Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The knives are out...

In most British cities, restaurateurs welcome a ‘celebrity chef’ to the fold with gusto, seeing their arrival as an endorsement that their turf is on the UK food map, viewing the competition as a challenge and welcoming the inevitable waiting list overspill to their already established businesses. But not in Bath. Despite being a long-term, public supporter of the city that I call home, I’ve recently found myself having to dodge verbal blows at dinner parties, bars and even as I walk down the street – all because I’ve committed the apparently heinous crime of interviewing Jamie Oliver before going on to favourably review his recently opened restaurant.

I’ve been accused of ‘selling out’ (oh, how quaint!), ‘betraying’ local businesses (despite the fact that Jamie’s Italian employs hundreds of locals and relies heavily on local producers) and ‘licking corporate arse’. I’ve been told that Jamie doesn’t do face-to-face interviews (that was one heck of a talented actor I spent an afternoon with, then), that none of his chefs have been trained and that Gennaro Contaldo – Jamie’s ‘mentor’, currently overseeing proceedings at the Bath branch – doesn’t actually exist. As for the food: according to the naysayers, the packet soup purveyors have never had it so good.

And when they’re not slagging Jamie off with all the vitriol they can muster, they’re whining about how demand for their £16 main courses (£19.50 if you want three carrots with that) has fallen, totally overlooking the fact that their (totally untrained) staff can’t manage to get those dishes onto the tables in less than 45 minutes and their chef is busy working tinned pomegranate juice, New Zealand lamb and pineapples into their ‘locally sourced, largely organic’ menus.

‘Brasserie Blanc’ opens in Bath next year. The self-defence course beckons...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Time, pie, Soldier X and Cher

I love it when the clocks go back. Not only does the fact that man can actually adapt Mother Nature’s plans to suit ourselves (well, sorta) give me an almost childlike feeling of “we’re doing something naughty”, but somehow the ‘extra’ hour has an impact on the whole day, often continuing into Halloween week (when I was little, I thought long, dark nights were created for this date alone). By this evening, I know that I’m going to feel as though the day was stretched out by a whole third, just because my internal body clock is still settling down. And goodness knows, extra hours in the day are always, always a good thing.

This morning, I woke up at 5.30am; an hour earlier than my usual wake-up time, despite the fact that I’d adjusted all the clocks (and my alarm clock) before I went to bed last night. So I got up and enjoyed the feelings of exclusivity that being one of only a handful of people happily awake at that hour of a Sunday morning brings while I pondered the individual merits of autumn fruit crumbles, cobblers and pies (the pies won – there’ll be an apple one going into the oven this afternoon, to be enjoyed after a very traditional roast lamb dinner). Some might say that I wasted my ‘extra hour’; tell that to Medad as he embarks on his third slice of custard-drenched pud.

But despite the fact that the official time change didn’t happen until 1am this morning, yesterday didn’t quite run according to the traditional clock anyway. Mefella and I got up at 5am to drive to Brize Norton to wave Soldier X off on his way to Afghanistan (eek!). We weren’t allowed onto the actual airbase itself, so we stood by the fence that surrounds the airfield, having texted him our orientation details, and watched his plane readying itself for takeoff from afar. Two others landed first: huge, heavy-bellied, dung-coloured beasts that caused two trainspotters to flurry around with gusto, dashing up and down the lane adjusting lens caps on the cameras as they went. Then it was time to watch the main event: after several goodbyes over the past couple of weeks (we all kept thinking he was off, then he wasn’t), this was it. I leapt up and down and waved as largely as I could, the pilot waved back (oh god, how embarrassing!) and within seconds they were off, blasting down the runway and lifting up into the early morning skies as gracefully as an eagle. Did I cry? Oh of course I did! I won’t see Soldier X for months now, and he’s a big part of both me and Mefella’s life. This is not the time or the place for pontificating, philosophising or debating the politics of war, so I’m not going to. All that’s left to say is that I’ll miss Soldier X, I hope he’s safe and I wish him well.

After all the excitement and emotion, I wanted the services a Little Chef, and I wanted those services now. But instead of heading for some faceless British A-road, we followed our noses along Oxfordshire’s ridiculously pretty country lanes (I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many thatched cottages!) to the gorgeous village of Bampton, where we found an extraordinarily decent breakfast in a lovely little café whose doors no doubt opened five seconds before we turned up. Having ordered a feast, we made the short trot to the newsagent for the weekend papers, meeting an excitable puppy and a very friendly butcher along the way. All in all, Bampton is the real life version of Camberwick Green (only British readers of a certain vintage will know what I’m referring to here, so I’ve added a link). Having said that, I’m not sure that Mrs Honeyman paid £450,000 for her centrally located cottage.

Anyway, now I’m back in Bath, having fallen asleep slumped in front of the TV last night – no further excitement to report. Today I will be mostly roasting lamb (and making apple pie), catching up with the X Factor, looking forward to this evening’s BBC drama about Barbara Cartland and toying with the idea of washing my hair (the one component of my plans which probably won’t happen after all). Oh, and thinking how turning back the clock ten years would save me the small fortune that I so trustingly hand over to the snake oil merchants who sell me false promises (yes L’Oreal, that’s you) on a regular basis. Anyway, have a super Sunday, and enjoy today’s blast of nostalgia: this one’s appropriate, I feel, on many levels.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Girls will, like, totally get this

7am, and there isn't any coffee in the house. Worse, there isn't any milk either, so I can't even have extra-strong tea. And heaven help us all if Beloved doesn't have a banana in his lunchbox! So off I go up to the local shops, having been out of bed all of ten minutes, wearing pajama bottoms that have seen much better days, a manky old Depeche Mode tour t-shirt (1987, if you must know) and a denim jacket with blobs of what looks like melted cheese but could be something much worse on the collar. My hair thinks we're all still in bed (and who am I to break the news to it?) and as for make up, forget it; my eyes haven't even opened properly yet.

All's quiet in the Co-op, so I've more or less got the shop all to myself, apart from a few friendly shelf-packers whose sartorial elegance is more or less on par with my own. At the till, I have the usual little chat with the lovely girl who works there, adapted to circumstance and time of day: how milk seems to magically disappear from the fridge, imagine a morning without coffee, etc. And then ...

"Well good morning. What are you doing shopping at such a ridiculously early hour?".

Now it could have been worse - it could have been someone I really, really fancy (or worse still, and ex who dumped me for someone glamorous). But the fact that it was a boy (to me, they're all boys until they hit the age of 30) that everyone at the theatre where I sometimes work fancies was good enough reason for me to turn completely, ridiculously pink and flustered ... which, of course, is sure to lead the boy in question to believe that I've got the hots for him, despite the fact that I'm happily unmarried to the long-term chunk of hunk who's snoring away in our bed, just down the road.

"BlahBlahBlah!," I waffle, trying to look pleased to see him. "You know - bleurghety bleurgh bleurgh!."

Okay, I will have managed to put some sort of polite sentence together, but it can't have been anything human-sounding. And anyway, regardless of what crap I came out with, his enduring memory of the whole event is more likely to be how (a) 'undressed' I was (when I turn up at the theatre, I'm usually wearing proper clothes), (b) how wretched I look without make up (and how much I must usually shovel on to not look this way) and (c) how mad my untamed hair actually is. He might also have been thinking, "crikey, what's that strange smell?" (the jacket hasn't seen soap and water in a long, long time). He, by the way, looked all sort of fresh, and polished, and ... well, catwalky! And he'll definitely, definitely be recalling the tale fo how he came across me this morning to everyone we share an office with right now, as I write.

He was buying cigarettes. "At least you're buying something sensible!", I trill, as I make a desperate attempt to get out of the shop without my pajama bottoms falling down (needless to say, I wasn't wearing knickers). At. Least. Your. Buying. Something. Sensible. What the hell did that mean???

Ah, but, you know; at least we had milk and coffee with our breakfast. And Beloved has his banana, too. I just hope he appreciates the humiliation I went through to get it ...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

So what's it all about?

What is the purpose of a blog? Now that blogs are firmly established in the plethora of modern media, it's a question that many ponder - not least of all the bloggers themselves; indeed, it's the Big Question that ends the TV documentary series I've been involved in - the one where me and other bloggers from around the country (none of whom I've never even met) blurt on and on, to camera, about what's increasingly seen as an 'egotistical' hobby.

But blogging, in my experience, isn't egotistical at all. The blogs I follow (and they've all been given big shout-outs here) are way more than mere diaries of nobodies; they're informative, enlightening, thoughtfully written and totally fascinating, written by people with similarly charming, engaging personalities. Egotistical? Incredibly generous, more like. Okay, many of us are prone to publicly diarising the trivia of our everyday lives (heck, I love sharing the details of food I've cooked and eaten, with whom and where, and what happened next). But if you're happy to read it, I'm more than happy to write such stuff - indeed, I can't help it; to me, writing is a hugely addictive compulsion. For sure, I'm lucky enough to have been able to turn that compulsion into a paid job (albeit a not very well paid one), but sometimes, journalism brings with it a seriously mind-numbing set of frustrations and limitations. I like to waffle freely - and here, I can do just that. Well, sort of...

Copyright, idea theft and plagiarism: for bloggers who write fiction, those three issues constitute our Big Three Fears - and rightly so. But now that I've found myself a reliable literary agent (I've just signed my life away to her - hoorah!), I can be entirely confident about posting any original pieces (ie, either not formerly published in Venue, or simply not worth stealing or plagiarising) here. So today, I can reveal a few notes from one of the projects that the aforementioned agent is excited about, safe in the knowledge that the words and even the ideas are all legally protected, so woe betide any sneak thieves (by the way, I highly recommend that my literary blogger friends take similar precautions - there are some nasty people out there).

So we've come full circle, I guess, from the point where we started off today: are bloggers so egotistical that they honestly believe that not only are they going to facilitate a huge fanbase, but that someone out there might actually go to the trouble of 'stealing' their electronically-scribbled thoughts? The thing is, if a writer doesn't harbour such paranoid fears at the back of their confused, befuddled minds, they don't think their writing is worth much at all. But as far as I'm concerned, if the tight-knit little band of merry men and women who read my words here genuinely enjoy what I'm writing, then I've already made it in my chosen 'career'. And if you want to print the pages and use them to line your hamster's cage, I'd be honoured.

Anyway, ladies and gentlemen: today, I can exclusively reveal part one of one of the two writing projects that are set to keep me busy over the next few months. The other is a bit more chick-litty, I'm afraid - but even that will get its spotlight moment here soon. For now, I give you:

Medad - A User's Manual

This is the story of me and my dad: an eccentric, unique relationship, the machinations, drama and history of which are at once both bursting to be written about and reluctant to be revealed.

On the day I started writing this, I was full of plans. I knew how I was going to start, I knew what I wanted to say, I knew exactly where I was going with this … or so I thought. Then I sat at the computer with ‘Deal or No Deal’ on in the background, a cup of tea by my side … and a blank page in front of me.

I’d not long ago left my dad at a bus stop in town – him going off in one direction, me in the other. Earlier that day, a family friend who I hadn’t seen for 20-odd years had turned to me halfway through a reunion lunch at one of Bath’s prettiest cafés and asked me why, when I'm not writing about restaurants or comedians or cushion covers, I don’t write about me and my dad. “It’s an amazing story,” she said. And the thing is, I suspect she may be right.

So, after all the years of ego battles, emotional warfare, total dereliction of responsibility on his behalf and many, many incredible moments, I’m doing what the psychologists (and trust me, there have been a few on my case, as you’ll learn) may say is playing right into his hands by writing a book that is indeed all about him. But I don’t need a man with a PhD to explain why I’m doing it; the truth is, I know it’ll make a good read – for you, for me, and for everybody who is still lucky enough to have a male parent to take care of.

My dad’s version of this story started over four decades ago, on the 22nd May 1964. He says that from the moment he looked into my eyes he knew I was “his”. If I, as a minutes-old baby, was as fast off the mark as he credited me as being, I suspect I might have come straight back at him with a response that today would be seen as a typical exchange between him and I: “oh shut up, dad – this isn’t about you”. But here I am 44 years later, sitting here with my tea and my crap TV, and actually … well right now, it is, isn’t it?

Part One: The Good, the Bad and the downright Ugly... to be continued!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Autumnal Contrasts

If I may be so cheeky as to refer to the view from my window as my garden, then I must say that everything in that garden is looking lovely - the trees look absolutely amazing, with their purple, gold and bronze leaves winning their battle against the green. I was gazing out at this display when I saw the plane that's carrying my best friend off to New York as I write taking off from the airport. I watched it until it turned into a dot on the horizon, sending him my warmest wishes as it soared and disappeared, hoping that he too was enjoying this glorious autumnal fashion show from his unique perspective. He doesn't know it, but this morning I planted 'good luck, safe return' spells in the boots he'll be wearing. Gosh, I'm a sentimental old fool!

I should be telling you all about my holiday, shouldn't I? Trouble is, Mike still hasn't transferred the photos over to my computer; being a Luddite, I can't do it, and this time around I really want to illustrate my tales. I have to warn you, though - most of my pics feature dogs or huge plates of food. Guess I'll filch some of Mike's clever, artistic ones, just to keep interest levels up ... talking of which, mine (interest levels, that is) are all over the place right now; life's a bit of an emotional balancing act. I have dinner and an overnight stay at a very, very posh country house hotel to look forward to later (Ston Easton Park, if you're interested), but another farewell on the near horizon, when someone close enough to be classed as a family member heads for Afghanistan this weekend. I had a wonderful time at Jamie Oliver's new Bath restaurant t'other night, all the time trying hard to keep the worry about a friend of mine who was awaiting serious medical test results the following day on a back burner. As it happens, the results were better than we'd all hoped for (and I'm happy to report that Jamie's place is ace, too - I'll post my review here next week). But d'you see what I mean about a balancing act? Bach Flower Remedies, that's what I need! And while I go off to bolster supplies, here's a little bit of daftness from the Venue Food and Drink pages for you to mull over, bearing in mind that tongues must be positioned firmly in cheek throughout. See you soon!

A Lidl bit of advice

As a food writer, you all need me to tell you how to deal with the dreadful financial crisis that I believe you’re all experiencing. So this week, I’ve been shopping in a food emporium that isn’t Waitrose to help you find the really cheap food that you’re all supposed to be living on. Goodness, what an experience! For a start, this ‘supermarket’ (not that there’s anything ‘super’ about it – ha ha!) has such a strange name; I think it might possibly be German, or even – dare I say it? – Polish. And not only do they not offer a shopping service – they don’t even offer trolleys! My cameraman had to put all his equipment around his neck so he could lug a cardboard box around for me, and then, as there weren’t any staff to be found, he had to take things of the shelves himself! I mean, really – that’s not shopping, is it?

But goodness, there were bargains to be found, especially if you live on tinned sausages, red cabbage in jars and dusty plastic shoes. I brought half a pound of ‘Country Lady’ butter for 12p (£6 cheaper than my usual brand! ), a bag of ‘Golden Spoons’ sugar for 3p and two frozen chickens for a pound (Lord Hugely Fearful-Witless and I will enjoy a good giggle about that next time we have supper!). Then I grabbed a wedge of ‘Parmesanish’ cheese (sixpence), a bar of ‘Fairy Milk’ chocolate (one groat), six bottles of ‘Prosicko’ (tuppence ha’penny) and a bottle of ‘Juma Jin’ (seven toenails). There! Enough to feed an average family of six for a week, for a fraction of what one normally spends on a packet of organic quinoa. What fun! If you find somewhere equally soul-destroying to shop, please do let me know.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

While I'm still sorting through my anecdotal (and photographic) evidence ...

...I thought I might as well share this review of 'Waves' (below) with you. I'm not sure if it's touring, but if it is, I urge you to go and see it if you can. Now where did I put that picture of me binging on Roquefort ...?


Part play, part poem, part prose; possibly a dream, perhaps an illuminating (if highly personal) analysis of how memory, friendship and emotion affect the psyche: Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves may be many things to many people, but it’s nothing if not fascinating. Decades after publication, what might loosely be referred to as a collection of dreamlike monologues charting the innermost thoughts and personal experiences of a collection of friends as they make the journey from childhood to maturity is hailed as one of the most experimental, innovative literary endeavours ever published. But does the tale – if one can call it that – translate to the stage? In the hands of acclaimed director Katie Mitchell, Woolf’s dreams literally do come true ... and on-stage ‘reality’ has never been so enthralling.

Mitchell does not rely on mere dialogue alone to take the audience on this fractured (and often fractious) journey. Complex staging techniques seamlessly combine live and recorded film footage with projections, song, dance and a simple but evocative soundtrack – rustling leaves, footsteps in the distance, those crashing waves themselves and powerful silences – resulting in a deep sensory overload and creating a form of narrative arc that the novel’s detractors say doesn’t exist. This National Theatre production also gives depth to the often misused term ‘ensemble piece’: each of the eight actors gives authenticity to each other’s roles, while without the skills of the technical crew who work behind the scenes, there would be little to feast on but fleshless bones.

Overall, it’s a brave, mesmerising, elegantly-wrought production; thought-provoking, moving, candid and witty. In creating an intelligent, sensitive homage to Woolf’s novel, Mitchell has successfully brought the cinematic, multi-media experience to the stage without detracting, in any way, from the classic theatrical experience. Genius.

Monday, October 13, 2008


I'm back! And goodness, I feel as though I've been away for a month, not just a mere seven nights - perhaps because those seven nights were spent in seven different French towns/cities, from Millau to Beziers, taking in Arles, Avignon and Nimes (and several more obscure lunch spots) along the way, with the wonderful, gorgeous Cassis (via Ciotat) towards the end making for an unforgettable highlight of the whole trip. Looking back, I guess that's why I feel so exhausted right now; seeing as the actual flight time to and from drizzly Brizzle is less than two hours, I can hardly claim jet lag. But oh, it was all wonderful - a little odd and emotional in some ways (most of my French experiences involve Medad; this one didn't) but mainly glorious. Expect anecdotes (with accompanying photos) over the coming days, and menu details for the foodies amongst us. But don't expect long, serious pontifications on the subject of the financial crisis that's sent the western world bankrupt in my absence; if my bank wants to bow out ungracefully, they're welcome to take my overdraft with them.

Now then: my stats tell me that more people than ever have been visiting the Disco while I've been away. But why oh why do so few leave postcards to let me know that they've passed through? Ah well - when I start sharing mine, perhaps you'll share yours, too.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Come back, New Man - all is forgiven! But not forgiven enough to take you on holiday with me ...

Hoorah, I'm off on my jollies - well, almost. By this time tomorrow, I should be just about touching down at Beziers airport, all ready to take to the hire car and motor off in the direction of the Riviera Coast; no father, no film crew ... just me and me fella, getting away from it all for seven days. If there are internet cafes to be found along the way (and if I can be bothered scrabbling around and adapting to a French keyboard), I'll update you as I go. If not, I'm back on Sunday October 12th (and if I can work out how to use the new camera, I'll even share some snaps). Meanwhile, have great fun, y'all! Keep dancing while I'm away.

For those of you who haven't read it yet, here's my latest rant again:

Lads: off to university? Then take the advice of ‘Zoo’ magazine and spend Freshers’ Week scouting bars for the fittest undie-graduates. Stuck for something to do while your missus gets the dinner on? You’ll find hundreds of fit girls waiting for you to Assess their Breasts in this week’s ‘Nuts’. Or you could go and play the Fake Orgasm Challenge at ‘Loaded’ online before joining the hunt for the Nation’s Tastiest Tush. Now it’s not often I side with the Conservative Party’s education spokesman Michael Gove, but I applauded loudly when he recently slammed such magazines for “reinforcing a shallow approach towards women, who are generally painted as permanently, lasciviously, uncomplicatedly available” and attempted to start a general debate about the “instant-hit hedonism” celebrated by today’s “modern men”. But before we retread the churned up water that surrounds these age-old themes, there’s another question to be answered: whatever happened to New Man?

New Man – last spotted shopping for organic yoghurt in the farmers’ market, circa 1996 - wasn’t afraid to show his feelings, was proud to be in touch with his feminine side and made sure that his partner always, always came first. He wore his heart on his soft cotton shirt (carefully avoiding the obligatory crust of baby sick), eschewed rock bands in favour of female singer-songwriters and, though he may not have been responsible for bringing home the bacon, was happy to bake the family’s bread. Okay, New Man was as much of a sad cliché as Old Lads the Gallagher brothers, Vinnie Jones, Guy Ritchie and their oikish ilk have become - but at least women could actually relate to him. He read books, spoke softly and found sporting events irksome. He did his share of the housework, paid attention to personal hygiene and was generally happy – and here’s the rub – to be a grownup. But did today’s women want a New Man? Evidently not.

Instead of taking a pop at ‘Zoo’, ‘Nuts’ and ‘Loaded’, let’s put TV programmes like ‘Loose Women’ – the tip of a murky iceberg that quickly melts to reveal such gems as ‘Chat’ magazine, spray-on tans and huge queues for “me time” at the latest “pampering hotspot” - under the sociological lens instead. Every weekday - bookended by adverts for confectionery that “give girls new ways to be naughty” (‘accidently’ soaking the gardener with a hose, lusting after the next door neighbour, etc) - a panel of four female drones, their personalities shoehorned to appeal to stereotypes as surely as the Spice Girls were manufactured to dominate the charts (the posh one, the ladette, the glamour puss and the down-to-earth frump) offer bland, knee-jerk opinions on contentious burning issues such as what makes women go phwooar and whether it’s okay to sleep in your mascara. Are you watching, Mr Gove? Because if such a formula sums up – or possibly even dictates to - the real lives of today’s real women (and viewing figures tell us that it must), no wonder New Man swiftly reclaimed his Neanderthal roots. If I lived with a woman who finds Carol McGiffin’s endless moans about her non-existent sex life interesting and makes time every day to tune into Jane McDonald bleating on about life with her mam, you’d find me swigging lager in the nearest pole dancing club before you could say Arsenal, too.

Now I’m not saying that either boy’s magazines (let’s face it, there’s absolutely nothing manly about a ‘Zoo’ reader) or desperate housewife TV shows are to blame for the current state of play between the sexes, but the words ‘symptom’ and ‘catalyst’ spring to mind. So girls: are you bored with the overgrown toddler sitting in the corner belching lager, scratching his nuts and thinking about having a Wii? Instead of texting the Uptight Harpies to complain about him, try making yourself interesting instead – it’s the New Woman’s way to be naughty, and it’s very, very good indeed.