Pride, Prejudice, anchovies and hairy omelettes…

31 01 2013

Austen“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in turn?”

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”

2388762-MJane Austen –‘Pride and Prejudice’ – (1813)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another fall spectacularly to pieces.”

Helen Fielding – ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ – (1996)

200px-Pickering_-_Greatbatch_-_Jane_Austen_-_Pride_and_Prejudice_-_This_is_not_to_be_borne,_Miss_BennetIt is a truth universally acknowledged that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is one of the best-loved novels in the English literature and its creator, Jane Austen, one of the most widely read authors.

This week marks the bicentenary of its publication, the second of the four major novels published in her lifetime, following her first release ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (1811) and preceding ‘Mansfield Park’ (1814) and ‘Emma’ (1816). Two further novels, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ were published posthumously in 1818, while another, ‘Sanditon’, remained unfinished at the time of her death.

Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is famously scarce. Although a prolific writer of letters, as few as 160 of around 3,000 she penned, remain. The vast majority were destroyed by her heirs, who in the half century after her death were responsible for memoirs that presented the author as a quiet and kindly figure.

She is for ever associated with rural Hampshire, where she was born into a family that lived on the lower fringes of the landed gentry (not unlike the Bennetts in ‘P&P’), her father being an Anglican clergyman who supplemented his income by farming and tutoring.

Jane, who contracted a recurrent form of typhus as a child which in later adulthood would be the cause of her demise, lived most of her life in relative obscurity, within the close confines of her family. She enjoyed an upbringing and education commensurate with her family’s standing in society. She was schooled, in the main, at home where she had access to a wide-ranging library, and developed the many skills expected of young ladies in the Georgian and Regency eras – drawing, needlework, music and dance amongst them.

download (1)She attended Sunday church with the family, while socialising revolved largely around receiving and visiting neighbours, and dances at the local assembly rooms. This is the world which Jane drew upon so assiduously for her writing.

It is believed that she lived in a home, with an easy and open atmosphere, in which conflicting  ideas of a political and social nature could be exchanged and where Jane’s, sometimes risqué early experiments with writing were  tolerated and encouraged.

We know that during the early 1800s Jane’s family moved to Bath. Amongst the places where they lived, was 4 Sydney Place. During this time, on Sunday after church, Jane would frequently promenade along the Royal Crescent, and at other times would no doubt have been a visitor at the famous Pump Rooms, and attended balls at the Assembly rooms. Although Bath tourism cashes in on the Austen connection, it is thought that Jane was unsettled by the upheaval of move from the family home, and her time in the Georgian city was largely unproductive

175px-Winchester_Cathedral_view_1It wasn’t until the Austen family returned to Hampshire, taking up residence at ‘Chawton House’, now the ‘Jane Austen’s House Museum’, where Jane lived for the last eight years of her life, her writing career began to take off.

It was here that she would die. Despite having received considerable acclaim as an author, during her lifetime, no mention was made of her books on the original memorial stone, when she was buried in the nave of Winchester Cathedral. However, by 1872 her fame had escalated to such an extent that it was considered that a brass plaque should be erected to rectify the situation

So what of her writing? Well here I have to hold my hand up and admit that despite Austen’s revered status amongst scholars, critics and an ever burgeoning world-wide ‘Janeite’ fan base, I’ve simply never had the pleasure.

George_Eliot_at_30_by_François_D'Albert_DuradeHer celebrated romantic fiction, set amongst the landed classes of Regency England, for all its realism and biting social commentary, has simply passed me by. During my literary A level studies, it had been another female novelist, by George, George Eliot that is, whose mighty tome ‘Middlemarch’, had demanded my attention. Magnificent though it is, by the time I’d waded through nigh on a thousand pages, I’d had my fill of the country house set and studies of 19th century provincial life…

But it’s never too late, and a couple of weeks ago, I decided that I really should redress the omission of Austen from my reading list. According to my Kindle I am currently 65% of the way through ‘P&P’, having just returned to it following a brief and humorous sojourn with Jeeves and Wooster – to ease the tedium and recharge the batteries for a final push.

I guess a large part of my problem is that I have taken an easy option of choosing to read Austen’s best known work. And although experiencing the story through its original narrative form is an altogether different proposition from watching the various film versions, and I do concede much of the written dialogue is pretty witty, there’s not much I don’t know about where the plot is headed.

pride_and_prejudiceIt’s my hunch that despite considerable angst and prevarication, handsome, brooding, aloof, but morally upright Fitzwilliam Darcy will overcome his rectitude and pride, while lively, attractive, opinionated Elizabeth Bennett will mend her tendency towards prejudice born out of first impressions and they’ll finally surrender to their love for each other and tie the matrimonal knot.

Excuse me if I’m wrong but that’s pretty much what happened to Colin Firth and  Jennifer Ehle in the benchmark 1995 BBC series, Keira Knightley (too stunning and sexy for Lizzie in my opinion) and Matthew MacFadyen in the latest (2005) film version, and even for, heaven’s sake, in the all singing all dancing, Bollywood meets Pemberley movie, ‘Bride and Prejudice’.

The characters and storyline are so familiar that chic-lit author Helen Fielding, famously drew on Austen for the opening line of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ and named her ‘true love’, Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth in the film version – who else?

images (2)PD James, the highly regarded and much decorated crime writer, even saw fit to cross-pollinate her passion for Austen with the genre for which she is renowned and came up with  ‘Death Comes to  Pemberley’ a murder mystery set six years after Elizabeth and Darcy have been happily married together. I haven’t read it but understand it was very well received.

Dining with neighbours is a fairly common occurrence in Austen’s novels but, if ‘P&P’ is anything to go by, there is scant description of what was actually served up. But that didn’t stand in the way of Maggie Black and Deirdre le Faye when they came up with their ‘Jane Austen Cookbook’ – literally recipes inspired by her novels.

anchovies_wholeI’m not sure how familiar Jane Austen was with the kitchen, but the authors have clearly done their homework with regard to ingredients, and, interestingly, more than half the recipes call for anchovies – seldom seen these days other than in pizza toppings, but apparently used a great deal in Regency times to add saltiness to dishes.

I have been trying to undertake more of the cooking recently – an informal, off the record New Year resolution. Wednesday is my regular slot – Chris is continuing with her Italian course so I have time to mess around on the culinary front.

Yesterday, in celebration of the Austen anniversary, and the increasingly anonymous anchovy, I came up with a Nigel Slater ‘Observer Food Magazine’ recipe that had been hiding away in my cookery cuttings book.

NigelSlaterPoster-e1352129131503It went something like this:

Tomatoes with anchovy crumb crust:

Serve 4 as a main dish or 5/6 as an accompaniment…

  • 4 x tbsp olive oil
  • 1kg tomatoes
  • 6 x large spring onions
  • a handful of basil leaves
  • a handful of coriander leaves

For the crumb crust:

  • 150g of white bread
  • A handful of parsley leaves
  • 5 x anchovy fillets
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180˚C
  • Put the oil into a deep-sided frying pan over a moderate heat
  • Slice the spring onions and add to the warm oil
  • Cut the tomatoes in half – horizontally and add to the pan
  • Cover the pan with a lid
  • Leave the tomatoes & onions to cook for approx. 10 minutes – or until the tomatoes have softened, but are still holding their shape
  • Add the basil and coriander, with a grinding of black pepper, then remove from the heat and allow to sit for a few minutes, while preparing the crust
  • Blitz the bread in a food processor – to form soft coarse crumbs
  • Add the parsley, anchovies, and a little black pepper
  • Process briefly
  • Transfer the tomatoes and their cooking juices to an ovenproof dish
  • Scatter the crumb crust over the top
  • Bake for approx. 30 minutes until the tomatoes are sizzling and the crust is a deep gold.

I also diced and added a medium-sized aubergine, that needed using up, to the tomato/onion mix, and a mixed a generous portion of grated parmesan cheese into the crumb crust – it worked for me!

hairy-dieters-book-coverToday, Chris went for a pilates taster session. Fishing around for more brownie points, in the wake of last night’s Austentacious anchovy dish, I volunteered for catering duty once more. This time I knocked up a simple, low-calorie, ‘Hairy Dieters’ recipe from Dave Myers & Si King, two guys with whom I enjoy a palpable commonality – and before you ask, it’s more to do with scales than motorbikes!

Minted Pea and Feta Omelette:

Per serving:

  • 30g frozen peas
  • 40g feta cheese – drained
  • ½ tsp dried mint
  • 3 medium eggs
  • flaked sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Place peas in a heatproof bowl and cover with just boiled water
  • Leave for 1 minute, and then drain, before returning to the bowl
  • Crumble the feta cheese on top
  • Sprinkle with mint
  • Season with black pepper
  • Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk
  • Season with salt and black pepper
  • Lightly oil a small non-stick frying pan
  • Place over a medium heat
  • Add the eggs
  • Cook the egg, constantly using a spatula to draw cooked egg from the edge towards the centre
  • When the egg is almost set, scatter the peas and feta over the omelette
  • Continue cooking until the egg is just set – approx. 3 minutes
  • Loosen the sides with a spatula and slide on to a warmed plate – folding it over

 And that, dear reader, is that…


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 (

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…

‘Twelfth Night’; or ‘What You Will’ – a whole mess of beanz…

6 01 2013

12night‘Twelfth Night’ – Bard sound-bites:

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

images (2)

“If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite 

may sicken and die.”


Twelfth_cupid_smsp_AW“Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit”


“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”



“In nature there’s no blemish but the mind. None can be called deformed but the unkind.”

Shakespeare wrote his play ‘Twelfth Night’, or ‘What You Will’, around 1602 – an entertainment for the close of the festive season. In medieval and Tudor times, Twelfth Night marked the end of the Winter Festival, which began on Halloween.

It was a day of reversals, presided over by a Lord of Misrule, where the world was turned upside down. The King and all those in high office would become peasants and vice versa.

A special cake was baked, containing a bean. Whoever found it assumed the role of bean king and ruled the feast until midnight when the natural order of things was resumed.

7400809-venice-carnivalThere are echoes of this topsy-turvy behaviour in Shakespeare’s play, with Viola – a woman dressed as a man, and Malvolio – a servant who imagines he can become a nobleman.

Twelfth Night also marks the feast of Epiphany, a celebration of the Adoration of the Magi – a big event in countries such as Spain – which ushers in the carnival season, culminating in Mardi Gras.

art-1cHere in ‘the Shire’ (and other cider-producing counties) it also heralds the traditional season of orchard wassailing, an ancient custom of drinking and singing the health of fruit trees, to awaken them and scare away evil spirits – ensuring a good harvest in the following autumn.

Splash_2At ‘Clive’s’, our nearby fruit farm (Upper Hook Rd – WR8OSA) this ceremony will take place on Sunday 20th January – led by the local, Worcester based, Faithful City Morris Men – as part of an annual Wassailing and Frost Fair.

For most of us, however, Twelfth Night is about remembering to take down the Christmas decorations, for fear of tempting fate and causing bad luck to descend upon our homes in the year ahead.

This morning was, therefore, spent clambering up a rickety ladder to stash away glass baubles in the loft, and dispatching our ‘special’ tree, with its crooked top, for recycling.

monkey-christmas-6inch-4There was also an emotional farewell with the PG Christmas Monkey – who only sees the light of day for a couple of weeks each year!

With journalistic Gem already back, hard at it, in the big city, working her notice on ‘Love It’ magazine, before embarking on fresh and exciting challenges at the ‘Sunday Mirror’; and teacher Nicci departing for Oxford, this afternoon, bracing herself for a busy Spring term, the Christmas holiday will soon become a fading memory.

I took time today to gather up presents, still scattered around the house, and spend a few moments appreciating them. We had made a family pact, we would cut back this year, but I still seem to have been the lucky recipient of many thoughtful gifts.

archie_-_tweeting_is_the_new_bleetingFrom number-one daughter, Nicci, a card – but no ordinary card:

“No ifs or butts… this is a great gift – a goat!

Dad, I know they must be missing you in Africa, so now they have a replacement! This guy is just like you … always bleating on about something (just kidding!) Happy Christmas x”

From number-two daughter, Gem:

hd_14a7ba6c6a1a1ffbc90e21f8a1ccf15da signed, Pictogram rock poster by Swedish designer  Viktor Hertz – David Bowie

an ‘On The Road’ travel document case, from the British Library, where we recently saw Jack Kerouac’s original 120 feet long manuscript scroll,

and a Moleskine diary/notebook.

I had my present from Chris back in September – a Tricky Trees season ticket!

dandy_1091434tBut there were still a few surprises under the ‘special’ tree, including the 75th Anniversary ‘Dandy’  Annual and a Heinz Baked Beanz book – with recipes, history, trivia and more…

Funnily enough, that brings us full circle. Apparently, today, 6th January (Twelfth Night) is National Bean Day in the US of A.

So in keeping with the whole bean king/Lord of Misrule role reversal thing, it seemed only right that I should try out an ‘original and best’ Henry J Heinz recipe – chilli bean con carne with cheesy scones…

Serves 4


  • 250g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 75g butter – diced
  • 50g strong Cheddar – grated
  • 1 egg – beaten
  • 50ml milk


  1. Mix the flour and baking powder in a large bowl
  2. Rub in the butter and add cheese
  3. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg and milk
  4. Mix the dough until it comes together
  5. Turn out on to a lightly floured surface and roll to a thickness of 5mm
  6. Cut out 8 rounds – 5cm across – & place on a baking sheet
  7. Brush with milk and bake in a preheated oven (200˚C) for 12 mins (or until they sound hollow when tapped)

Chilli con carne

heinz beanz

  • 415g can of (Heinz) baked beanz
  • 2 tablespoons light olive oil
  • 1 onion – finely chopped
  • 2 garlic gloves crushed
  • 500g minced beef
  • 2 tablespoons tomato purée
  • 2 large red chillies – chopped
  • 1 teaspoon hot chilli powder
  • 2 teaspoons dried mixed herbs
  • 400g can chopped tomatoes
  • jalapeño peppers


  1. Heat the oil in a large pan
  2. Add the onion and garlic and cook over a medium heat for 5 mins – until softened
  3. Increase the heat to high and add the mince
  4. Fry for five minutes – until browned all over
  5. Stir in the tomato purée, chillies, chilli powder and mixed herbs
  6. Cook for a further five minutes
  7. Add the tomatoes and beanz
  8. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes – until the beef is tender

034-chillicheeseTop with sour cream. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with the scones and separate bowls of grated cheese and jalapeño peppers.

Buen Provecho!

28 days and counting…

3 01 2013

A thought for 2013:

charles dickens

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year. I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”  

           Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol)

jamesbondDanielCraigIt began on New Year’s Day, with Great Expectations for 2012’ and fizzled out, on October 30th, with ‘Skyfall- shaken and stirred’.

Surprisingly, despite having not posted for the final quarter of the year the year, the annual Crunchy numbers summary from Word Press indicates that in 2012 ‘Pipedreams…’ had 54,000 views (from 174 countries) – which is more than twice the number of hits for 2011.

BB_logoI embarked upon my blogging career with ‘Out of Africa 2010’, in March of that year. It coincided with early retirement and time spent abroad, doing charity work, in Zambia (The Bookbus Project) and Rwanda (VSO). Despite having added no further posts since my return to the UK in December 2010, amazingly, it still continues to attract visitors – 170,347 since its inception, with 52,890 of those last year!

I had resolved that after nearly three years, on and off, and 307 posts, enough was enough and it was time to draw a veil across my journalist efforts. But as we know, all too well, resolutions are there to be broken.

Speaking of which, my performance, against a far too ambitious 2012 list of resolutions, was patchy to say the least

Bradley Wiggins: New Year's knighthood "a great honour" — video

  • Pedalled 1800km on the exercise bike by the end of August – and then hit a wall (metaphorically speaking) and nothing since. Sir Bradley, newly crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year, has nothing to worry about 🙂
  • The beginners’ guitar and the Spanish Foundation course started well enough but petered out by the end of March – manana 😦
  • The ‘daily blog’ became a chore at times – and I haven’t written since October 30th. Nevertheless, I added 67 new posts and the blog had 54,000 views – an average of 150 hits per day 🙂
  • Successfully cut out chocolate until Easter and pretty much for the rest of the year 🙂
  • The caffeine habit proved harder to crack, as did cutting back on my alcohol intake 😦
  • Chris and I did visit a few new places in and around ‘the Shire’ – but nowhere near approaching the over ambitious target of one per fortnight!images
  • Our Highlights of Indochina trip through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia enabled us to tick off a few more must see sights from our ‘bucket list’ – including Halong Bay and Angkor Wat 🙂
  • An early burst of enthusiasm in the kitchen flattered to deceive and culinary inspiration came and went in fits and starts, with a twice a week commitment to knock up an evening meal proving unsustainable. Thank goodness for jacket potatoes and baked beans! 😦
  • We managed seven outings to the cinema and, as recently as last week, went to see Ang Lee’s 3D adaptation of ‘The Life of Pi’ – a cinematic delight 🙂
  • Pleased to say I did read 30 plus books this year; funnily enough, starting the year with Yann Martell’s ‘Life of Pi’  and finishing it, aptly enough in his 200th birthday year, with Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ 🙂

According to psychologists if you want to keep New Year’s resolutions they should be clear, realistic and brief.  So this year there are but two:

  • A dry January – no alcohol until February
  • No coffee for the same period

I’m not sure which will prove the most challenging – 28 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…