Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Casual Vacancy

"Ah," said Howard, "Well, now. That's the question, isn't it? We've got ourselves a casual vacancy, Mo, and it could make all the difference."
"We've got a...?" asked Maureen, frightened that she might have missed something crucial.
"Casual vacancy," repeated Howard. "What you call it when a council seat becomes vacant through a death. Proper term," he said pedagogically.  
(JK Rowling, The Casual Vacancy)

I read JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy a couple of years ago and my overwhelming impression was - well, that it was a nasty piece of work. It's one of the most unnecessarily depressing novels I have ever read and seems to have been written with an overwhelming sense of bitterness. The only character with any redeeming features dies in the opening chapter, and after that you are left with a bunch of the most mean-minded, snobbish, outright cruel, impoverished or messed up individuals you could ever not hope (not) to meet. It makes you worry about JK Rowling's state of mind that she could create such a barren portrayal of British life. I am not saying that all these characters don't exist in some form or other throughout our country. But life really isn't ALL bad - there are also decent folk out there, doing their best given their circumstances, and it might have been nice to meet a few more of them without making them suffer an aneurysm immediately afterwards. It was almost as if JK Rowling felt she had to write about the pathetic life of a miserable crack whore as penance for the bright do-gooding intelligence of Hermione Granger.

It was also perhaps an attempt by JK to show that her life hasn't always been that of a multi-millionaire; she was once "poor". But we knew this already; it's well documented, however little she likes interviews. And then we have also been to the Elephant Cafe on George VI Bridge in Edinburgh, where JK apparently wrote much of the first draft of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. She may well have been a single parent living on benefits, but the cafe where she was "forced to write" to save money on heating bills is far from the seedy, godforsaken greasy spoon the image conjures up. The Elephant Cafe has deep red walls, serves delicious mains, cakes, tray bakes and herbal teas, and has a hot chocolate cocktail menu and a spectacular view of Edinburgh Castle from its back room. So (since she has never resorted to use of Class A drugs) I don't believe that JK has ever stooped to the sad life of Krystal Weedon and her family. If she had, she might not have given Krystal such a puerile name.

Edinburgh Castle

After two episodes, I am finding the television version is equally depressing (and know that there is worse still to come), but it has highlighted the touches of (rather black) humour in the book and these make it a tad more bearable. Some characters or character traits and some unpleasant incidents have been left out to condense the rather wordy novel into three one-hour episodes. But the GP's husband is now a plastic rather than a heart surgeon, presumably to make him less likeable too.

The storyline concerns the election of a replacement councillor in the town of Pagford after the death of one of its members, Barry Fairbrother, creates a "casual vacancy". The three rival candidates are (1) the rather wet and malleable son of the larger-than-life council leader, (2) a neurotic asthmatic school teacher, and (3) the abusive half-brother of the man who died. They all have secrets and motives, none of them are happily married, and they all have what they see as problem children, who are really just teenagers being teenagers. (They just don't play Quidditch or save the world from people who cannot be named.) It's a battle between the town delicatessen and the community centre's methadone clinic. It's about posh folk trying to open a hotel and luxury spa in the medieval manor that houses the community centre and therewith keep the town's undesirable council estate, The Fields, further "afield". (The hotel appears to be a further diversion from the novel, where Howard's aim is simply to move the Parish boundary.) An unknown blogger claiming to be the ghost of Barry Fairbrother exposes all the candidates' darker sides in turn, wreaking havoc and leading to serious consequences.

The Chair of the Parish Council and First Citizen of Pagford, Howard Mollison, is played by Michael Gambon. Gambon of course played Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films after the death of Richard Harris. Despite his respectable position, Howard has none of the gravitas of Dumbledore (though none of the pure evil of Voldemort either), and runs a delicatessen in the market square. He is building up a foodie empire throughout Pagford by opening a new cafe and wine merchant's. He loves his food and ignores any health warnings attached to it, despite already having cardiac issues. He is wealthy and not ashamed to flaunt his financial success or use it against others.

Now, I once thought I would quite like to run a delicatessen, or more specifically a cheese, wine and chocolate shop, otherwise known as Maison de Migraines. I think this has more to do with me wanting to sit and consume cheese, wine and chocolate all day long rather than having a serious desire to run my own business, manage my own ordering and accounts, stay solvent and be on my feet from dawn to dusk serving impatient customers. Customers who don't know their Stilton from their Stinking Bishop or their Malbec from their Merlot. Rather like the customers my brother used to serve in a bookshop who would come in and say "I'm looking for a book. I don't know who it's by or what it's called, but it's green." You can see why the owner of our local deli in York has a reputation for grumpiness.

But I do love my cheese. One of our wedding cakes was made of cheese, and the other of pure unadulterated chocolate. I would rather have good food than possessions. That's just how I am.

Cheese wedding cake
Unadulterated chocolate (with figs)
Pagford appears to have moved from the novel's West Country setting into the sleepy but more scenic Cotswolds. The Cotswolds are a part of the world I have been to, but need to explore more. It is the first place my parents went on holiday without us, leaving me and my brother aged 8 and 5 with my aunt and uncle for the weekend. This abandonment took some forgiving. Even if we were taken for a lovely afternoon at Whipsnade Zoo, from where my uncle drove us home at 120mph before letting us drink his brandy after dinner. Wa-hey! (For some reason it was many years before our parents went away without us again.) But I have since made a couple of day trips to the Cotswolds, when my boyfriend-now-husband was living in Swindon. But lacking our own transport, we could only get as far as local bus services or visitors dropping by with a car could take us. I have dreamy memories of hazy, sunny afternoons in Bourton-on-the-Water and Lechlade-on-Thames. Rivers meandering through the picturesque sandstone villages, gardens laden with wisteria, pubs serving sticky toffee pudding and a sense of a timelessness and a world long gone by from anywhere else.

A model Cotswolds village in a model Cotswolds village
(with thanks to Jane Goodwin)

Monday, 23 February 2015

EastEnders Live Week

You donut
I haven't watched EastEnders for seven years.

I watched it at the start in 1985, much to my dad's chagrin, mostly because I was fascinated by the layout of Albert Square shown on a map in the Radio Times. But when Neighbours started I switched loyalty, as more girls at school were following life in Erinsborough than life in the East End, for a reason that I suspect had something to do with Jason Donovan and Guy Pearce being a lot easier on the eye than Nick Berry and Tom Watt.

But nonetheless I continued to follow EastEnders off and on through school and university, before a housemate in London got me hooked back on it properly. And when BBC3 started showing a repeat of that night's episode at 10pm it became compulsory bedtime viewing. I can't say it was a guilty pleasure, because EastEnders has never been what you might term pleasurable viewing - it's essentially a load of rasping people having miserable lives, moaning a dot-to-dot script of cliched lines like "She's faaaaamleee", "Leave it aaht", "You're 'avin' a laaaaf in't ya?" or "He ain't worf it, Fill". But I was guilty of continuing to watch it despite it driving me mad with its repetitive plots. Nothing ever seemed to change, apart from an occasional redecoration of the Queen Vic after it burned down. Again.

So I was probably looking for an excuse to stop it wasting my life, and moving to York was it. I didn't live in London any more, so it seemed inappropriate to follow a London-based soap opera. I couldn't bring myself to replace it with Yorkshire's equivalent, Emmerdale, and so I happily left "continuous family drama" behind once and for all and dabbled in Downton Abbey instead.

But when EastEnders held its 30 year anniversary "Live Week", I couldn't resist tucking in again.

In reality, by now Walford should have been declared "up and coming", meaning that house prices would have shot through the roof and all the die-hard locals sold up to tosser investment bankers and gone to buy a gated mansion out in 'aalow or Saaafend with the profit. After all, Victorian squares are highly desirable. Especially ones with excellent Tube links into town. And especially ones with a historic bench in the middle.

Our version of the "Minute Mart" in Crouch End,
which we called the Zombie Shop
after it was used as a set in Shaun Of The Dead
The Queen Vic would have gone gastro, the Minute Mart been replaced with a branch of Boulangerie Paul, Booty become staffed by (admittedly excellent) travelling Australian hair stylists, and Ian Beale's food empire been bought out by Jamie Oliver or Mark Hix and gone all New York loft in decor.

But no.

The Queen Vic toilets had had a Laura Ashley makeover ready for someone to give birth in them, but that was the only discernible difference. Ian Beale has opened a posh burger bar where people moan about the prices, but the ones quoted were still £5 cheaper than GBK or Byron. (I don't think GBK or Byron have marriage licences either.)

I was worried I wouldn't be able to follow the plot or know who anybody was, but with the exception of Danny Dyer, the cast was exactly the same as it was seven years ago. This was partly because some folk - Peggy, Tanya - were putting in guest appearances. Some characters had new heads - Peter, Martin, Ben and the rising from the dead Lucy. Who wasn't the only person rising from the dead - Nick Cotton and Kathy Beale are in fact alive. Well, Nick isn't now. ("Stinks, in 'ere!") But he's been dead at least two times before, and I wouldn't be surprised if they manage to regenerate him in another ten years' time.

The only person I wasn't sure about was when Tanya asked Jane about someone called Adam. But that turned out to be a live boo-boo as Tanya had just referred to Ian by the actor's real name. Whoopsie.

Depressingly, it was the usual Groundhog Day storylines. Ian Beale was getting married again. The wedding reception was in the Queen Vic again. Tanya was trying to get back together with Max again, having conveniently forgotten that she had tried to bury him alive a few years ago. Max was still having an affair with anything in a skirt. Sharon was still pouting. Kat was still drunk, though her bra size appears to have increased considerably. (As has Ian Beale's waistline, which as it burst out of his tux at least makes him look like he runs a chippy.) People were still slapping people. People were still carrying guns in bouquets of flowers. Someone was trying to set fire to the Vic. People's voices are so husky with fag abuse that it's now completely impossible to make out any consonants whatsoever.

And Lucy's killer turned out to be her little baby half-brother. That live reveal did make me gasp "Ooh!", if only because it was the only time Jane had a different facial expression to the one she had worn all evening (really shocked as opposed to mildly alarmed) . I don't know how Jane confessed to Ian that it was Bobby who did it because our supermarket delivery turned up ten minutes in to the all-live episode. So one minute Ian was throwing plates around the kitchen thinking his wife had murdered his daughter, and the next they were all sobbing around the dining room table trying to work out what to do with Bobby. Send him off to borstal now, I tell you. All those computer games will only lead to trouble. Haven't you read We Need To Talk About Kevin?

I lived either Southwest or North in London and my forays East were therefore sporadic - a visit to the William Morris gallery in Walthamstow, Sutton House in Hackney or the Geffrye Museum in Dalston, a party in Plaistow, a Turkish kebab on Harringay Green Lanes, evening drinks with friends working for Lehman Brothers at Canary Wharf before the Crash, a walk along the Greenway to Beckton before the Olympic Stadium was built. Actually, I am surprised Walford hasn't been bulldozed to make way for Crossrail. (You can now see Canary Wharf from Albert Square. That was something new.)

Canary Wharf

Besides, nearly all the cast of EastEnders actually lived near me in Crouch End as opposed to the East End, on the good side of the East Coast mainline tracks. In my four years there, I squished up next to Jake Moon in a bus shelter in torrential rain, had the locker next to Carly Wicks in the gym's changing room, worked out opposite Dennis Rickman in the gym, saw Phil Mitchell moaning to someone on Priory Gardens near Highgate tube, and Minty smiling in Florian's Bar and the Vietnamese cafe next door. And - true fact gleaned on a guided tour - a room in the art deco Hornsey Town Hall on Crouch End Broadway was used to play the role of Walford Registry Office. Before whoever was getting married went off to have their reception in the Vic.

Hornsey Town Hall

But that's it. No more 'stenders for me. I am done. For another 30 years at least. Altogether now - # Doof-doof...doof-doof-de-doof-doof... #

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Inside The Commons

I have seen two episodes of this fascinating insight of life in the House of Commons. It all makes me conclude that York's famous son Guido Fawkes rather had a point. Now, I am not saying Parliament should be blown up - the building is far too beautiful for that. But with its miles of panelled corridors, archaic language, poky offices, mountainous paperwork and impenetrable systems, it's an establishment that definitely needs a colossal shake-up: a political revolution akin to the agitation of a snow globe or the frantic ripping of a box of confetti.

For it's an institution where applause is considered "a bit too modern". Voting is done by a head count in a lobby. Passed laws are signed off in Norman French, tied up in green ribbon and carried on foot to the Lords. Private Members' Bills to be introduced to the House are selected by something resembling a tombola. Booking a debate slot involves camping. And there are lots of silly costumes.

Snuff is on offer, but it's apparently not "weapons grade". I should think not. Who knows what the sniffer dogs checking the place out before Prime Minister's Questions would make of that, with their (as the narrator wryly remarks) "eyes to the left and their nose to the floor"? Although the dogs are more likely to root something out than the Yeoman of the Guard's ritual romp through the cellars before the State Opening of Parliament. The Yeomen are supposedly checking the basement for gunpowder, but it's so dusty down there I doubt they'd spot any gunpowder before it blew their noses off. If the snuff hadn't taken their nostrils out already, that is.
Parliament from the London Eye

David Cameron claims Parliament is half church, half museum and half school. Other than thinking, "Do your maths, David", he is certainly right about the school bit. It is full of sixty-year-old Tory toffs behaving like 1950s Etonians, with their toy wooden swords (well, OK, just the one) hanging from pink ribbon in the cloakrooms and Gladys in the tea room as a substitute Matron. ("I adore her," sighs Sir Nicholas Soames MP wistfully.) You wouldn't be surprised to find Michael Gove dunking some whip-defiant new boy's head down the toilet.

Some dub it Hogwarts, with the robed Clerk of the House Robert Rogers as Dumbledore, but it seems far from magical to me. The roof is leaking for one thing. Bills don't get passed because Jacob Rees-Mogg (in his Harry Potter glasses) always turns up to philibuster, wasting hours of Parliamentary time and a lot of taxpayers' money. It's nothing to do with charms or curses, although I expect there are a fair few other MPs muttering the latter. But like the Great Hall at Hogwarts, the terrace cafe serves a good porridge, provided you can find your way to it. There is no Marauders' Map available here. Don't let constantly looking at your phone for that all-important tweet lead you astray. The wifi is rubbish anyway.

And church? Yes. The MPs sit on pews. Or some of them do. 200 of them have to stand in the aisles. The rest come in early for morning prayers, but that's only to bag themselves a seat. Think of all the extra work the MPs could get done if they got Kirstie Allsopp in to knock down a few walls. Then there would be enough chairs for everyone and MPs could just rock up a few minutes before the start of a debate. Although the Commons only properly fills up for the Budget or Prime Ministers' Questions. Half the time key issues are being debated to an empty house, and Dennis Skinner.

Museum? There's an antique cigar lighter fixed to the wall and a statue at every turn. The archive shelving is phenomenal, and they're still only making part of Hansard electronic. There are tea urns and piles of porcelain painted with portcullises stored behind a mystery door that has to be broken into by locksmiths. The ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament is full of ritual rather than relevance.

The State Opening of Parliament is the only time when the two main party leaders seem to have a jovial conversation, as Black Rod leads them across from the Commons to the Lords for the Queen's Speech. What do they talk about? Their kids, says Ed Miliband, and how to fit a young family around the pressures of political life. I would sympathise, but I bet they have staff.

What is striking is how at home the Tories look in the tea room. Yet for 13 years New Labour were in power, and they barely seem to have left a mark on the place. Presumably they gave up and went over the road to the new-build Portcullis House to hang out in the atrium coffee shop instead. And while New Labour won't offer to let a female MP sit on their lap like longest-serving Tory Peter Tapsell, they will tell her that she has "unparliamentary hair".
Morning stroll by the Thames before work in 1999.
Portcullis House is still under construction.
The behaviour of many politicians is criticised by their own. "Disgusting," says Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham. "Pathetic" says Charles Kennedy, who I didn't even realise was still in Parliament. "Penis", says Penny Mordaunt, but that's another matter. Champion and Kennedy are referring to shenanigans during Prime Minister's questions - the jeering, and the practice of "free hits", where the Prime Minister e-mails out choice questions to his own MPs in advance, things that when asked will supposedly show him in a good light.

A lot of these MPs do genuinely want to make a difference, but I am not sure how many manage it. The system defeats them at every turn. Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow (eight miles from where I grew up), is trying to get hospital car parking charges abolished, which rather goes against his party policy. Just as it's allowed to be debated in Parliament, George Osborne offers Halfon a job so that he can't actually speak in the House about it. And in the wake of the child grooming scandal in Rotherham, Sarah Champion wants an amendment which would allow offenders to be prosecuted at first contact. Her suggestion is shot down by Tories in committee but subsequently put in by them in their own words. Champion is simply delighted that the law is changed, even if she gets no credit whatsoever for her hard work. She has in fact made a difference.

This programme has certainly quelled any Parliamentary ambitions I may have had. I can't say that they were especially burning in the first place. But I know I could not function in a world like this. It would make me want to scream. Apart from the blond twat on a bike running the shop, I would probably fare better down the river at City Hall, where there is seemingly a more modern, transparent and almost European approach to government.

View from the Monument towards City Hall (far right)
But I do love the Houses of Parliament building. It's my absolute favourite in London, if not in Britain, if not the world. I have been inside it just the once, when I took my mum on a guided tour for her birthday present one year. It was in Blair's heyday, so a very long time ago now. The security checks to let us in were fairly immense. But the tour was fascinating, albeit biased. We followed the Queen's State Opening route through the Robing Room into the House of Lords, which has to be one of the most beautiful chambers I have ever seen. And the House of Commons is surprisingly small. It really is extraordinary that it's supposed to seat 650 people. Although it does have an upstairs, which is used by the Press and invited members of the public. You don't see the gallery on TV, because the cameras are fixed to the balcony. They should, if they're not prepared to let Kirstie knock down those walls, think about moving into the much larger Westminster Hall next door, which seems to be mostly used for concerts and the occasional lying in state. Surely the coffins could go in the Commons instead? Best place for them, if this programme is to be believed.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Secret Life Of Four Year Olds

Well, here is a place I never get to go. Inside my four year old daughter's nursery, with just the children and teachers and no mummies or daddies. These daily three hours are a mystery to me. It's no use asking my daughter what goes on. The doors apparently wipe her brain as she leaves the building. She can remember nothing about what happens inside. (Although the memory of the several playdates she has arranged with her friends without consulting Mummy's diary remains miraculously intact.)

The memory-wiping doors
Twice a year we are allowed to read reports written by the teachers that contain guarded phrases such as "C likes to lead play" or "C has worked hard to control her emotions", which I can only take to mean "C is a bossy boiler" and "C now only has seven meltdowns a morning."

This makes me long to be a fly on the wall. What really happens when my daughter is at nursery?

That's what this programme was for. It was going to give me all the answers.

But this was a specially set up "scientific" nursery, with hidden cameras and a mere handful (if you pardon the pun) of children. And the children were only there every few months. This meant they couldn't develop the sort of friendships you would see in a regular nursery environment, but it did make it an exercise in the establishment of relationships and boundaries and status. As in "I'm not listening to you!" and "I had it first!"

Behind a screen sat two blokes wearing headphones who purported to be child psychologists, although they claimed they had never sat and watched four year olds interacting at length before. Which really ought to be a job requirement if you are going to declare yourself an expert on four year olds. They had all sorts of fancy theories about the children's behaviour - behaviour which some of us lay people might have analysed as "being nasty little shits".

Here comes trouble
Experimental tasks were given to the children and temptations left in their path - two scooters between ten of them, a giant chocolate cake in the middle of the room, and an extra chocolate bar in a leaving gift. Would they share?

Would they heck. Stealing, sharing. It's a blurry line.

But how many mummies would resist a partially sliced giant chocolate cake in the middle of a room? Hm? How many of us would have also had tell-tale ganache smeared around our chops after five minutes of being left to our own devices? Especially if we were surrounded by squabbling four year olds.

You would, wouldn't you?

At the end of the day, we're all nasty little shits at heart. We just learn to hide some of our nasty little shittiness as we get older.

The children were all much of a muchness, apart from one. Chaim was twice the size of the others. His parents adored their blue-eyed enormous boy, but his behaviour was lacking way behind his height. He was, in essence, a bully. The teachers didn't call him that, but the other children did. "Just bite him," a girl advised one of his victims. As Chaim could read and write, unlike most nursery four-year-olds, I wondered if he had been excluded from several local primary schools and his only remaining option was for his parents to pretend he was nursery age and have the television crew educate him instead.

Another child, Cuba, lived in terrible knitted jumpers on a houseboat. Skyla obviously had parents who were fans of Breaking Bad. Jessica wanted to make friends. Jayda liked singing songs. Christian liked lining things up in a row and obeying correct behaviour protocols.

The children bickered about who had the best colour toilet, pushed each other off chairs, talked about death, built dens, told tales, told lies, occasionally helped each other and sweetly held hands, and played mummies and daddies. Although their game of mummies and daddies seemed to feature lines from EastEnders like "Stop ringing me, Richard! You're not the dad, OK?"

Bizarrely, none of them mentioned Frozen. Which means they can't have been normal four year olds.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The EE British Academy Film Awards Ceremony 2015

We stayed up far too late on Sunday night watching the Baftas and I am not quite sure why. The whole proceedings seemed as stilted as saying the sponsors' new name. Orange is now EE. And that's "E...E" rather than "Eeeeee". "Welcome to the 2015 E...E... Bafta Awards Ceremony." It just doesn't work. Which is presumably why EE are also ditching the Orange Wednesdays deal later this month. ("E-E Wednesdays" as a name makes you long for Mr Dresden's stupid suggestions of old: "So it's every Wednesday, like clockwork. And we're Orange. Clockwork... Orange... I got it! Let's call them Orange Wednesdays!" ) And it's possibly also why EE have just been bought out by BT. BT Baftas. There you go. There's alliteration and everything.

Anyway, back to the E...E awards, operating in treacle. Stultified by the sponsor name, everyone took an age to walk on to the stage. The men were trying to remember who they needed to take up with them and which woman to kiss (girlfriend or co-star?). The ladies were debating whether or not it was safe to leave their handbags on their seat and struggling to climb the stairs in their tight dresses and high heels. There were no E...E or Royal Opera House ushers to assist or hurry. Someone had had the foresight to keep Stephen Hawking's wheelchair stage right and step-free, but the Polish production crew of Ida, which won Best Film Not In The English Language, had been shoved at the back of the auditorium. (Although they didn't necessarily take the longest to get on stage.) It was so snail-like that the teenage stars of Boyhood were probably wondering if this was really what they had sacrificed their entire childhood for. Maybe everyone was just surprised that for once it wasn't raining outside.

Stephen Fry also seemed awkward. Probably because he has been too busy honeymooning with his young husband to practise his lines. His recent marriage was all he wanted to talk about. Personally I'd much rather have heard more of his excellent thoughts on God, but this possibly wasn't the setting for that. However, his links were still more lucid than the introductions of any of the award presenters. All these actors being feted for their supposedly excellent performances, yet none of them can read an autocue. The presenters only had two (fairly predictable) lines to say - could they not have learned them by heart so that their gushing could sound at least faintly authentic? David Beckham presented the award for Outstanding British Film like a five year old does phonics. But he is a footballer - he is allowed not to be able to read. But not an actor. It's a job requirement.

Unless you are in a Mike Leigh film, as he doesn't bother with scripts. Leigh received the Academy Fellowship this year, and actually bothered to turn up to receive it. I love his films, although haven't yet managed to see Mr Turner, which received four nominations but no awards this year. His improvised method of story-telling is so unique in cinema and, as Imelda Staunton (presenting the award) said, "organic". This reminded me of a play of Mike Leigh's I saw at the National Theatre many years ago, which was so "organic" that a live mouse appeared on set, thoroughly distracting the audience but not the cast discussing anti-Semitism on stage. I wish that the actors had noticed so they could have shown us their true ad-libbing skills. Mike Leigh was in the bar during the interval, but I didn't have the courage to ask him about it, fearing he might bite my head off. Or ask me something about Zionism.

I did see Mike Leigh's last film, Another Year, at the cinema. It was the second film I took my baby daughter to see at City Screen's Big Scream. This crazy notion of taking a babe-in-arms to a current film release in the cinema was a lifesaver for me during the first year of parenthood. It made me feel human again. Even if I missed half of every plot by crouching down on the floor changing nappies, or in later months chasing after my daughter determinedly crawling towards another baby's food. And even if the material being presented to her was utterly inappropriate - Lord Voldemort avada-kedavring, King George VI using the F-word, Aron Ralston cutting his own arm off. If my daughter had actually been conscious during Black Swan, she might not be so enthusiastic about her ballet lessons now. But at least I was familiar with most of that year's award nominees.

Whereas this year, things were pretty hopeless. Britain is usually so behind on film releases that Baftas are often to awarded to films not yet in our cinemas, but this year most of the nominees were already circulating. But I had only managed to see two of them, Wild and The Theory Of Everything. And that was only because our daughter was ill last weekend and my husband was kind enough to give me a pass out while he stayed at home to look after her. My husband and I used to go to the cinema at least twice a week, and had the time to read film reviews in the Sunday papers and London's Time Out magazine. But now seeing a film in the cinema is a rarity, especially together. Although the one film we saw together last year, '71, about a British soldier lost behind enemy lines in Belfast, did receive a mention, as its lead actor won the Rising Star Award.

Hit or miss on the red carpet?
There was lots of kissing. There were lots of poisonous looks from the ladies who didn't win, particularly from Wild's Reese Witherspoon. I bet I know whose toenail she'd like to pull off now. There were absent winners, most of whom were at a rival awards ceremony in LA. There were also people missing off the annual "death row" - Bob Hoskins being one, Geraldine McEwan another. There were lovely dresses and dodgy dresses, which is all anyone ever seems to care about. Personally I have no real idea what makes a dress a "hit" or "miss" in the fashion stakes, but I can tell you that the only dress I wanted to own was Imelda Staunton's. It was made of proper princess stuff. There was a pop band who had dressed up in beards and T shirts and whom I was supposed to have heard of. No one appeared to enjoy their performance. But Professor Hawking (another atheist called Stephen with a love life being much talked about at the moment) stole the show. It's incredible that he has survived against so many odds, including my dad nearly running him over in Cambridge when Hawking's wheelchair shot into the road in front of my dad's car.

I have never been to the Baftas of course, but that doesn't mean I am not under the illusion that I could get to go one day, when my screenplay for - well, that needs work - gets nominated. We used to think they ought to have subtitling awards ceremonies. "And the Bafta for best fast subtitle edit in a medical drama goes to Rebecca Dodgson for ER season five, episode four." "I must just thank the company's medical dictionary, which gave me the opportunity to use such fine spelling during the emergency thyroidectomy."

I have been to the Royal Opera House, the Baftas' venue of choice. My dad occasionally took me, not only to the very cheapest seats up in the gods, but at the very back of those gods too. But I can't really blame him, given the ticket prices. A better deal was to go to the Sunday afternoon recitals in the Floral Hall, where you were nearer the G&Ts in the bar and in spitting distance of the stage. There was no spitting of course, just lovely performances of the Trout Quartet or from Ian Bostridge.

And I did once stand behind Outstanding Debut By A British Actor, Writer Or Presenter award presenter Tom Hiddleston at an airport check-in. He wasn't so famous then. He was still flying Ryanair for one thing.

Slow and awkward the whole proceedings might have been, but away from the Baftas and the silly sponsor name, the two minds at the helm of the evening, Stephen Fry's and Stephen Hawking's, remain utterly brilliant. May intelligence always win the day.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Same Smile - St David's

Same Smile, for the uninitiated, is a well meaning show on CBeebies that aims to show us that “we’re all the same but different” and that the one thing we all do when we are happy is smile. A lady called Nisha visits nurseries around the country by tricycle, taking with her a "magic" suitcase and three brightly coloured pandas called Mish, Moosh and Mogo. Every episode has a different theme, such as pets, food or music. At the start, the suitcase is opened to reveal something representing the theme of the day. Two of Mish, Moosh and Mogo are then handed over to nursery children who go off to show them a good time. Nisha is hyper-enthusiastic, apart from when she has to say the set rhyming triplet that links to a video of the panda’s adventures, during which by this point in the series she could not sound more bored: “Moosh has gone with Harry to play - For new adventures on the way - I wonder what they’ll do today?” The remaining children and panda stay in the nursery and do something "fun" linked to the theme. The children who went away then come back to tell Nisha about their adventures, although if the programme was actually realistic - based on the nursery child in our house - they would just say, "I can't remember", "We didn't do anything" or "It's a secret". The children bring a souvenir for Nisha, which she puts into the "magic" suitcase. (The suitcase isn't magic, of course. It's just a battered old thing dug out of someone's loft that's been painted with stripes and had rainbow graphics superimposed over its empty insides. Call me the destroyer of all imagination if you like.)

St David's Cathedral
Anyway, our daughter loves this programme, and one day recently Nisha visited a nursery in St David’s, Pembrokeshire. The theme of the episode was "favourite days out". The magic suitcase contained a small backpack and a picnic basket and some sunhats. Moosh and Mogo were taken to the beach to go bodyboarding, to a caravan park for a barbecue, and for a sail on a boat round the bird reserve on Ramsey Island. The children remaining at the nursery shared a picnic outside (wearing the sunhats), though the picnic seemed to consist entirely of bananas. (No bamboo for these pandas!) Nisha's souvenirs were a panda-sized wetsuit and a cuddly razorbill, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

We spent our main summer holiday in Pembrokeshire two years ago, renting a stunning cottage in the clifftop hamlet of Trefin, about six miles north of St David’s. I had never been to Pembrokeshire before, but had had it recommended as a holiday destination by several different people. And it literally took our breath away. I don't just mean the stiff coastal breezes - it is simply so beautiful that rounding a corner to a new view can make you gasp out loud. If it weren't so far to go from York with a moaning child in the back of the car, I would have been back at least five times since.

We started the week in glorious sunshine but ended it in bracing sea storms. But we still went to a different beach every day, from Caerfai to Whitesands to Newport. We mostly ended up fishing yellow snails out of rock pools. But we also watched kites buffeting in the wind and built sand engine sheds for Gordon, a new toy acquired en route for 25p at a table-top sale in Machynlleth. There was a tiny bay just down the hill from our house. It was overlooked by a ruined mill and was like a smugglers' cove straight out of Enid Blyton. My husband and I took turns to sit there in the evenings, gazing up at a stone circle on the cliffs and watching the sun (if it was out) drop into the foaming sea.
Whitesands Bay

Sand engine sheds for Gordon on Newgale Beach
(A Peppa Pig poncho was compulsory beachwear, even over a winter coat.)

Rockpool finds

Our smugglers cove near Trefin


Trefin had no shop, but as it lies on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, it still has a cafe and a pub. Although we didn't need to use either as we had arranged online for Mr Tesco (in between fiddling his accounts and ripping off small producers) to deliver a week's groceries to our cottage five minutes after we arrived. Oh, the wonders of modern technology. Before we went to Pembrokeshire I had been rather snippy about yet another self-catering holiday, since they don't serve as any time off for me, the main (=only) cook in the family. However, the kitchen in the cottage was enormous, overlooked the garden and even had an island, and this final domestic goddess feature (together with a box of Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge) considerably raised my mood. As the cottage owners had young children, it was all perfectly designed for our still toddler, with easy-clean IKEA furniture, safety gates on all the stairs and a ramp of non-slip decking leading down to the garden and sandpit. There were also a few toys, but any children's books were in Welsh.

St David's is the UK's smallest city, really just a touristy village. We got a brief look at the cathedral, but our daughter had already spotted the Italian ice cream cafe and wouldn't let us linger. We got away without too many expensive trips to child-friendly attractions (waterslide parks, adventure farms, soft play lagoons etc) as our daughter was still too young for them. We did take her to a Pembrokeshire Sheep Dog show, which she still talks about to this day, but not in a positive light. This is because one of the dogs licked her on the face. But it was nothing a Freddo chocolate frog couldn't resolve, and the walk from the farm down to the Coastal Path (through fields full of a rare breed of cow) was incredible. Even though it was June, spring had come late, and the cliffs were covered in wildflowers. A sea otter leapt out of the water.

The highlight of St David's

Sheepdog show

Rare breed of cow

View from the farm boundary

We also drove down the narrow country lanes to Abereiddy, with its Blue Lagoon created by slate quarrying; to Picton Castle with its azaleas in full bloom and fairyland children's play area; to a vineyard drowning in rain; to the lighthouse at Strumble Head; and finally to Porthgain, where the fish and chips are rightly famous. Unlike the panda, we didn't make it on the boat trip to Ramsey Island as the seas were too ferocious to sail on. But I would have given anything to have been allowed to just set off walking along that spectacular coastal path and not stop until I reached Milfordhaven. As soon as you set foot on it, it was addictive. There was always the lure of what might lie around the next corner. One day, we will go back.

Blue Lagoon at Abereiddy

Picton Castle
Coastal path wildflowers