Monday, 29 February 2016

Trapped




I'd write a lot more about Trapped if I hadn't just written about Fortitude. Fortitude kind of stole Trapped's thunder. Which is a shame, because despite certain similarities, Trapped is far better.

I used Fortitude as an excuse to write about Iceland, since the majority of Fortitude was filmed there. Whereas Trapped is Icelandic through and through, born and bred, in word and image. It's set in a seaport as remote as Fortitude. (It's possibly even the same seaport used in Fortitude.) A torso is found in the water just as a ferry docks from Denmark. Then a snowstorm hurtles in, cutting off the community and leaving everyone trapped, with a murderer possibly still in their midst.



Five episodes in, and the town has no power supply or phone network after an elderly delinquent set off an avalanche. The only people still with light are the sailors on the ferry; everyone else has cosy candles. But the geothermal activity is keeping the swimming pool and sports hall heated and the showers steaming hot. For now.

As in Fortitude, there are sexual shenanigans, slightly feral children, corrupt politicians, ambitious redevelopment projects, actors from The Killing, women who never wear hats in snow, bad fish, illegal drugs, revolting things happening in sheds, dodgy foreigners, and brooding policemen with issues. The latter, Andri, a great big bearded bear of a man, has apparently become a sex symbol. Cuddly, yes, but sexy? Well, there never has been much accounting for taste. But you do like him, and want him to find happiness. He still wears his wedding ring, but his ex-wife has moved on so far that she thinks it's perfectly OK to come to stay with him and their daughters with her new partner. Andri must be grateful for the distraction the murder then provides.



The police department is as small and isolated as the one on Fortitude, and the HQ in Reykjavik can't get any reinforcements through. The coppers are not incompetent, but would surely save themselves a lot of hassle (death, injury and theft, for example) if they could just get their holding cell kitted out with a potty.

That said, it seems the local community know more about what is happening in the case than the police. Even after Twitter crashes. I am not quite sure who the mole is, but everybody knows everybody's business without anyone seemingly being told. It's like the facts osmose through the ether, or through the pipes like all that geothermally heated water. Maybe the information comes from the old guy in the wheelchair, who spies on the town through a telescope in his farmhouse up on high. He sees the mayor beating and raping his wife, the town bureaucrats arguing, the policewoman offering the trafficked African girls a safe haven, and her husband growing weed.

I hope that Trapped will carry on in a similar vein, slow-paced but gripping. There is much left to reveal, and I trust that it will be, as the darkness returns to light. There's not only the current murders, but also the past too - who set the fire that killed Andri's wife's sister and maimed her boyfriend? Is it the same arsonist who just did for the mayor in his shed? Only please let the explanation have nothing to do with parasitic wasps.



Friday, 26 February 2016

Half term hellidays

How can a week in term-time fly by so quickly, but a week of school holiday last an eternity?

This week back in "normality" has gone in a flash, but half-term last week felt like forever. I don't know why. It's not like my daughter was particularly bad company. Or that we were short of things to do. Alas, there was no exciting travel to go on, but thanks to living in a family friendly city, our days were full, and the telly kept to a minimum. But nonetheless the days were definitely twice as long as a normal day.

Anyway, because successful bloggers do top tens, here are our top ten February half-term in Yorkshire activities:

1. The Jorvik Viking Festival


As well as lots of bearded men wandering around dressed in scratchy blankets, the encampments on Coppergate and Parliament Street gave kids the chance to watch knitting, try on helmets, take selfies in front of longboats, and see stuffed and live animals. There was also a craft tent where you could make badges and T shirts and jewellery, although not for free. However, you could play some weird hybrid of chess and battleships, colour in a picture and stamp your name in runes without handing over any of their Viking coins.

Longboat and half a Viking

My favourite sheep ever


2. The Sign Was Back!


"Welcome To York, Where The Men Are Hunky And The Chocolate Chunky". It's a generational thing. A massive Yorkie bar on a board outside York station, only visible from the left-hand side of the northbound train. Then Aviva decided to advertise there instead and life was never the same again. But to celebrate Yorkie's 40th birthday, York Chocolate Story decided to resurrect the sign in Kings Square. It was a bit of a let-down. It wasn't even 3D. And it instantly cost me a Yorkie bar, since my daughter didn't know what one was. But the sign was back!

She obscured the lie

Still looking for those hunky men, after all these years.

3. Museums And Art Galleries


Museums always say that they have special half-term activities on for all the family. But - let's face it - these are mostly boxes of crayons left out on tables. With a paper template and scissors. And the grown-ups end up doing it all. We (or rather I) made some puppets at the city Art Gallery and an Edwardian donkey at the Castle Museum. Are you impressed?



4. Snowdrop Planting at Beningbrough Hall.


Despite the fact Arctic winds were blowing, we helped Beningbrough plant 300,000 snowdrops to celebrate its 300th birthday, all along its ha-ha walk. If they hadn't offered us free parkin and hot apple juice afterwards, I'd have said they were having the last laugh, ha ha. After a brisk run-around in the play area it was time to catch the cafe's last cup of tea of the day.


5. Swimming.


We managed to catch the pool not too full in school holidays, possibly because they were colouring the water pink. The management thought it would be fun, but it just made parents suspicious. "Who's bleeding?" "Who wee-ed?" "Is it safe?" Anyway, our visit coincided with that of not one but two school friends so that meant instant entertainment for the girl and an easier hour for me (even if I still got wet). Result - until my electronic locker key failed on exit. We then had a long wait, dripping and cold in the changing room, until a pool attendant reunited us with our towels and clothes.

6. Playdates


These are good when they are at other people's houses, less good when it's your gaff getting trashed.

7. A trip to the seaside


Off to Scarborough, where it hailed. We took shelter in the arcades (we won a Bassett's Fruit Salad!) and the Clock Cafe, which hasn't changed in fifty years and gives a free bucket & spade to kids who order fish fingers.

8. Snow


And the next day, after all that hail, there was proper snow in York. Hurrah! Or a thick layer of encrusted ice at least. You could just about make a snowball. But it was exciting for this generation of kids growing up with global warming.

9. A trip to Leeds.


Always keen to use our Family and Friends Railcard, we went to Leeds to see a show. We met Daddy for lunch in a shopping centre and then went to see The Bear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was based on the Raymond Briggs book. It was lovely. The polar bear did a poo. My daughter laughed. Then it went back to the North Pole to have a baby. My daughter cried.


10. Mums Night Out


A necessary part of any school holiday. A mummy friend talked me into going to a burlesque show. Only it wasn't so much burlesque as sordid striptease. With only women's wobbly bits on display. The ukulele band in the first part of the evening had lured us into a false sense of security. We left choking on Johnson's Baby Powder.

The grand pink uke of York


And only four weeks til Easter. Arse.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Greece With Simon Reeve



Tough times are afoot in Greece. Simon Reeve's travelogue initially conjures up the expected images of sun, sea, sandy beaches, hilly islands of white houses, and tavernas bursting with music, ouzo and dancing.



And then there's the reality. Economic crisis. Migrant crisis. Environmental crisis. In short, a lot of crises. Boatload after boatload of Syrian refugees are turning up on the beaches of Lesvos. The sponge industry is dying, as are the sponges, thanks to catastrophic pollution. The divers trying to find them on the Mediterranean floor are dying too: pushed to take risks, they collapse of the bends. Children are scavenging on carcinogenic landfill sites where a lack of recycling is all too evident. Rich people are getting richer and not paying tax on their swimming pools. The people of Crete are firing guns.

"This is Europe in 2015," says Reeve, and it's hard to stomach. The Euro is based on a Greek letter, and it's not news that Greece was allowed into the Eurozone without meeting the necessary financial criteria. With access to a pot of unchecked loans, the government turned into spendaholics. They have a nice new Underground in Athens and various other Olympic legacies to show for it. But now they are being forced into austerity so that some of the debts can be repaid, and the citizens aren't, well, buying it. There is arson and discontent on the streets. There is aggression towards Reeve's own camera crew, filming on a patch the local wannabe mafia think they own.


The gun-toters on Crete don't want to give any money back to the Germans. They are still full of resentment about the suffering inflicted on their islanders by the Nazis during the Second World War. Their leader is a priest, but not one who preaches forgiveness. A group of shepherds in the hills fire their pistols into the night sky at random intervals. It seems mainly to prove a point; a point where you or I might use an exclamation mark instead.

The plight of the Syrians is heart-breaking. They are coming ashore in their hundreds. There is no one to reject them, but no one to welcome them either. The whole situation appears entirely unmonitored. The people have had to abandon any possessions they set off with. They may have a phone left, but otherwise just the clothes they stand up in. A man nods at the TV crew and says he was a cameraman in Syria, but now he has nothing. This bald statement of fact moves Reeve more than any other. Later, Reeve gives a lift to a woman suffering from heat exhaustion, trudging along the asphalt in searing 40 degree temperatures. But despite the fact she is with her young child and her sister, her husband forces her back out of the car as he does not like her accepting help from another man. Huge clashes of cultures and beliefs surely await as they continue their long journey to who knows where.

Beach at Potami, Evia

We visited Greece in happier times, and how I long to return to that gorgeous idyll. We spent a week on a walking holiday on the island of Evia. It's a large island and back then it wasn't touristy - more a place Athens folk hopped over to for a mini-break, catching the ferry from Rafina. But it was worth travelling to from further afield. Evia has a spectacular gorge, the Dimosari, that easily rivals the more famous Samaria on Crete. We spent a day descending its shady paths, spotting rare orchids and poppy meadows and paddling in refreshing pools. We ended up on a beach so perfect and secluded it was how you might imagine paradise. A taverna, the sole building for miles, served what was essentially a lunch of egg and chips, but the eggs had been laid that morning, the potatoes grown in the garden and the feta sprinkled on top hand-made. Dessert was halva topped with home-made yoghurt, strawberries from the garden and honey from the family's hives. I would rate it as one of the best meals of my life, and yet it was unutterably simple.

Dimosari Gorge





A fleet of taxis drove down an unsurfaced mountain road to collect us, and the journey back to our hotel in Karystos was more than a little hair-raising. We had a similar level of high-octane adventure when a spectacular hailstorm swept in on a sunny day and nearly washed us off a mountainside. On another walk our legs were ripped by gorse thorns and the heat became unbearable.

Evia hail

But other than that, it was the most relaxing and beautiful week. We visited tiny Orthodox churches and mountainside monasteries celebrating Easter, and an abandoned marble quarry with Roman pillars that had never been exported, left pointing out to the Aegean centuries ago. Goats and tortoises ambled alongside our walks. There was a dubious afternoon tasting the local dessert wine. Romances blossomed amongst our fellow walkers. We spent the evenings drinking one-euro bottles of local red on our balcony, watching the sun slip into the sea. (The wine didn't taste nearly so good when we took a bottle home.) The hotel had its own private pebbly beach, where the water was gloriously cool and shoals of fish swam around us.

Roman pillars at Kilindri

Tortoise and goats accompanying our hike

Monastery of St George

Montofoli vines, Greek flag, the rest is a blur

There was a taverna next to the hotel run by a Scottish family. The food was incredible but our bill never came to more than six euros a head. On the last night we walked along the beach into the town and ate slow spit-roasted lamb by the sea. The food was consistently wonderful, and the appetite on our long day hikes well earned.

I don't want Evia to be suffering the same fate of the places Reeve is visiting, but it must be. Our holiday guide was a local character who was passionate about the island and a wealth of knowledge and history. I can't imagine what he must make of it all.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The (Second) Real Marigold Hotel

Photo credits: David Dodgson

So part two last night. More yoga, more farting, more sweat, more diarrhoea, more marigold garlands. And I got my more Jan Leeming. Heartbreaking to see her feeling so sad and lonely. Old age (not that she is what I would call old at 74) can be a very isolating place. Partners come, go, and don't come back, or they move on to the big resting place in the sky, and it's tough to be left behind. I've seen it happen to the older generations of our family. It must be tough to have the energy to meet new people, find new social circles and activities in later life. (I think these things are hard enough in your 40s.) 

But look, there's a new friend for you, Jan - Rosemary Shrager in a steam bath being a teensy bit bonkers. Brilliant.

And this time there was more on the medical system in India. There's good news - the heat seems to be relieving the arthritis, although stairs are still a struggle. The celebs all go off to the hospital. An all-out hi-tech check-up for £300? Can't argue with that. I'd be signed up right away, contributing to the local health tourism economy. 

The bargains continue - a shave and a haircut for the blokes for a quid, a trip to the laundry for the ladies to get all their washing done. 

There was an exhausting train journey to Agra. Crowded chaos and more of that first episode panic on the station platforms. A bed for everybody in the teeming carriages, although some of them involved a lot of climbing. A questionable toilet, said Miriam. Lots of henna. And singing. And dancing.

And this at the end of it:


I haven't been to India, but my dad once cycled around Rajasthan. Hence the photos. Only my dad could make the Taj Mahal lean as much as his DIY shelving. But apparently it (the Taj Mahal, not my dad's DIY) never disappoints. I'll have to ask Dad if he ever thought of retiring to Jaipur. (He chose Cumbria instead.) I'm starting to see the benefits.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Real Marigold Hotel

Those marigolds again

A couple of weeks ago we happened to watch The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the sequel to (obviously) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film about a group of old folk who choose to spend their retirement in a dilapidated hotel in India. The second part - with added Richard Gere - was so colourful and vibrant that for the first time I felt a proper yearning to go to India. Maybe I've been starved of foreign culture for too long. Maybe the cooking aromas from the curry house round the corner were particularly strong that day. Or maybe India really is that wonderful. Could a trip there work with a five-year-old? Would there be too much heat, too much spicy food, too much hassle, too much dysentery?

The curry house does bad puns for the Tour de France


To help us decide, now we have the Real Marigold Hotel in the "real" India. It's going to show you the slums, the stench and the sweat. Instead of the grand dames of British acting Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton in a sort of Downton Mumbai, it's a D-list of celebrities packing their pills, dresses and Vegemite into suitcases and heading off for a three-week experiment in Jaipur. Their aim is to see whether it really is practical and possible to retire to India, as the characters did in the films.

The practical side of things soon goes out the window - the trip is definitely more of an extended holiday, with some attempt to get to know the locals. The celebs don't make any effort to register with the authorities or work out how to get their pensions paid or their repeat prescriptions filled. Because that wouldn't make interesting telly. Whereas seeing them try to negotiate their way between the crazy traffic and cows on the streets, shop at a crowded market and find a public toilet when caught short in said market does. Unlike their thespian counterparts, they do stick out like very British sore thumbs. "Do you speak English?" they boom in panic.

And there is a lot of panicking, at least amongst the ladies. None of them (understandably) like seeing a chicken get its throat slit for their dinner - it's a harsh realisation that poultry doesn't come pre-plucked in Marks & Spencer's packaging in Rajasthan. Cake cook Rosemary Shrager looks like she's about to have a stroke as she sets off on a trip to buy lemons and flour, bless her. Afterwards she is made to sit still and meditate. Sigh, hum, relaaaaax... It works, briefly. Wayne Sleep tries to protect the neurotic ladies from a tribe of marauding monkeys, but it's his own nuts that get nicked.

Miriam Margolyes does not do Marigolds
There are morning yoga sessions, which inspire Wayne, recovering from cancer, to discover his spiritual side. He longs to dance again, after a year of treatment. By the end of the programme he has his tap shoes on.

At least two of the team have arthritis (hence the vast amounts of pills). Patti Boulaye soon has diarrhoea. Miriam Margolyes is not apologetic for her farting, nor for her refusal to do any housework. It's quickly decided - after only one communal meal - that they need servants. But that caste system is a jolly bad thing they say, as they while away a luxurious evening drinking alcohol in their palatial haveli before going off to meet royalty.

There is no avoiding the poverty though. Darts player Bobby George makes the most astute and empathetic observations. "Until we are sitting on the floor with them, we aren't in India," he says. He is visibly moved by the plight of the poor, and the one who is most prepared to assimilate culturally, which isn't what you might expect. That's me, wrongly stereotyping darts players. Speaking of which, he's brought a board over with him, to give the locals lessons.

No one knows who Bobby is, not even the English people. Whereas the other celebrities have to get used to not being recognised. They resort to showing pictures of themselves on their phones to the locals. "I was in Harry Potter," says Miriam. "I am a ballet dancer" says Wayne Sleep. "No, not belly, ballet." "I was Doctor Who," says Sylvester McCoy. "It's been running for fifty years." He doesn't mention that he was such a bad Doctor Who that he closed the show down for 16 of them. (Sorry, Sylvester, but you killed it for me too.) He now plays the spoons.

But anonymity in their old age may be appealing. As is the low cost of living in India. They don't mind being ripped off in the market as it's all still cheap as chips to them. But both the films and the programme inadvertently raise the serious issue of how hard it can be to cope financially in retirement if you haven't got a decent pension. Especially if you haven't managed to hold on to your health, or pay off a mortgage. And they also show the pressure of communal living if you have grown used to a life of independence. (Rosemary and Miriam are clearly headed for a fight, oh yes.) I for one would not feel comfortable being flung together with a load of strangers, as you would be in any retirement village anywhere in the world. I didn't like sharing a flat aged 20 or 30, and I'm fairly sure I'd hate it even more aged 70. (Present husband's company excepted.)

And is going to live on the other side of the world, far from all your family and friends, really the answer? Is India the answer? It remains to be seen. In the meantime, I'm wanting more Jan Leeming. She's been too unassuming in the background. I used to write poems about Jan Leeming when I was eight. Yes, really. I had a thing about her gold (marigold?) earrings when she read the news. No idea why.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Fortitude

This was our latest Scandi Noir murder mystery box set. Except it ended up quite a different kettle of (fermented) fish. At first it seemed like a straightforward whodunnit with added snow and thermals, but then it turned into a haunting nightmare of feral children, disembowelment and prehistoric wasps. It didn't hold back in the packing of its punches or the releasing of its blood.

I was attracted by the high calibre cast, but it seemed the director wasn't afraid to kill even the most famous of them off at the drop of a woolly glove. Or woolly mammoth. Christopher Eccleston didn't even last the first episode. Stanley Tucci and Michael Gambon stayed longer, but fell well before the saga's end. Sofie Grabol, sounding rather awkward in English, did live to see another day, but her ice hotel had been shelved, her marriage wrecked and her community left in tatters. Richard Dormer was similarly whole physically - but mentally in bits.

The remote Arctic Circle community was chock-a-block with multi-national weirdos. There were a lot of "issues", and people running away from past demeanours. It's quite surprising that Fortitude had such a low crime rate before the TV crew rocked up, given the large amount of guns knocking about this group of fuck-ups. The folk of Svalbard occupied themselves with hunting, feeding each other, and swinging. According to Stanley Tucci, a home where the latter is welcome is signified by wind chimes tinkling outside. I didn't know that. The previous owners of our house left a big wind chime "swinging" in our back yard, you see, so this revelation made me rather worried. Thankfully it seems the other residents of York are as ignorant of the wind chime's double meaning as me.

Wind chime swinging

The scenery in Fortitude was stunning, especially when the polar bears turned up. But the performances were often stilted (not by the polar bears) and the plot slow burning. But despite the sedentary pace, some facts about certain characters weren't spelled out clearly enough. Because of all the swinging, I couldn't always get to grips with who was shagging whom before it became critically relevant. And everyone starts to look the same when muffled to the nines.

This polar bear lives in Doncaster

The DVD extras revealed that the series was actually filmed in Iceland rather than Norway. The crew went to a place where they thought they would have guaranteed snow (the clue perhaps in the name) but they ended up having to import snow from London, where they'd all just come from.


I spent a crazy few days in Iceland in July 2000, although in comparison to the shenanigans in Fortitude, "crazy" is probably too strong a word. It felt crazy at the time though. I was with a Danish friend who was - in short - a lot more free-spirited than me. I definitely cramped her style for a few days. She wanted to hitchhike; I insisted on taking the bus. She wanted to wild camp on swamps, I wanted a toilet that wasn't a hole in the turf. (I'm sorry, I just don't do well without plumbing.) She was on a student budget, hence the need to live in a tent. Although I was hardly rolling in money myself. Iceland is very expensive. It would be nice to go back with a bit more cash in my pocket. I have no idea when that will be. (Although the country has since gone bankrupt so maybe my pounds would go further now.) We ate porridge oats, raisins and water for breakfast and steamed dried fish and lentils for tea. On the last day we treated ourselves to lunch in a cafe in Reykjavik and for dinner - having been granted use of the kitchen in the youth hostel next to the campsite - we cooked lamb steaks, washed down with a bottle of cava we'd splashed out on in a state liquor store. It would have been red wine until we remembered - in the days before the screw-top bottle became ubiquitous - that we didn't have a corkscrew.

Under canvas, I craved a night in a house like this

The weather was nearly as wild as my friend's ambition - for even in the height of summer, the wind was searing and the rain relentless. Thankfully I had invested in new waterproofs, and they came into their own. I'd foolishly taken a torch along - no need for that in Iceland in July as it didn't get dark. I remember reading Harry Potter in my sleeping bag until nearly midnight.

Waterproofs and hat still necessary in a rare moment of sun
if only to camouflage yourself against the lighthouse

We spent a couple of days in and around Reykjavik. We bathed in the Blue Lagoon amongst the lunar landscape of lava fields and industrial effluent of Keflavik. I took myself on the "Golden Circle" coach tour to see the waterfall at Gulfoss and the geysers at Geysir, which couldn't have looked any less golden in the deluge.

Blue Lagoon

Gulfoss

We then headed up to Stykissholmur for three nights. I loved it there - a small fishing community of brightly coloured houses and a space-age church, where the air was the purest I have ever known. There is so little pollution in Iceland - there aren't many cars, and no fossil fuels are burned as they get all their power from geothermal activity. This means that the aforementioned plumbing can smell rather sulphurous. But it feels good.

Stykissholmur


Space-age church


We went hiking at Grundarfjordur, which had a spectacular needle-point mountain, a babbling brook and no trees. My friend insisted that our luggage would be safe simply left dumped in a petrol station forecourt. Living in crime-ridden London at the time I had my doubts, but she was right. It was Fortitude as it should have been. With or without the swinging.



Grundarfjordur