It was obviously heavier than the machinery was expecting because it became an "Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area" and, yes, I had to wait for the assistant.

Finally, I had a Brand Match coupon for six pounds. The check out refused to take it. The assistant explained they have to code them through if they are over a certain amount.

By now I had given up the will to live. I'm not surprised that one in three of us walks out of a store, abandoning their purchases, because of a bad experience.

As you can see, none of these problems were "my" fault.  I suggest to the retailers that if they intend to bulldoze these systems into the stores, they need to improve the technology.  Cameras and recognition systems and more real-time updating of stock.









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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Strictly Come Dancing 2013: The Lowdown

A couple of people asked me recently why I haven't been blogging.

I was thrilled, thinking only robots read my posts.

The robots give me hilarious comments full of mispellings saying things like "you such great writer I love your posts please check my blog XXXX."

Anyway, the reason for no blogging is that I felt I'd said it all.  The blog was becoming like a cyberspace Groundhog Day.

But, pressed into giving my thoughts on such heavyweight topics as this year's Strictly Come Dancing line-up, I decided to return to the fray.

Note new blog photo showing us at the summit of Skiddaw, England's third highest mountain, on our holiday in the Lake District.

Let's have a quick fox trot through the contestants:

The Boys
Are a bit of a boring lot this year and I am not expecting great things from any of them, except maybe Whats-his-name from Hollyoaks. The Hairy Biker Dave is admirably channelling the God of Dance John Sergeant, but I feel he is capable of much more than just stomping around.

The rugby player Ben Cohen is like one of those big American fridges being moved around the floor on castors. He has already done a ballet class and I predict he will soon be getting acting lessons.

The one from Casualty, Patrick Robinson,  is a smooth number aged 50. Could potentially do well, but I'm not sure he's trying very hard. Incidentally, his character in Casualty was the reason my mum stopped watching it. She found it too ludicrous that he was a nurse, left the series and came back as a doctor.

Mark Benton is this year's Lisa Riley: big chap who wants to prove he's nimble on the dancefloor.  Doing OK, but looks horribly scruffy during rehearsals. One wants to reach for the Lynx.

Julien Macdonald, fashion designer, blotted his copybook by either being stoned or drunk in the opening night and screeching unpredictably in a way that bothered Bruce. I remember Macdonald when he first appeared on Britain's Next Top Model as a judge. He's had an Elle McPherson directed makeover. He used to be fat with long lank hair. Now he's a preening peacock with a forehead smoother than a baby's. I predict he'll be in the dance-off again this weekend.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor
The Girls  (said in Hattie Jacques' voice from Carry on Camping)

I'm predicting a 3 way final between Abbey Clancy, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Natalie Gumede.

Sophie did the most fab - u - lous Charleston.  I reckon she'll do it again in the final and get top marks all round. Clancy is the pouting, hair tossing wife of footballing legend (not John's view|) Peter Crouch.  She's very good, but I wonder if she has vote appeal. Too much posturing. That toned midriff is a mixed blessing for the voting demographic.

Vanessa Feltz is a wiley old so-and-so. She suffers from misconceptions. People tend to think of her as loud, shouty and bossy. When I knew she was taking over the Radio 2 early show I groaned, thinking it would be too noisy. But she is a revelation. She listens intently to the people who call in and her use of English is sublime. Even her "potted history of the show thus far" is a daily mini masterpiece.

In a masterstroke, Feltz was seen blubbing over James Jordan in their lovely waltz, admitting the dance made her remember old love affairs. Transformed into someone vulnerable she sailed through, and if she keeps it up, may stay in for a while.

Fiona Fullerton
Fiona Fullerton, always plugged as "former Bond girl" is the oldest lady in the show at 56, and looks great. She's also a talented dancer so for once Anton isn't the comedy turn. She could do very well because Anton has his own fan base of elderly ladies.

Natalie Gumede is this year's Coronation Street entry and she seems a bit bland to me, but a good dancer from the stage school trained intake.

Dragon's Den star Deborah Meaden is radically remodelling herself and coming across very well. The miracles performed on her and Feltz by the wardrobe department with Spanx and Lycra are amazing.

Newsreader Susanna Reid is coming across as a bit frantic, desperate to impress and too orange. Her hair is too dark and she spends too much time in the tanning booth.

Finally Rachel Riley from Countdown doesn't seem to be trying very hard, and that's something we can't forgive.

Finally a word on the Bruce situation. Agree with the majority on Twitter who said last week's show was better without him. It had a new energy with Tess and Claudia presiding. There was no sense of dread. "Will Bruce forget his lines?"  "Will he look startled as usual when the camera finds him after Tess?"  "Will he forget the names of the dancers and judges?"  I just hope that when he does retire, the BBC will not decide to get in another man just for the sake of it, but will stick with the winning formula of Tess and Claudia.

That's my round up - what do you think? Who's your favourite so far? Mine are Sophie and Fiona.







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Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Happy Event for the Pigeons?

I am hoping that our lovely wood pigeons are expecting, or have had, a happy event.

Just to recap on "the pidgies," this plumptious pair have been living in the trees beyond our garden for the last few years. I first spotted them about three years ago when we got rid of the Leylandii trees. We had unwittingly destroyed their home. They spent that winter roosting miserably on the fence. 

Over the last year I've become very fond of The Pidgies and feed them every day. I have to be careful that no cats are around and John is very insistent that I only give them seeds on the patio and not the artificial grass.  I love the way they run across the garden as fast as their little legs will carry them when they see me with the seeds.

Pigeons mate for life, like swans.  They seem very fond of each other.  Before my suspicions of the happy event, they would arrive on the fence every evening and groom and kiss each other.

I can tell them apart because the female has a limp.  I call her "Limp Pigeon."

About three weeks ago I realised that they weren't flying together. They would visit the garden on their own, for a brief period of time.  And I had seen them both with twigs in their beaks.

My imagination has had them building their ramshackle nest and they're now incubating one or two eggs.
Grooming the plumage n

The incubation period is 17 days and the youngsters fledge between 29 and 35 days.

A couple of years ago the pidgies were visiting with a scruffy looking youngster.  I'm hoping to get some photos this time round.

I'm surprised that programmes like Springwatch never feature wood pigeons. I know they're perceived as pest by farmers, but they have an interesting story and endearing ways.

Here are some photos of the plumptious pair.


Kiss Kiss


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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Parcels rainin' down

There will be a few deliveries today. My heart sinks. I work mainly from home, so we both make full use of t'internet to order anything we may  or may not need.

First I have to make sure I am showered and dressed by 8am. There's nothing worse than the door bell ringing when you're not decent.

I try to avoid sorties into the garden lest I don't hear their feeble knocking on the door. 

There is a bell, but it seems too much trouble to press it.

I pointed out the bell to a regular delivery man, who said belligerently "it doesn't work."  I gently pressed it; the bell screeched, and he just shrugged.

I suspect they are paid by how many deliveries they attempt, not how many are actually made.  Many's the time I have rushed downstairs from the office to answer the door to find the delivery man already backing off down the drive without having waited.

The no-shows, when you have specifically requested delivery on a particular day, are particularly galling. You stay in all day, even though you're champing at the bit to get to the post office or buy some bread for lunch. With the risk of an evening delivery you now have to stay in all evening too. And then they don't show up!

Sometimes the attempts to deliver are just as bad. One regular driver had the habit of throwing our parcels over the back fence, until I found a sodden package containing a dress that was now ruined because we had been away for a few days.

Last week a skirt was somehow squashed and forced through the letter box. The skirt was fine, but had I wanted to return it, the returns note would have needed ironing.

For the purposes of today's expected deliveries I may put a large sign on the door pointing to the bell and asking them to press it - hard.
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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Plum glut

I am overjoyed. The two year old plum tree has delivered! I have a huge glut of plums. I collected two bowlfuls last week and stewed some;  I have been eating them with Greek yoghurt and a little honey. Very tasty! They are also fine eaten as dessert plums, although J is a little suspicious.

The cherry tree will never deliver cherries unless I get another tree but it looks pretty enough with its blossom in the spring.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

The garden in July

I'm horrified to see that my last post was as long ago as May, and then it was "The garden in May." Now I am back with "The garden in July."

I am very pleased with it this year; the raised bed border has certainly bushed out. No gaps now!

New this year were sweet peas, scrambling up an obelisk;  (still to flower); a jasmine; two more salvias to attract bees, and various additions including dianthus Doris, fuchsia Display, dahlias, love-in-the-mist and amberboa Sweet Sultan.

The raised bed border is mostly pink and mauve with touches of white.

Meanwhile my hot border, on the other side of the garden, has been a bit of a let down so far. I have fewer nasturtiums and cosmos Bright Lights died. Three salvia Hot Lips have gone completely crazy though.




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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The garden in May

After a late Spring everything is catching up. I normally have a few roses out by St George's Day  (April 23) but still none in bloom yet.

The tulips have now been dead headed and the plants in the border are filling out nicely. 

The new clematis montana Superbra with large pink flowers is draped like a garland over the fence.  You either love or hate those rampant Montanas: I love them.

To the right is the new addition of an obelisk which has perennial sweetpeas planted at the bottom. There's a new cordyline "Pink Passion" to add some structural wow.

I have sown some hardy seeds including nigella and larkspur, and Sarah Raven's Sweet Sultan mix which will hopefully give me some tall pom pom plants adored by bees.

Some stalwarts from last year are also looking good: lupins, dianthus, hosta "White Feather", hebe "White Paradise" and phlox paniculata.

I took a risk with some dahlia tubers. I planted them in containers at the front, which is south facing. As yet, no sign of them, although tubers planted in a container at the back have delivered small plants. I love dahlias but haven't had good results so far. Last year they seemed to come under airborne attack and all the leaves were scissored.
The other thing that looks great at the moment is the hawthorn tree. It's so gratifying to hear the bees buzzing in it. The gnarled old apple tree also excelled with blossom this year.
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Friday, May 10, 2013

Tiptoe through the Bluebells

Last year we didn't go to bluebell wood.  I felt it was getting too much like Groundhog Day. The previous year, we were too late and the bluebells had gone over.
Well, this week we visited the wood during a cycle ride, and we were at exactly the right time. The sweet smell was overwhelming as we approached.
Our clothes make it a little less like GH I suppose ---- I didn't use to be seen very often in cycling garb!




I
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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Garden in Spring

Finally! Spring has arrived and the bulbs are bursting into life, a vivid crescendo of colour.

I'm always slightly surprised by the different colours of my tulips, even though I buy new ones in a set colour scheme every year. Old ones linger  (I plant them in the border) and so there is every colour imaginable, but somehow for spring this is right.

This year I planted muscari and snake's head fritillary for the first time. Very pleased with both. "Must get more" is the memo to self.

The front border is heavy with the scent of hyacinths, blue, cream and white. There seem to be a lot more than I originally planted so they must be naturalising. How generous is nature's bounty!



 
 



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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Tortured by crewel past

Here's one I made earlier
I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode last night of "The Great British Sewing Bee," even though I ran the risk of being traumatised by watching it. 

The reminder of "bias binding" and "A line skirt" took me back to school and never-forgotten humiliations.

Mum and I cannot sew. For us, velcro is a godsend, as is the dry cleaner's that hems trousers.

My humiliations started aged around nine.

The girls had been given a piece of "Binker", that holey cream stuff that you embroider. Mrs Thompson, the spiteful teacher, held mine up in front of the class saying "The boys could have done better."

It got worse at the big school. We were expected to run up little aprons during the summer holidays edged with bias binding in the colour of our school house.

Bias Binding

Armed with the Crewels and Sharps which had been on the domestic science shopping list, I attempted this. But in the end my friend Shonagh had to step in and finish the job. There was a big difference between her stitches and mine.

Double domestic science lessons were an utter nightmare. Our school had lavishly equipped "labs" and cookery with Mrs Johnson was fine. However, sewing with Miss Coleman was not.

After I repeatedly failed to thread the needle of the darned Husqvarna sewing machine, she told the class I must have a turnip on my shoulders instead of a head with a brain.

Another time, I was summoned to see her during a break to show her the A line skirt I had been struggling with for over a year.   She made me model it, whereupon the sixth form girls who were there for the next lesson all started sniggering.

Reader, I never wore that skirt.

Cow Handling a Musket

It was perhaps even worse for my mum because her mother was an expert needlewoman and made her wedding dress, having to go "off pattern" because the Elizabethan style stand-up collar wasn't standing up.

Mum hated it when she was expected to produce a fancy dress outfit. I was bemused to be sent to a party as a "flower girl" wearing a normal dress and a headdress with a few flowers stuck on with glue. Daleks and Oliver Twists kept asking me what I was.

The instruction to make a PE bag resulted in a pillowcase that had an elastic drawstring at the top.  When the plimsolls were inserted, the bag gently stretched from the peg to rest on the floor.

At least mum was good at knitting. I was memorably described as "a cow handling a musket" by Grandma when I tried to take up the hobby.

I have nothing but admiration for people who can take those utterly incomprehensible patterns and turn them into something fantastic. It would be terrific to make my own clothes.

But it's never going to happen, and the nearest I get to needles nowadays is creating the birthday card above.
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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Beckhams: Get Over Yourselves!

We hear that the fine monument to modern taste, Beckingham Palace, occasional home of David and Victoria Beckham, is up for sale. But not for sale to just anybody. They don't want to sell to a developer  (even though they bought the mansion, real name Rowneybury House, from a developer. It had previously been a council children's home).

They want to sell it to a family who will "continue what we started."

I would imagine that any family with enough money to move into Beckingham Palace will probably want to impose their own taste on the gaff. They may well gut it and install subterranean underground basements (seems all the rage among the Saatchi / Lawson set in London).

I doubt if they will leave it as it is, a gleaming paean to the taste of former Leyton boy David and his wife, the former Spice Girl - one of our tackiest pop bands.

Perhaps there is a subliminal message as well that they don't have to rush into a quick sale. They can take their time to find the "right" buyer.

Really, the phrase that came to mind when I read about their plans was "Get over yourselves!"

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Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter

The one picture I took!
I hope you're all enjoying the Easter break. Shame about the horrendously cold weather which has no doubt put paid to a lot of plans for cycle rides, trips, gardening.

I did something different yesterday - I went to St Paul's Cathedral. I've never actually been inside the building. So at 9.40 I found myself among an excited throng of tourists, clamouring to be admitted for the 10.15 service.

I am a great admirer of ecclesiastical architecture.  Cathedrals in particular. St Paul's is amazing. Awe inspiring. So beautiful.  Add the soaring voices of the choir and the dignity and spectacle of the service, and you start to feel sorry for aetheists and their somewhat holier than thou  (ironically) attitudes, which have been all too prevalent on Twitter lately.

It would be a great pity in my eyes if we did become entirely secular in the UK.  Christians are already becoming marginalised thanks to some of the bonkers councils and organisations like the Red Cross, who think that usig "Christmas" as a word offends other religions.  Complete rubbish, because in a highly tolerant place like the UK, we see nothing wrong in taking joy from each other's tradiditions.

The one great thing that ALL religions bring is the setting of standards. A framework for decent living. You may be a Buddhist or a Protestant but having beliefs means you aspire to being the best you can be. Loving your neighbour and so on. Seculurisation has cost us dearly in the last few decades. It's every man for himself. People just don't care about anyone but themselves.  We saw this just now when a car driver selfishly pulled out in front of the lovely little family on bikes.

Determined efforts are made to commercialise Easter but it remains a time for contemplation and new beginnings.


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Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Revenge of the Food Fascists"

A new film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Calgary Avansino and Inga Dirzuite!!!
(or at least a couple of books, where they make loads of money)
 
 
The papers are full of the food fascists today. Probably a good ten years after dear old Gillian McKeith urged us to embrace spelt and agave, the big new food thing is eating raw with no carbs at all, no cow's milk and no wheat  (makes sign of the Devil).  
 
The Mail today has someone called Inga Dirziute clainming that her family's ailments have cleared up since she imposed a raw food diet on them. And it does sound quite tasty, the lunch of chilled soup, salad, stuffed tomatoes and "burgers" made from walnuts and mushrooms. How does today's harried working mum find the time to either learn how to cook like this, or shop for the ingredients? Dirziute spent £4,500, as you do, on a month-long residential course in the US to learn how to do it.
 
Calgary
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times offers up someone called Calgary Avansino, who boasts about her breakfast smoothie for all the family which contains in excess of 20 ingredients. And some days, the children only take a sip! You need to be Croesus himself to dine like this. No wonder they're all writing diet books.
 
I wonder about the substantiation for the lies perpetuated about cow's milk and wheat. I'm sure a few people are intolerant. But not many mums can afford coconut water or milk, almond milk, coconut yoghurt - all the things Avansino trots out.
 
Some of her advice is good. Parents should educate their kids about balance. When Avinsino's children go to the parties of mortal children, they eat ordinary (ie bad) food, but expect to have raw vegetables as a penance for tea.
 
Gwynneth
The goddess of fascist food is actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Mail today includes more of her recipes day from new book It's All Good.
 
I'm a bit disappointed with Gwyneth.  I honestly thought that with her website Goop, her personal trainer and macrobiotic diet, she'd been living clean and healthy for years.
 
But in last week's intro in the paper, she said that a fainting exercise not so long ago, where she thought she was going to die, led her to create the recipes (no doubt with a nutritionist and personal chef). Hmmm. I remember a book by someone else called "Spent" where Gwyneth babbled on about how she had felt completely exhausted, nay spent! And promptly changed her diet. That was a few years ago. To mix my metaphors, I suspect Gwyneth has not been eating her own dog food.
 
A good message from all these pious utterings would be to try to make a few small changes.
 
But really, the facts are thin on the ground about the dangers of cow's milk and wheat. And for most of us, life really is too short to source coconut water, frozen kale, chia seeds,  green powder, baobab powder, lacuma powder and maca powder -- just a few of the ingredients in the Avansino smoothie.  I very much doubt if they are all available at Holland and Barrett!
 
I leave you with one sobering thought. Remember all the fuss about aloe vera juice and how cleansing it is?  Clinical trials were halted when it was found to give rats cancer.  Chew on that!
 

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Is This Mutton?

I've discovered a whole genre of blogging and v-blogging about fashion and beauty, so I've created a new blog specifically on those topics and you're invited to come on over.

It's called Is This Mutton?

Laters!

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Good news for Pigeon Fanciers

A few weeks ago I wrote about Lieutenant Pigeon, the lone pigeon who has been a daily visitor to our garden for the last two years.

He's not so lonely.

Lt Pigeon now has a pigeon fancy who has accompanied him for the last couple of weeks. Their visits have been less frequent:  I can no longer set my watch by them.  So J believes they are building a nest. Our garden, he rightly points out, is a bit low on nest materials.

Here they are, looking for dropped seeds from our bird feeders. Lieutenant is on the left, but I may be mistaken.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Where have all the good laughs gone?

Nothing on TV seems to make me laugh. Titter ye not, said the late and great Frankie Howerd, and I don't.  Miranda occasionally provokes a titter -- "such fun!" and "bear with," but it's also a little overdone. It tries too hard.


The cast of Miranda
The last times I spluttered with mirth were watching Father Ted, The Office, One Foot in the Grave, Phoenix Nights and the early episodes of The Royle Family.

Monty Python was before my time but I inherited my brother's albums and videos and can recite many of the sketches word for word. Many of the phrases are used endlessly in my family: "Be fair, Pascal;"  "the comfy chair" and "no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition."

I don't want to sound like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, but what passes for humour these days courtesy of Judd Apatow and the Coen Brothers, and even Sarah Millican, seems to revolve around bodily functions and bottoms. Funny to male adolescents. Do we really still laugh at it when we're grown ups?

How I long for the wordplay, the bathos, pathos and character development that symbolised some of the truly great comedies: Porridge, Steptoe & Son, Dad's Army, Citizen Smith, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and Open All Hours. Some of the characters exhibited greed, sloth, meanness, frailty, foolishness, thwarted ambition, lust. But sometimes we felt sympathy for them. Sometimes they made us cry.

Some of the longer running sitcoms today -  I am thinking of the inexorable My Family and My Hero - have that self conscious, shouty "am I on stage?" thing going on, a bit like a farce but supposed to be masquerading as real life.

Most of the "comedians" seen on TV occasionally leave me cold: Lee Child, Jimmy Carr, James Corden, Stephen Fry. And they say women aren't funny! Michael McIntyre, John Bishop and Milton Jones have gentle humour without resorting to bodily functions but they don't make me titter much. Peter Kay used to be wonderful but he's run short of new material over the last few years.

The only ray of light in recent times has been the wonderful Getting On, with Jo Brand. Set in an NHS hospital, it has a gentle humour and doesn't resort to cruelty to get a cheap laugh.

What do you think?  Have I turned into Victor Meldrew?  Or are we currently in a desert when it comes to clever comedy?
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The blizzards of 1963

Deep snow in Burrow, Lancs, 1963
It's snowing.
As usual, the UK is grinding to a halt: there have been angry scenes at Heathrow airport.
But it all pales into insignificance compared to the blizzards of 1963.
If you get chance to see it, BBC2 showed an amazing programme from then entitled "Winterwatch: 1963."
That winter, the snow came in December and didn't disappear until March.
With temperatures so cold the sea froze in places, 1963 is one of the coldest winters on record.
It began abruptly just before Christmas in 1962. The weeks before had been changeable and stormy, but then on 22 December a high pressure system moved to the north-east of the British Isles, dragging bitterly cold winds across the country. This situation was to last much of the winter.
Many people didn't have central heating. People were literally trapped in their houses, with snow piled in drifts up to the roofs.
My parents were living in St Budeaux, Plymouth, and my dad was unable to get home from Bickleigh Barracks for four days. My mum couldn't get outside the door. Eventually a truck brought my dad home and he dug us out (I was two years old). My dad still went to work the following evening. He put on his great coat and boots and walked to Bickleigh, several miles away.
The TV programme showed scenes you would never imagine seeing in Britain. The sea, frozen. People "commuting" to work across the Thames on skates. Trains so buried under snow, it took teams of dozens of men days to liberate them.
 The snow was so deep farmers couldn't get to their livestock, and many animals starved to death.Several people died as a direct result of the weather.
This snow set the scene for the next two months, as much of England remained covered every day until early March 1963
The first thaw was gentle and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. But just a few days later, the freeze was back - and the second thaw was fast and brutal causing floods.
Me out in the snow today

John sets off early this morning
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Thursday, January 17, 2013

A great day in broadcasting history

Viewers of BBC Breakfast News today will be aware that today marks the 30th anniversary of the birth of breakfast TV in the UK.

That's not the only milestone. This day, 30 years ago, two new local radio stations were born, BBC Radios Devon and Cornwall.  I was hired by Radio Devon as a fresh faced reporter called Gail Tyler, and I was proud to be there on launch day.

When the station launched it came from Broadcasting House in Plymouth. The studio complex in Exeter was still being built, and two Portakabins were being used on the building site.

We all came together a few months before the launch and spent six wonderful weeks in London training. I was the youngest, and the only one with absolutely no radio experience. So there were quite a few memorable faux pas along the way. One of our training projects was to "find" someone interesting and interview them.  My great friend Julie Skentelbery, who was also in London with Radio Cornwall, facilitated a meeting for me with one of her former colleagues on the Sunday Independent:  Alastair Campbell.

He had played the bagpipes as a busker in the underground.

We recorded the interview at Marble Arch underground. Alastair didn't have his bagpipes. I was not in full control of my equipment (a Uher tape recorder) so used the Auto setting, and the sound quality was terrible.  Worse still, I had about 20 minutes of Alastair rambling on and I didn't know how to edit. Fortunately Julie seized the razor blade and saved the day.

The fledgling radio station played host to the Director General, Alasdair Milne, who sadly died last week.  Mr Milne is seated on the right, looking as if he might go for a spin on the turntable. I am "at the controls" in the Plymouth studio. My colleagues in the picture were Mary Saunders; the late and great Reg Henderson Brookes (second right), and the wonderful David Bassett, whose booming voice would announce "Bon bons for all, this day!"  He always came into the office with a great flourish, and if we didn't pay enough attention he would go out and come back in again.

Alasdair Milne was mentioned on the very popular Treasure Hunt quiz show presented by Douglas Mounce.  The question was: "who wrote Winnie the Pooh?" and quick as a flash the listener replied "Alasdair Milne."

Other memories:
  • My first live news bulletin, which went out on a Sunday and was four minutes long.  Mike Gibbons, our Programme Organiser, was on the beach in Weston-super-Mare and managed to pick up the transmission. He called me to say it was very good, but I'd forgotten to say who I was.
  • As a more experienced newsreader, I became adept at editing copy as I read it. During a bulletin Allan Urry rushed in with "news just in," and as he and David Willis were great jokers, I didn't trust the copy and ended up saying "The dead man....is not thought to be seriously hurt."  I came out of the studio with great poise, hoping I had got away with it, but then picked up the phone to a listener who said "tell your newsreader she made my day"  (I had denied being the newsreader).
  •  Evelyn the cleaner had her favourites and fortunately I was one of them; one of my colleagues had to suffer the indignity of Evelyn Hoovering outside the news cubicle as she read the 10 minute bulletin.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

David Bowie: Where Are We Now?

Goodness knows how it was kept a secret, but when millions of Davis Bowie fans woke today they learned that their hero, 66 today, had come out of retirement and issued a single.

Not only that, an album is to follow in March and can be pre-ordered!

Friends will know that David Bowie has been an obsession of mine since I was 12. I've written about him several times on this blog. In 2007, I was worrying why we never heard anything about him.

I've downloaded the single, of course. It is a gentle, dreamy, poignant evocation of Bowie's time in Berlin. The accompanying video shows his face superimposed on the body of a puppet.

There have been rumours for years that Bowie is not in good health. There is something of a farewell about this song and the video, where he seems wistful and almost tearful at times. I just pray that isn't the case.


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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Lieutenant Pigeon

Introducing the sad, lonely pigeon who lives in our garden.

I'm afraid he's a bit camera shy, so he doesn't pose very well for photos.
There is he, enjoying the rare flash of sunshine that we had on New Year's Day.

This plump wood pigeon has lived in our garden for the last couple of years. We didn't realise it until we got rid of the previous owner's leylandii trees and started to notice the pigeon roosting on the fence. He came back day after day. When spring came, a year later, he was still on the fence but occasionally joined by his mate.

Now he is solitary again.

He turns up every day at 8.30 and spends the hours pecking hopefully beneath the bird feeders, picking up the seeds that smaller birds have dropped. I imagine he must have several gardens he visits because I doubt if he would be so plump on the strength of our dropped seeds.

When the sun comes out, he perches on the garage roof and his head droops to his chest as he enjoys the warmth on his feathers.
When it's windy and wet, he sits gloomily on the fence and his plumage gets ruffled.

I've grown attached to "the pidge" and look out for him during the day when I'm working, with my view of the garden. He could be around for quite a while. I'm told they live between 3 - 5 years, occasionally up to 15.
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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The real reason we put on weight after a diet (it might surprise you)

Are you on a diet?  It's that time of year. 

I am a little smug, having lost a stone and a half in the run - up to Christmas, and not having put any weight back on. That meant that there were no festive niceties in the house. No cheese, no Christmas cake, no trifle, no chocolates.  J didn't mind - he still had his favourite items, nuts, beer, cheesecake and cream.  I enjoyed a normal Christmas dinner; I just didn't have anything else that day. And I treated myself to a couple of mince pies over the break, outrageously calorific at 250 each. I painstakingly worked them into my weight maintenance target of 1400 calories.

Yes, 1,400 calories. That's the MAX number of daily calories I need to keep my weight stable.

I discovered this by having my metabolic rate tested courtesy of Alizonne. Using a device called a MedGem, I discovered that far from the generous 1,878 calories quoted for my daily needs by Nutracheck and other diet sites, I require no more than 1,400.   Astute dieters among you will know that 1,400 is actually the number quoted for weight loss. It's the target Nutracheck set me when I said I wanted to lose one to two pounds a week. I stuck to it and couldn't understand why the pounds wouldn't budge.

I'm now convinced the main reason why we put the weight back on is that we're not given a realistic picture of how little we should eat in order to keep our weight stable.

No wonder Joanna Lumley talks about mainly eating lettuce.  Her words "don't eat that cupcake, you'll get fat, you fool" ring in my ears. I've decided I don't want to put on weight again. I hate having to wear clothes in a larger size, and it becomes harder and harder to lose weight as you get older. Do the maths:  if I gain weight on more than 1400 calories a day, I'm going to have to drop to 900 calories a day to lose weight.  Each pound gained is equivalent to 3,500 calories. If I was blissfully unaware and keeping to 1,878 calories a day, I would have gained a few pounds already.

I'm still using Nutracheck daily but now I use it to ensure I don't exceed 1400 calories a day. If we're going to the pub on Friday, I eat frugally during the day to ensure I can have scampi and chips. (The pub doesn't offer many healthy options - and life is too short to always go for poached fish!). Occasionally I do what I call "an offset" to have something I like. A very long walk on Monday meant I could have one of those mince pies.

Now you can see as well why people start to see exercise as a necessity. Elizabeth Hurley and Nigella Lawson have both talked about taking more exercise in order to be able to eat more. If I exercise more, my metabolic rate will rise. I look forward to warmer weather when I will happily get my bike out.

So if your New Year's resolution is to lose weight, I wish you luck ---- and recommend very strongly that you get your metabolic rate tested at the end of it so that you have every chance of success in the harder science of keeping the weight off.
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