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: