Midwinter musings from the Shire-tiddely-pom…

28 01 2013

snow‘The more it

SNOWS- tiddely-pom

The more it

GOES- tiddely-pom




And nobody

KNOWS- tiddely-pom

How cold my toes-tiddely-pom

Are growing’


By Winnie the Pooh (with a little help from his friend – A.A. Milne)

 Monday 21st January:  ‘Blue Monday’

It has been calculated that the third Monday in January, ‘Blue Monday’, is officially the most depressing day of the year.

blueHow do we know? – Because psychologist, Cliff Arnall, told us so. His scientifically based assertion, first made in 2005, was determined using a complex formula. I’m pretty light on the detail, and I expect only Cliff can properly explain his bizarre equation, which factored in a whole lot of  stuff like: miserable weather, outstanding debt – with Christmas bills rolling in, post-Christmas anti-climax, broken New Year’s Resolutions, short daylight hours,  and low motivational levels, to name but a few.

All very clever but what’s the point? Naming the day as ‘depressing’ is somewhat of self-fulfilling and counter-productive surely? Well yes, but then we learn that the whole notion of discovering a single day when we are all, supposedly, at our lowest ebb was dreamt up by a travel company.

In his letter from the executive editor, Stefano Hatfield of the ipaper picked up on this, dismissing the concept of ‘Blue Monday’ as, ‘a fine example of pseudo-science subverted by marketers …so we can be sold remedies for ‘the blues’: sunny holidays and chocolate to name two.’  

Arnall’s get out response to those who question his claim, is that he is happy that it has stimulated debate around depression and that he is ‘encouraging people to refute the whole notion of there being a most depressing day.’ He wants us to use the day, ‘as a springboard to the things that really matter in life.’ 

They just might include holidays and chocolate…

Tuesday 22nd January: ‘Quartet’ falls flat…

downloadIt seems every Tuesday is ‘Supersaver Tuesday’ at Vue Cinemas. I only discovered this last week when Chris and I went to see ‘Les Mis’ – albeit on a Thursday. Anyhow, we are both now fully signed up members with cards to prove it, complete with a promotional code number.

Apparently there is also ‘Orange Wednesday’, a 2 for 1 ticket offer available to Orange mobile or broadband customers – which unfortunately we are not!

Yesterday we used our Supersaver 10% off cards for the first time, hoping that ‘Quartet’, based around life in a retirement home for classical musicians, might help lift the January blues.

Despite a fine cast, of veteran actors and musicians, director Dustin Hoffman’s, debut feature film, a drama comedy, is perfectly pleasant but eminently forgettable. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by ‘The Life of Pi’ and ‘Les Mis’ – both outstanding cinematic experiences. In all honesty, this ninety minute BBC production (based on a West End stage play) didn’t warrant the  big screen treatment and would have been more at home in a cosy TV film format.

A simple, predictable, storyline based around the relationship between four retired opera singers, ably played by Pauline Collins (Cissy), Tom Courtenay (Reg), Billy Connolly (Wilf) and the obligatory Maggie Smith (Jean) – who is enjoying something of a renaissance since the emergence of Sunday evening period drama, Downton Abbey – and whether they will, or will not, reunite to top the bill at the annual fund-raising concert to celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday.

quartetTheatrical temperaments and old rivalries are eventually put to one side and, surprise, surprise, the show, directed by a splendidly eccentric Michael Gambon (Cedric), goes on.

Filmed in its entirety at the charming Hedsor House, in Buckinghamshire, and with added musical authenticity provided by professional musicians, ‘Quartet’ is easy on the eyes and ears. There is plenty of pathos but too little humour, although Billy Connolly raises the odd smile – nothing more.

While ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ (set in India, and also starring Dame Maggie – which I thoroughly enjoyed) a similarly bitter-sweet movie, built around issues of ageing and coming to terms with one’s twilight years, maintained a lively Bollywood tempo throughout, with enough humorous high notes to leave me feeling upbeat, ‘Quartet’, by contrast, was more pastoral largo, which left me feeling somewhat flat.

Wednesday 23rd January:  Bill Oddie – all of a twitter…

blue_tit_300_tcm9-139623_v2Flakes, as big as dinner plates, were tumbling out of the sky, as I carried out my Winterwatch duty – trudging to the top of the garden to feed our feathered friends. To quote Alfred Hitchcock (well Toby Jones playing Hitch – in recent TV film, ‘The Girl’) ‘’The Birds’ is coming’

And so they are. ‘Orchard House’ has become a regular winter haven for peckish visitors. I’ve been trying to do a tit-bit to help them through this recent cold snap but it ain’t ‘cheep’. They have already pecked their way through a 12.75 kg sack of wild bird seed – in just three weeks!

imagesNo wonder @Bill Oddie is tweeting, ‘break the ice, clear the snow, scatter the seed, hang up the fatballs. Garden alive with hungry birds. They need us now.’

A 2kg bag of Bill’s ‘Really Wild Bird Food’ is currently available, online, for a really wild £10.50 – and we are asked to believe that is a really wild reduction on the regular price of £18.81. While a small plastic seed feeder marketed under the Bill Oddie brand retails at £8.07, or if you’re feeling flush there is a top of the tree, 360mm metal model, for just £19.99!

goodies (1)‘Ecky thump’ It strikes me a bit ‘Oddie’ that the former ‘Goody’, now a high-profile ornithologist and wildlife presenter, has turned ‘Baddy’ by allowing his name to be used in marketing such grossly over- priced products. He deserves to get the bird. On yer ‘Trandem’ Bill, it doesn’t strike me as at all, ‘Goody goody yum yum’.

In true ‘Blue Peter’ style I have made my own large seed feeders out of recycled 2 litre green plastic bottles, fitted with a screw in adaptors costing about £2.50.

Thursday 24th January:  Russian red tape …

communist_ussr_russian_hammer_and_sickle_tie-p151665235024382367en71g_216I spent most of today failing to complete an online Russian visa application. We’ve recently booked Easyjet flights, on their new route to Moscow. No frills by Stelios hopefully a safer bet than Aeroflot! We’re not off until late March, but having secured budget accommodation, at the very Russian sounding ‘Capital House Hotel’, close to the Bolshoi Ballet and a gentle stroll from Red Square, allegedly, I thought it best to sort out the visas sooner, rather than later.

mcdonalds1It soon became apparent that despite perestroika, glasnost and the arrival of the golden arches in Pushkin’s Square, there is still plenty of red tape to cut through, and a hammer and sickle might come in handy.

Having read through the accompanying notes, the first stumbling block announced itself. Every application needs to be supported by a ‘letter of invitation’ or a ‘tourist confirmation document.’ These are readily available, varying, considerably, in cost between a range of internet providers – and I eventually managed to save a few roubles by tracking down a £14.00 per person deal.

???????????????????With tourist vouchers and confirmation numbers winging their way through cyber space – and in fairness they arrived by email within the promised 24 hour turn around, I started completing the visa application.

Everything was pretty straight forward until I hit the ‘recent travel’ section. Please indicate every country you have visited in the last ten years and your date of entry to that country. What?

That’s something of an undertaking! I started with existing visas and passport stamps – where the dates were often barely legible – and from their I had to resort to my electronic travel photograph albums, which luckily I had catalogued by year, together with scraps of information from various travel logs I had invariably started with good intentions but invariably aborted a few days into the journey!

So something of an ongoing process, but when I do finally complete and submit the aforementioned information, my application will need to be accompanied by a postal order (how old-fashioned – whoever uses those these days?) for a visa fee which will be only marginally cheaper than the return flight!

It’s enough to make a grumpy old man turn to vodka!

Friday 25th January:  Chocks away …

16862sUp at the crack of dawn, but my early morning drive across the Cotswolds was rewarded with beautiful winter wonderland vistas. And on arrival in Caversfield, the old Parade Ground was ankle-deep in snow as I helped Nicci move into her newly renovated, 1926, Grade 2 listed apartment – previously living quarters at RAF Bicester.

The 23 acre, former Oxfordshire Bomber Command base, once home to the Bristol Blenheim bomber, spitfire and mosquito, its red-brick architecture heavily influenced by the 1930s Garden City movement, is now a conservation site.

The beautifully landscaped Garden Quarter development is just 12 miles outside Oxford, and 48 minutes by train to Marylebone Station in London, with the popular Bicester Village retail park right on the doorstep. Having halved her daily commute to school, it is an ideal location for ‘Nic’ to take her first step on the property ladder.

So chocks away ‘gel’ and enjoy the flight old thing!

Saturday 26th January: Forest stung by Hornets…

snowDespite the big thaw being well under way in the Shire, there had been significant overnight snow around the north Nottinghamshire village of Papplewick, which caught me completely by surprise, causing no little embarrassment as I swung into Dad’s cul-de-sac and slowly ground to a halt, following a failed reverse  manoeuvre on to his drive. It took two men with big snow shovels several minutes to dig me out, before I was able to slide into a parking spot nearer  the somewhat clearer main road, ready for a slippery get away.

Meanwhile, in Nottingham itself, down by the riverside, the City Ground had received only a light dusting of snow which had been dissolved by the under-pitch heating. But it didn’t stop Forest slipping up against Championship promotion rivals Watford.

Matej_2847972They were stung three times by the Hornets, twice by Czech goal machine Matej Vydra. Incisive on the break and ruthless in their finishing, they made Forest look very ordinary. On this less than tricky showing, promotion is neither likely nor desirable for the Trees this season.

Despite playing three up front Forest looked heavy footed throughout and were never really at the races after going behind. A lack lustre showing saw them booed from the pitch and left Big Eck pulling no punches in his post-match assessment.

I’m sure he’s no quitter, but given such an uninspired display by what, on paper, looked a pretty decent side, the level of post-match abuse levelled at him on social networks, erratic recent behaviour by the owners and their apparent inability, up to this point, to make appropriate bids for the players he has identified as needed to strengthen squad, he must be feeling up against it on all fronts.

Given the current inconsistency of performance, irrespective of any 12th hour signings before the January transfer window slams shut, on Thursday, the best The Reds can hope for is a mid-table finish.

For me, the owners got it horribly wrong, switching to a new manager mid-race. I fear the old adage, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, will be levelled at them time and again between now and the end of the season.

 Sunday 27th January: Here we come a wassailing…

Wassailling ceremony - Clive's 27.01.2013It was up to the ankles in mud at Clive’s Fruit Farm – hardly living up to its Frost Fair billing, with adjacent lanes once again threatened by flood water, from a River Severn swollen by snow-melt.

There was a slippery ascent up through the orchard, in the wake of the Faithful City Morris Men, to the site of the traditional wassailing ceremony, in which the wassail tree is hung with pieces of toast, and anointed with cider, as the fruit trees are awakened and evil spirits frightened away by much banging and 150958_10152479288095113_1900707116_nshouting. The ancient pagan proceedings, with touches of Christianity thrown in for good measure, were concluded by three welly squelching circuits of a spitting bonfire – all good rustic fun to ensure a plentiful harvest of apples and pears next Autumn.

Earlier I had made haste to the newsagent to pick up everybody’s favourite red top – at least in the Aldridge family – as just two weeks into her new job, journalistic Gem had scooped her first ‘Sunday Mirror’ front-page splash, and an exclusive at that: ‘Fury at Ben (Kinsella)Killer Compo – cops forced to pay £20,000 over murder hunt raid.’

An amazing start to what I hope will be a long and successful career as newspaper journo, providing a warm and satisfying glow at the finish of just another midwinter week in the Shire – tiddely pom!


100 years of the bra – an uplifting celebration!

20 01 2013

Madonna+in+the+1990s“So Mary Phelps made the blueprint for one of the most successful items of clothing ever invented. She called her maid to bring her two hankies, some ribbon and a needle and thread …and voila! The over-the-shoulder boulder holder was born.”

Gemma Aldridge (features@sundaymirror.co.uk)

It is an ‘In the bleak midwinter’ kind of Sunday in our corner of the Shire. The chill factor is up, the pathways are paved with ice and the rooftops are laced with lingering snow.

tom jones 320x240Olde Upton on Severn may be known for its literary association with Henry Fielding’s bawdy 18th century 1167029529_originalromp ‘The History of Tom Jones’ (a scene is set in The White Lion Hotel – ‘a house of exceedingly good repute’) but today there is more of a Dickensian film-set feel about the place.

It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that the annual Frost Fair and Wassailing at Clive’s Fruit Farm has been postponed until next week, due to icy conditions!

I’ve just returned from a brisk trek into town, to pick up the papers, my usual ‘Sunday Observer’ with a copy of the ‘Sunday Mirror’ tucked inside – discretely hidden from public view. Pure snobbery I know, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone!

I even felt the need to justify this deviation, from my normal Sunday reading habits, with the lady in the shop. Well, actually it was more an opportunity to exercise parental bragging rights. Because today, daughter number two, journalistic Gem, a graduate of the local Hanley Castle High School*, made her debut in the Mirror.

One_Canada_Square-pictureAfter two years making her mark as senior features writer at the weekly ‘Love It’  magazine, from a small office tucked above ‘Starbucks’ in old Holborn, she has been lured away to dizzier heights, the  22nd floor of 1 Canada Square – Canary Wharf.

It is a great career move and quite a nostalgic occasion for me. Sadly, I’m old enough to remember the ‘Sunday Mirror’ when it was under the ‘Sunday Pictorial’ banner (prior to re-branding 1963) and it was our Sabbath day paper of choice, during much of my youth.

imagesI was surprised, but pleased, to discover that  Andy Capp is still going strong. Evidently, some things never change.

Andy and his wife Flo were created by cartoonist Reg Smythe in 1957 to help boost ‘Mirror’ readership figures in the north. Smythe’s cartoon strip about the somewhat dysfunctional, bickering, but ultimately loving couple, was based around his own parents, and their working-class life up in Hartlepool.

Although Smythe died in 1998, and despite turning 55 last year, Andy continues to be a ‘Mirror’ ever present, and long may he continue.

My old Mum, who used to knock off  ‘the Mirror’ crossword as part of her daily routine would have been so proud to see her granddaughter’s by-line above today’s centre-page spread,‘100 Years of The Bra’ – ‘from 2 hankies and a ribbon to Katy’s cupcakes…’

It’s an altogether uplifting centenary celebration and just my cup of tea – a 36D cup that would be!

downloadAnd as is if the sight of everyone from Marilyn, through Raquel Welch, Madonna, and Eva Herzigova, to Kelly Brook, bursting out of their lacy, racy bras were not enough, to raise my somnolent Sunday spirits, there’s even a decent length report on yesterday’s East Midlands derby – ‘Chris Bliss – Cohen strikes after tough week at Forest’ – but more of the Championship ‘match of the day’ in a post to follow…

I seem to remember a 70’s advertising slogan, ‘If you really want to know look in The Mirror’. I guess I’ll be taking them up on that from here on in – well at least on a Sunday!

200px-RightHoJeeves100px-HanleyCastleHigh*Hanley Castle High School (formerly Hanley Castle Grammar School), one of the oldest in England (circa 1326), has a couple of noted connections with authors of well known literary works.

It features in ‘Right Ho Jeeves’, as Market Snodsbury Grammar School – attended by Bertie Wooster. There is an accurately drawn description of the old school hall (now a library). ‘Plum’ had an aunt who was wife to the vicar at Hanley Castle Church – just 60 metres from the school.

A more recent alumnus of ‘HCHS’ is celebrated author David Mitchell whose novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize, now a recently released movie starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant.

Life in, 1982, Hanley Castle, provided the inspiration and setting for his follow-up novel ‘Black Swan Green’ – ‘the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire.’ 

Over-hyped popular pap or misunderstood Miserables?

17 01 2013

images“Tom Hooper’s film is a colossal effort – after 158 minutes, you really have experienced something. It’s just not clear what”

Peter Bradsahaw – ‘The Guardian’

“…everything is sung through, tunelessly, a technique that sounds just like a particularly affected way of shouting.”

 “Unless you surrender yourself completely to the juggernaut, this Les Misérables is exhausting, if not infuriating (it made me bad-tempered for two days, a personal record.) It’s far too long…”

 David Sexton – ‘The Evening Standard’

“Popular doesn’t always mean pap – and a form which brings such pleasure and joy to so many deserves to be celebrated and treated to … informed critical scrutiny”

Lyn Gardner – ‘The Guardian /TheatreBlog’

downloadIt is said that the shortest correspondence in literary history was between Victor Hugo and his publisher Hurst and Blacket. It followed the publication of his 1862 novel (17 years in the making) ‘Les Misérables’. Hugo queried its reception with a single-character telegram, “?” and the reply came back, “!” – indicating its success.

Even so, it is unlikely the author could have imagined that, 150 years on, the title would be so universally known as to have entered common parlance, simply as ‘Lay Miz’.

Not too many will have read Hugo’s 1,300 page novel but almost everybody is familiar, to some extent, with the Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel  musical adaptation – one that recovered from modest beginnings and indifferent early reviews to become a theatrical phenomenon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust over 27 years on from its tepid, first night, reception in the West End over 60 million people, in more than 40 countries and in 20 different languages, have seen the much-loved stage show.

Sally Frith, from Gloucestershire, has seen it a mere 957 times! And perhaps that is exactly the sort of obsessive devotion from fans that cause certain of us to sneer. If you watched Sue Perkins ‘Climb Every Mountain’ – a Christmas special in search of the real Maria Von Trapp – then you will know exactly what I mean.

king's speechIn the wake of, ‘The Kings’s Speech’ director, Tom Hooper’s recently released movie version of ‘Les Mis’ a lively debate has sprung up between theatre/cinema critics. There are those such as the provocative David Sexton, of ‘The Evening Standard’, who castigate musicals as ‘innately idiotic’ and who disdainfully asks, ‘How can anyone who loves music enjoy musicals?’; while Lyn Barber of ‘The Guardian’ dismisses such  views as high-minded snobbery, born of ignorance, towards an art form that fills so many with joy.

It is a movie and genre that clearly divides opinion. While most reviews are mildly euphoric a significant minority are haughtily hostile.

Musicals are not normally my preferred cinema choice but, then again, I have seen sufficient good ones: ‘West Side Story’, ‘Cabaret’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, and yes – even ‘Grease’, not to subscribe to wholesale condemnation.

LesMisLogoI have watched ‘Les Mis’ on stage, albeit nearly twenty years ago. I recall it as a moderately enjoyable affair, but one that fell short of blowing my socks off. The somewhat faded memory I carried with me to the cinema, this week, was one of an earnest tale, played out on cleverly constructed sets, carried by a few decent tunes, reprised throughout, and occasionally interspersed with harmonious, uplifting outbursts from a flag waving chorus-line.

Let’s be fair, the storyline, set against a backdrop of events leading up to and including the Paris uprising of 1832, is hardly a bundle of laughs, and to a certain extent my previous synopsis held true with the movie version – but this time around I got a sense of what all the fuss is about. In keeping with Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, I had my Damascene moment, finding the whole 158 minutes compelling and thoroughly enjoyable. Well pretty much – it was perhaps ten minutes or so too long!

Although some may try, it is unfair, to compare the stage production with the film, they are separate entities and should be judged as such.

Some, such as ‘American Idol’ contestant Adam Lambert, have criticised the screen version of ‘Les Mis’ for its cast of ‘pretend singers’. It is true that the main characters are played by actors not best known for their singing. But this turns out to be strength, as any slight imperfections in their musicality are more than compensated for by the emotional intensity they bring to the performance. Far better, for me, than pitch perfect singing from ‘pretend actors’.

4ca474dd18db2f9f7bf5d4e667ed6faeOne of the much publicised features of this film is that all of the singing was done live on set, to give a raw and real feel, untempered by studio technology.

I admit to having had doubts on this score, particularly with regard to Russell Crowe, an actor whose work I admire – ‘A Beautiful Mind’ is well up on my list of all-time favourites. Of all the cast, his singing was always likely to come under the closest scrutiny, but he pulled off his role as, the morally uncompromising Inspector Javert, with considerable aplomb.

photoFellow Aussie Hugh Jackman is certainly no novice and his intense performance as Jean Valjean hits all the right notes, musically and dramatically – surely a strong candidate for an Academy Award.

Susan-Boyle---I-Dreamed-A-Dream-2009-Cd-Cover-22425Ann Hathaway as Fantine, who prostitutes herself, before dying of consumption, in order to pay for the welfare of her daughter Cosette , is excellent and totally nails ‘I dreamed a dream’ – in an emotional rendition that leaves ‘SuBo’s’ ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ version looking relatively lightweight.


So good was Ann Hathaway’s performance that the only criticism being levelled at her is the perfect nature of her teeth!

Eddie Redmayne, last seen on the big screen in ‘My Week With Marilyn’– and in the BBC adaptation of ‘Birdsong’- proved ideally cast as the idealistic, lovelorn,  Marius, a student revolutionary besotted by the adult Cosette, sings surprisingly well. Although, apparently, it needed 21 takes before the poignant, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ met  Tom Hooper’s satisfaction.

Les-Miserables-Samantha-Eddie_510x317I found Amanda Seyfried, as the adult Cosette – rescued from a childhood of mistreatment and misery in the ‘care’ of the Thénardiers, and having blossomed into the apple of her ‘adoptive papa’, Valjean’s eye – rather insipid in comparison to the attractive, sultry, Éponine played by the accomplished Samantha Barks.

A veteran of the stage show, her portrayal of unrequited love for Marius and subsequent, moving, death in his arms, on the barricades, left me inclined to think he chose the wrong woman!

article-2223269-15AEE006000005DC-268_634x521Much needed, intermittent, comic relief from the doom and gloom is provided by the rascally Thénardiers, a second-rate thief of an innkeeper and his unscrupulous wife – an inspired pairing of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Their flamboyant ‘Master of the House’ and ‘Beggars at the Feast’ routines were high spots and I haven’t been able to get the foot-tapping melody out of my head since!

Back at the barricades for a finale reprise of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’, in the ghostly presence of  Fantine, Éponine and Valjean, all bound for Paradise, there was almost a tear in my eye – but only almost!

golden globeIt may not have been altogether uplifting, melancholy it certainly was, while, as a tale of redemption, it failed my old English teacher’s quality control test – “Did it leave you thinking ‘What a piece of work is a man?’But for all that it was pretty flawless as musical drama.

It would have been beyond Victor Hugo’s comprehension that his 19th century literary masterpiece, about the wretched poor of Paris, should enjoy such longevity, through its musical theatre and cinematic renaissance.

While it may remain popular pap to some, the movie is already a Golden Globe winner, in the Best Musical or Comedy category, and it has received 8 Academy Award nominations.

Watch this space…

‘Where Are We Now?’ – the ‘Starman’ at 66…

9 01 2013


“Time may change me,

But I can’t trace time…”


David Bowie: ‘Changes’ – released January 7th 1972  


a-p_c-fcmaem_ej“A moment of bliss I never thought I’d have again. Listening to new Bowie for the first time.”

Lady GaGa welcomes ‘Where Are We Now?’ – released January 8th 2013 (Twitter)


“Just bought David Bowie’s new single ‘Where Are We Now?’- bloody gorgeous. New Album coming. How happy am I?”

Boy George (Twitter)


David Bowie has always been one for ch-ch-ch changes. Monday, marked 41 years since the master of reinvention released the ‘Changes’ single, his first on the RCA label, a day before his 25th birthday.

David_Bowie-06This time a year ago I wrote at some length about ‘Bus-pass Bowie’ at 65′ – ‘a mortal with potential of a superman’…   

Yesterday, his 66th birthday, the ‘Starman’ released his first single in a decade, into cyberspace. We didn’t even have to ‘try to pick him up on Chanel 2’, ‘Where Are We Now’, materialised from out of the ether, appearing unannounced on iTunes – Bowie as always a master of mystique and perfect timing.    

There is an album to follow, ‘The Next Day’, due out in March and an up-coming major exhibition at the V&A – so clearly timing is everything!

I’ve listened, a few times now, to the new release from an ageing glam-rock icon – a haunting and nostalgic piece harking back to more hedonistic days, living in Berlin with Iggy Pop – something of an Oddity but its melancholic cadences are beginning to grow on me.

I’m not so sure it was deserving of such rich critical acclaim from the media. There were far fewer eulogies from the music buying public. Comments, on Twitter and Facebook, were rather more prosaic and views very mixed. However there did seem to be a general consensus that Bowie, as a music legend, has earned the right to do what he likes in  his twilight years. I wouldn’t want to argue against that.  

2013-where-are-we-_2445781bThe somewhat surreal video, Bowie as part of a two-headed doll (the other an unknown woman who remains silent throughout) while monochrome footage of Berlin landmarks, referred to in the somewhat abstract lyrics, plays out behind, is a pretty essential accompaniment.

Unless you know Berlin particularly well, without the visual prompts Potsdamer Platz (a public square decimated by bombing in World War II) the Dschungel (Club), KaDeWe (department-store) and Bose Brucke (a West Berlin bridge – the site of Checkpoint Charlie) might not resonate so well.

starmanI hope this is his swan song. I’m pretty sure it will be, and that the artist who turned down a personal plea from Danny Boyle to appear at the Olympics opening ceremony is quick enough to know when the race is run – unlike one or two others!

I’ll look forward to the rest of the album, I’m sure it will be fine, perfectly listenable, but that is probably the ultimate insult to a ground-breaking artist with such an outstanding and memorable  back catalogue… 

‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy’, ‘Aladdin Sane’ … 

Attenborough’s ‘Africa’ / … all about the aubergines

4 01 2013

Thoughts for the day:

DavidAttenborough460“Our planet, the Earth, is, as far as we know, unique, in the Universe – it contains life.”

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

Sir-David-Attenborough-001“I mean, it is an extraordinary thing that a large population of your country and my country, of the citizens, never see a wild creature from dawn ‘til dusk, unless it’s a pigeon, which isn’t really wild, which might come and settle near them.”

Sir David Attenborough (British naturalist and broadcaster)

Sir David, he of the ‘Living Planet’, is himself a living legend. Seemingly tireless, after sixty years in the business, of bringing the natural world into our living rooms, on Wednesday night his latest, six part, BBC series, ‘Africa’  swept across our screens in glorious HD.

AfricaIt enjoyed jumbo viewing figures, 6.5 million tuning in for the first instalment – ‘The Kalahari’. I caught up with it last night.

Giraffe_2428794bHighlights included rare black rhinos, getting horny, by moonlight at a waterhole, and a pair of male giraffes knocking spots off each other, in a showdown, over a young female, of spaghetti western proportions. An altogether different take on ‘necking’.

The feet inside my Christmas slippers began to feel increasingly itchy as I slowly began to succumb to the call of the wild – I could feel another African safari coming on…

In an interview with ‘The Sun’ newspaper, the 86-year-old naturalist supposed, “I’m a bit of a fossil. They won’t make TV like this when I go.”  And he’s probably right, he usually is, programmes of this type could become extinct, so enjoy it while you can.      

While on the natural world theme, it is now official, 2011 has been confirmed as the UK’s second wettest year on record, at more than 25% above the annual average rainfall. For England it was actually the wettest year ever, with the south-west hardest hit.

20130101_15According to Met Office, four of the five wettest years on record have occurred this century, i.e. in the last twelve years, and there is a definite trend towards extreme downpours, which last year devastated harvests and resulted in flood damage to more than 8,000 homes and businesses.

Much of ‘the Shire’ has been under water since well before Christmas but there were signs today, as I took a back-roads detour to Malvern, that the floods are beginning to recede –  but just a little.

20130101_33Upton has enjoyed its annual five seconds of fame this week, with local publican Grahame Bunn, formerly of the riverside ‘King’s Head’ pub but now the new owner of the ‘The Anchor Inn’, a mere hundred yards up the road, extolling the virtues of our wonderful new flood defence, on Radio Five Live. The encroaching waters of the Severn have been kept at bay, enabling businesses, that in previous years would have been submerged, to continue trading. Most of them happen to be pubs – perversely, happy to remain ‘dry’ on this occasion!

On New Year’s Day, the defensive wall, a permanent feature topped with glass – so as not to obscure the views, proved quite an attraction, as promenading visitors marvelled at its construction and effectiveness.

NCI_03Today’s circuitous route to Malvern ‘Waitrose’ was all about the aubergines – an exotic delicacy conspicuous by its absence from Upton Spar or Co-op. In a moment of weakness I’d volunteered to cook the evening meal and was promptly handed Antonio Carluccio’s ‘Collection’. That’s what comes of giving your nearest and dearest a useful present, such as a cookery book, for Christmas!

carluccioI opted for a version of Caponata Siciliana – a Sicilian stew, which ‘the greedy Italian’ describes as ‘versatile, delicious, and easy to make… probably Sicily’s best known dish … hints of the French ratatouille… some Arabic influences too.’        

To feed 4 people you will need:

  • 800g aubergine – cut into 3cm chunks
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic – finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 red pepper – deseeded & chopped
  • 1 stick of celery – chopped
  • 1 tbsp salted capers
  • 20 or so pitted black olives – sliced
  • 1tbsp raisins
  • 1tbsp pine kernels
  • A handful of fresh basil – roughly torn
  • Salt and pepper

And this is what you do – well what I did…

  1. the-collectionFry the onion, in olive oil, in a large pan – for a few minutes, to soften
  2. Add the aubergine and fry until soft – about 10/15 minutes
  3. Add the remaining ingredients, except the pine kernels and basil, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes until everything is melted together
  4. Stir in the pine kernels and scatter torn basil on the top.
  5. Serve in bowls with chunks of rustic bread.

Buon Appetito!

A nice glass of red would have been the perfect accompaniment – 27 days to go and counting…

It began in a Wobegon sort of way…

26 10 2012

It began in a Wobegon sort of way. Spring ’98 and Garrison Keillor was in town. The bestselling author of ‘Lake Wobegon Days’, and long-time host of US public radio programme ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, was paying a rare visit to the UK. A master of the humorous monologue, infused with   dry irony, he washed up on a damp Saturday afternoon in Chelt–en-ham Spa to promote ‘Wobegon Boy’ – his latest warm-hearted portrait of life in the US mid-west.

Leaving behind the dripping Saturday afternoon shoppers on the Promenade, I took shelter amongst the Corinthian style columns of the Town Hall’s Pillar Room, with a few hundred like-minded souls, and sat spell-bound as the author read extracts from his latest offering, interspersed with humorous anecdotes shedding some insight into the writer’s psyche and how he had developed his craft.

It was my first Cheltenham Literature Festival event and I was hooked.

The following year I was back for a spot of undercover intrigue from the master of the British espionage novel – John Le Carré. I just happen to know that for a fact as, not only did he sign my copy of ‘A Perfect Spy’, he dated it 25 ii ’99 – Cheltenham.  

I’ve returned every year since, with the exception of 2010 – when it would have required something of a trek from Rwanda! There have been countless memorable encounters. And with each year, as the nights draw in, and the first leaves change their hue; an annual @cheltlitfest fix has become an essential part of my Autumn Almanac. (Sadly, the autumn fest is now so large that the spring weekend – where I first encountered ‘Wobegon Boy’ has been shelved)  

Described as a ‘literary lover’s dream’, Cheltenham’s standing is second to none. It is the longest running festival of its kind in the world – formed in 1949 – and remains one of the most prestigious and well attended literary events in the world – this year close to 90,000 were expected at nearly 400 events.   

Whilst fiction and story-telling has always been at the heart of the festival it has also showcased the talents of some of the world’s leading, actors, adventurers and artists, historians and  humorists,  poets, philosophers, politicians and sporting legends.                                

A cursory glance upwards from my keyboard and along the adjacent bookshelves serves to jog my memory and illustrate the range and calibre of recent contributors.

Louis de Bernières, William Boyd, Jung Chang, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Faulks, John Irving,  Hanif Kureishi, Alexander McCall Smith, John Mortimer, Eoin Colfer, Terry Pratchett, Vikram Seth, Lee Child, Colin Dexter, PD James, Ian Rankin, Clive James, Michael Palin, John Simpson, Jeremy Paxman, Peter Blake, Jack Vettriano, David Badiel, Stephen Fry, Frank Skinner, Michael Parkinson, Joanna Lumley, Alistair Darling, Neil Kinnock, Michael Portillo, Michael Atherton, Will Greenwood, Simon Hughes, Kenny Logan, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Matthew Syed …

This year’s festival cast was assembled under the broad theme of ‘People Power’ and I managed to take in the following:  

Will Gompertz: Wild eyed, eccentric BBC Arts editor and former director at the Tate Gallery, he of the fly away hair strands, attempted to demystify 150 Years of Modern Art – based on his book ‘What Are You Looking At?’ Entertaining but an hour is barely time to scratch the surface on such an extensive topic!   

Paul Auster: This was a BBC World Service Book Club recording (to be broadcast on Saturday 3rd November) which focussed on the US author’s best-selling ‘New York Trilogy’ – three interlocking short stories – variations on the classic detective novel. To be honest I wasn’t familiar with Auster’s work but this session certainly whetted my appetite, I bought a copy and I’m currently part way through the opening story, ‘City of Glass’.     

Salman Rushdie: It is twenty-three years since a fatwa was pronounced upon the author, by Ayatollah Khomeini, following the publication of ‘Satanic Verses’. He was accused of being against Islam, The Prophet and the Quran and ‘sentenced to death’. Forced into hiding, and under constant police protection for ten years, he took on a new identity, that of ‘Joseph Anton’ – a combination of the first names of two writers he  much admired, Conrad and Chekhov.

Rushdie read from his recently published memoir of the same name, interestingly, a narrative written in the third person, which he found a better vehicle to convey his story. He spoke candidly but unapologetically, suggesting the astonishing events surrounding his battle for freedom of speech was but the first act of a drama still unfolding somewhere in the world every day. 

I was pleased to be able to get my beautifully illustrated Folio edition of ‘Midnight’s Children’ signed ; the novel awarded ‘Booker of Bookers’ (in 2008) to mark the 40th anniversary of the prize.  

Mariella Frotrup’s Book Show: The highly acclaimed Sky Arts show for book lovers returned to Cheltenham for a series of recordings in front of a live studio audience. I was present for a programme to be broadcast on (Sky Arts 1 HD) Thursday 29th November at 8.00pm.

Mariella’s main guests were Pat Barker and Philip Pullman.

Pat Barker, Booker Prize-winning author of ‘The Ghost Road’ – part of her Regeneration Trilogy – who has successfully blended fact and fiction in exploring the history of the First World War, shared extracts from her latest novel ‘Toby’s Room’, a partner to her last book ‘Life Class’, a tale of war artists and surgeons, drawn against the backdrop of the horrors of the Great War. 

Philip Pullman, renowned author of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy has returned to the grim side of fantasy for his latest book, graphic retellings of fifty classic Grimm’s Fairy Tales – first published 200 years ago this year. He treated us to a grizzly extract from the tale which forms the basis of ‘Cinderella’, in which ‘the ugly sisters’ slice off pieces of their feet in an endeavour to fit the ‘lost slipper’ – not very Disney!     

J K Rowling: Her rare public appearance was never going to be a typically intimate Cheltenham Festival affair. An audience of over 2000, many drawn from the Potter Generation, crammed into the Cheltenham Racecourse – Centaur conference centre – as the creator of the multi million pound Hogwarts franchise set about promoting her first novel for grown-ups –The Casual Vacancy’.

It is a million miles away from her fantasy of wizards and witches, firmly set  in the world of ‘muggles’ – an apparently idyllic country town of Pagford. But appearances can be deceptive and as the story unravels, around its central theme of a parish council election, hidden passions, prejudices and duplicity are revealed. Central to the storyline are teenage characters, far removed from the wholesome Harry and Hermione, through which the author attempts to tackle thorny issues of grimy casual sex, drugs and self-harming. And yes (shock horror )there is swearing – in fact a whole barrage of four-letter word outbursts.

I had never really warmed to JKR, through her occasional TV appearances, maybe influenced by the way she has sometimes been portrayed in the press. But here she won me over as she became increasingly relaxed and engaged with an audience that was clearly on her side. Like myself, not many had read the new book, but the queue, following the event, for collectable signed copies  – a two-hour tailback – suggested that quite a few now will. I take my hat off to her in this regard, she stuck with it until every last book was signed and had a quick word of thanks for everybody – impressive. 

Benedict Cumberbatch: JKR somewhat self-deprecatingly described herself as the warm up act for the man who followed; ‘Sherlock’ – ‘A Thoroughly Modern Victorian’. I am an admirer of Cumberbatch the actor, and a huge fan of the ‘Sherlock’ series, but this was probably the most disappointing event I attended. For me, it failed to live up to its billing.

There were very few if any fascinating insights into the creative process that has transformed Conan Doyle’s character and stories into a 21st century detective series. This, I felt, was largely down to the banal interview technique of ‘journalist’ and Sherlock co-star Louise Brealey. Although, to be fair, she was probably playing to an audience heavily comprised of hyperventilating teenage girls!      

The novel chosen for this year’s Times Cheltenham Festival Big Read was Ian Fleming’s ‘Dr No’ – in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film. Having seen the movie on the big screen when it was first released, and subsequently, many times over, on the small screen, It dawned upon me that I’d never read the original story. An omission now rectified.

With on-line tickets already booked, at Worcester Vue, for the opening of the latest Bond extravaganza, ‘Skyfall’, there is more on the great British cultural icon, 007, to follow…   

‘There are places I’ll remember…’ – Liverpool

15 09 2012

‘There are places I’ll remember

All my life though some have changed

Some forever not for better

Some have gone and some remain

All these places had their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all.’

(Lennon & McCartney – 1965) 

Liverpool has dominated the news headlines this week – and rightly so. After 23 years the truth surrounding the Hillsborough disaster is out. As a result of the tragic events, of April 15th 1989, 96 Liverpool supporters never returned from an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest – victims of catastrophic failures in public safety and a subsequent grotesque campaign of lies, by the British establishment, in order to cover-up. 

As a Forest fan I had hoped to be at the Sheffield Wednesday ground that afternoon. As luck would have it, it was one of the few big match occasions, during the Clough years, for which I was unable to get a ticket. I can vividly remember tuning into the radio that afternoon, expecting to follow the match commentary, and being stunned as reports of the tragedy unfolded. 

It is scandalous that it has taken until this week for the Liverpool fans to be exonerated and to receive an unconditional formal apology from the Prime Minister for a ‘double injustice’. This after an independent enquiry into previously unseen documents had made it clear that the South Yorkshire Police, guilty of critical errors of judgement leading up to and during the tragedy, had, in its aftermath, systematically falsified reports to shift the blame for the 96 deaths on to their fellow supporters. 

It is high time that those found guilty of gross negligence, and complicit in this outrageous deceit, pay the price.  

Chris and I were in Liverpool on Sunday and Monday of this week, totally unaware, at the time, of the imminent, dramatic publication of the independent panel’s findings. 

My previous visits to the city, two or three times during the early ‘70s, had all been football related – with a Liverpool supporting student mate, David Dodds, but universally known by the highly original nickname, Scouse!

I remember being wedged into the world-famous Kop, swaying in unison, a sea of red and white scarves held aloft, belting out the club anthem, ‘You’ll never walk alone…’  It was the Bill Shankly era, and a Liverpool team that boasted Emlyn Hughes, Tommy Smith, Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan. As I recall, on the occasion of my first visit, a tidal wave of red shirts swept Chelsea away, 3 nil.          

This time around, Chris and I were taking advantage of a remarkable Premier Inn offer, £19 for a night, in a tastefully converted red brick warehouse, overlooking the Victorian, Albert Dock – now a World Heritage site. 

As lifelong Beatles fans we had pre-booked places on the colourful Magical Mystery Tour bus, a thoroughly enjoyable an informative late Sunday afternoon trip around the parts of Liverpool which shaped and inspired the group.

It was a brilliant two hours, worth every penny, taking in the childhood homes of John, Paul, George & Ringo, and places which famously featured in their songs: ‘Strawberry Field'(s) – the former Salvation Army children’s home, St Peter’s Churchyard (opposite the church hall where John and Paul first met) – site of Eleanor Rigby’s gravestone, and Penny Lane – complete with barber shop, bank, fire station and ‘shelter in the middle of the roundabout.’ The only thing missing was ‘a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray’!  

The tour wound up at the most famous club in the world, the cradle of British pop music, The Cavern Club (in Mathew St) where the Mersey-sound and Beatle-mania were born, while Cilla Black served espresso in the coffee bar.‘Surprise, surprise’, it wasn’t licensed back in the swinging ’60s!                        

On Monday morning, we strolled around Albert Dock, with its moored narrow-boats and tall ships, and along the regenerated waterfront, passing a remarkably life-like statue of another Liverpool pop icon, Billy Fury (the former tug boat deckhand who made it big as the British Elvis with hits such as ‘Halfway to Paradise’) and a pair of grazing superlambananas, before taking a return ticket from Pierhead to Seacombe on the ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ – immortalised in song by Gerry and The Pacemakers.

As we stood on deck admiring the famous Liver Building landmark, there was even time for a quick reprise of the theme tune from Carla Lane’s popular ‘70s comedy series The Liver birds  – ‘Are you dancin’?’ ‘Are you askin’?’ ‘Well I’m askin’,’ ‘Then I’m dancin’!’    

After a full English breakfast bap and coffee we managed to squeeze into ‘The Beatles Story’ ahead of an excited school party – a near miss! The award-winning exhibition, complete with headphone commentary, video and musical interludes, really brings to life the phenomenal rise of the Fab Four – well worth a visit.

There was also time to visit the dockside Liverpool Tate for the ‘Turner Monet Twombly’ art exhibition, and to take in a few of the splendid sculptures on display – including the controversial ‘Jacob and the Angel’ by Epstein ( Sir Jacob, not Brian) and Salvador Dali’s trademark ‘Lobster Telephone’! 

Finally I rounded things off with a spin on The Liverpool Echo Big Wheel, which affords spectacular views along the river and across the city, including its two cathedrals at either end of Hope Street – the gothic Anglican (5th largest in the world) and the modernist Catholic, affectionately known by the locals as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’!     

A brilliant short break, and hopefully I’ll be back in 2013-14 to see the Tricky Trees playing at Anfield and Goodison Park – but then again perhaps that’s wishful thinking!