Monday, 28 December 2009

One of life's great mysteries...

Overheard today in a shop...a husband desperately trying to find the matching shoe of a pair that his wife wanted in the sales. He couldn't find it anywhere on the shelves, or under the mountain of discarded bargains. "One of life's great mysteries," he proclaimed with a grin on his face. For some reason this made me chuckle. I think because usually shopping in the sales can be quite a stressful experience, especially for chaps who have been dragged there by their other halves, but this fellow definitely had a nice attitude about it all.

Sale bargain

A few weeks ago, shopping / blogging queen India Knight flagged up this amazing handbag from Marks and Spencer. I wanted it, but at £79 it was a tad expensive. So imagine my joy today when, whilst shopping in the Bristol sales with my mum, she managed to find the last remaining bag in the colour I wanted, a bargain at £39! Go mum!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

My year in words

A whirlwind year to cap off a whirlwind decade. Here are the most notable bits that happened to me:

Happiest moment

Finding out I’d got my job at the Guardian. When I got the call I was the most shocked I’d ever been in all my life. It’s been a rollercoaster few months at work, but I absolutely love my job and work with incredible people on so many interesting projects. I am very lucky indeed.

Saddest moment

Both of my grandmothers passed away this year. My Nan was a lovely lady with a ready smile and a twinkle in her eye, and had a knack for saying hilarious things without realising it. My quirky and sharp-witted Granny lived a fascinating life and always had fabulous stories and anecdotes to tell. I miss both of them hugely, and hope that I’ve inherited at least some of their qualities.

Most nervewracking moment

Living in London for the past couple of years seems to have eroded away most of my nervous tendencies, but the two hours or so before I performed my first gig back in the summer were terrifying. Thankfully my mates in the audience kept me going and it was loads of fun.

Most surreal moment

Wandering around backstage at Glastonbury surrounded by ridiculously cool-looking people and feeling completely dumbstruck about how little old me had found herself wearing a VIP wristband. Then finding out that Michael Jackson was dead whilst listening to East 17 (couldn’t see them, the crowd was too huge). Come to think of it, I'm not really sure why I didn’t write a blog post about my Glasto experience at the time. Oh well.

Celebrity encounters

I had an *actual conversation* with Eddie Izzard, shared a lift and a restaurant with Colin Firth, Jon Snow flashed his socks at me, and an actor off the telly critiqued my short story. In fact, all of these could quite easily slot into the ‘surreal’ category above.

Best purchase

My wardrobe. I am in love with my wardrobe. I have l’amour pour l’armoire. In fact, I only added in this 'best purchase' category so I could mention my beloved piece of furniture. If there was a photo of it online I would put it here, but it's such a rare piece of (melamine? mdf?) beauty that no online record of it exists. I may have to commission a photographer to take some shots, since my amateur snapping skills would never be able to do it justice.

Best party

The Guardian Creative Christmas party at SimmonS (awesome little venue on Caledonian Road). Great music (but no rock, as I endlessly pointed out to the poor DJs), lots of happy people and way too much wine. How I made it home I’ll never know.

2009 in one word…

TWITTER. Yes, call me a nerd, but I can honestly say that - without Twitter - 2009 wouldn’t have been half as eventful. I’ve met some great people as a result, and it’s also helped me out at work; both in terms of getting to know people across the organisation whose paths I would never normally cross, but also with my job and networking with external contacts and bloggers. Thanks Twitter – yes, sometimes you can be cruel like your big sister Facebook and tell me things I don’t necessarily want to know, but overall you’re all right.

The noughties

I started this decade as an independently-minded but quiet(ish) teenager venturing off to Cardiff University to study journalism. And I gave journalism a good old go, but quickly realised it wasn’t for me after writing a few pieces for the Southern Daily Echo, where I worked as a receptionist after graduating.

In hindsight, I blatantly should’ve moved to London after Cardiff, but I chose to follow my heart to Hampshire, which was definitely the right decision at the time, and the experiences I had there have made me a much stronger person. I met some great people there and I’m adamant that I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not lived on the south coast for a few years. But London eventually beckoned and I can honestly say that moving here is the best decision I’ve ever made. I have made some wonderful friends, done well for myself career-wise (*pats self on back Trevor & Simon style*), and I’m sure sooner or later my prince will pun.

Farewell 2009!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Let me tell you a story...

I love stories and I love writing; I always have done. I was one of those kids who would plead with their parents to be allowed to read 'just one more chapter' at bed time, and would sneakily employ the torch under the duvet trick if I was at such a crucial part of the narrative that sleep simply wasn't an option.

At school, writing always came more naturally to me than drawing, and one time I even won a competition for a piece of writing I did about milk(?). The prize for this competition was immense: I got to meet Rolf Harris with my teacher and another competition winner!! I was only about six, but I distinctly remember my mum sending me to school that morning with some fifty pence pieces taped inside my Garfield lunchbox so I could buy one of Rolf's books and get his autograph. Of-course, being six I had no idea how a transaction in a shop worked, and I remember getting home that afternoon and proudly showing my mum my Rolf Harris poetry book, complete with his trademark 'Rolferoo' autograph, then witnessing her horror when she discovered that the money in my lunchbox was still neatly taped inside. So there's a very strong chance that I stole this book:

This has gone off on a bit of a tangent, for which I can only apologise, but basically I think what I'm trying to say is that the fact that I chose Rolf's blue poetry book (A Catalogue of Comic Verse), instead of the red one about drawing which he was also promoting in the bookshop that day, somehow demonstrates that words for me have always been more important to me than images. Or maybe it's just because I'm crap at drawing...  

That being said, I'm not the quickest reader in the world (I like to absorb every word and feel genuinely guilty if I skim read), and I'm certainly not the best writer, but recently I decided to take the plunge and submit one of my short stories to the monthly Writing Salon I attend in Covent Garden.

The gist of this meet-up is that, each month, two of us submit a piece of writing to be read and critiqued by the rest of the group. If you've ever been to a book club, you'll know that more often than not some of you will love a book, while others will detest it. But you can quite happily debate both sides of the argument safe in the knowledge that the author isn't listening in to your scathing remarks. Well, the Writing Salon is a bit like this, except the authors are there to hear your views; both good and bad. So it was with an underlying sense of fear and trepidation that I went along to the December gathering last week to hear what they all thought about my story.

The overall verdict was pretty positive I'd say, although the group was split about whether the twist was 'twisty' enough. About half of the room had guessed what was going on quite quickly, while the remainder had read the story as I was hoping they would. Some of my turns of phrase were criticised, which I think is probably the most difficult kind of criticism to give and to hear, although none of the feedback was unjustified or harsh. It'll be boring for me to go into details at this point since you may not have read the story in question, but it was a really valuable experience, not least because the other piece of writing we discussed on the night was absolutely incredible and I felt honoured to be in a room with such talented and creative people.

As well as discussing the two pieces of writing, we also did something rather fun since it was the last session before Christmas. Fellow Writing Salon-er Alex Vail writes more about it here, but we had to come up with a six-word short story. There were lots of very clever and moving entries, but I obviously went for the 'comedy' angle. So, to round off this blog post, here is my rather festive six-word short story:

Rudolph woke up. Brown nose. Shit

Me drumming

Here are some awesome pictures from our most recent gig, taken by genius photographer Nick Dillon.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Merry Christ-moustache: Our final gig of 2009

If someone had told me at the start of 2009 that by the end of the year I would've played five gigs I would have had them sectioned under the Mental Health Act. But shiver my timbers, that individual now writhing around in a padded room in a strait jacket was right! Release them! (I'm in a strange mood tonight; that's what an exciting day at work does to me).

The final Witness To The Beard gig of the year took place last Friday in Stockwell, and what a cracking evening of entertainment it was. We played at The Cavendish Arms at An Event Of Some Kind (I've blogged before about the general format of this particular event), and it was such a quirky evening. We were the first band on after the accomplished compere / event organiser extraordinaire H Anthony Hildebrand did a little ditty on stage and we played a 15 minute set; the tightest we've sounded yet I reckon. I also bit the bullet and sang my alternative 'Saved By The Bell' lyrics.

After us was a brilliant comic called Eric Lampaert, whose wacky (but not over the top) physical comedy, combined with his improvisation skills, got us all chuckling very heartily indeed. He even did a bit of comedy about our band name! He was also a fan of the other band's name who played after him: Don't Tread On Spiders. Oh. My. God. They were absolutely amazing. Check them out for yourselves, but you really can't appreciate them until you hear / see them live. The drummer ROCKED. She has completely mastered the whole singing whilst drumming thing, and I've still got loads of their songs stuck in my head, despite only hearing them once (such as the song below, demonstrating awesomeness of said drummer). LOVE them. Need to buy their entire back catalogue (yes, unlike Witness To The Beard, they've actually recorded stuff).

During the interval there was a drawing competition. We were asked to draw two things kissing under the mistletoe. I can't draw for love nor money, but I can pun for prizes. So I drew two feet under the mistletoe, labelled the big toes "toes" and labelled the mistletoe "mistle". Yes, sounds very random, I know, but so is this event, and I won a prize for my skillz. After the interval (and mince pies) it was some more fabulous word-play observations from Monsier Hildebrand, then us again. Omar and I were convinced / bullied (joking!) by Kev to don Santa hats with beards attached for our final mini set. Humorous, indeed, but Kev wasn't laughing when the beard fell over his face whilst he was singing. Ha! Then his strap fell off mid-song: disaster! Thanks to the valiant help from Sonny from DTOS and the legendary sound man the situation was remedied without us having to stop the rock. And Kev totally redeemed himself by saying after the song: "Well, that was a strapping performance!"

We came off stage and waiting in the wings was the headline comedy act for the night, Tom Basden (*swoon*). It's just him and his guitar. And an endless supply of hilarious - yet extremely melodic - songs. My personal favourite was one about Neighbours (but Neighbours as it was ten years ago when Toadfish was still a chubby rebellious teenager rather than a slimline high-flying lawyer). He also sang about a ghost who keeps himself to himself, a girl with a glass eye, a guide dog who is being fooled by his non-blind owner and a Chinese fellow called Wan Ni. Have a listen to some of his songs here or in the video above.

All in all it was a fantastic night.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christmas cringe

Err, who is this guy singing to me? Just got this on an e-mail from PR Newswire...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

My short story...

So here's my short story that I submitted to The Writing Salon. I shall write about the experience of having my writing critiqued last night in a subsequent post when I get the chance...


It was too cold in the room. And the symbols on the thermostat were just ambiguous enough to make it impossible to fathom which way to turn the knob to slow down the relentless flow of Arctic air from the dusty vents on the ceiling. No one in the room wanted to make a fool of themselves by turning the knob the wrong way, so instead we all sat there and gritted our teeth. I sat on my hands, hoping that everyone else thought I was doing so to keep them warm, not because they were shaking. I was nervous, and this time I was not going to back down.

It was hard to believe that outside it was a glorious August summer’s day, and each and every one of us wanted to be out there, rather than cut off from the world in here, taking in every tiny detail of each other's fluorescent light-bleached faces; faces which were currently so familiar, yet would soon be forgotten. But we didn’t have any choice. We had to work this out now.

As stale water was poured and chairs scraped by their occupants into their final positions around the coffee-stained melamine table, I remembered the last time. The circumstances had been similar, but different in so many ways. The last room had been bearable - for one thing there had been a window to gaze out of as a minor distraction from the harsh realities of the room. But, no matter how you looked at it, our actions that day had resulted in a life being ruined. It was almost as if we deserved to endure this horrible space as a punishment for our previous behaviour. I tried to shake the memory from my thoughts. Focus.

How did I get here? Well, I really had no choice in the matter. You can put it off for so long, but these things are unavoidable. It was the same for everyone around the table. No choice. Of course, some people took a thrill from it, and I could understand that up to a point. Having the power to destroy someone certainly does bring with it a certain rush, but surely the subsequent shame meant that no one could truly perceive this as 'enjoyable'? Then I remembered the first time just ten days beforehand, and how it had lulled me into a false sense of security. It had been so easy! Fun, even. But now that day felt like so long ago, because here we were again for the third and final round. Now was the time we had to get down to business; no more small talk to fill the uncomfortable silences, no more polite chit-chat and no more ice-breaking quips from those who were blatantly enjoying every second of this torturous procedure.

"So, who wants to do it?"

I can't remember who asked the question, but the only sound that greeted it was the sporadic clunking of the over-efficient air conditioning system. There was absolutely no way I was going to do it, not after what happened before. "I would rather not," I eventually volunteered, diplomatic as ever. An avalanche of "me neithers" quickly followed. The matter was finally settled with the toss of a penny. My penny, obviously. A lot of responsibility for such a small denomination. I missed the catch so it clattered down on to the table and I clumsily dragged it across the surface under my clammy palm until it slipped onto the upper side of my other palm at the edge. Heads. The Queen's head, no less. How very apt. Decision made. I put the penny back in my purse and snapped it shut. The sharp noise seemed to jolt everyone from their thoughts, as if someone had clapped their hands, signalling that it was time to begin.


"No matter what anyone says, there is absolutely no way I am changing my mind," said Sylvia, to my right. I knew exactly how she felt, as my mind had also been made up from the very beginning. The trouble was, we were definitely not on the same page with our unwavering views. In fact, if I was the preface she would have been the glossary. But her definitions would have been very muddled up indeed. This was not good. I really liked Sylvia. We had gone through a lot together since this ordeal had begun and I respected her. But after the last time she had obviously gotten it in her head that her mind was not to be swayed on this occasion, just like I had. I silently groaned, but on the outside maintained my fixed, tight-lipped polite smile. God I needed a drink, even just to stop my hands from shaking, but I now knew what had to be done to stop this nonsense from going any further. I took a deep breath, and - having gained unspoken permission from the unfortunate individual who'd earlier been struck down by that little penny now tucked away in my purse - began to speak.

I'd always be able to hold a conversation, but public speaking was definitely not my thing. Put me in a social situation with a few people and I'd be in my element, shamelessly drawing attention to my flaws and social gaffes for the sole purpose of making people smile and feel at ease. Too honest for my own good, people often said, but I actually enjoyed it. Put me speaking in front of people on a serious topic without being able to get people onside with a humorous remark, and then the confident facade would quickly give way to my inner bumbling soul who can't look anyone in the eye for fear of glimpsing their dawn of realisation that I have no in-depth knowledge of absolutely anything. Apart from an in-depth knowledge of that very fact. And now here I was; not a single self-mocking joke up my sleeve with which to win over the people who were now hanging on my every word.

The majority of my captive audience slowly nodded in agreement with my torrent of sentences, glancing at their watches and stealing looks at their fellow numbers to gauge their reactions. I could also see that the few others making up our imprisoned contingent desperately wanted me to slip up. It was this thought that gave me the surge of adrenaline my mind had been crying out for since I'd opened my mouth. The adrenaline came from the sudden understanding that I simply couldn't slip up, because what I was saying was the truth; it was fact. And I possessed an in-depth knowledge of the facts about which I spoke because they had been forced into my head over the last few days. I didn't have to 'stick to my story' or tell more lies to get myself out of the lies I'd told before. That's precisely where the subject of our discussion had gone wrong the last time. As the words continued to pour forth, I realised that it hadn't been our fault that his story had unravelled as he'd told it. We hadn't destroyed him; he'd brought on that destruction himself, and we'd done the right thing that time, no matter hard it had been. Now I felt the responsibility to do the right thing once more rested on my shoulders, and my shoulders alone. So I kept talking, until - slowly - one, by one, everyone agreed with me. Except Sylvia.

Deep down I knew that there was no chance of her changing her mind. We all knew that. It was time to communicate with the outside world.


Less than an hour later and it was all over and done with. As I gulped down the sunshine-drenched air outside the grand building, grateful to feel the warmth beat down on my body, I watched with a strange combination of sadness and relief as the other occupants of the room scattered across the city, never to cross paths again. I looked at my watch; it felt odd to be able to look at it so brazenly, when only minutes before looking at it would have been seen as a 'tactic'. It was actually earlier than I expected so I hopped up onto one of the walls which surrounded the building as it was the nearest thing that resembled a seat, feeling a little rebellious having left all of the rules and customs of the last fortnight behind. I switched on my phone. Text from Mum: 'How did it go ? x'. I touched the green handset icon and put the phone to my ear. I rubbed by eyes as the phone rang, unaccustomed to the bright natural daylight.

"Hi Mum, it's me. Yeah all over now. It took us a good few hours but we got there in the end. Yeah we definitely did, I'm sure of it. It was another drugs one..."


Tom stepped out of the building and into the sunlight. He couldn't believe after all this time it was finally over. He nonchalantly strode away from the building, unfastening his top button on the white shirt which had been purchased especially for this week. He was tempted to take it off completely and chuck it in the nearest bin, but he figured he might need it again some day. As he turned left onto the main road, he recognised a young woman sat on a wall. She was one of them, he realised. He smirked as he walked past her. She was so engrossed with her telephone call she didn't even notice him. Walking along the busy street Tom felt his own phone vibrate in his pocket. It was Pete. Good news obviously travelled fast. "Yep?" he spoke into the small silver handset. Pete was a man of few words, and his congratulations were brief and to the point. "Cheers mate, yeah, not guilty. Great, eh? Not a unanimous verdict though - the cops somehow managed to convince one of them, but the others sucked up my story. Yeah, we should meet soon, pick up where we left off. Laters."

Tom slid the phone shut and took one final glance over his shoulder at the fading image of the woman on the wall. She was only in her twenties, he reckoned. Could she have been the one who had figured him out? The thought wasn't in his head for long before his phone buzzed again. This time it was the phone in his other pocket. "Yeah?" he answered. "Sure, just need to sort out a few things first. Call me back in half an hour and I'll tell you where and when." It was good to be back.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

London, Paris and First Book

December is upon us, and how it's already whizzing by. I've got a particularly busy couple of weeks coming up so thought I'd drop in now while I have the chance and make a note of some of my recent London exploits...
  • The Guardian Public Services Awards at Old Billingsgate. Wow, what a venue. The place looked stunning and it was a great event with loads of worthy winners. I shared a table with a group of student volunteers from York and Hull, who went on to win the Citizenship and Volunteering Award (I knew in advance that they had won so had to keep my mouth zipped). 
  • Here I should be writing about an amazing bloggers' trip to Brussels I went on courtesy of Eurostar's Little break, Big difference campaign. I was unbelievably excited about it, but then I got an evil bug and couldn't go. I hear through the blogosphere that it was lots of fun, and Sian from Domestic Sluttery brought me back some posh chocolates, which was very sweet. Literally.
  • The December London Bloggers Meetup, sponsored by Symantec, was on Tuesday. Sian (see above) spoke at the event and provided us with some really useful blogging tips, and supplied us with yummy cakes.
  • The Guardian First Book Award ceremony was the following night. I felt privileged to meet the winner, Petina Gappah; a Zimbabwean writer who won the Award with her amazing short story collection, 'An Elegy for Easterley'. I'm in the middle of reading this now, and each story that I've read so far is incredibly moving, but laced with an underlying layer of humour and modest self-awareness. The judging panel described her writing style as 'deceptively simple' and I would definitely agree with this.

Speaking of short stories, my very own attempt at writing one will be 'critiqued' on Monday, and I'm cacking myself! As I've mentioned before, I attend a Writing Salon at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden, and this month it's my turn to have my writing scrutinised. Writing this blog is one thing, as it's for me more than anyone else and I'm not really bothered about what people think of my storytelling 'skills'. But with fiction it's different. Although my short story is based on me and a real experience, the way I tell the story is so crucial to the impact that I want it to have on the reader, that if I've written it badly it simply won't work. I may report back next week on the reaction it got. Or I may not, depending on how emotionally scarred I am from the experience...

Ooh, and today I received a rather exciting e-mail from the people at we are social. They're the ones who invited me to the aforementioned day trip to Brussels, and now they are offering me the chance to win un séjour à Paris (surely extra points for the French, eh?! Unless the French is wrong, in which case - ignore that). All I have to do is to write about what my dream weekend in Paris would be like if I had 1,000 to spend. Well, to be honest, my *dream* weekend in Paris would involve me being whisked away to the French capital by a decent chap who'd make me laugh a lot and forget my stresses as we wandered around random streets stumbling across little bars and getting nicely merry. But since that isn't likely to happen any time soon, I would have to say that I would absolutely love to take my Mum to the city and spoil her rotten. She's been an absolute legend this year and I would take her to a posh tea room, perhaps somewhere like here, then buy her something sparkly and try and squeeze in a show.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Chocolate fon-don't

Having written on many occasions about my love of Masterchef in all its various guises, this weekend I now have a new-found respect for some of the more laughable contestants. As I've previously pointed out, the chocolate fondant is the dish of death on the show. They either leave it in the oven for too long so that it ends up as a plain, old chocolate sponge, or they panic and take it out too soon so it happily collapses into a gooey mess. Given that the programme is called 'Masterchef', you'd have thought that they might be able to get it right. But no.

So this weekend, fellow Masterchef enthusiast - Brother Alex - and I decided to try it out for ourselves. We followed the recipe to the letter, and took out the ramekins from the oven after precisely 12 minutes. They collapsed into gooey messes. But they tasted awesome; surely simply a matter of leaving them in the oven for longer? So tonight, with Alex's lovely girlfriend Holly round for dinner, we were confident that we'd get it right. Wrong! They were still too gooey!

Now I understand why the contestants keep insisting on trying to produce the perfect chocolate fondant, because it is a very tricky pud to master. But, to be completely honest, the gooey bit is so delicious that I'd quite happily eat / drink that without the sponge casing.

Comedy connections for Witness To The Beard

It was gig number four for Witness To The Beard last night, and my throat is certainly paying the price for it today. I only sang one brief ditty, but my vocal chords were already feeling vulnerable after a week of coughing, and - if it's possible for throats to have mood swings - it's now sulking in a big, croaky way. Ah well.

We returned to The Comedy Pub for the gig, which is where we played live for the first time a few months ago. It's a nice little venue and the sound quality is pretty decent. We were playing alongside a really eclectic mix of artists too. The first act were a funky group called Scarletts Roses, whose songs were foot-tappingly and smile-inducingly catchy, with some quirky rap thrown in for good measure. I really liked their song 'My Heart Belongs to Judy', and I'm very jealous of the girl singer's voice, which is as melodic and floaty as mine isn't.

Second up were The Technicolour. Their drummer, Alex, used to be in our band (before we were reincarnated as WTTB) and we have the same drum teacher (the awesome Darren Malley). It was nice to catch up with Alex and see him in action as a drummer, since he used to play bass / guitar in our band. A very good drummer he is too.

Then we took to the stage for our 30-minute set. I think it was the best we'd played out of the four gigs, although there were a few fluffs, but nowt major. We also played a couple of new songs for the first time, which is always a bit nervewracking.

After us, one chap and his guitar - Chris MacArthur - wowed the crowd with his amazing guitar skills and voice. Stoned Phoney were the last to play. Unbelievably this was their first ever gig as a band, and they really were brilliant. They described themselves as grunge / blues when we were chatting before the gig, and I guess this sums them up pretty well. The ferocity of the drummer's beats was demonstrated when a huge shard of drumstick flew across the stage during a particularly frenetic flourish. I wish I could flourish like that, but as Darren is constantly reassuring me, keeping a steady beat is more important than doing fancy fills and whatnot. Yeah I know, but it's just not as cool! I also wish I could link to them so you can have a listen / look for yourself, but they have no internet presence whatsoever.

All in all it was a fun night, and we donated all £22.50 of our takings to Movember. When I told someone last night we were giving the money to charity, they jokingly responded "what, a beard charity or something?!" to which I accurately responded "Yes".

The next Witness To The Beard gig is on Friday 11 December at The Cavendish Arms in Stockwell. I'm hugely excited about this one, as we were invited to play by all-round funny man H Anthony Hildebrand, who runs the An Event of Some Kind night at the pub every couple of months. The evening is a mixture of comedy and music, and if I wasn't playing at it, I'd go along anyway. Headlining the night is Tom Basden, who was a Never Mind The Buzzcocks guest a couple of weeks ago. We've got two mini sets throughout the evening, which will be a refreshing change, and if all that isn't enough to tempt you to come along, there's a drawing competition in the interval, and free snacks from the bar! Anyway, enough plugging...

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Dunsfold Seven

In my last but one post, I talked about how much I love London - and I really do - but the pace of life is so relentless, and so much can change in such a short period of time, that getting away every once and a while is the only way to maintain a healthy outlook on things. So after what can only be described as a challenging week, I was very much looking forward to a weekend in the countryside with a bunch of good friends. A while back we arranged a trip to a village called Dunsfold in Surrey (they film Top Gear there), where one of my friend's granny's lives (Granule), and the timing for the trip from my point of view couldn't have been better. Her home is a lovely rambling yet cosy place, with room for all seven of us.

But this year's trip didn't get off to the best of starts. Firstly, I was awoken by a full-on thunderstorm; not a great weather prospect for frolicking in fields. Then, having decided to treat myself to a massive bowl of steaming porridge for breakfast since I never did get round to dinner the night before, I discovered that water was dripping into the kitchen from the newly-occupied flat above. So I met my new neighbours in my pyjamas to introduce myself and request - as cheerfully as possible - they switch off their shower, like, now. Which they promptly did, and they called out a plumber straight away to fix the problem. Legends.

After the morning's dramas I donned my trusty cagoule and wellies and hotstepped it from London and its related stresses as fast as I could. I'm so glad I did. The torrential rain cleared just in time for a bracing walk around the village and the surrounding area. The wind was still ferocious - strong enough to lean into without falling over - and we even saw a massive tree uprooted before our eyes, blocking the country road (we called the necessary people). Quite a sad moment in hindsight, as the tree must have been hundreds of years old. We returned to Granule's in time for tea and brownies around the roaring fireplace. A jumbo crossword and a game of cheat later and it was time for fireworks! Granted, a week late, but it's part of what is fast becoming an annual tradition (we made the same trip this time last year).

On our Sunday morning walk we splashed in giant puddles, saw a beautiful rainbow, made friends with a couple of horses....then stumbled across a crime scene! I don't want to go into too much detail as it's obviously still a live case, but we had to call the police and everything. A proper mystery straight out of an Enid Blyton book, but a traumatic experience for the victim no doubt.

So now I'm back in London. Back to reality. But with a renewed energy, thanks to a perfect weekend full of simple, wholesome pleasures, and the magnificent seven people I shared it with, including the irrepressible Granule.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Twelve LOLS for the price of six

Myself and Dunlop Junior are pretty ruthless - in an efficient not tyrannical way - when it comes to our fortnightly food shop. We always take a list, we often split up to source the necessary purchases in order to get in and out as quickly as possible, and we like to find a good bargain. It's toilet roll that always stumps us. It's just so blimin expensive! Today we opted for Andrex - extravagant, but it had three free rolls, or 12 for the price of 9 if you will. Decision made, or so we thought...
For when we were transferring our goods from our trolley to the checkout conveyor belt (heaviest items first, of-course), we caught the tail end of a tannoy announcement: " one get one free, 65p for six rolls." One all-knowing sibling glance was all it took, and before you could say 'supermarket sweep' off I sprinted to the bog roll aisle to source this elusive special offer. It was only when I reached the aisle that everything became crystal clear. Bread rolls. Bugger.

London on the cheap: Striking a Chord

I'll always possess a Bristolian soul, but having a few days off in London has reminded me how much I love this city. When I first moved here in 2007 I was concerned that everything would be so expensive that I would never have two pennies to rub together (interestingly, if you do rub two pennies together between your thumb and forefinger, it looks a bit like three pennies), but that really couldn't be any further from the truth. Sure, if you want to go out to expensive restaurants every night and shop on Bond Street then you can, but if you look in the right places there are so many things to do here for free.

Take the last few days, for example. On Tuesday the London Bloggers Meetup was a completely free event. Granted, not everyone is interested in blogging and online networking type things, but it really is such a nice crowd of people. Then on Thursday evening the play I went to was through the brilliant Audience Club. You pay £50 a year for membership to the club (I purchased my membership jointly with a friend, so a bargainous £25 each), and it entitles you to go along to fringe and West End shows and concerts all over the capital for two quid a pop. Over the years I've been to see Bon Jovi, an amazing ventriloquism show, comedy acts and tons of plays - from West End hits to back-room-of-a-pub dramas. I'd implore everyone in London to sign up, or buy membership for a theatre lover as an ace Christmas present (oh, and if you do, mention me as they'll whack on another couple of free months to my membership...!).

This weekend was another freebie special. On Saturday I went along to an incredible art installation in the Kingsway Tram Tunnel. The installation was a piece called 'Chord' by the artist Conrad Shawcross, and although you had to pre-book, it was free admission. The art itself is a rather funky piece of engineering brilliance, which is somehow automatically winding a multi-coloured piece of rope along a track. Sounds weird, and that's because it kind of is; in a good way, though. I do like these strange arty things, especially tunnel-based ones. For a more eloquent description of what it all means, here's the official site. Or take a look at the cool photos on Londonist (mine came out pretty rubbish as it was too dark, plus we weren't really allowed).

Although the art itself was impressive, personally I was more in awe of the tunnel itself. The subway - which is mainly used for storage by Camden Council these days - was last used for trams in 1952. More recently, the tunnel has been used for a number of films (Hidden City, The Avengers, Bhowani Junction and The Escapist), and some of the props from these films still remain, such as the rather spooky fake underground map, which I did manage to successfully snap:

I would absolutely love to visit some old, abandoned tube stations in London if possible, so if anyone hears of such an opportunity, please do let me know, as I find it fascinating.

The final freebie came in the form of some wonderful fireworks on Blackheath on Saturday night. Firework displays always astound me, and this one ticked all the boxes, those boxes being: a) availability of mulled wine b) duration of display c) fireworks I had never seen before (my favourite new one resembled a broccoli floret) and d) a suitably awe-inspiring and climactic finale.

So there you have it; proof that life in London can be easy on your wallet. I had intended to go to a free cinema screening this morning as well, but after weighing it up I opted for the lie-in. I do have to go back to work tomorrow, after all. 

Friday, 6 November 2009

Speaking in puns... quite often what I find myself doing, mainly for my own childish amusement. Most of them are pretty weak and groan-inducing (which isn't a bad thing), but there's something incredibly gratifying about coming up with a pure pun. By a 'pure' pun, I mean one that works on not two, but at least THREE separate levels; they're the puns that are meant to exist, and they'll pop into your head almost effortlessly, before you've even had a chance to process the sheer brilliance of it. I reckon I've come up with a triple-tiered pun on only a dozen of occasions or so. Those who've ever interacted with me in any way shape or form know that a dozen is a tiny drop in the ocean when it comes to the sheer volume of my word-play attempts. So they're very rare creatures indeed.

Anyway, I've gone off on a punrelated tangent, as this blog was meant to be about a play I saw tonight called 'Speaking in Tongues'. A very good play it was too. It had John Simm in it (most would know him from Life On Mars, but as a Doctor Who fan I only see The Master), and another Doctor Who connection via actress Lucy Cohu, who played Captain Jack's daughter in the latest Torchwood series (thanks IMDB, that had been bugging me all night). There were only four actors in the production, but each one took on at least a couple of characters throughout the play.

The story initially centres around two married couples, whose lives and relationships are about to become as interwoven as the fast-paced dialogue, which is spoken in unison by the characters in the opening scene. Each of the couples is experiencing marital problems, and by coincidence they each find solace in the other's spouse. 

By the end of act one, the audience is left wondering whether the couples will resolve their differences once their individual deceptions have been discovered and agonised over. But then the second half takes the audience on an altogether different journey, following the stories of a number of other complicated relationships, with a dark mystery linking them all in unspoken little ways, as well as the characters we met in the first half. It's all very clever and tense, and it was a great production which definitely gets you thinking about the notion of trust and just how blimin' complicated human relationships are, and not just the romantic ones.

Before the play, I caught up with some old colleagues and friends, and had a yummy Thai meal in a restaurant which I never knew existed before tonight. It's called Thai Pot, and it's just round the corner from my favourite pub in the world, The Harp. So, basically, everything I have mentioned above, I would very much recommend.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remember remember, the November LBM-ber (or...something)

I arrived back in London yesterday fully refreshed after a few days in Bristol. I would have stayed perhaps a day longer, were in not for the November edition of the London Bloggers Meetup last night. 'What the heck,' I thought, 'It would be nice to actually go along to one of these events without the little sensible voice in my head telling me that I should really stop drinking these lovely free beverages because I have work the next day.'

So I timed my journey east in order to arrive in the capital for LBM at Doggett's Coat and Badge. It was nice getting there early for a change, as I was able to chat with brand new attendees who I wouldn't normally get to say hello to, as I usually turn up when the room is brimming with people I already know. So I got chatting to Pascale, a make-up artist, which excited me greatly as I definitely need some advice to help me look all 'rock chick' for my upcoming gig.

I also met Zubyre, and had a good discussion with Peter about the future of photojournalism (speaking of which, there's a fascinating nine-day press photography series starting in the Guardian this Saturday *removes PR hat*). I then got chatting to Dafydd from Cite, who'd travelled down from Leicester with a colleague (didn't catch her name but she was very nice) especially for the event.

Because I'd had maybe one or two more drinks than I normally would, I then proceeded to have a strange conversation with Tom (of Tired of London, Tired of Life fame) about my wardrobe. Sorry about that. But it is the nicest wardrobe in the world. Fact.

The ever-glamorous Sian and Alex arrived - laden with freebies from a fashion event - just as an interesting presentation by Marco Saric began. Then the legendary Gary turned up, fresh from recording the latest Two Footed Tackle podcast. It was good to catch up with him, as he hasn't been able to make the last few events. He's a busy chap.

As ever, it was lovely to see and chat with Shell (who has been doing a marvellous 'for how many days can I wear the same dress?' experiment on her fashion blog), Matt (Churchill), Chris (Witness To The Beard's number one fan), Melinda (aka Miss Geeky), Tom (Flashboy), Kate, Lolly, Darika and Alex L. I also briefly met Chris (of the Tiki variety - who won a telly on the night courtesy of the event's sponsor, Paramount), as well as a number of others who I failed to exchange cards with (including a cycling blogger who - it turns out - I'd already been in touch with about Guardian stuff).

Huge thanks to Andy who organised the event, and I'm looking forward to December's already.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Pub quiz-co

So I'm having a bit of time away from London during my week off work, chilling out with my family on the outskirts of Bristol, where I grew up. Knowing how much I enjoy a good pub quiz, my parents decided we should go along to the Upton Inn a couple of miles down the road for their Monday night curry and quiz. I like pubs, I like curry, and I like a bit of healthy trivia-based competition, so it sounded like a good deal to me. But I was not prepared for what fun was to come...

For after the quiz had finished but (crucially) BEFORE the winner was announced, the lights are dimmed, the music (from the music round) is switched on and the little country pub transforms itself into the hottest village disco this side of, err, Bitton. It was lots of fun, and a great way to liven up what would otherwise be the dullest evening of the week. So bravo, Upton Inn - your curry was gurt lush, your staff were all tip top, the quiz cash prizes were not to be sneered at (we came a respectable fourth out of eleven teams and won £20, the winning team got £100) and all in all I would highly recommend a visit. But be warned: it's a popular place is this, so booking is definitely recommended!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

In The 'Trick or Treat' Of It

Friday was a fun day in the office. I had loads of things to do as it was my final day at work before a week off, but in between all of that it was the inaugural Halloween Bake-Off contest and a preview screening of 'The Thick Of It', which had been filmed in the Guardian building a few months previously.

The premise of the Halloween Bake-Off, which had been conceived by one of my colleagues in the press office, was simple: bake a Halloween-themed cake, get a judge to choose the best cake based solely on looks, then sell the cakes for charity. I love cakes, but baking is definitely not one of my personal strengths. However, making Oreo balls certainly is a forte. So I decided that it would be much easier if I made some of my yummy Oreo truffles and decorated them to make them look spooky.


What I failed to foresee was that, although making standard Oreo balls is indeed quite simple and speedy, making fiddly ones which are meant to actually resemble something is not, especially if you've got plans for the two nights before which the truffles have to be ready. So I concocted a plan. Three nights before Bake-Off Day: crush the four packets of Oreo biscuits into a fine powder (took an hour using a tin of chopped tomatoes as a crusher and a sieve to ensure the powder was fine enough). Two nights before: mix crushed biscuits with cream cheese, mould into spooky shapes (pumpkins and skulls) and coat in appropriately-coloured melted chocolate (two hours). Night before: add the finishing touches with coloured piped icing sugar (one hour).  They turned out pretty well, but I didn't win. However, we did raise lots of cash. Photos of all of the entries are here.

A couple of hours later and it was time for The Thick Of It screening. Back in the summer the cast and crew spent the day at Kings Place filming. I spent a couple of hours during that day supervising the crew as part of my job, which was incredibly interesting. The director of the series, Armando Iannucci, is an absolute genius. I also learned that the guy who plays Elvis the driver is - in real life - the production office's accountant, and he was given the part solely because of his long and mouldable hair. He was very nice. The Guardian episode was aired last night, but as a thank you for allowing them to film in our building, they agreed to the preview screening, followed by an off-the-record Q&A with lots of the cast, along with the producer and the scriptwriter. Fascinating stuff. Here's a screenshot from the episode, walking down the stairs from the floor where I work:

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Once you've tasted glove...

I was listening to a feature on Radio 4 this morning about a guy who tastes words. Yes, you heard (or felt) me right, he TASTES various flavours according to what words he hears. Apparently this disorder is called gustatory auditory synaesthesia and it can affect all of the senses in a whole multitude of combinations. So, from what I understand, some people can feel noises and smell things they see (more information at

The example they used for the flavoursome words chap was that the word 'Tony' tastes like desiccated coconut. He also revealed that the word 'coffin' tastes like boiled sweets in order to demonstrate that the negative (or positive) connotations associated with certain words in no way affects whether the subsequent taste is pleasant or rank; the tastes are completely arbitrary.

I've become a big fan of Radio 4 in recent weeks, but I do feel that in this particular feature they failed to address a number of key questions. For example, what happens when people talk about actual food? Does he taste mint when someone says the word 'mint'? What word is associated with the taste of chocolate? Does it work in reverse? i.e. does he hear words in his head when he eats? Does he actively seek out people who are likely to talk more about things that result in the flavours he enjoys the most?

P.S. The title of this post is a Take That reference. I wonder what flavour the word 'glove' conjures up?

Friday, 30 October 2009

Next creative venture: write a song

2009 appears to be the year of 'doing new things' for me. So far this year I've played my first ever live gigs with my band, been to Glastonbury for the first time, went on my first business trips and I've recently written my first ever short story (which I might even share with the world one day). I have a week off next week, and I've decided that my aim for the week (as well as catching up with my family in Bristol, watching lots of TV, reading a stack of books and having a bit of time away from t'internet and its inevitable trappings) is going to be to steal temporarily borrow one of my brother's guitars and pen a song.
You never know, if it ends up being even close to ok, I might even perform it at an upcoming Witness To The Beard gig. So far I have two chords and the vague whisper of a melody, but I already know that the lyrics are going to be the trickiest part. Do I make them all deep and meaningful, or should my tongue remain firmly in my cheek? Should it be dripping with puns and irony, or should I - for once - strip away my defensive layers of self-deprecating humour and bare my soul (pass the bucket)?
I must admit, it would be nice to add my own song to WTTB's growing collection of original material. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than content to drum along to the songs the two lads come up with, since rhythm comes marginally more naturally to me and they're both great songwriters, but I've always enjoyed a challenge. Time to get out of my drum-fort zone methinks...

Sunday, 25 October 2009

(Dried) Pasta-chef

I couldn't let the latest Masterchef final go by without a little mention. Incarnated this quarter as 'Masterchef: The Professionals', we were led to believe that the contestants this time round already knew a little bit about cooking, so they replaced the usual 'cooking doesn't get tougher than this' tagline with 'cooking doesn't get better than this' (umm, I think it probably does, actually, but never mind). In order to demonstrate this new philosophy, for their penultimate culinary challenge the three finalists each had to cook a Michelin star-quality course, to be served to a room filled with such kitchen visionaries that they possessed 40 Michelin stars between them, as was repeated to the audience innumerable times.

Each course had been designed by the crazy-eyed chef Michel Roux Junior. Now I'm sorry if this makes me sound like a bit of a food snob (I'm definitely not a food snob, the most extravagant thing I've ever eaten is probably duck), but the main course and the dessert in particular looked like pretty bog-standard fare. The main course partly consisted of a posh macaroni cheese, made with dried - yes DRIED - pasta, stacked up all fancy and whatnot, but essentially it looked like a slice of pasta bake that had been left in the oven for too long.

The voiceover woman even had to justify why dried pasta was being used in the recipe because it really did look a bit rubbish:
"Steve's using high-quality dried pasta, used in many of the best restaurants in Italy."
The pudding was also laughable, consisting of a bit of chocolate on top of a rice crispie cake. But this wasn't any ordinary rice crispie (sorry, 'puffed rice') cake. No. This was because it had CRACKLE CRYSTALS in it. You know, that crackly stuff which pops on your tongue that you used to eat as a kid. The way Michele talked about it, you'd think no one in the world had ever experienced this "fun" popping sensation before. C'mon Junior, they've used this trick on Come Dine With Me!

Once the first challenge was over and done with, it was on to the final task: cooking their best ever three course meal. One of the contestants made the fatal error of making a chocolate fondant for his pudding. The words 'chocolate fondant' on Masterchef are basically the death knell for the contestant attempting to cook it, because they ALWAYS fail. The normal contestants fail, the celebrities fail and now even the professionals fail. It was only slightly gooey in the middle, whereas a flood of chocolate yumminess should have flowed from the sponge casing when the spoon broke through the threshold. Disappointing. I swear if someone made a YouTube compilation video of all the ruined Masterchef chocolate fondants it would be a very long - and amusing - video indeed.

So another series is over, and another Masterchef winner walks away with the fantastic prize of...oh yeah, there is no prize is there? Oh well. The question is, will John Torode be back for the next series? One can only hope...

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Ringtone or no ringtone

I'm an idiot. In my previous post I completely neglected to mention one of the greatest TV recording experiences of my life: DEAL OR NO DEAL. The show is filmed in Bristol and the Dunlop clan went along one Friday afternoon in 2006, smack bang in the middle of the show's heyday. Going to see DOND being filmed was unlike any other TV recording experience I referred to yesterday. For one, the show is filmed in an old warehouse and it was much less like a military operation to get it. Secondly, YOU GET FREE ALCOHOL AND FOOD. This aspect of the experience was particularly excellent. Thirdly, if you play your cards right, you could very well end up on the telly yourself.

Anyone who knows me knows that I would never pass up on the opportunity to put myself in a potentially embarrassing situation, so I actively sought out the researcher with the clipboard who was selecting the three audience members to open the boxes at the end of the show for the viewers' competition. Of-course, these were the days before Ofcom ruled that such money-making competitions were actually a little bit wrong.

Happily, the clipboard guy agreed for me and my brother to be two of the box-openers at the end, so after a quick lesson on how to open the box without looking like a fool (place one hand on top of the box, then rip the tag off with the other before lifting the lid with both hands) we were ushered to special seats in the audience with easy access to the relevant plinth.

Let's just say the next hour or so that followed was a bit of an ordeal. Not only was I terrified of my big box-opening moment, but my phone decided to start vibrating at a very crucial and dramatic part of the proceedings. I got away with it and dismantled my phone, a small sense of calm enveloping me, safe in the knowledge that it definitely couldn't go off again. About 10 minutes later, someone else's phone started ringing. 'Phew', I thought to myself, 'I'm not the only silly person in this room'. Except slowly I began to realise that I recognised the relentless ringtone, and then I realised that it wasn't a ringtone after all, it was my sodding iPod with The Subways blaring out of the headphones! I'd left it unlocked in my bag and I'd obviously nudged it on, and my attempts to muffle the noise with my feet only seemed to be making it louder. Somehow I managed to get away with that as well.

So, the moment of truth. I took my place in the middle of the plinth behind box number two, absolutely terrified, as you can see from my face, here:

'Please don't choose two, please don't choose two', I mentally pleaded with the random audience member who had been selected by Edmonds. They chose number three, panic over. Here are a couple of photos of the actual box opening:

The relief I felt at the moment above is almost indescribable. It was a lot of fun, thanks Noel!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Have I got queues for you

Back in the good old Bristol sixth-form days, my media studies class went on a glamorous trip to London. We paid a visit to the now-closed Museum Of The Moving Image, then had some spare time to roam around the city before heading to a television studio to watch some Mr & Mrs-esque show being recorded, presented by Dale Winton*

Now, my media studies class were a bit of a rebellious bunch, and during the 'spare time' element of the day, everyone (apart from me and my clan of fellow geeks who ended up in Sega World or somewhere like that) got smashed in the pub and was pretty pissed by the time we got to the recording studio, to the extent that one guy even ended up gatecrashing the studio next door where a Clive James show was being recorded and being removed from the building.

It was a fun trip, and although seeing a programme being recorded was an enjoyable novelty, the show itself wasn't exactly enthralling. But I'm happy to report that since then my TV recording experiences have improved vastly with no drunken teenagers in sight. I've been to see 'TV Burp', 'QI', 'The Big Fat Quiz of the Year' and 'Bremner Bird & Fortune', and last night I was lucky enough to watch 'Have I Got News For You'.

We had amazing seats - right at the front next to Ian Hislop - as a result of priority tickets and my well-honed queue skills. Unlike some shows, this one is a really good one to be in the audience for, as it's recorded as-live and they simply edit it down for broadcast the following day. It was all over and done with in a laughter-filled couple of hours and I was home in time to watch THAT episode of 'Question Time'. The guest presenter David Mitchell was his usual quick-witted self, and the guests were top-notch. You can watch the episode in question here.

One observation from before the recording began was that Paul Merton is obviously quite fussy about ensuring he has the same chair every week. Before I took the above photo there was a little sticker on his chair with 'Paul' written on it, so they can obviously distinguish between his chairs and the others when they dress the set.

But one of my highlights of the evening took place before the recording of the show had even begun. We were shivering away at the front of the queue, when a frazzled researcher / runner from the Graham Norton Show came bursting out of the studio building and breathlessly asked the waiting mob 'are you fans of Michael Buble?'. The silence that greeted her as she asked the same question to the queue of current affairs fans was deafening - and hilarious. Goodness knows why she was so desperate to find Michael Buble fans; I can only presume that he was one of Graham's guests last night, and I very much hope that the poor girl managed to find at least one Buble fan somewhere on the Southbank for whatever purpose she had in mind.

*I cannot find a single online reference to this programme - not even on Dale Winton's Wikipedia or IMDB listing. But basically it was a Saturday night show which involved someone trying to work our who was the genuine partner / spouse of another contestant, with lots of bluffing etc. And Dale had an annoying catchphrase which involved a chaise longue...any ideas anyone??

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Imagine you are turning into glass, from the feet up...

You're out on a run one day and you feel something irritating your toe. You shake out your shoes and socks thinking a tiny stone must have sneakily worked its way inside, but the scratchy sensation simply refuses to go away. Upon taking a closer look, you realise that a small, twinkling shard of glass has somehow embedded itself into one of your toes. No matter how hard you try to pluck it out, it cannot be removed; it's truly stuck. Only after a while do you realise that it's not stuck at all, it's actually growing from your foot and - little by little - your feet begin to harden and deaden and you reach the horrific conclusion that they are turning into glass...

This is the situation faced by Ida in Ali Shaw's debut novel, 'The Girl With Glass Feet', which has recently been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Set in a faraway (or is it?) land which feels to be drained of colour, Ida stumbles across Midas - an exceedingly shy and lonely chap who is obsessed with light and photography. The pair embark on a very tentative relationship, but despite Ida's obvious physical frailties, it's Midas's sensitivity and vulnerability which threatens to ruin any chance of happiness they might once be able to discover. And if they do manage to overcome Midas's endless inhibitions, how much time do they have left before the glass decides to venture north up Ida's body?

We discussed this book this evening at our monthly book-pub-club (as I've just decided to name it since it takes place in a pub), and overall our thoughts about the novel were extremely positive. It's a wonderful story, and it's written extremely well, and in such a way that you really can picture in your mind the mysterious land that Shaw has created; like our own in the vast majority of ways, but just different enough for the reader to be able to suspend their disbelief and accept that, in this world, turning into glass is not an impossible affliction. Some moments are truly breathtaking, others are perhaps a little 'out there', but each and every character - all suffering from some kind of loss - is absorbing. And the visual metaphors are awesome. Here's one of my favourite ones:
"A robin tweeting on a branch was paling from chestnut brown to fine white. Its legs became white wires and its eyes became hailstones. Its breast remained a red thumbprint for a second, then that also faded, through pink to crisp white."
I just love that 'thumbprint' image.

I'd very much recommend giving this book a read. It's different to anything I've ever read before and it's also the prettiest book I've ever seen, with silver-edged pages. Almost glass-like...