Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Telly and Travels Review of the Year

I've been following the Guardian's list of top 30 television programmes for 2014. It's probably a dismal omen for my television writing career to realise that I only watched one programme out of the top 10, which was The Trip To Italy. Which I personally wouldn't have put in the top 10, for reasons already stated. I missed two (Game Of Thrones, True Detective) because we only have access to Freeview channels. Some of the programmes I deliberately avoided - like Fargo, simply because I am such a huge fan of the original Coen brothers film that I didn't want to see it messed with. (I couldn't have written about it anyway, since I haven't been any nearer to Minnesota than a Garrison Keillor book on my shelf.) And others I only found out about too late into the series to be able to catch up. Peaky Blinders is one - and I have been to Birmingham, so it would have made a nice little blog entry. The number one choice, Happy Valley, is another. And that was even set in Yorkshire, where I am nearly every single day.

Because I haven't scored too highly on the Travels front either - one week in a caravan near Leiden in Holland, travelling over on the ferry from Hull, and one week at my dad's house in Grasmere. Plus a long weekend in a cabin in the woods near Hutton-le-Hole, which didn't even involve leaving Yorkshire. If that isn't a motivation to go out and try and earn some money when my daughter starts school in September 2015, then, well, the fact that all my clothes are falling apart would be a close second. Except that even if I manage to gain some sort of salary, once we are tied to travelling in school holidays we probably won't be able to afford to go anywhere ever again.




Langdale Pikes

Woods at Keldy

A cabin in the woods
I score marginally (but only marginally) better in television programmes number 11-30. Rev. Gogglebox. Grantchester (SERIOUSLY?!). Sherlock. Doctor Who (just a couple of episodes, mind, to check out Peter Capaldi. who I used to share gym space with). And finally, I was there for Bingate in The Great British Bake-Off.

I suppose on the plus side this means that I don't actually spend my whole life watching television.

Or it means that nothing on CBeebies was shortlisted.

I have too bad a memory to be able to put together my own television top 10. Did I even watch ten different programmes during 2014? Over 50 blog posts suggests that I did, but the year seems to have been one long series of Masterchef. Anyway, such things seem trivial when you look back at what was happening in the rest of the world during 2014. Gaza. Syria. Pakistan. Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia. The Somerset Levels. Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds. Flight MH370. Flight MH17. Flight QZ8501. This happened just the other day up the road from here. Storms, bombs, unspeakable crimes, haemorrhagic fever: there is much for us to work on in 2015. (So no excuse for channel surfing on the sofa.) But please don't be fools and see Nigel Farage as the answer. Nigel Farage isn't the answer to anything other than the question "Who is the biggest tosser of 2014?" I am frightened by the possible result of the General Election in May 2015 (= Conservative/UKIP right-wing racist coalition?!) more than anything else as we enter the New Year. That and the fact that in April it will be ten years since my mother died, which I find impossible to believe.

But at least we can still celebrate Hogmanay in the United Kingdom tonight. We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Carols From Kings

"When the band finished playing, they howled out for more..." 
(The Pogues, Fairytale of New York)

There's a very funny Spitting Image sketch where the candlelit choirboys of Kings College Cambridge stand poised to sing, organ playing softly in the background, choirmaster's arms randomly concertinering in and out as if squeezing bellows, the voiceover introduces them...and they launch into Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. It's a little moment of genius, although the most striking thing for those in the know is the accurate portrayal of Stephen Cleobury's conducting.

The service has been broadcast on the radio since 1929 and on television since 1954, which means there is a 60th anniversary to celebrate this year. The radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is live, the television one is not. It is recorded earlier in December, possibly because the Michaelmas term at the University of Cambridge often finishes so early that the students taking part in the service need something to do to fill the time before Christmas Eve. They will only get themselves into trouble if they hang around unsupervised in the college quads for too long.

I always try to watch the television broadcast as for me - like most - it's the proper start of Christmas. We are usually settled wherever we need to be, wine may have been opened, the rest of the world is shut out, and if we had a fireplace that wasn't used for toy storage, the fire would be lit to cosy on down and get ready for the presents, port, good cheer and fine food of the following day. Or the squabbling, family irritations, panicked cooking and overindulgence, depending on how things are going. However, Carols From Kings can never be as entertaining now that my brother is no longer a music student at Cambridge University and therefore no longer able to point out all the tossers. "You see that bass singer?" my mum said gravely one year, "Well, your brother says that he is completely up his own arse."

Yes, even an atheist can enjoy carols in a church. There is euphoria to be found in beautiful singing regardless of the lyrics. I am writing this listening to Paul McCreesh's recording of a Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (aka community singing of Praetorius in Roskilde Cathedral), one of the most stunning performances of anything I have ever heard, and which I break open every December like a bottle of Bailey's. I even hope to take my daughter to the crib service in the Minster this year. I have been to York's own Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve in the past, but a long sit in the cold, crowded aisles and a sermon from John Sentanu are still probably more than a bit beyond the patience of a four-year-old.

I am currently struggling to tell the nativity story (or "In a manger far away" as she calls it) to my young daughter, as to me it seems as fanciful, ridiculous and improbable as the story of a rotund red man living at the North Pole riding a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer that is able to deliver presents via chimneys to every child in the world in a single night. Suddenly I am having to explain God and angels and virgins and Romans and censuses and stables and stars and shepherds and evil and good kings and frankincense and myrrh to my curious child, who sang a song about them all in her nursery Christmas show and wants to know more. And I feel hypocritical gaily lying to her about Santa, but struggling to lie to her about the Nativity story, which I don't believe in either (or at least not the bits involving heavenly beings). I struggle that she is expected to grow out of believing in one, but not the other, when both sound like fairy stories. She may be expected to believe every word of the Nativity at school, when really a lot of it is scientifically preposterous. I feel the need to say quite clearly that this is what a lot of people think happened, but it's not quite what Mummy believes happened. And then I automatically sideline us as ones who go against the grain, which may not be comfortable for her young mind. Ultimately it's her choice what she believes, but I still think she needs to know that she has a choice, because no one knows for sure what did happen in Bethlehem all those years ago.

An atheist can enjoy carols in a pub more. We spent a glorious evening a couple of weeks ago in the company of Kate Rusby, a true Yorkshire lass from Barnsley. She grew up in the culture of the Sings of South Yorkshire, where every weekend from November onwards, people gather in the pubs to sing carols that the Victorians threw out of the churches for being too merry. And Kate Rusby has recorded some of the carols onto CD in her own beautiful folk style, and now takes them on tour each December. Beer is encouraged. The music is delightful. She has crocheted snowflakes hanging above the stage. A brass quintet add the finishing touches. She explains it all for herself here. (And yes, that it is the tune to "On Ilkley Moor Baht' at" in the opening number, one of at least three versions of While Shepherds Watched that Kate sings. However, it turns out that this famous Yorkshire tune was, disappointingly, composed in a place called Cranbook in Kent.)

Anyway, I did buy my daughter a 10p copy of the nativity story in the charity shop. It's an ancient Ladybird book that can be converted into a magic roundabout. I read it to her alongside Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas. They are both, after all, stories of cultural significance at this time of year. Here is Charlotte studying the nativity in the Italian cafe down the road while I tuck into panettone and mulled wine. Buon Natale.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Christmas Television

Christmas reading
I treated us to the Christmas edition of the Radio Times yesterday. Partly because, if I'm quick enough, I can use it to get a free Paddington book from the Early Learning Centre. I took my daughter to see the film of Paddington on the day it was released. We were having some windows replaced at home so I needed to get her out the joiner's way and Paddington was the perfect diversion - the walk to the cinema gave Charlotte some exercise, the box of popcorn fulfilled a promise from a song at her music class the day before, and the film provided nostalgia for Mummy and diversion for the four-year-old. We have a DVD of the original television series, which Charlotte absolutely loves. Notting Hill must have changed almost as much as animation techniques for an ursine Peruvian immigrant between the television series and the film. But the original is a true testament that technical quality is never an issue as long as writing quality is high. Paddington falling on the cream cakes, Paddington in the taxi, Paddington taking a bath and Paddington on the escalator all make Charlotte laugh hysterically time after time. So it was with great joy that we saw that these scenes had been replicated (and enhanced to new levels of funniness) in the film. All of us oldies will miss Michael Hordern's narration. But with Hugh Bonneville as Mr Brown, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown, Julie Walters as Mrs Bird and Jim Broadbent as Mr Gruber in the film, what was not to love?
Cream cakes
What was not to love? Oh, yes, Nicole Kidman as the evil taxidermist, out to stuff Paddington for the Natural History Museum. In a back story at the start of the film, her father discovered Paddington's tribe of bears deep in the Peruvian jungle. But he let them be, after teaching them a love of marmalade and enough English to be able to talk about the weather. Returning to London minus an unlive specimen, he was dismissed in disgrace by the National Geographic Society. And his daughter is determined to succeed where he - in her eyes - failed.

Children's television shows drawn out into full-length movies always have to include a scary baddie. Postman Pat had to battle a tribe of laser-wielding robots (and a Simon Cowell lookalike) earlier in the year. I don't think it's necessary. Charlotte would gladly have watched Paddington falling over and storing things under his hat for 90 minutes. Postman Pat: The Movie took away all that was familiar from CBeebies, and this doesn't work. It's the mind of a pre-schooler - they love slapstick, and they don't need scary. Scary causes meltdowns and trembling and shrieks demanding to leave the building. They don't know yet that things will always come good in the end. That in Paddington's case Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi doing his best Phil Mitchell accent - they were at one point, after all, near neighbours in Crouch End) will stop voting UKIP, the teenagers will stop being embarrassed by their parents, and a drunk Mrs Bird will... well, I'd better not include too many spoilers. It's hard to explain to a little girl that everything will be OK - because in life it usually isn't, and even a young child in a comfortable and privileged Yorkshire home can work out that she is often denied a happy ending. Mummy doesn't always give in to her arguments. The chocolate button may be denied, the broken toy irreparable, and the television switched off.

Anyway, speaking of television, what delights await us over the festive season? I haven't even bothered looking at any scheduling before Iggle Piggle sails off in his boat, because until then my control over the remote control will be, well, remote. But I am very much looking forward to Professor Branestawm, a set of books I loved as a child. I am curious about Victoria Wood's musical about the reunion of the Manchester children's choir who recorded Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds in 1929, even if it does star Michael Ball. But otherwise, with no new Julia Donaldson feature (though I believe Stick Man is promised for 2015), it's same old, same old. Doctor Who. Call The Midwife. EastEnders. Downton bloody Abbey. Dad's Army. Morecambe And Wise. Well, it wouldn't be Christmas without television tradition. Or would it?

Having a young child does bring a lot of excitement and fun and early starts into Christmas. But it's a time of year I always find really hard. I miss my mum. Even if the word she most commonly used to describe Christmas was "crap". And even though the arguments in our house during the cooking of dinner could be spectacular until the opening of the sherry. But all of our Christmas tradition died with her. We had to find new ways of doing things. Even if it meant we just had to all be apart, to try and numb the pain of her absence a little. I can't help but be envious of my friends who all still have their family units intact, and a wealth of doting grandparents to make Christmas huge and lively and involving for their children.

So while cancer denied our family the happy ending ten years ago, we do have the girl, and a happy girl on Christmas Day will bring much of the joy back. I will, however, remain in denial that a happy girl will only be achieved with large doses of Frozen, and frozen fish fingers.

Christmas dinner in a box

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Nigel Slater's Icing On The Cake

Yesterday's lemon & pistachio cake. Just because.
I have long been a fan of Nigel Slater's food writing. He can make the mundane utterly sublime. He can be eating sardines on toast yet give such an evocative description of every crumb that I instantly have to leap up and raid my larder to make some for myself. Well, I don't really have a larder per se. That's a bit posh. But I do have a few tins in a cupboard. When I've been organised about my online shopping.

Nigel Slater always strikes me as painfully shy on television. He sounds so exuberant on paper, but seems slightly awkward on screen. But his excitement over the food he has cooked for his plate is still infectious, and it always looks amazing, but makeable. And I also love his "food history" programmes, like this one about cake. I should call them "food nostalgia", because he has retained his childlike enthusiasm for the (probably actually not terribly inspiring) food of his youth despite the pretty miserable time his autobiography recounts him having. In this programme, the wicked gleam in his eye when he laughs as he bites into a fondant fancy is a telling image of the wonderful effect of food and how powerfully the senses of taste and smell recreate memories.

He starts in Konditor & Cook just behind Waterloo station, home of the most incredible lemon cake I have ever eaten. Nigel says he would just as happily buy a cake from a shop as eat a home-made one by Auntie Marjorie.(When did he meet my grandmother?) He stresses cake's universal appeal. It is the ultimate in comfort food in times of need. It doesn't have to meet Mary Berry's perfection. It just needs to be naughty but nice. But what makes a cake truly a cake?

There's a history bit. It all started with compacted porridge. There's a science bit. Why eggs bring the magic, originally whisked in by twigs. There's the religious affrontery and the banning of buns. There's why we have an innate liking for sweetness. There's a Home Economics lesson that teaches us that dropping cakes fresh out of the oven is actually good for them. There's what rationing did to cakes. Then there are just lots of glorious regional cakes with silly names - lardy, parkin, Rutland plum shuttles, Selkirk bannock, Norfolk vinegar, and Cumberland courting. (Never got one of those out of my husband.) There's the exceedingly crap ones we buy from Mr Kipling and Lyons - the aforementioned fondant fancies, Jamaica Ginger cake and a slice of Battenberg. Cake is what we do in this country to be sociable and make us smile. Or it was until we discovered binge-drinking.

Then Jenny Eclair comes on and tells Nigel why, despite being named after one, she hates cake. It's a throwback to her anorexic days at drama school. She claims cupcakes are the most evil of all - so disappointing and dishonest, so bad for you, as unnecessary and harmful as high-heeled shoes. Much as I personally love cake, I have to admit she does have a point. Cupcakes, piled high with swirls of buttercream and sweetie toppings, usually look so much better than they taste. The insurmountable icing invariably swamps a tiny morsel of dry sponge, and tips off onto the floor at the first bite.

Evil cupcakery
Finally, there's roadkill cake. (Yes, you did read that correctly.) There's cigarette butts on a cake. There's a fondant brains cake to teach people anatomy and fairy cakes decorated with chlamydia icing to educate teenagers about sexual health. And then a giant recreation of Nigel Slater's head. Not sure what he made of that.

But what makes a cake a cake? For Nigel Slater, it's the spirit behind it. The love that creates it. And the fact that we always share it.

It's impossible to deny that wherever I go, I eat cake. Grasmere Gingerbread in the Lake District,  Fat Rascals and macaroons from Betty's all over Yorkshire, Bara Brith in Pembrokeshire, Bakewell pudding in Derbyshire, brownies in Baltimore, Sachertorte in Vienna, tartes aux fraises in Paris, and pink-frosted cupcakes from a bakery on Bleecker Street in New York just like the ones Sarah Jessica Parker ate on Sex And The City (wearing stupid high-heeled shoes).

The winners will always be the Germans, however. Bakeries were the only shops open on a Sunday when I went to university in Heidelberg. Cake was the only thing that made me truly happy in a rather difficult year. There is much to be said for the healing powers of a bite of Apfelstrudel or a slice of Mohnkuchen or Streuselkuchen. Stollen at Christmas, washed down with Gluehwein from the Christkindlmarkt. But my favourite always - the simple baked Quark Kaesekuchen from the students cafe in Heidelberg's Marstallhof. It just about made up for the fact that everything else that the Mensa served was inedible - greasy gravy stodge with a side of cold fruit soup dolloped on to a metal tray. You weren't even allowed a plate. It was all stupidly cheap but utterly revolting. I still feel nauseous thinking about it. But the cheesecake was in another league.
Heidelberg,. The Marstallhof Mensa and Cafe is the building on the right