Tuesday, March 31, 2009

...and something rather more troubling

When I was about six or seven I can remember my mother getting very aerated. We used to back onto a little park, and just outside our back gate was a holly bush which was big enough for several people to get inside. It was also big enough for the local sexed up teens to use it as a groping ground, which was the cause of my mother's aeriation. I can distinctly remember the sight of a teenage girl wearing just a bra on top, though I think she probably still had her skirt on. Not unnaturally, my mother wasn't desperately keen for this fornication to be taking place where her children played, but at that particular period in the early seventies, the rigid rules she'd grown up with were being bust wide open, and I know she and my father did their best to protect us from what they perceived as a far too sexual society.

Lordy lord. How innocent that holly bush seems now. Thanks in part to a conversation about rape, in response to Marie's thought provoking blog about attitudes to sexual assault here, I switched onto watch Anna Johnson's deeply disturbing programme on Channel 4 last night about the pornification of our children. I had suggested (and Rob pointed me Anna's way) that teenage boys were getting far too much access to pornography via the internet and mobile phones, mainly based on anecdotal playground conversations. I worry this is going to lead to a generation having a really distorted view of sex, and in particular boys having a very demeaning view of girls.

Let us be quite clear here. Though I was brought up catholic and therefore have a strong prudish streak which is hard to shake, I do like to think of myself as openminded. I know the sort of stuff my husband looked at when he was thirteen, I also know that I had steady access to erotic literature via a friend with a useful older sister. It is inevitable, and natural for children to be curious about these things as they move into adulthood. I have no problem with that.

However, where it was reasonably difficult for a boy to get hold of Razzle when he was fourteen, nowadays, he just needs to click on porn (or Jordan Porn as one boy I know did) to find a feast of stuff, a lot of it free, and the majority of it really hardcore. If you don't believe me, go to the Sex Education website here. It makes for very depressing and worrying reading.

On the evidence of the kids interviewed on the programme last night a worrying number of them (especially the boys) viewed watching porn as a normal activity. One of them depressingly claimed that if a girl he was sleeping with wasn't prepared to shave, he'd "make" her - quite how wasn't made clear, but to hear a fifteen/sixteen year old speak in such terms was horrific. The girls all felt under huge pressure to conform to some ridiculous vision of beauty as embodied by porn stars, and were clearly relieved to be shown five "real" women naked, and discover that normal means different, and normal means no one is perfect, and normal means you shouldn't actually be worrying about having a Brazilian while you're still at school.

So horrified was I by this programme, I had a total panicky moment this morning thinking about the kinds of things my children might be exposed to online. I like to think I am fairly savvy about these things: they've been warned about the dangers of chat rooms, I reserve the right to see who they are talking to (having explained I am not trying to breech their privacy, but protect them), and of course we have parental controls. But I know of cases where parental controls haven't worked, where an inadvertent click has led to downloading of unsuitable material, where teenage boys get stuff they shouldn't on their mobile phones. It seems to me, though I didn't particularly want to introduce the subject of porn to no 1, important that she hear about this stuff before she finds it by accident. Although, for all I knew it might have been too late. She is nearly 13, and I have no idea what she might have picked up from her peers.

As it happened today she was on an academic tutoring day, and a long discussion about the sexual revolution (she wanted to know why women had such a rotten deal in the past) segued neatly into attitudes towards sex. Turns out she knew what porn was, she is also disturbed by topshelf magazines (phew), and was happy to discuss the situation with me. So for now, I feel relieved that she hasn't seen anything unsuitable. I am also relieved that we've got a dialogue going and she knows she can come to me if she does inadvertently stumble across something she shouldn't have (thanks to the Sex Education website for that useful parenting tip).

But, jeez. As if modern parenting wasn't difficult enough without this crap thrown into the mix. It remains to be seen whether Anna Johnson's vigorous and vital campaigning actually makes a difference (her campaign bus features a shocking picture of a young girl in a sex shop, and asks why, if you wouldn't let her in a shop like this, you aren't taking more care of what she looks at online.) , but I hope she can persuade the people who police the internet to clamp down much harder on this stuff.

Ultimately we cannot police our children every day, and we have no control over what they watch at other peoples' houses, but maybe this campaign will raise awareness to the point that we are all more vigilant about what comes into our homes. I really fear for the future if we don't.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Horns of a Dilemma...

What do you know?

You wait all winter for the spring TV family Saturday night viewing to improve (spending a not inconsiderable part of it mourning that David Tennant won't be sitting in your living room for thirteen weeks this year), and then not one, but two Family Favourites show up on the same night on different channels. Yes. We had a huge dilemma this weekend. Did we watch him (my doesn't he look pretty with eyeliner?):

or him?

They have quite a lot in common: both unlucky in love (though Nick so far hasn't done the sensible thing and murdered Mrs Mad), both tortured with grief, both spending their not inconsiderable acting talents running around (for the most part) in stupid plots, and they're both what no 2 would refer to as hotties. The hottest of hotties in fact...

So, it was quite a dilemma choosing which one to watch and which one to video. If it was up to me, Primeval would have won hands down (sorry Richard, even your charms aren't enough to raise Robin Hood to Must Watch TV) Up until this series, the kids would have definitely chosen Robin and his merry men over Nick Cutter and his SWAT team. However, they are all most irritated by Marian being bumped off at the end of the last series - and finally (yay!) have cottoned on to quite how far this version of Robin Hood has deviated from the actual myth, so were much more prepared to go for the monsters. However as Robin Hood started half an hour before Primeval, we ended up watching the first bit of Robin, then videoing the end while we watched Primeval, then going back to Robin. (But given how daft the Robin Hood plots are, this didn't matter too much...)

Actually despite my cynicism (I cannot forgive the makers of Robin Hood for any amount of sacrilege, for eg: turning Allan a Dale, who wasn't even one of the merry men into a traitor, for making Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most accomplished woman of her time into a fat and lusty madam, and for making Guy of Gisborne more attractive then Robin Hood), this episode did turn out to be rather fun. Leaving aside the quite preposterous notion that there would have been a black friar wandering Sherwood Forest in the 12th century (I KNOW. It is a myth, but the time it is written in can surely be presented in an historically accurate way? My children are growing up thinking that mediaeval Muslim women commonly dressed as men and ran around shooting arrows at people...), actually David Harewood has done a fabulous job of reinterpreting the character of Friar Tuck so he is actually quite noble. Thanks to him, Robin's misery-feeling-sorry-for-yourself-because-your-wife-copped-it fest turned into a Robin Hood is reborn moment, which I rather liked. But pity poor old Jonas Armstrong. There he was, getting the job of Robin Hood, the ultimate folk hero, and first off they cast someone ten times as charismatic as him for Guy of Gisborne. In fact, I'd pretty much say everyone in it is more charismatic then wet old Jonas, including Keith Allen's ludicrously OTT performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham. And now, to make matters worse, even Friar Tuck is sexier, and more dynamic then Robin. No wonder (if rumour is true) he's leaving... If rumour is true, my betting is by the end of the series, we'll see Sexy David managing to bring Guy round to the outlaws side, and there will be a huge redemptive moment when Guy will see the error of his ways and turn his back on the Sheriff etc. In fact, he'll probably do what Robin has singularly failed to do so far, which is kill the Sheriff (who is also leaving, so I gather)...

We switched over at the moment when all seemed lost, Robin was alone, his merry men about to face the death penalty, yawn, yawn, to find Nick and co facing a new threat from an anomaly which had popped up in an Egyptian artefact in the British Museum. Now I know. Primeval is very very silly. There is far too much running around to no good purpose (this week a crocodile type creature escaped into the Thames, killed a few people, got shot and then limped back home, and, er, that was it really), but a) it doesn't take itself too seriously b) while I find Connor an irritating little eejit, the kids love him c) I can stand looking at Dougie quite easily for an hour and d) Mrs Mad is so much fun. Sadly we only got to see her at the end of the episode, but I am very much looking forward to finding out what nutty things she and her clones have been up to over the past year. And find out whether she's cloned metrosexual Stephen yet. I'm sure it's only a matter of time...

So that's us sorted for the next few weeks. Robin will be videoed, or missed if we don't get round to it, and Primeval will be our family viewing. Saturday nights have just become fun again...

Monday, March 23, 2009

On the other hand...

Despite having the capacity to drive me nearly insane more then any other person I know, I realised anew one of the reasons I absolutely adore my mother in law. She has a most sunny personality and is capable of extracting positives out of the most dire situations. Which is why she spent the journey back in the car telling the children how lucky we were that were able to leave rather then waiting an hour for shoddy service, and how fortunate it was that Sainsbury's was open...

And we did get breakfast in bed yesterday, and three out of four (no 1 was at a sleepover) sitting on the edge of the bed tickling our feet. As I said to Spouse, they might not want to do that for much longer. And in the late afternoon we took them to the park where for the first time we sat down and watched all four of our children cycling around on their bikes without having to get back ache trying to teach them how to ride them. (Well, the two big ones didn't do much riding as they found some friends and embarked on some hilarious prepubescent kind of mating rituals, where they huddled in a mixed group and giggled a lot and then the boys rode around the circle for a bit, then they huddled some more and did more giggling.)

Best we take a leaf out of mil's book and enjoy these moments while we can, cos they sure as hell ain't going to last much longer...

A Bad Tempered Blog

I wouldn't normally do this. But I am. Very.Very. Cross.

Yesterday we took mil out for lunch for Mother's Day. Well. We tried to. She wanted to go here.

It's a lovely pub right by the race course and offers you lovely views.

If you're lucky enough to get a seat there on Derby Day, you can even get to see this.

Although the rest of the year it looks more or less like this.

Given that mil is now pretty infirm, she can't get up here to enjoy the views unless we take her. And going to the aforementioned pub which has wide windows allowing you fabulous views of the downs, is a great way of her giving her a different perspective from her flat where she's been more or less imprisoned all winter.
As it was Mother's Day and I knew it was going to be busy, I rang in the week to book a table. We don't do bookings, I was informed. Eek, I thought, that's a pain. However, being assured that as long as we arrived by 12pm we should get a table, I thought it was worth a shot.
As we were going out with bil and sil, we suggested to them (given that they are unhampered by small people), that they aim to get there for 11.45 and grab us a table, so if we were delayed either by the children or mil it wouldn't be a problem.
Well, it seemed like a good plan...
Spouse decided as it was a nice day he'd take the Caterham, so I went to pick up mil with three offspring. Mil of course wasn't quite ready, apart from the fact anything physical takes forever because of her shake, she also has no concept of time anymore, so will happily stand there and yack the whole morning without realising that actually, we are in a huge hurry.
Just as I was about to leave the phone rang and bil was asking in a very restrained manner if we were on our way. Yes, I said. Is there a problem?

There was, it transpired, indeed a problem. The woman sorting tables out refused to find them one until The WHOLE party was there. Even when Spouse arrived with a child five minutes later, and bil was able to say that I was also on my way.
By the time we arrived, at 12.10 it was clear there was going to be a big problem. The narrow road leading to the pub was blocked with parked cars, and I had to pull into a verge to allow some cars to pass me. There was by now a huge traffic jam as people were clearly driving into the pub car park and then turning around as there was no room. This kind of thing always brings me out in a sweat because a) I hate driving at the best of times b) we have a very big car which doesn't squeeze into small gaps very well and c) I have all the spatial awareness of a gnat so am highly likely to hit something in moments of high stress.
I couldn't stay where we were, because it was too far for mil to walk even with her zimmer (and dangerous - three kids+one aged zimmer walking lady+lots of cross drivers = disaster), so I sent no 1 up to find Spouse to let the helpful lady at the door know we were there, if not in the actual car park. This mattered not one jot to helpful lady. Even when we eventually found our way to the car park, and Spouse manouevred the car (I totally wimped out at that point) into a horribly tight gap and we all made our way to the door.
So. Now we are all here, said Sil. Good. You can find us a table now, right?

Sorry, we're full, was the self satisfied response,.

Sil who is the most mild mannered of people was furious, at the intransigence, the stupidity, the lack of consideration.

I'm not mild mannered and I was furious for all those things, but also because of the way the wretched woman was being extremely unhelpful and masquerading all the time as someone who was apparently offering a service.
We sat down outside wondering whether or not we could stick the cold - it was sunny but the air gets a bit breezy up there - and then decided it was ridiculous. I went back and pointed out that mil is 84 and disabled, and did they think it was reasonable that she sat outside? To which I had an unhelpful shrugging kind of response. By now of course it was too sodding late to go anywhere else, thanks to Ms Helpful. Luckily, bil and sil had the bright idea of getting a ready made lunch from Sainsbury's (thank you Mr JS for your ready made roast potatoes, Bessie Wotsit's yorkshire puds and roast chicken).
I was so cross, I told everyone in the queue waiting for non existent tables, how crap Ms Helpful and head honcho Smarmy Waiter had been, and left by telling her we wouldn't be darkening their doors again. No 1 was most amused that even though I had been ahem, rather forceful in telling Ms Helpful how unhelpful she'd been, Ms H smiled at me sweetly and said thank you. No 1 also has just learnt what a jobsworth is...
We probably, truth be told, had a much nicer time at home, given that with that number of people (they must have turned away hundreds more) we were never going to get brilliant service.
What makes me mad as hell is the unreasonableness of it, and the fact that sil explained patiently that while we had arrived it would take mil at least ten minutes to get out of the car and make it to the entrance, because she's disabled. It's also a classic example of how badly the elderly and infirm get treated in this country. By dint of taking reservations, they could quite easily have accommodated us later in the lunchtime session. As it was I saw dozens of cars with bewildered looking old ladies in them being turned away, which strikes me as very bad business sense. How I longed for Gordon Ramsay to pitch up and shout at them all.

But in the absence of Gordon, I'm being shouty instead. Because I think the concept of service here was completely abused, and the idea that you might actually want to treat potential customers with some respect is something they clearly have a problem with.
And to think I suggested taking her there, because mil liked the place!

Guess who, nice views and all, won't be going there again...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Music and Lyrics Part One

A while back I was mentioning here, as I do periodically, the way I use music to get the old creative juices going, and Marie asked me to explain how I do it. As I've been a bit busy finishing the rewrites to Last Christmas and generally playing catch up from having had too many children at home too often of late, I've only just got round to it. So thank you, Marie for being so patient. You've probably forgotten you even said it by now...

I think I may have rather a lot to say on this subject, so I probably need to write more then one post about it. You are very welcome to skip these posts entirely if you don't find the way my creative synapses work that fascinating. (And let's face it why would you really?)

At the risk of being a tad self indulgent, I'd like to start by giving you some background to my interest in music and why it's so important to me when I'm writing.

In some ways it's highly amusing that I do now find music so important in my writing . As a child, coming from a vast family (there are eight of us. Yes, I know. I did say eight.), and being a twin to boot, I was always desperate to find my own identity. I was also incredibly pig headed. So as all my siblings bar one took up a musical instrument, I went my own way and decided not to. I even went out of my way not to learn music properly. So while I recognise what a double clef is to look at, I can't read a note of music, because, though I found it relatively easy to learn, I just mentally switched off. Much to the disgust of my music teacher who awarded me the only D of my academic career.

I regret this of course now. Particularly now the sprogs are all learning the piano and no 1 is also having singing and guitar lessons. I so wish I could join in with them. I did go through a phase of wanting to learn the guitar when I was fifteen (mainly inspired by a boy I fancied), and my fantasy life would involve me being a rock chick a la Chrissie Hynde (in fact, I have that all lined up for a book some time in the future), but sadly I never pursued it, and while I can reasonably hold a tune, I cannot count musical talent among my accomplishments.

Having said that of course, you don't have to be any good at music to appreciate it.

My parents were never keen on pop music, but loved classical, and while I couldn't claim expertise in this area, I do recognise Beethoven, Bach, Mozart et al, and have some firm favourites from the classical canon (Pachabell's Canon in D, Vaughn Williams Theme from Thomas Tallis, The Carmina Burana to name but a few). Thinking about it the Theme from Thomas Tallis, is probably the first music that inspired me creatively. I used to listen to it obsessively when I was revising for my A levels, as I found it incredibly soothing. Try it if you're stressed, it's very calming. But it also makes me think of green rolling hills, and English countryside, and probably because I was revising it at the time, Far From the Madding Crowd. I can remember "seeing" images in my head very clearly as I listened to it, of grand sweeping landscapes rolling out before me like the opening credits of a film that could be adventurous, heartbreaking, romantic , stirring. It was the sense of incredible yearning that that music still engenders, which somewhere taps into the creative part of my soul. I haven't used that music for any writing yet, but I will one day.

As my parents weren't that keen on pop music, I was a bit of a johnny come lately in that regard, and whereas most of my peers were probably buying their first singles in their early teens, I didn't actually buy much music till I was much older. I was also very wary of stating my preferences, because at that time in my life you always had to be "for" a particular kind of music - you couldn't like ska and disco for example, if you were into heavy metal as I was, you couldn't possibly like pop, and you dared not mention anything as naff as enjoying a Cliff Richard record. If you opened your mouth and said the wrong thing you faced endless ridicule. So I spent a lot of my teens piggybacking other people's choices and passing them off as my own. The result I think is that I have a hodge podge of different kinds of music that I now like, so I'm fond of the Spice Girls and Girls Aloud, but I also like Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs. I love Bon Jovi so much I used to play it to no 1 when she was a baby, but I also love the pathos of Gary Jules' version of Mad World.

Spouse's influence has also been incredibly important. Growing up in the 80s when there was a big nostalgia for sixties stuff, I was of course familiar with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but Spouse got me into the Animals, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Zombies and most importantly, the Kinks. As he has fairly eclectic tastes, I can also thank him for Lords of the New Church, Sisters of Mercy, Psychedelic Furs, Joy Division and New Order.

There aren't many types of music I won't listen too, although rap has never done much for me, and I can't claim to be all that keen on country, but generally speaking I am always keen to find new stuff where I can. My current new obsession is a band called Fleet Foxes, whose Mykonos I absolutely adore.

I do know the exact moment when I got turned onto pop music. I was thirteen, it was a youth club disco, and a boy asked me to dance for the first time in my life, to Roxanne by the Police. Being incredibly naive of course, I didn't really understand what it was about, but something about Sting's plaintive wailing lodged in my psyche and I was hooked.

As I suspect is the case for many of us, so many of the songs I heard growing up had significance at the time, and I hear them now and am instantly transported back. I listened to Ultravox's Vienna for the first time while doing my art O level a claywork project which took three weeks over lunchtimes. We'd sit in the art hut with our lunches, working on our pieces of art, listening the radio. Vienna was number one for weeks, and I cannot hear it now and not see my fifteen year old self, getting frustrated because my fingers weren't producing the grand vision in my brain. One of the reasons Ashes to Ashes worked so well for me was because they played Vienna as Alex wakes up in 1981. I was there instantly...

Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits album reminds me of the sixth form and my best friends then, and all of the various traumas we had with the boys we fancied ourselves in love with. Careless Whisper is the summer before I left home. Like a Virgin is my first term at university, and don't get me started on the numerous songs which formed the soundtrack to the time Spouse and I got together.

I'm sure everyone has similar experiences with music. Because music above all other mediums, it seems to me, has the power to evoke emotions, inspire, reduce us to tears in a way no other medium can. It is pure and primal and rips out our souls.

And THAT is what I try and tap into when I'm writing. It isn't a structured kind of process. More an organic kind of thing. Sometimes I hear a song and it inspires me to a particular plot line, for example, ever since I heard Keane's Somewhere Only We Know, it's spoken to me of starcrossed lovers for some reason, and it's down on the list for the parallel universe story I plan to write some day.

Other times, a song takes me into the heart of a character. In Strictly Love, Rob, who started off as a jack the lad when I first envisaged him, suddenly turned into something else entirely and it became obvious that his theme song was Robbie Williams Feel, which seems to me to be all about wanting to be better then you are and not being able to escape your nature. You have to hand it to Robbie, he does know how to turn out gutwrenching stuff, I've used him again in Last Christmas, which is a lot about mothers and daughters and the moment when you start mothering your mother. Angel was perfect for that, and as it happens has turned out to be particularly poignant.

The way I write seems to be that I always have a pivotal scene at the latter half of the book, already worked out in my head before I even have a whole story. I don't know why that is, but it's the way the process works for me. So in Pastures New (if you've read it) it's the rainy scene in the allotments, and in Strictly Love it's the picnic scene on the downs. Both scenes had a song at the heart of them.

In the PN scene it's Travis' Sing, which seems to me to be a painful acknowledgement of the impossibility of ever truly reaching another human being, however much you love them: For the love you bring won't mean a thing/unless you sing, sing, sing. It was just perfect for the situation in which my characters found themselves, and I tried to capture something of the pain of the situation. That is the most frustrating part of the process for me. I know how a song makes me feel. Try to put that into words? Eek.

Mind you I don't think I'd have felt the same way about this song if I'd seen this video first. Sometimes it's better to have the song without pictures...

In Strictly Love, the song was Fields of Gold by Sting, which makes me think of long lazy summer days, and falling in love, and wanting to be together, with just a hint that maybe the love won't last: You'll remember me when the west wind moves/upon the fields of barley/You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky/As we walk in the fields of gold. That's so beautiful it makes the hairs on my back stand up every time I hear it, but it also has a poignancy to it, which again was perfect for the scene.

For Last Christmas (coming out this Christmas) I have another pivotal scene which I won't reveal because it would give too much away, but again I had had it in my head for months before I wrote it. I didn't have a song for it for a long long time. Then I heard Neil Diamond's Pretty Amazing Grace and it totally blew my mind, and I knew I had my song. This book is a little bit (I hope without sounding preachy) about the claims of the spiritual versus the material, and these lines encapsulated the heart of dilemma of one of my characters.
Stumbled inside the doorway of your chapel/Humbled and awed by everything I found/Beauty and love surround me/Freed me from what I feared/Asked for amazing grace /And you appeared.

I'm just about to start book 4, and already have my pivotal scene. This book is going to be as much about the love of friends as it is about romantic love (though as it's about weddings, it's going to be about that too). I have already alluded in an earlier post to some of the emotions I find myself tapping into for this story. And when I heard Hurt by Johnny Cash for the first time (having entirely missed my twin sister's attempts to introduce it to me) I knew I had my pivotal song.
I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that's real

When I saw how they used the song to great effect in Being Human, I knew I'd chosen the right one.

There is like I say, an awful lot more I want to write about this process, so I'm going to leave it there for now, but in the meantime I'll leave you with my favourite song of the moment. I have no idea what the video is all about. Like I say, sometimes it's better just to hear the song and let your imagination do the rest...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Please sir, I want some more...

Here, rather belatedly is my review of Oliver! which we saw the Friday before last.

One of the difficulties of theatre going in London is always how the hell you manage to feed yourself (and in this case four hungry offspring). As most shows start around 7.30, grazing with the young has to take place around 6pm, which is a bit of a bugger when you've got a train to catch. If not circumscribed by small people you then have to go hungry throughout the evening (and hope your rumbling stomach doesn't annoy your neighbours too much), and THEN leg it for the last train with a very full stomach. Neither option is exactly enticing, but it trying to work out the food thing often makes a night at the theatre a right pain in the butt.

Happily, I went to see Dirty Dancing in January, and a friend of mine and I stumbled on this place.

It is hidden behind the Theatre Royal where Oliver! is showing which was handy, and by dint of having everyone ready, the minute Spouse walked through the door we were able to leg it up to London and get there for 6.15pm, allowing us enough time to have a main course and a drink each.

The food itself - a bit of a mediterrenean/Turkish combo wasn't (I didn't think) that much to right home about. I had beef bourginon and Spouse had stir fry and we both felt a bit short changed to be spending a tenner on something we cook for a couple of quid at home. However, you don't visit Sarastro simply for the food. The place itself offers a positively magical and unique experience all its own. It is billed as The Show After The Show, and it's not hard to see why.

As you walk into the restaurant you will see a line of tables in the middle, and on either side little alcoves, with tables in. So far, so normal. But then your eye is drawn to the ladders at the side, and you realise that above each of the alcoves is a balcony, with a set of tables and chairs in it. Although it's clearly meant to represent the boxes in a theatre, it also rather reminded me of the poop deck of a pirate ship, particularly as the decor is a combination of the gaudy and ornate. We were lucky enough to get a balcony table, and I kept expecting to see Johnny Depp swing above our heads.

I'm not at all sure I can do justice to the decor, but the table cloths were a red velvety material - even the napkins were velvet, while the lampshades varied from the sort you see in Spanish bars, to those funny little tasselly things I always associate with old ladies. The walls were painted in gold, and red and decorated with ornate carvings. It is one of the most bizarre and fascinating restaurants I've ever been in. The kids thought it was fabulous, and I'd certainly recommend going there, although next time, I'd like to experience after theatre dining, as pre theatre meals are always a bit fast food for my liking.

Still because of the proximity to the theatre we were in our seats by 7.10pm, which felt nice and relaxing (we had a rather stressful yomp from the bottom of Shaftesbury Avenue to The Palladium to see the Sound of Music last year, so this was quite a nice change).

As I mentioned, we chose to go to see Oliver! the same night that Jacko did, which was rather weird, as for everyone was hanging over the edge of the balcony for ten minutes before the show started, and again at the interval. At one point I thought some of them weren't even going to sit down. I'm glad they did as I wouldn't have liked to have started a punch up at the theatre...

As a family we're big fans of Oliver! Spouse is particularly fond of the Mark Lester version and his favourite song in that is Who Will Buy?, which I'm also rather partial too.

So we were never going to not like this really.

However, I have to say, of the three West End musicals we've seen in the last couple of years, Oliver! does knock the spots of the other two (and I thought nothing could beat the brilliant dancing in Mary Poppins).

From the minute we met the workhouse boys singing Food Glorious Food, we were dazzled by a a fantastic set, which moved steps, bridges, houses up down and sideways, some incredible choreography (there must have been FIFTY kids in that first number) and the sheer exuberance of the cast, who were all uniformly good.

The kids were disappointed of course that we didn't get Jodie, having voted for her in I'll Do Anything, but sneakily I thought the understudy, whose name I don't know because we lost our programme was better.

They also wanted Oliver to be either Gwion (little Welsh boy who they favoured on the TV show) or the boy who plays the mute in the Roman Mysteries , but instead we got the Other One, whose name I also don't know. Didn't matter again, because he was quite brilliant. His rendition of Where is Love? was heartrending.

We also really enjoyed the song That's Your Funeral with the Sowerberrys, which isn't in the film (though I couldn't stop myself from fretting about Oliver being stuck in the coffin while the Sowerberry's sat on him), and Oliver's spirited self defence.

Getting to London, the fabulous sets changed again, and a London street seemed to appear from nowhere. The kid playing the Artful Dodger was great, and his exchange with Oliver very funny. The children were all enthralled as the rest of Fagin's gang appeared one by one from the back of a statue to sing Consider Yourself.

Of course, what everyone was waiting for was the appearance of Rowan Atkinson as Fagin (now I would have been disappointed if he hadn't been in it!). I'd forgotten what a relatively long time it is till he pitches up, but they teased us with a glimpse of him, high on a gantry, before he finally stepped from behind a curtain in his den to rapturous applause.

What can I say about Rowan Atkinson's Fagin? He does play it for laughs more then pathos, but oh he is sooooo good. I was entranced by his every move, and mesmerised by his presence. And he is so bendy! I realise watching him on tv he has the ability to be very supple and flexible, but watching him on stage was a real eyeopener. He contorts himself into the most impossible positions. My favourite moments were his version of You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, during which he was hilariously shadowed by Nipper - the smallest of small boys who tried to steal his hankie, and even better was the way he sang (well ok, sing might be a bit generous, think of the way he sings in the Lion King and you'll get the picture) I'm Reviewing the Situation had me crying with laughter. The kids loved the moment where he took out his jewels and was speaking to them as to old friends, and concluded that he was part Fagin/part Mr Bean which was probably a fair assessment of it. But brilliant anyway.

The revelation of the show for Spouse and I was Burn Gorman's Bill Sykes. (If you watch Torchwood you'll know him as Owen). Burn Gorman is hardly a beefy type, and we had our doubts as to whether he could pull it off, but he surprised us by oozing menace, and being so thoroughly unpleasant we felt like cheering when he fell off the roof. The violence with which he killed Nancy (carefully choreographed so you didn't see anything, but you felt the power of it) was terrifying. And given that I am not a dog lover the presence of Bill Sykes' dog on stage added to the effect (amazingly they even got the animal to run across stage without jumping out into the audience).

Overall it was one of the best musicals I've ever seen on stage, and after thinking it was going to be impossible to top the film version of Who Will Buy? they triumphed there too.

Very definitely well worth seeing. Though if you want to catch Rowan, you'd better be quick as I think he's out of it in April.

In the meantime, let me leave you with this. Quite simply one of the most breathtaking and beautiful musical scenes going.

Friday, March 13, 2009

RND 2009

I'm not ACTUALLY doing anything funny for money, but I have supported RND, and the kids have all gone to school sporting funny hairstyles. Unfortunately, as they bought the red hair dye weeks ago, there was only enough to dye no 1's hair. Useful being the oldest, sometimes. As they'd all got up ridiculously early, for once we were ready at a sensible time, so I did drive to Sainsbury's to see if I could get some more hair dye, only to realise I'd doltishly left my purse behind. Doh. However it then turned out no 3's hair was a bit pinkish because some of the hair dye had transferred from the hairbrush no 1 had been using and no 2 didn't care. So all was well. Have just been informed I have to turn up in the playground early to hear the school singing some RND song, which I don't really have time to do, but given it's the first time in living memory the school have even supported RND, I feel dutybound to go along.

In the meantime, I know it's credit crunch time, and we all have lots of pressures on our purse, and it's easy to be cynical about what RND achieves etc etc, but I do think it's an amazing thing and Richard Curtis is a genius, and I think it's worth supporting even in some small way.

Plus am also really looking forward to seeing Ness and Bryn singing Islands in the Stream with Tom Jones (OK, have already seen it on Medium Rob's blog, but I can stand another look...)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Show time!

So last night we went to see this

Which meant we saw him

And him.

Bad sadly not her....
Amazing isn't it? Not only are we the family who can bring rain to every holiday destination we ever visit, but now it appears we are also responsible for bringing plague and pestilence to West End stars as soon as we decide to go and watch them in a starring role.

But never mind.

We did pick the night that he was in the audience...

We only realised that Wacko had arrived because suddenly all the people in the front rows of the Upper Circle where we were sitting rushed forward and started leaning over the balcony. I thought the show had started, but then someone said Michael Jackson had just turned up. Cue much amusement from the audience when the stage manager announced the show was about to begin and the taking of photographs was strictly forbidden...

I did wonder why so many paparazzi seemed to be hanging around the stage door...

We didn't get to see the Legend himself, though the two big ones tried to catch a glimpse during the interval, and no 2 swears she saw his profile because she recognised the oddity of his nose...

What was more amusing was watching the antics of the people leaning over the balcony trying to get a look at him as if he were some kind of interesting zoo specimen. There was a near riot because no one would sit down when asked to, and the poor harrassed door girls were threatening to call security unless people did as they were told. It's probably the oddest thing I've ever seen in a theatre.

As we left, photographers were hanging from the scaffolding opposite the theatre, and the road was jampacked with rickshaws and taxis, and it looked like the big silver Jackomobile waiting outside was going nowhere fast. I suspect he was still inside being inflicted on the poor undeserving of such an honour cast, so we decided we wouldn't waste the rest of our evening hanging round waiting for a glimpse of the Nose.

All I can think is, what ON EARTH did Rowan Atkinson find to say to him? I wonder if Jacko gets British sarcasm? I suspect not, which probably means Rowan got to say exactly what he liked. I do hope so...

I will review the show properly but no time today or tomorrow. But suffice to say Rowan Atkinson was an hilarious Fagin, if perhaps missing alot of the pathos of the role, Burn Gorman was surprisingly menacing as Bill Sikes, poor understudy who shall have to remain nameless as I have no idea who she was, was a great Nancy (and I'd better whisper this as the kids will kill me) BETTER then Jodie, our Oliver (not Gwion who the kids wanted, or the boy who's in Roman Mysteries, but the Other One who shall also remain nameless as I lost our programme) was wonderful, as was the Artful Dodger.

Definitely a must see London production if you're into musicals.

And you never know WHO is going to be in the audience...

Friday, March 06, 2009

Groundhog Day

When the children were small, I felt I was stuck in Groundhog Day. I'd have a baby which would grow into a toddler, then another baby would appear, who also grew into a toddler, just in time for the next baby... There was a stage when I thought I was going to be stuck in a Dantean Circle of Hell changing nappies forever.

But then, miraculously the last baby became a toddler and there was no more patter of tiny feet (mind you her toddlerdom was nightmarish, as I realised nos2/3 never got any opportunity to be demanding as I was always too busy with the baby).

For the last couple of years, since no 1 made the move from junior to senior school, I have enjoyed the novelty of having different experiences with the children, and loved the feeling that finally I was moving on.

However, this week we found out the school that no 2 is going to. Readers of this blog may remember we had a bit of a nightmarish time with no 1 as we sat her for a grammar school with disastrous results. Although it has all worked out well in the end, and no 1 loves the school she's at and we do too, we felt it was only fair to offer no 2 the same opportunities. So for the past year she has been trotting off to see a tutor on Saturday mornings (there is no way a child of mine and I could sit down together to study without one of us killing the other). This has actually been enormously beneficial for her maths, so whatever else, it hasn't been wasted. By which you can assume she didn't get into the school either.

Which is fine, and I'm really not bothered about it. She's pleased to be going to school with her friends, and all's well that end's well. Except we are now at the part of the year when no 1 started to have a really miserable time as she realised her life was about to change. And I have a definite here we go again feeling about it all.

Where no 1's Year 6 was miserable because she hated the thought of growing up and leaving her cosy school, no 2's is miserable because at any given point there will be someone in her group of friends who she's fallen out with. (I had to go into school two days running last week and encountered her crying in the playground both times.) This week we seem to be back on track. Until the next time...

Year 6 is also the year that hormones seem to kick in in a big way, and at the moment I am just gritting my teeth and hoping we can get to September without too much trauma. No1 had an immensely difficult time for about a year during the transition period, and so now I have that sinking Groundhog Day feeling over again. Because I know I'm on the cusp of lots of emoting (no 2 is after all my Drama Queen), lots of tears, and on my part sheer exhaustion trying to deal with it all. And in two years time I'm going to have to do it again... and again...

And on top of that, no two children being the same, no 2 has added something new to this explosive mix.

Yesterday I took the kids to their regular tennis lesson. All of them bar no2 play tennis, so I usually take a picnic tea as we're there for hours. I love it as the kids all play in the grounds with their mates, and I get to have a rare opportunity for girly chats with mine. Except that yesterday, no 2 did something entirely unexpected (which just goes to show my grandmother's adage about never being able to predict what your children will do is dead on the money).

I was sitting talking to a friend when two of no 3's friends came bursting in, wide eyed and anxious to tell me that no 2 and her friend had hopped through a hole in the fence and gone exploring. IN A HOSPITAL CAR PARK. Apart from the obvious danger of being run over by a car, or more likely an ambulance, there are also any number of odd greebos hanging around the entrance (I've been in Casualty with the kids sometimes and been quite frightened). I couldn't believe she'd done something so idiotic (mind you this is the child who the other day on a Safety day also went off with the stranger because she followed her friends, so why am I surprised?)

I ran round to the fence to find no 3 gabbling, I didn't want to dob her in (so clearly no 2 had been very stern about that), to which I replied that this was PRECISELY the situation when dobbing your sister in was ESSENTIAL. I frantically ran in the direction no 3 had pointed me in, but couldn't see them. I went back to the hole in the fence, to find no 3 and her friends now on the wrong side of it, so I shooed them back in, which was just as well as an interested toddler was looking like he might like to go exploring too. No 3's friends helpfully told me there was a gap in another part of the fence and went off to check whether the miscreants had made their way back to the club via it. Nope. They hadn't.

I ran back inside the clubhouse to double check they hadn't somehow found their way back in, but there was no sign of them. By now, I was really starting to panic, because I didn't have a clue where they were and no means of communicating with them. Except.... I suddenly remembered I'd lent no 2 my phone to play games on, I could ring her up. A friend lent me her phone, but in my panic I couldn't remember my number. Then I put my hand in my pocket and discovered I had my phone anyway. I was on the verge of going to search for her again, when I suddenly spotted them coming through the gap in the fence.

I have NEVER felt so relieved/furious/emotional all at once. In seconds we were both reduced to tears, and she had the biggest telling off of her life. After a period of due consideration, I also decided in the end that, although she clearly had learnt her lesson this particular transgression did require a proper punishment. So she's grounded from the computer for a week (the first time I've EVER had to do that), and with any luck she won't do anything quite so stupid ever again.

Except that, no 2 has always challenged me far more then no1, so I suspect this may only be the first round in a battle which is going to last for YEARS...

And I still have nos3/4 to go.

It's official. I am definitely back in Groundhog Day.

Although, I still can't quite stop myself from having a sneaking admiration for her adventurous spirit. At her age I'd have stood and thought about it then wimped out. You have got to admire the nerve of them, even if they did nearly give me a heart attack...

Quantitative what????

So it's official. The Bank of England are now printing money. Which of course was a wildly successful course of action in pre Nazi Germany. Oh and Robert Mugabe has done it brillliantly too.

Although of course, silly me. That's NOT what they're doing. They're not apparently printing anything, because the process of quantitative easing (printing money) is all about releasing funds into the marketplace to get people spending again. So to do this, the Bank of England has exchanged all the IOUs that the banks hold against all their creditors for funds so they can start investing again. At least, I think that's how it works.

Now ok, I am not an economist. Nor am I a banker. If truth be known, numbers and me have never got along.

But run this by me again. The banks. The responsible banks who've been lending blithely to people who can't afford to repay them and investing in dodgy deals that were no business of theirs, are now being repaid for their efforts in bringing down the economy by being released from at least some of their debts. How does this work now. Does the Bank of England now pay those IOUs.

I feel incredibly sorry for anyone who has got in over their head (encouraged no doubt to do so by their responsible bank manager), or anyone who has lost their job thanks to the collapse of the financial system (I am lucky to be married to a dentist, I know, but believe you me even dentists aren't going to ride this recession out), but....

And it is a big big but....

How is it that all the people who have been profligate and extravagant in the times of plenty are not having to face up to the responsibility of their excess now? With interest rates at an all time low, if you have a huge mortgage you can't really afford, you will be getting some respite, even if all the experts I've been listening to seem to think that the low interest rates aren't going to make a blind bit of difference to kick starting the economy. All it's doing is punishing the savers - the people like us who have been careful and husbanded our money.

Spouse and I came out of university just before the last recession. It was a similar time of greed and excess, and Hooray Henrys and Loadsamoney. We bought our first house, a two up two down railway workers' - the estate agent said cottage, we said hovel - for the princely sum of £85 000. At the time prices were rising, and we naively thought we'd stay a couple of years, make a quick buck and sell, as so many people this time around have thought. Little did we know that we were buying at the peak of the market. Within six months our own little shangri-la was worth several thousand pounds less then we paid for it. We were very fortunate not to go into negative equity, but it was seven years before we were able to make the move we'd blithely assumed would happen so easily. In the first year we had the house, we were victims of Norman Lamont's dodgy dealings with the erm and our mortgage repayments shot up from £300 a month which we could pay very comfortably, to £900. It was a salutary lesson, which I'm immensely grateful for learning so young, to live within your means.

Ever since then Spouse and I have been very cautious about debt (I doubly so, because I came out of university in debt and the horror of trying to pay it off when the bank is charging you for your overdraft, and whacking up the interest and then writing to tell you and charging you for the letter, still haunts me now), so during the last boom we have worked very hard to get ourselves debt free and save money for the kids so that they can come out of university without a huge millstone round their necks.

For eight years after no 1 was born Spouse didn't even take a fortnight's holiday because we couldn't afford it, and the most exotic thing we've ever done since we had the children was take them to Menorca. We do run two cars - one is now twelve years old - but neither of them are flash, and yes, the one luxury Spouse has afforded himself is the Caterham, but by and large we live I think a reasonably modest kind of life, when I suppose we could have been indulging ourselves with flash holidays, a bigger house and faster cars.

So I find it a little bit galling now to see Gordon Brown (for which read architect of all this mess) talking about getting people spending/borrowing again. Part of the reason we are in this situation is people have borrowed too much, and have got used to the idea that they can have all the technical goodies they want (built no doubt in some slave labour camp in China) for a pittance, and upgrade them as soon as they are obsolete (usually about a week after you've bought them). People have been encouraged to spend beyond their means, and of course the majority of those who are now paying the price are probably the ones who could least afford it in the first place. It makes me mad as hell to think a LABOUR government has in effect impoverished a generation (in more ways then one. Don't get me started on education). And yet, since we have come to the time of reckoning, no one seems to be calling a halt, and saying come on folks time to tighten your belts, party's over.

Nope, we are instead being encouraged to spend our way out of recession. Run that by me again??? I owe squillions to the bank, which I already cannot afford to repay, and I should borrow more??? How on earth does that work?

I suppose the trouble is no one really knows wtf to do, so (from my very very limited understanding of this) quantitative easing has been introduced because (I may be wrong about this, but I think I read this somewhere) it is apparently part of Keynesian economic thinking, and had the world been bolder in the 1920's we wouldn't have had the Depression. But the same article in which I read this also said this strategy is meant to be applied when you're coming OUT of recession not going into it.

I cannot see how releasing extra money into the economy whether you call it quantative easing or printing money can actually make any difference at all apart from cutting the savings of people like me even further. Surely it just devalues the economy further and we end up in even more of a mess?

Like I say I am not an economist so I may be understanding this all wrong, and all the financial pundits I heard on the radio yesterday seemed to think it was the way forward, but...

When one of them was asked by the interviewer what happens if it DOESN'T work, the response was a shrugged, well we'll deal with that problem later, ie, no one probably has a fucking clue if this is going to make things better or worse. Guess which outcome my money's on...

Monday, March 02, 2009

All good things come to an end....

Which sadly means that Being Human is over.... Well at least till series 2. I am not quite sure how in the absence of Primeval and Dr Who I am going to fill the fantasy world gap that will now develop in my Sunday evenings, but they'll probably be repeating it endlessly on BBC3, so that might just keep me going till then.

If you didn't see it, or as mentioned before, inexplicably don't like fantasy tv revolving round vampires, ghosts and werewolves, look away know.





After last week's fabulous edge of the seat ending, inevitably there was a bit of flat feeling to this - well for me anyway. Which isn't to say it wasn't very very good, but I think series finales always suffer from that how are we going to end it/damn it's all over kind of feeling, however good they are. So there was a little bit of that going on, and I have to say I felt just exactly the same way as I did when Life of Mars ended, a kind of Nooooooo I don't want it EVER to be over, I love it so much...

Having said that, it was still brilliant, and though it lacked the pace of last week's action packed adventure, the slow tension build and that brooding sense of waiting was fantastic. As usual the music choices were top notch - I don't even know what song they were playing when Mitchell was brought into the hospital was, but it worked fantastically well.

I loved the flashback at the beginning when we got to see how Mitchell and George met. The vampires' attack on George was brutal and vicious and made you wince - one of the great things about Being Human is even though it is a fantasy, so much of it seems so real. You end up thinking, yup if there were vampires and they came across a werewolf, that is EXACTLY what they'd do. As Spouse remarked the vampires know that ultimately the werewolf is stronger then them, which is why they pick on George in his (to them) weakened human state.

George as brilliantly played by Russell Tovey is I think the character at the heart of Being Human -which isn't to say I don't love Mitchell and Annie, because I do. But he, more then them, exemplifies the dilemma they all have of how to keep hold of their humanity - as he says to Annie when it looks like he's going to be leaving Mitchell to his fate, he's the only one of the three who still has a chance to make it in the human world. He can still have a human life, if he chooses, with Nina. The other two don't have that choice anymore.

Which isn't necessarily to say that they can't find love. Mitchell's reaction to the sacrifice his ex girlfriend makes for him was incredibly moving. I loved what she said last week, about Mitchell being frozen in time, and she's not. And the way she welcomes death and he can't die.

One of the things that also has worked incredibly well in Being Human is how much of the characters' pain you feel watching - seeing George's face when Nina asks him if he's choosing Mitchell over her, watching Annie fall apart as she realises the truth about Owen, listening to Mitchell describe the horror of going cold turkey and having to face up to all the the things he's done as a vampire... All of that feels, like I say, incredibly real, and truer then a lot of straight drama.

And I think the fact they undercut all the emotion with such wit and dark humour makes you appreciate the characters' suffering more somehow. Being Human is incredibly funny - this week we had George and Annie trying to work out how they could spirit Mitchell away from the hospital before anyone starts asking too many questions about the oddity of his condition and a hilarious turn from a sarcastic vicar, who gets the shock of his life when he encounters some vampires. I hope we get to meet him again in series 2, because he was great.

This episode was also full of some quite searching questions - what does happen to us when we die? (Doesn't sound to great from Annie's/Mitchell's descriptions) What is the point of belief? Should we all be a bit more "elastic" (as George brilliantly puts it) about what we see and think abou the world we live in? And as usual, subverting expectations, I had a sudden moment when George confronted Herrick when I thought, shit, maybe the vampires are right, perhaps nature should win out after all. (Then Annie did her poltergeisty saving the vampires' victims bit and I realised, no Herrick really is a bastard, so moral equilibrium was restored).

Although I did twig once George had gone to meet Herrick that he wasn't really ratting out on Mitchell, I was completely on the edge of my seat for the last twenty minutes. Was George going to be strong enough to kill Herrick? Would Mitchell and Annie save the day? What was going to happen to Nina? I felt so sure Nina was for the chop, and really didn't expect what did happen - her discovering George's secret and him accidentally scratching her when he tried to save her - as usual Toby Whitehouse is one step ahead...

I absolutely loved the debate about what Herrick was trying to do to George - ie make him kill him, so he would turn into a monster for real - only for George to turn round and explain that it is love of Mitchell, Annie and Nina which is keeping him human, and that after all humanity is stronger then the monsters... Herrick has been so sneeringly contemptuous of humanity and I did a little hurrah for that speech of George's which was touching and moving, and well damned heroic actually...

The only duff thing about this all is, the transformation sequence of the werewolf is brilliant, but the werewolf mask itself is just pants - I preferred it when we just saw the profile against the moon. Heaps more effective.

But that is a minor quibble. This was a really fantastic end to a brilliant series - I loved the way Nina looked through the spyhole into George's werewolf eye - and the true horror of what he is became clear to her.

I loved the ending with some seeming normalcy as they all sat around the table drinking tea, and then you cut to Nina in the bathroom uncovering her scars. OMG is Nina going to top herself? We don't know because the bastards have left that one open... but my money is on her dying, which I just don't think I can bear for George as he has suffered far too much already. (Y'see? Y'see who good Being Human is? I'm beginning to talk about George like he's real).

And then of course, just to make sure we don't go to bed with a totally easy mind, the final scene cuts to Owen gibbering away in the secure unit, while a clinically cold psychiatrist takes notes. Is he a vampire? Is he something else? We don't know, all we do know is that you can be sure that George, Mitchell and Annie, aren't going to be enjoying that cup of tea for very long...

Being Human has been just the best thing on TV I've seen for ages. It's reminded me of the way I felt when I watched the first series of NuWho and saw Life on Mars for the first time. There have been a few duff moments along the way, but barely any. It is funny, dark, sardonic, moving, scary - all the things Torchwood should have been and wasn't (I never cared once for a character dying in Torchwood, I have totally cared for each and every dead character in Being Human - and yes, that does include Herrick). And I for one, can't wait for series 2... (But until then will be watching the repeats of series 1 over and over and over again...)