Thursday, 22 October 2015

Back To The Future 2

ITV2 and gin were the order of the evening yesterday. Having spent the afternoon preparing my daughter for today's zombie fest that is her school's annual Pumpkin Day (pumpkin muffins with blue icing and purple glitter for cake stall - check, ensure recycled Halloween costume from last year still fits - check, carve pumpkin and glue with feathers and wool - check) and wishing that these adorable crafting activities didn't always end in an argument, it was time to get drunk. Er, I mean, take stock. For I had time-travelled 30 years, albeit at a rate of, well, 30 years (although each one seems to go that little bit quicker) and had at last made it to the future visited by Doc Brown and Marty McFly in 1985. October 21st 2015 was here.

Had you asked me aged 12 where I thought I would be in 30 years, I am not sure the answer would have been "gin-drinking Yorkshire housewife", but that apparently is where all the education and qualifications I was working for at the time have led me. My school would be proud. (Especially given how shit I was at Home Economics.) And I wouldn't have said I'd be mother to just one highly strung only child either, but rather a whole Von Trapp posse of them. But hey ho, sometimes these are the hands we are dealt.

It's a Delorean!
Louwman Museum, The Hague

Being a lady of a certain age, in 1986 I was part of that hysterical teenage gang that had a crush on Michael J Fox - all five foot four of him. (We're the same height! It was meant to be.) You know the type - 13, spotty, bad bouffant hair, electric blue mascara, cerise polka-dot ra-ra skirt, giggling and squealing in the vicinity of boys. I developed a brief interest in skateboards, bodywarmers, fast cars and Huey Lewis And The News. But then I found out Michael J Fox smoked, so I went off him, in my goody-two-shoes kind of way. I don't suppose he thought it was any great loss.

Having reacquainted myself with Back To The Future 2 last night in the company of a glass of Mason's finest, I am looking around our house to see how it compares to the 1980s prediction. We are naturally constrained by living in a ramshackle Victorian terrace rather than a new-build, plus my husband and I are technologically challenged and always years out of date when it comes to household gadgets. But what do we have, out of all the crazy things in the film? Well, not much, it would seem. No flying car - just a Nissan Note and no space to park it. No pink Hoverboard, just a pink Princess bike and a pink scooter to fall over in our hallway. No pizza rehydrator - just a breadmaker and a diametrically opposed slow cooker. No self-tying trainers, unless Velcro counts. (Though I expect my daughter would claim she owns a pair, since hers apparently come with a ready-made Mummy slave.) No fax machine because, duh, they died out in the 1990s. No biometric thumbprint keys, but my daughter's school library does issue books using them.  No Google Glass or Apple Watch (not called as such in the film, obviously), though they at least exist. Our spectacles and timepieces have retained their original functions, for now. But instant online weather forecasts - yes! (But reliable to the second - no.) Flat-screen TV - yes! Skype video calls - yes! (If I could just remember my password.)

They didn't see smartphones, apps, Twitter or Facebook coming. Let alone blogging.

Not a hoverboard
Not a pizza rehydrator
Sadly, medical rejuvenation packages are not much more advanced than they were in the 80s. No new colons or spleens for the Doc Browns of 2015. People still die young of terrible diseases. No cure for Parkinson's either, the hell of which Michael J Fox has endured for 25 years. Having watched a dear family friend battle through it for the last decade, popping pill after pill but becoming ever limited in her mobility and her world, that's one cause very close to my heart.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Restoring Britain's Landmarks

Oh, Wednesday night with no more Bake-Off or Doctor Foster - see what you've done to me. I have to watch renovation programmes instead. Which is, like, literally watching paint dry.

This new series highlights the work of The Landmark Trust, who do up dilapidated buildings of one-time historical significance and then rent them out as holiday lets - at significant prices.

This week they were in Lyme Regis, Lancaster and Hougoumont. The latter because the Landmark Trust will travel as far as Belgium if a property on the site of the Battle of Waterloo is involved. They send over their furniture designer John, who is the sort of bloke that has a towel rail collection (because "You never know when someone might break one by putting a wet towel on it") and wanders around warehouses saying things like "Haven't we got a box of Pugin handles?" In Belgium, John gets cross with the excessive and ugly lighting his counterpart has installed. Said counterpart has a wonderful line in Gallic shrugs to respond to John's withering comments. "What blind man chose this paint colour?" Shrug. "I feel like I haven't been heard." Another shrug. Maybe that's because you insist on speaking English to him rather than French.

In Lancaster, they are restoring the gilded ceiling of the Music Room, and creating a marbled effect on the walls using beer and swan feather brushes. The painter's cheeks end up speckled in gold leaf. He plainly loves his job.

In Lyme Regis, they are working on Belmont, a "maritime villa" owned by Eleanor Coade from 1784 and lived in from 1968 by John Fowles, the author of The French Lieutenant's Woman. Eleanor Coade invented Coade stone, an artificial weatherproof stone used for various statues across London and for the embellishment of Regency properties. Coade ran a factory in Lambeth roughly on the site of St Thomas's Hospital by the Thames, opposite the future Houses of Parliament. It's extraordinary to learn about a successful business woman in the Georgian era.

Needless to say, Belmont is covered in Coade stone, like a great big advert for the family trade. And it is soon, after the demolition of an extension, restored to its former glory by the Landmark Trust. (Although not as soon as the television programme would have you believe, it transpires, once you delve into local newspaper articles online.) Now open for business, it's fully booked until 2017. But somehow I don't think they would welcome our five year old's sticky fingers.

Just as well, then, that I have a friend who lives eight miles away. We went to visit her this summer and spent a rainy day in Lyme Regis. It was sunny up on the hill in Devon where we were staying - perfect beach weather. But Lyme down in the bay in Dorset was drenched in soggy drizzle. It was full of depressed families having arguments, wistfully remembering the summers of yore, when it didn't tip it down for the whole of August. Not even the happy (I won't say clappy) Christians playing Duck, Duck, Goose and making custard pies on the beach could cheer the kids up.

Arguing families on the beach

Unaware of Eleanor Coade at the time, we resorted to following the footsteps of another famous Lyme lady, Mary Anning. She collected fossils, discovered the ichthyosaur and is the subject of Tracy Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures. There are two fossil museums in Lyme Regis, only one of which is officially recognised and only one of which contains Lego. But if you want to see bad plastic dinosaurs and mouldy taxidermy, by all means visit the other. Neither museum occupied our girl's attention for long, so soon it was back onto the Cobb to watch the crabby families crabbing and screaming for ice cream. Nonetheless, our daughter was inspired enough to write a story over lunch in a cafe, the only word of which she could spell correctly was "chips".

Fossil Museum

Another Fossil Museum 
Fossil beach

Walking The Cobb

Crabbing and crabby

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Great British Menu

The Great British Menu this year was for a banquet celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Women's Institute.

I watched it solely to follow the progress of Michael O'Hare.

He now runs the quirky and glamorous Man Behind The Curtain on the top floor of Flannels in Leeds. But before he set up shop there, he was chef at a place called The Blind Swine in York. And we managed to get a table on my husband's 40th birthday, just before the restaurant's lease expired.

A blind swine?
We had no idea The Blind Swine was about to close. Although the fact that it was nearly empty that night did raise mild alarm, not to mention disparaging comments about the people of York not knowing a good thing when they saw it. So "managing" to get a table wasn't much of a mean feat in our case, although it was a wet Tuesday in December and would have been a different story on a weekend.

We nearly didn't go as our three-year-old, true to form, had been poorly all day. But it was my husband's 40th. And our lovely babysitter said she didn't mind if she had a disturbed evening. And if we hadn't taken the risk, we would - it turned out - never have got to go, as three weeks later, The Blind Swine ran its last service.

The Blind Swine was never your average fine-dining restaurant. It was very dark, in both lighting and walls, and played loud, grungy music. There were a lot of tattoos. It was primarily a bar, but not one I would have voluntarily stepped into off the street. It looked too scary. Too death metal. Too not me.

And yet.

And yet it served the most finessed, exquisite and delicate food I have ever eaten.

There was no menu. You just turned up and were brought food. You had no idea what was coming. And you weren't always sure what had come when it arrived. You just took the plunge and let your senses take over. Sheer extravagant exhilaration.

It's surprisingly hard to recall all the details of our meal now, given that it was so unforgettable at the time. I suspect that this has a lot to do with us ordering a cocktail flight to go with each course. And to do with us being 40 with a young child and no longer having a head for alcohol. (I don't think I ever had a head for alcohol.) It didn't help that we got only two hours' sleep after returning home before our daughter woke up coughing and then sat awake in our bed watching Pingu DVDs until dawn. The next day, nursing a sick child and the mother of all hangovers, was the longest of my life.

My diary reminds me that we had Lindisfarne oysters, foie gras with potato, bread, gazpacho with hake, pork cheek with chorizo risotto, saffron and pomegranate ice cream, passion fruit souffle, chocolate crispies and campari sweeties. But the one dish that has stayed with us is Whitby crab with Granny Smith apple. It was deceptively simple, but so incredibly fresh and pure. Palate cleansing. Mouth enriching. Life enhancing. It was presented to us by Michael O'Hare himself, as it was a new creation. He was peroxide blonde at the time, like a young Noddy Holder - a comparison he may not relish. I certainly wouldn't have said that to his face, since he looked mildly terrifying. And yet he was utterly charming and soft-spoken and gracious. You couldn't imagine that his big beefy arms had such a lightness of touch in the kitchen.

Crab and Granny Smith apple. Not how it was presented.

How come he was here? Why wasn't he in some triple Michelin starred restaurant? Was it that he couldn't fit in, with his taste in music and loathing of light? Had he been too restless to settle down? I was fascinated.

The waiter said O'Hare had done a stint at Noma in Copenhagen, and it showed. It was very special to get a taste of the best restaurant in the world on our home turf in York.

We haven't managed to go to the Man Behind The Curtain. Friends have, and apparently the food is still out of this world, but Michael O'Hare has upped the glamour, and upped the price. The Blind Swine was stupidly reasonable for the quality of food on offer.

How lucky we were that we got to taste his food while we could still afford it. I imagine, following O'Hare's success on The Great British Menu, that managing to get a table at the Man Behind The Curtain will now definitely be a mean feat. He is about to get massive. Go global. Be on telly a whole lot more. And it is a richly deserved success.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

From Darkness

Fair Isle, anyone?
Is it me or is this one big "crime thriller" cliche after another? It's The Killing meets Morse meets Luther meets Prime Suspect. (Though there are currently no suspects.) Here's a gruff Cockney cop with an Oxbridge sidekick who has a phobia of blood. Here's a brooding ex-cop staring towards the distant horizon, running away and running some more. (She probably needs some nice Fair Isle sweaters too, living where does.) Here are prostitute bones unearthed by an excavator.

We flit between grimy, rainy Manchester and a beautiful remote Scottish island. Red wine is slurped but not spilled over police files. And at an overly attended pub ceilidh for an island of 38 residents, the brooding ex-cop finally smiles. (There must be a lock-in.)

The brooding ex-cop now bakes biscuits for a living. And to burn off the biscuits, she trains to be an Iron Woman. Not an Iron Lady. Or an ironing lady. Hence the running. No metaphor whatsoever.

And yet she doesn't want to be reminded of the girls she "let down" 15 years ago. She doesn't want to talk about it. But the gruff cop says she has to. She is the only one who "knows". And the killer is still killing, though seemingly - and conveniently - not for the 15 years in between. The latest victim dies with the brooding ex-cop's lapel number clutched in her fist.

It's enough to suck you in. It truly is. But it also doesn't seem very original.

The scenery is gorgeous though. No rain on these Scottish islands, just never-ending sunshine and light. No midges either. You wouldn't wish to be anywhere else, if it looked like that all the time and you weren't likely to be attacked by a vicious cloud of insects the moment you set foot out the door.

From Darkness took me back to my last ever family holiday in 1995, staying in a possibly haunted cottage on the road between Fort William and Mallaig. The walls were lilac and despite the midnight twilight, the cottage was full of the eponymous darkness. We occupied the long evenings with arguments, bad Mills & Boon novels and a very large jigsaw - the only entertainment provided, other than midges.

Glen Coe
By day, we saw lochs a-plenty - Linnhe, Morar, Shiel. And locks a-plenty - at Neptune's staircase on the Caledonian Canal. We went walking in Glen Coe and Glen Nevis. At the latter we picked up two teenagers and their tent, the teenagers pock-marked by midge bites from head to toe. We saw the monument of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the railway viaduct crossed by the Hogwarts Express at Glenfinnan. And as for the islands, we went to Mull, Eigg and Iona.

Eigg was boilingly sunny, and dolphins and minke whales swam alongside our boat. Upon landing, a tractor serving as the island's bus service drove us to the Singing Sands. Singing sands really meant squeaking sands and it took vigorous foot friction to get any sound at all. Not that you can complain about anything when this is the view:

Singing Sands on Eigg

And on these islands there was also death. On a misty Iona we made a pilgrimage to John Smith's grave. He had died only the year before. The grave was shrouded in mist, a slab of rock marked by flowers, solitary pebbles and the words "An honest man's the noblest work of God."

At Aonach Mor, working the chairlift was a climber's husband, being interviewed by ITN and waiting for news. His wife Alison Hargreaves perished that week in a snowstorm on the side of K2. We were on the slopes of a sunny Ben Nevis, which people were ascending in sandals and stilettos. She had both conquered and been destroyed by a brutal mountain on the other side of the world, in almost the same breath. And her body had not yet been found.

Ben Nevis

Aonach Mor

Monday, 5 October 2015

Antiques Roadshow

I don't actually watch the Antiques Roadshow. I could never take it seriously after that Victoria Wood Christmas sketch when someone took in a lidless blender. ("Now you've settled an argument!") But I happened to catch the final few minutes last night before tuning in to new "psychological crime thriller" From Darkness. (More on that later.) They were in Durham. A lad was showing his grandfather's World War II medals. He claimed he would never sell them, but after hearing they might fetch £3,000 there was - dare I say - just the teensiest bit of wavering to be detected in his eyes. Then Fiona Bruce showed us a mystery object brought along by Glenda (which rhymes with blender). This turned out to be a knitting stick, or goosewing - basically a carved strip of wood you wedge in your armpit to hold one of your knitting needles. This frees your arm up to do something else, like hold a glass of wine, or - as they suggested - herd sheep along to market. Multi-tasking the old-fashioned way. Anyway, I thought my friend at the Twisted Yarn might be interested. Because frankly even a third arm wouldn't help my knitting.

But it gave me a little moment of nostalgia. I am sure that the Antiques Roadshow has visited Durham many times over the years, but this sent me back to September 1997, when I saw it being filmed there. I wasn't taking along any family heirlooms to be valued, you understand, of which we have none anyway. Back then I was about to embark on my Master's degree at the University of Newcastle. I had gone up a week before the start of term and my Jesmond flatmates hadn't moved in yet, so I had spent a couple of days going completely stir-crazy by myself, not knowing anybody or having anything to do other than unpacking. I felt a long way from home. (I was a long way from home.) I had just split up with my boyfriend, and while this was no bad thing ultimately, I have to confess I felt terribly lonely. So on a sunny day on Tyneside, I decided to get out and explore. And I took myself off to Durham on the train for the day. It's only a ten-minute journey from Newcastle Central. And what a lovely city it is. As Bill Bryson says, if you haven't seen Durham Cathedral, then what have you been doing all your life? You must. You can even (apparently) borrow his car. I'd lend you mine, but it only just scraped through its MOT and there's not enough tread left on the tyres. Look, it's simply stunning:

(Durham Cathedral, that is. Not our car.)

Anyway, down by the weir on the river, er, Wear, looking up at the cathedral, the then Antiques Roadshow presenter Hugh Scully (on a break from filming) strolled past me on a bridge. And he gave me a lovely smile and said hello. Just because he was friendly and nice. In my miserable frame of mind that day, it meant a lot. 

The rest of my year in Newcastle was brilliant. But it definitely had a shaky start. And Hugh Scully of the Antiques Roadshow - of all people - made me feel a little bit better about it.