Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cheesy Dreams

Now it's not quite as cold in Italy as it is in the UK but I'm still sitting here in Rome with a snivelling cold watching Sky News instead of being out enjoying la Dolce Vita on a Saturday night.

Admittedly it was snowing the other day in Puglia, but that was up a mountain, and it rained a lot, and it was bloody freezing on Thursday, and I brought the damn thing with me from the UK...etc.

But it's all worth it because just before I temporarily lost my sense of smell and taste, I rediscovered the magic mozzarella, first passed my lips many years ago and too long absent. You know mozzarella? That rubber ball in the plastic bag filled with milky water that can be used for pizzas, crumbled into salads, sliced for accompanying tomato, avocado and basil? Well in Puglia you'd barely recognise it.

Firstly it's always a lot softer, even the common stuff, and has a slightly more acidic quality to it. But in the rarified atmosphere of Slow Food, Agrimuseums, local producers and organic farming that has gripped Puglia as much as anywhere else, the top drawer mozzarella is in a different league. It's called a Burrata.

The ball is meltingly soft and inside it's stuffed with a stringy/soupy/creamy/buttery mix that has a flavour like nothing else I've ever tasted. Somebody brought me one back from Matera many years ago and, having never seen one before, was about to put it in the fridge to firm it up. Fortunately I was stopped.

Later that day, when asken how the mozarella was, I simply said "finished".

On top of Mont Saint Angelo (while flurries of snow blew outside) we were fed just the mix itself, without the cheese ball casing. That was even better. And in a variety of farms and restaurants I dug in as if famished when offered a tiny morsel. "Ooh, you like it, take another". I didn't need asking twice.

It apparently began as a way of using scraps of leftover mozzarella but I don't care about that, all I know is that it's one of the tastiest cheeses on the planet. Sadly, unlikely to be tasted in the near future as it has to be consumed within 24 hours - at 48 it needs chucking out - and the race to get fresh Burrata to London in that time is likely to affect the price. Er, adversely.

Which brings me to the world's best ricotta, also from Puglia.........

No, enough with the cheese, I've got manflu. I couldn't even smell Stinking Bishop if it was stuck under my nose right now. I need to go and suffer somewhere. And dream of cheese.

Monday, December 07, 2009

People On A Train

So I'm hunkered down on a train on a cold, grey, miserable winter's day, and we're not exactly racing from London to Brighton, it's stopping at places you've never heard of, like Three Bridges, when this guy gets on and sits opposite me. I'm already distracted from reading the Guardian - this being Climate Change Day or something I've bought the paper version for the first time in months - but a nearby man/woman person is talking loudly into his/her mobile about being at the bookies that morning. He/she is talking in that earpiercing, annoying, Estuary nasal twang that sets my teeth on edge.
"Yeah,ee dunno whaaat ee waas farkin tarkin abaht" he/she is bellowing, in a high pitched squeal, while I'm buried in The Media Section, trying to figure out what OfCom's position on News International should be, or why the Libel Laws in this country are fucked.
"Aaaah says to 'im, if YOU don farkin gimme that tenner I'll, so to God, I'll....." at this point the recipient of the news made a suggestion which I couldn't hear so I moved further down into my coat and scarf and tried to keep reading.

But the new guy had other ideas. I could feel him staring at me.
"Isss juss started..." he says, noticeably slurring. Since this was just after noon, I assumed the man was ill and looked up. He was dressed in short shorts and a tee shirt. Both tight and shiny.
"What has?" says I, trying not to appear rude.
"Th fkin rain," he slurs, barely audible.

He was pissed. As a newt. At noon.
And he was dressed in shorts in midwinter. And he appeared to be Italian.
"What?" I says, not too sharply, but sharp enough to show that I wasn't really going to engage, but was not impolite enough to totally ignore him. You never know, he might have been ill.
But he wasn't. He was totally bladdered.
"thefkn rain, jus started, Now. There. It's fkn wet. Fck".
I looked at him. He looked at me.
Mr/Mrs Bookie Customer was bellowing.
"eee jus was a waanka, a total wanka, an ah sez to im like ,wha..." but the other end interrupted again.
I decided to ignore everything, and sure enough, the world's drunkest Italian (I've never seen one before,) went away to engage at the next seat where a couple of lady shoppers giggled and held their breath at the audacity of this swarthy runner (for that was what he said he was) swaying and swearing all the way to his stop, somewhere even I've never heard of, never mind you.

And so back to the comfort of The Guardian. I was engrossed in every detail, including a short piece about the BBC, about BBC Worldwide in fact.
"That's funny," I thought to myself, drowning out drunken Italian and 90DB Estuary Mobile, "It's as if I've read this piece before"
And sure enough, I had. Or rather, I'd only feckin written it! As one of the anonymous commentators on the Guardian Media Online I witter away about everything from puddings to politics when I've got a short gap to fill between games of Bejewelled Twist, and occasionally they lift the more enlightened pieces and print them in the dead tree edition. Without telling.
There's apparently some small print in the online contract which allows them to do it, so it's all kosher.

So there's me beaming away at the three pars which I never got paid for, and I look up. The Italian is using the seats as training bars and the he/she is now talking to his/her mate sitting opposite, at the same decibel level, about how the person on the phone was also a fahkin idyit.

Somehow I don't think either of them would have been impressed with my coments about BBC Worldwide in the Grauniad.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

"I (don't) know what I like"

Strange times when the brightest thing that happens to you is at a tube station, when you've just had the journey from hell from Baker St in the rush hour because the signals have gone down at Edgeware Road, and the pop legend or, ahem, POP GOLD, Darius comes up and asks to use your phone cos his is broke. He was polite (and no, popbitch, his credit had NOT run out) and called his dad to tell him he'd be late.

Which is what art is this month.

At the Royal Academy my fave, the sensational, understated, wholly creative genius that is Anish Kapoor, whom I have not only met but had dinner with in Venice and like enormously, opened his new mega blockbuster show. It's a mix of old riffs (bright pigments in strange shapes, lovely first time around) a room jammed with concrete extrusions in defiantly non-architectural forms, a fab mirrored room, a sensational courtyard piece of mirrorballs, and the climax, the mainstay, the bada-boom! (literally) several galleries given over to dark red wax being fired from a cannon or trundled along a rail. It's big. It's red. It's messy. It's about space and form and challenging the old, nay destroying the old, with the new. It''s er, well, it's um ...big.

Which Pop Life isn't. At the Tate Modern they've crammed a lot into a small, awkward, ill-fitting series of rooms - including family(twins) selected by Damien Hirst for his installation - and we're excitied and at the preview (these things get more and MORE packed) and, well, um....

This is Pop Art that I've known all my life. Warhol, Haring, Koons, Emin, Hirst etc and it's all jammed into a space that's slightly claustrophobic, all the photocopies, dirty bits and pieces and thoroughly tastless porn of Koons. It should be exciting. I was at the original Pop Shop set up by Keith Haring on Lafayette in New York City to sell his ephemera to the people, my kids played with the fridge magnets for years. It was fun at the time and still looks good in some respects, although the shock news of the night (for me) which didn't come from the exhibition at all but a friend who told me that haring was never really a graffiti artist, the very thing he's famous for, he was an art type who used chalk. (to the purist graffiti artists that's a different thing entirely) Hirst's new gold plated stuff is amazing. The Japanese maestro Takashi Murakami has a video with Kirsten Dunst going Japanese in what appears to be Akihabara (Electric Town) which I am stunned by and it's all, well, it's all....

Quite unexciting. Like Anish Kapoor.

It's not that I don't get it, I understand the rampant commercialisation that has informed 'Pop' Art from Warhol onwards, I understand Anish Kapoor's strategic attack on the Academy, I even enjoyed the parties and previews. But there's no wit, no enjoyment.

I do know about modern art, it's just that I don't know what I like.

Oh dear.



Sunday, September 13, 2009

Same but different.

Biarritz has beaten Bayonne and the whole town is alive, vibrant with Saturday night revelling as rugby fans celebrate their local Derby victory. Horns toot and blare, the team anthem is playing from every passing car, people are dancing in the street.

For reasons completely unknown to me many of the red and white support are dressed as Indian Chiefs - full feather headress and warpaint - their wives as squaws. Inside our little bodega the sangria is flowing the paella being scoffed (we are in basque country after all) while outside a little old man dressed head to toe in team colours is waving a red and green version of the Union Jack* and despite his years moving to the music with impeccable grace and quite stylish timing. It is fiesta time. Twickenham, with its loud and leery drunks, was never, ever like this.

The team truck passes with a sound system blasting out the anthem and we repair to another bodega where what appears to be the team are making merry with hundreds of supporters , dancing and singing, waving at passing cars and buses who're blasting their horns now. There are children leaping around, their mothers dancing, their fathers maybe just tapping their toes.

We leave them to it and wander away, passing smaller bars which echo the noise. We are in party town, quite by accident, so rather than go straight home, we're drawn towards a karaoke bar, The Queen, where we have noticed more merrymaking. Inside, a small squad of camp followers, not attached to rugby proceedings, are belting out French and English songs with aplomb, putting their body and soul into it. We have stumbled across "France's Got Talent" and it is wonderful. We have a little grandstand seat and we watch and listen in awe as torch songs echo around the walls, long forgotten french classics see the light of day again, and the occasional Elvis number is enthusiastically performed, complete with finger pointing, fancy footwork, and a snarled lip.

The door opens and in stumble what appear to be rugby revellers, about twelve of them, and they colonise the bar, mincing and preening as they imitate the singers. But they're not rugger buggers, they're a British Stag Night, and they're out for a laugh.

We fall into conversation as they basically take over the bar, much to the annoyance of other customers and staff. Individually, they're all very nice, if a little pissed, but collectively they're givin it large, dismissing the singers as 'pricks' and 'dicks', generally mooning and dancing like Noel Gallagher on a bad day. They try to get their names down to sing but madame, she 'eez 'aving none of it, and a boisterous discussion takes place with the Englanders declaring that it's 'not right' that they're not being allowed to sing, that it's discrimination not to have any English songs sung, and, oh, something else of great import to a bunch of normal guys who've been necking lager since they got off the easyjet.

Madame relents under management pressure and the lads sing. Or rather they get hold of the mikes. They are shit. I mean, really really incomprehensibly embarrassing shit, incapable of singing a single note in tune between them. They roll around the bar, arms around shoulders and generally shout and ball until madame loses it, switches off the track and the barman walks out in search of the gendarmerie. The lads think this is just not on and protest, but sense that it might be time to head off. We are invited to the wedding next week, we shake hands with all of them and promise to meet up the following day (yeah, sure guys). But we politely decline the call to attend other bars, despite my partner being described as a 'fit bird' by a man whose weekday life, we are sure, is spent within the confines of The City.

The bar is quiet, the crowd now depleted, then Biarritz's own Marc Almond gets up and the air is filled with camp melodrama again. He's followed immediately by an emotional duet, and then a riveting performance of 'Suspicious Minds' which has us on our feet. cheering and clapping and demanding an encore, before deciding that, at 2am, it might be time to head home.

* The Ikurrina, unofficial flag of Basque national Autonomy.


Thursday, September 03, 2009


A small cafe in a small town in the Aveyron, a department of South West France barely known to the outside world, including the rest of France. I like the cafe as I can have a coffee, check my email, and watch the world go by. It's clearly mobbed at night, judging by the various artefects, posters and gaming machines dotted about. The blue-smock-and-berets outside smoking this morning don't keep this place alive. And so far, there are no whisks.

There's an odd machine on the bar. A kind of silent digital Pachinko, but without the Japanese addicts, or the baskets of ball bearings. A man is playing in a crazed way, like a late night drunk with a world beating system. Nobody's paying him any attention.

The day, interspersed with rain, 3000 year old statues, spectacular new art and miniature horses, is odd to say the least. En route to dinner I pass a yellow skinned man talking to himself. Not on an iphone - common enough nowadays - but genuinely to himself. Loudly. He only registers because his skin colour.

Dinner is Farcous followed by duck confit with aligot, the cheese is Rebarbe (Roquefort mixed with creme freche and eau de vie) and the wine an Entraygues le Fel. But my eye is constantly drawn to the wall, to a frame containing kitchen implements, mostly whisks. It's the kind of thing you see in Paris and London, bought at car boot sales and designed to make a place look 'old'. This place is old, these things belong to the owner's mother. They're from her kitchen but that's not why I'm drawn to them.

I eventually twig. It's Worthing, one of God's Waiting Rooms on the Sussex Coast, whose genteel denizens were slowly invaded by outsiders who discovered they could claim their long term benefits by the seaside, rather than in a sink estate in the rain.

The whisks? There was a talent show along the south coast which ran for years, Search For A Star, where ancient acts would sing and dance and tell antedeluvian music hall jokes to dwindling audiences until somebody had the bright idea of making the audiences - fired up on lager - the stars. They'd ignore the acts, or jeer them, or read the papers in mid song. There would be organised mayhem, waving and general hilarity, including one night where the entire audience suddenly produced whisks and whirred them above their heads, to the complete bafflement of the act on stage.

It was just about the maddest event I've ever attended. Whisks just never seemed the same afterwards.

As I leave, le patron tells me his favourite customer is Jonathan Meades, the Times journalist and broadcaster who now lives in South West France and suddenly I'm whisked away (geddit?) to Mr Meades' shows, always a delight, and impressed that he likes the same scoff as me.

I'm staying on a high floor and there's a noise outside, from the bar downstairs. A madman is raving at some dark skinned customers, aiming his fingers at them in mock execution, screaming abuse and wandering into the middle of the road, pretending to gun down passing motorists, cocking his fingers, shouting rat-a-ta-tat at all and sundry, looking mad and crazy and constantly coming back to the bar to shout more abuse. It goes on and on and on. A common enough city sight, but incongruous here.

It is, I finally realise, the pachinko playing yellow skinned nutter, now transformed through drink to a demon. It is a sight to make most Americans shudder, their lax laws on handguns have caused many deaths, as he picks off everyone who comes within range. Ptshouw! Ptshouw!

I watch as the police arrive, slow down, stop, and observe. He's relatively quiet, his back turned but still in the middle of the road doing the driveby shooting. The police decide it's not one for them and drive off. He turns and aims at them. Ptshouw!

Mr Jaundice Banshee continues his wailing, shooting, dancing and saluting. I, however, am whisked off to sleep.

Did you see what I did there?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yorkshire : A Grand Canyon.

So ....we're standing listening to a Yorkshireman, in Yorkshire, as you do, and he's telling us an amusing story about David Hockney, Britain's greatest living artist (that's my opinion, but may very well be his too). Hockney, Bradford's most famous son, has forsaken some time ago the colouful life he has led in Los Angeles and returned to his native roots. Not to Bradford exactly, but to Bridlington on the coast, a few miles away, where he's painting away merrily, smoking like a chimney, and generally enjoying the rain and intermittent sun.

Anyway, there's to be a big retrospective in New York in the Autumn and Time Magazine decides to send its Art Correspondent to interview The Man. I have no idea who this poor hack is (Robert Hughes?) but on the phone Hockney gives him directions from downtown Manhattan to Bridlington, right the way to his front gate. With an added rider that if he is lost (in Bridlington) to ask anyone as everyone now knows exactly where he, and everyone else presumeably, lives.

Exhausted and not a little put out, the metropolitan scribe arrives huffing and puffing, plaintively asking (over restorative Yorkshire Tea and biscuits, or possibly a Dandelion and Burdock with a slice of Curd Tart) why anyone would possibly want to live in such a place, as "no sane man would ever want to visit here".

"Yes, I agree," Hockney replies, rather waspishly.

The interview is conducted, and at the end Hockney declares that the Mighty Hack must, while he is in town (he's not going to be rushing back after all) visit the Bridlington Arts Society Annual Show, a big deal around these parts. Slightly nonplussed, the Hack ambles down to the Town Hall and looks around. Hockney has told him there's even a 'Hockney' on show and sure enough, there is, by his elder sister Margaret, a gifted manipulator of scanned images and artist in her own right. The hack wanders around aimlessly and is joined by a local dignitary, either the Mayor or President of The Art Society, or both.

The Hack asks what it's all for.
"Well it's our annual show" The Dignitary beams proudly.
The Hack looks dismissively at the sea of amateur art before him.
"Yes but what's it for?"
"Well it's OUR SHOW." comes the rather frustrated reply."Don't you have them in America?"
Time Magazine's Mighty Hack says he has no idea, having possibly only spent time examining numbered Pollock drip paintings or Rothko's colorblock path to suicide. He leaves with a weary sigh, having wasted a good half hour of his valuable time, to start the journey back, a daunting prospect: strange taxis, trains, buses, planes. Instead of just a short cab ride from Columbus Circle to midtown.

In a subsequent telephone conversation with Hockney, the Dignitary mentions the visit, and suggests that in future David holds fire.
"Don't send another one of them, David. He were a right waste o' space"

We laugh politley at the vast chasms that exist in life, before The Yorkshireman asks us how long we're staying in the area.
"Just a few days" I answer and so he helpfully points towards some vague greenery, the hills and moor leading to Ilkley.
"You must go there," he urges, "It's fantastic. Great countryside. Only about seven miles. No problem. You just need stout shoes"
At which point my partner, who rarely strays north of Regent's Park, asks her first question of the day.
"Isn't there a taxi?"

After a small pause, we get our coats and leave.


Thursday, July 16, 2009


I like progress, always have, long before the king of change swept into the White House. It's why I left the comfort of institutions like the BBC, ITV - and marriage - quite so frequently. And why I'm happy downsizing, changing, and moving forward.

Despite the job losses, I love the way production in media has developed, I love the fast way new technology is racing, why this very blog is being overtaken by new means of communication. For the moment, hello Twitter, au revoir Facebook, bye bye Blogging.

But it's goodbye to other things. In my case I read today that flatbeds in BA planes might be phased out. Boo! Hoo! They changed my life, flying to my adopted city (New York) was revolutionised by the idea that you could sleep, without drink and food, virtually all the way. No movies, no fizz, no extra glasses of red. I still use them, mostly on other airlines, because everyone has outpriced BA.

I'm writing this in Bradford, home of the English Curry, but tonight I asked our Yorkshire Chef in Titus (Saltaire) if he'd cheated by putting cream in the pea risotto. (regular readers will know how fanatical I am about peas). He was horrified that I could even suggest such a thing. A few years ago he'd have been nonplussed. I'd had the real thing, proper risotto, just as I cook it, just as you have it in Italy. Bravissimo! (sound of breathless sighing here if you're a nuts about peas as, er, me)

I like instant response. I couldn't talk to Alan in London because he was talking via Skype to his son in Beijing (for free). I texted my pal in Dubai and established a link, with jokes. I automatically emailed chums in New York and Los Angeles as if they were Hackney and Ealing. I spoke with people in Shanghai, Glasgow, Stornoway, Melbourne, and wrote some pithy tosh online all over the world.

I am about to embark on a TV series which invades six different countries and a film which takes me out of the UK for months. This is possibly goodbye blogothing. Maybe I'll be a Twitterer (a Twit) from now on.

But maybe it won't make the slightest bit of difference.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Monkeying Around.

Last year my partner announced to me that I had herpes. "Look" she said, pointing downwards in the general direction of, er, well you know, "You've got Herpes".

(For younger readers, Herpes is thing that people used to get before really serious killer diseases came along, stuff that kills you, or at the very least makes bits fall off. For older readers of a gentle disposition, look away now, we're not going to be concentrating solely on facial cold sores.. )

Sure enough, there was a small red mark on the affected, er, region, and I stuttered that I didn't have any idea what it was.

"You've got Herpes" she repeated helpfully, not expanding on the hidden subtext that suggests one has been playing away from home. Which one hadn't.

We were standing in a bedroom in Paris, me examining myself, she repeating the mantra "You've got Herpes". Paris wasn't quite as romantic that visit.

Back in the UK, I went for a test, which amounted to nothing as the small mark had all but gone. The doc assured me, without even examining me, that all was well. "You don't have Herpes" he said, slightly less dramatically than the partner's affirmed statement.

Back home, my partner declared resolutely "You've got herpes". This didn't really help. But we managed to amble along for a while without discussing it or, ahem, bringing the subject up.

So a full year later, a little lesion appears and I shoot off to the clinic, the Sexual Health Centre and I am attended to immediately. A very gay man takes me into a consulting room where there is a woman sitting, a female colleague who's come to watch. I am slightly flushed.

We discuss what's happened and he says I almost certainly don't have Herpes but I need to be examined. I drop my trousers and, er, undergarments, and he examines me closely, rolling me around in his fingers like a rissole with potatoes (attached). The woman comes forward for a closer view, takes her glasses off, and studies me intently. With my help they eventually find the tiny lesion and we return to something approaching normality as I am allowed to pull my clothes back on. We don't discuss the fact that I've just let a gay man play around with my undercarriage (he actually used the word 'kit') while a not unattractive woman homes in for a closer look. I am still slightly flushed.

I agree that I should have the full monty, a Herpes test and everything else thrown in, syphillis, gonorrhea, HIV and myxomatosis, which I may have caught from my partner's rabbit. In the meantime he suggests that I don't have Herpes at all. "If you've got anything," he says, "It's Herpes One." I can hear the partner now "You've got....etc" and he explains that herpes down there (Herpes Two) is definitely NOT what I've got and Herpes One, the one that produces cold sores around the mouth is what I may have, if anything at all. It amounts to zilch but will be enough for the partner to make her declaration.

I have to give samples and am ushered into another room where there is a nurse standing. A very attractive blonde nurse who is alone. With me. And we discuss right away, sex, and my 'kit' and my sexual history, and activity. and what has happened and she asks me to strip and she plays around with me and she takles a swab sample and I am going RED. There is a RED ALERT and I'm thinking 'this is all my partner's fault'. And then I get to put my trousers back on and turn a slightly less red shade of skin colour. And then she explains to me how I might have got Herpes One where Herpes Two is normally found and we discuss for a few moments Oral Sex and I'm all sweaty......aaaaargh!

I give the other samples and am sent on my way, having just been handled by a gay man and a very attractive blonde.

Not a bad day all round when you add it all up. Plus I don't appear to have anything.

"Not even Herpes!"


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Now that's not very nice, is it?

Oh dear, yesterday was a very bad day, wasn't it? Weather wasn't very nice, my loved ones are away, my business partner is laid up with an injury, Delia Smith was lunching beside me and talking too loud. My bloody Oyster card wasn't working either. Shit.

Oh yes, and our very own Nazi Stormtroopers were voted for in large numbers in a democratic election. We now have 2 BNP MEPs to be ashamed of.

Since the weekend I've had a thought in my head that won't go away. The D-Day Veterans returning to Normandy for what is probably the final time to stand where their friends and comrades in arms were mown down in the biggest single turning point of the Second World War. Each time I hear their stories - and at the last anniversary I was there - it becomes more poignant, more sad. Teenagers who barely knew what they were fighting for shot as they landed on picturesque beaches. It's a hell of a story and in case you thought Saving Private Ryan was just a Hollywood fiction, Tom Hanks was even there this time with Obama et al to pay his dues.

They all died for a common cause, to rid the world of an evil cancer that Germany had let loose. And so, just a few days later, we're watching our own Nazi scum spew forth onto our screens. I only hope that most of the Veterans are too gaga to register the full horror of this sickening episode.

OK, so they'll be hustled out soon enough, the turnout was so low it let them slip through and you'd have to be made of solid wood, a real plank, not to realise now what you've done with your BNP-it's-only-a-protest-vote but in one constituency over 100,000 people were fooled by their suits and smiles into thinking that they're something respectable, that they have some kind of policy on offer that's a way forward.

They are, to a man (a white man, no black peope allowed) disreputable, violent scum of the first order and they make me ashamed to be British. They should be hounded off the stage, run out of politics with their holocaust denials, their anti-semitism, racism, homophobia and foaming at the mouth agenda to attack everyone and anyone they don't like. They are undemocratic to the core, they would end freedom of speech tomorrow if they could. Oh, let them have the freedom to talk, at Speaker's Corner or some provocative little rally they've organised through an immigrant community, but please, don't let's pretend they're a political force of any merit.

Nick Griffn was pelted with eggs outside the Commons today. Good. I hope every time he shows his loathesome mug in public he gets hit with something, anything. And as for Mons, the Jew-hating former footsoldier of the National Front and the National Socialist league (National Socialism - geddit?) may he end his days in a home surrounded by ex-servicemen. That would be fitting.

Now, tomorrow, tomorrow.....that will be a better day, won't it?


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Memory Loss: An Appeal

Last year I was sat in Claridges, taking tea, as one does, explaining to a friend of mine who in my view is a complete idiot, the advantages of having all of one's work on memory sticks. I had, only recently, transferred years of paper files to the digital world, literally crates of paperwork now on a something gigabyte stick, two actually, which I occasionally kept about my person. All neatly filed, categorised. I even marked the sticks "FILM" and "TV" in case I got confused between their corporate logos. Tiny little things they were, I didn't even buy them, they were freebies given away instead of pens. Later that night, as we had moved on to liquids stronger than tea, I left the sticks, in their little box, on the table (which also had a day's worth of detritus, not mine, spread over it) and they were never seen again.

A search the following day confirmed their loss.

"Don't you have them backed up?" some not-so-stupid friends asked. "Er, they were the back up". Lots of important stuff was still on the main computer and was saved. Lots of stuff was lost forever.

So who would be so stupid as to let something like that happen again? What kind of dolt would carry all his important work around on an even smaller memory stick. in a wee plastic box less than an inch long attached to nothing more than a bit of string, like some homeless mutt? Who?


In my defence, I did have a backup system until a few weeks ago when the main computer was dragged off for some repairs which have proved complex. I can't access anything and the files may be wiped.

So, an appeal. EVERYTHING on this tiny little stick was written on this ere laptop, including a recent splurge of intense creativity which, at the last count, had reached 55,000 words which are rather tragically not backed up. I've watched CSI, Family Guy, and the X-Files so I KNOW all that stuff is still here on my laptop where it was written, viewed, edited every day for the last few months. Question is, how do I get to it?

Answers in a comment please, in the box below.


Sunday, April 19, 2009


You bet!

Just before I left the metrolops by train to Cornwall, I watched Michelle Mone - the blonde bombshell bra magnate from Apprentice fame - explaining to ITVNews that she was fed up listening to the media drone on and on about how we're all going to hell, with or without a handcart, and how this very explanation of how terrible everything is partly explains how, well, terrible everything is.

So if you don't mind this will be an unrelentingly happy column today.

St Ives is a place to love. A bejewelled and sparkling sea. Dinky fishermen's cottages. A haven from the drudge. Cornish friends and family may disagree but what do they know, they only live here. I've been coming here for donkeys, and it's as refreshing a place today as it was when I first brought a girlfriend here for, er, a cultural weekend many years ago. A walk round Down-A-Long, the old fishing bit which once smelt of pilchards but now has a 'Chocolat!' shop, is as time-eroding as anything you'll find in Venice or Stonetown, Zanzibar. There may be big green council bins outside every door but the architecture is of another time; there may be more holiday homes than residences but you'd barely know as a visitor; and while the credit crunch means that more people are snacking than dining, here they're scarfing Cornish pasties, proper ones. There are no McDonalds or KFC. Hurrah!

There are no double red lines either, just a few yellow ones, no troublesome law enforcers beating your legs or Sky Helicopters hovering over funerals, few nutters (apart from retired Cornwallians studying the effects of Scrumpy on the mind), limited pub opportunities and, as far as I can see, no more than one Pound Shop. The only supermarket is a Co-op where the 'till-bunnies' (as they call themselves) do a neat line in witty repartee.

I'd say this + a beach or two + a Cornish pasty for lunch = a lot of people enjoying themselves. From surfer dudes to families to preening teens studying their oppos. (I'm a visitor, right? So don't email me about the credit crunch in Cornwall, I'm being Mr Happy today. I saw those teeshirts - "It's tourist season so why can't we shoot them?")

Porthmeor Beach is where you want to be - sunning yourself or scoffing fresh fish and chips (with a cup of tea and two slices please) in the beachfront cafe. It's here that I learned to surf and it's here that I intend to take it up again. Soon. In the meantime, I'm over the road in the Tate Gallery - the smallest of the Tate Empire and possibly my favourite - which at the moment has a retrospective of Ben Nicholson, the early modernist who came to live in St Ives, and an explosion of colour by Luke Frost. A brilliant coupling of St Ives 'old' modernist school and the very latest from what has become a local dynasty. Joy. No crowds, a beautiful building with the best rooftop caff in Britain, and sand underfoot, which is not something you get in Pimlico.

Lunch at the Mermaid, one of the oldest in the hood where the happy waiter who's been there for years tells me the special is a whole local lemon sole with chips for a tenner. He points surreptitiously at the next table and eyeballs the message "that's what they've got". So I get it. While trying to decide on a glass (how much?) or a bottle of Provence Rose he offers to do me a small carafe 'for six quid'. Done deal mate. They do a five pound lunch. They do lobster and chips. Oooooooh can I live here now please? (a moment recorded on every visit)

Because I'm working I'm in the apartment from heaven, the Sail Lofts, which have recently been reconverted from artists studios (of which several remain downstairs) because long before that this was a pilchard processing factory, and along with every mod con that my own home aspires to this spacious white loft has a flat screen TV which is this weekend dedicated to BBC 3 because they're showing 'Family Guy' the funniest thing now on TV. I'm jaded, a Simpsons fan who's turned in his Homer tee a long time ago, the consequence being that I find it very hard to find anything remotely amusing on TV at all. Family Guy is it.

It's the new series so the BBC have splashed out £2.74p on a behind-the-scenes effort. What would once have been a documentary is now a local crew fishing around the Family Guy production office for shots. Piece of crap really but it allowed me to see Seth McFarlane - the creator, writer, performer and drawer - say the words "as long as we don't do anything the Simpsons did" which sums it up. The baton has now been officially passed. Laugh your bloody socks off people. Or Brian gets it.

Which reminds me, down at the harbour I buy a huge spider crab straight off the boat for two quid. It's live (look away now if you're squeamish) and despite having a pot which is just a little too small it is cooked, prepped and served with potato salad and a crisp white wine. It is delicious. But is also tiny. I have discovered the difference between cock and hen spider crabs. One has loads of meat. The other doesn't.

Can't all be good news. Sorry.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bloody Sheep

The very funny comedian Arnold Brown ("I'm Jewish and I'm Scottish. Two minorities for the price of one" boomboom!) has a new act at the heart of which is an appreciation of sheep. At Brighton's Komedia last week he had us in stitches (well a Welsh friend anyway) as he embarrassed the audience into agreeing that sheep were, um, rather attractive in their own sweet way. As the discourse reaches its climax, Arnold describes a train journey which passes field after field of said flocks, each one more attractive than the other, exciting Arnold a little.

"In fact" he says, rising to the occasion,"They were asking for it." Cue hysterical laughter (from Welsh associate)

But he's wrong.They're not only not attractive, they're stupid too, and since I've spent the last few days edging my way through hordes of the wooly bastards I'm entitled to think that.

The single track roads connecting places like Achiltibuie, Achnahaird, Altan Dubh and Reiff (you'll have to Google to locate) are difficult enough to manouvre - one of them's not called the "mad wee road" for nothing - as delivery vans roar through, tourists misunderstand that passing places are not picnic spots, and the route itself twists and turns like the proverbial corkscrew, defying any attempt to reach third gear. In addition, the driver's eye is constantly distracted with eagles (actually, they're never eagles, they're always buzzards) and a mountain range that owes more to Monument Valley than the Grampians, Stac Polly especially.

So trying to deal with sheep playing chicken is just too much. Chicken?

As you approach from the rear (phnaar phnaar) there will be mother on one side and offspring on the other, eyes darting hither and thither in panic. They have plenty of time to make their escape. But they don't. Generally the offspring will make a break - across your path no less - at the last possible moment shouting the sheep equivalent of 'mummy mummy there's a car coming' as if mummy, who's now running in front of you cares about anything except saving her own scrawny neck.

Well woolly jumpers, you'd better wise up, because you're dealing with the SHEEP KILLER (dramatic, scary music) and I'm still on the loose!

A very long time ago (the statute of limitations is well up on this one) I was making a journey very familiar to me along a single track road, in a Range Rover doing 90 miles per hour. It was a clear day, the road was long, straight and uninterrupted. I was on a small island racing to catch the morning ferry.

In slow motion, I saw a sheep emerge from underneath a little bridge, twisting itself onto the road, not seeing me, and despite jamming on the anchors I hit it full force, killing it instantly and forcing me off the road. I was lucky not to have, oh, died.

I went back to examine the remains and like some perverse Damien Hirst installation, the sheep was neatly laid out in three small piles, all in a straight line along the middle of the road. The wooly coat, the torso, and the intestines in a quivering pile, steaming, bloody, but neat. The poor thing must have just exploded when I hit it.

I scanned the road, the surrounding bogland, and the distant horizons, hilltops and escarpments. There was no-one around, so I scooped the three piles off the road and into the small stream under the bridge, thus saving myself £90 in sheep killing fees.

Job done. Got away with it. Sorted.

The island has one pub and when I arrived back that evening, was greeted by shouts and torments on entry. "Murderer! Rustler! Sheep killer!" Nothing is secret in such small communities, particularly when the shepherd with 20/20 vision is on a mountaintop three miles away watching you murder one of his flock.



Sunday, March 29, 2009

TV or not TV

Without wishing to sound unduly negative, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to be even remotely interested in television, despite exhortations to watch The Wire which apparently will jump start my batteries and get the juices flowing again. OK, but the everyday stuff just bores me, the production values scream "CHEAP", the formats are boringly repetitive, the scheduling's a bloody mess, and most comedy (except Stewart Lee) is just, well, shite. I don't even get my news there now.

But man cannot live on the Guardian Crossword, websites and the pub alone. Noooo...

So on Friday at BAFTA we watch Britain's greatest film director (official) have praise heaped on him by every living luminary from cinema - Danny Boyle, Stephen Frears, Mike Figgis, et al - a true BAFTA love-in at the feet of Nicolas Roeg who, at 80 years old, is still making films - Nic Roeg films - and who sat modestly listening to all these current whizzos explain how he'd influenced them, how they'd stolen his ideas, and how brilliant he was/is. The clips of his best movies - Performance, Don't Look Now, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell To Earth - were played over and over, as exciting now as they were thirty years ago. There's something about breathing the same air, scoffing the same canapes, and networking with the same people as the genius in the room that beats staying in to see Jonathan Ross.

And then to the theatre to see Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen trip the light fantastic through 'Waiting For Godot' Becket's marathon which - with Simon Callow and Richard Thackery in tow - is an absolute comedy joy. Both leads at the peak of their powers here, teasing out comedy line after comedy line, filling every space with precisely the right nuance and body language, constantly chattering for an hour, then after the break another hour in an awe inspiring display of actor supremacy. I do not know how they did it. McKellen is his character, no question, and the longer it went on the more I didn't want it to stop. I've always thought of it as a long play and yet time flew with this pair. Masterclass Theatre.

Michael Sheen's out again, this time as Brian Clough in the Damned United about his 44 days at Leeds in the 70's. He's been so stunning in his previous impersonations it's sometimes like watching Kenneth Williams or Tony Blair doing Cloughie, but that's the price you pay for being mesmerising in characters you look vaguely like. Tim Spall's senasational and the arch nemesis Don Revie is played suitably dark and brooding by Colm Meaney. Jim Broadbent is, sigh, his usual brilliant self (is he ever bad at anything?). And yes, it is the best film about football you'll ever see although to be fair it's a TV film blown up for the big screen to allow BBC Films to recoup some of that dosh.

A second visit to the Picasso exhibition at the National is even more rewarding than the first now that I know and understand what "Challenging the Past" is actually about, the artist's obsession with the grand traditions of past European Masters. Picasso's take, and responses to his esteemed forebears reveals not only a great deal about his passions, but theirs too, and the motivations of all great artists with a desire to make great art their own. Easily one of the best curated shows you'll ever see.

And before Duplicity sinks from sight, an hour or two in the company of Clive Owen trying his hardest to playact in shiny Armani suits, smooth tanned skin, from New York to Rome in a dense, almost impenetrable tale of artful deception, making love to Julia Roberts along the way. Is this what he would have been like as Bond? I'm glad he didn't get it if it is, but it's still pretty flash stuff written and directed by Tony Gilroy, our fave screenwriter (Bourne, Bourne, Bourne!) who put a lot of effort into the pace and intrigue.

Apparently there was something on TV too this weekend, but I can't remember what exactly.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Notting Hill

Hugh Grant
is wibbling at the camera and Rhys Ifans, resplendent in laundrette-grey Y's, is no doubt in a nightclub somewhere desperately hoping that people aren't watching so he can finally move on from Spike. Julia Roberts, playing herself, is doing that simul cry/smile thing.

Notting Hill, the movie, is on again. ITV something (3? 4? 87?)

I'm watching Hugh, dumped by Julia, walking up Portobello Road from the Electric Cinema (as was) two blocks north through all the seasons, snow, everything, to the sound of "Ain't No Sunshine". The sequence starts with a pregnant woman and ends with the same woman holding a baby. Clever. Poignant.

Come on, you've seen it plenty! I've seen it bloody millions of times (mild exaggeration) at the cinema then on planes because it was a "safe" film to show on flights. I got to know it almost off by heart. Literally, I can nearly recite the script now.

Thing is, I'm dragging some cool-out of towners around, because I've spent most of my life in Notting Hill. Not as a born-and-bred local council estate market stall holder, or a trustafarian whose £2m flat has no mortgage, or even a fashionista, but someone who just, er, lived here and shopped on Portobello Road of a Sa'aday mayte. . I wasn't just passing through either. We're talking years. Decades. And while it may not be fashionable, I like the movie too.

On Friday we had dinner at Galicia, the Spanish home from home, (and David Cameron's) so fantastic we had lunch again on Saturday; drinks and stuff at the Electric, downstairs, and more upstairs; after some kosher canapes at a Barmitzvah, some roast halal chicken (a whole one) from Chicken Cottage on Ladbroke Grove, some weekly shopping at the market, pizza in Kensington Park Road opposite where 192 used to be (RIP), Red Velvet cupcakes from Hummingbird, coffee and pastries from Kitchen and Pantry plus breakfast at Mike's (the best!).
No wonder I was fucking fat when I lived there.

As The Travel Bookshop's best ever customer (I travel. I buy travel books) I'm tempted to tell the crowds taking snaps of the exterior that the bookshop in the movie was faked in Portobello Road and also that Richard Curtis's Blue Front Door, opposite Nu-Line, which framed Spike in said undies, wasn't just painted black but has actually been replaced entirely, the real one being sold for charity. But I didn't. So many Japanese kids doing that V-sign, who am I to spoil it?

Gary sings outside the Market Bar, Mary sells her Balinese jewellery; gentrification is relentless and while the Oxfam Shop now sells nowt but books (it's the best one, save possibly for Marylebone High Street) and there are tables and chairs on the pavement north of Westway (as opposed to guys selling, er, stuff at the corner of Cambridge Gardens) it's still the real deal.

Richard Curtis's movie is good, neither the date stamped imagery of Four Weddings, nor the American prism of 'Love, Actually', but a likeable love story, set against a real backdrop.

Because that's what that part of Notting Hill actually looks like. Really.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rocker Stalker

Rather weirdly, I nearly became poet John Hegley's stalker at the Edinburgh Festival one year after telling him at the bar of the Assembly Rooms that I was not only coming to see his show, I had brought a lot of friends with me, as I had seen him perform in London "many times". For the next few days everywhere, but everywhere, I went in Edinburgh I bumped into him. It became so embarrassing I nearly stayed in. I don't know who felt more awkward, him or me.

But that's nothing compared to the lifelong crush I appear to have on Annie Lennox, resurrected again by the release of her new solo album that nearly had me in tears during the Jonathan Ross Show last week and in subsequent listenings produces a lump in my throat.

When she first appeared (in The Tourists) I was suitably impressed, but on reflection it was really just a rehearsal for nearly a decade of beautiful music with Dave Stewart. I bought every Eurythmics album and we played them endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. There is something about her voice that presses the buttons for me and I still go slightly weak at the knees over Annie Lennox. At the peak of her powers I was besotted - musically speaking of course.

After they split she came to New York to play Central Park and I was living there. I asked a member of my team to secure tickets. Impossible, I was told. Rubbish, I said. I was wrong. I couldn't get bloody tickets for love nor money. The Pope was in NYC at the same time and I saw HIM twice, scornfully remarking to the cowering members of the team that it was easier to see the f*cking Pope than Annie Lennox. What made matters even worse was that when the DVD of the show came out, it was blisteringly, bloody, barnstormingly brilliant. I think I wore the stupid thing thin playing it so often.

But back in London it came as no small surprise to be walking a small nationwide into the school playground one morning to see Ms Lennox walking out, having dropped off her small sprog. I could barely speak I was so moved. I think I began to hyperventilate. In front of small children. Every morning, almost without fail, I walked in as she walked out, I would bow my head (face red) and walk past in case she saw me and suspected me of stalking her. I could not bring myself to speak.

The school was heavily favoured by slebs and a lot of them I knew professionally. But I could never bring myself to approach The Diva.

"Hi Annie, I know it's the school playground and all, but I just well, really, er, really, um , well, ........."

"Thankyou. It's very nice to meet you. Why don't you drop round for tea and crumpets one day and I'll sing you a song."

Yeah, like that conversation ever took place.

Even worse, I would occasionally find myself, shortly after 9am, at the local petrol station filling up the tank and who would be at the next pump. Filling hers. And then at the cash queue there would just be the two of us. God I felt awkward.

Sleb restaurants and clubs in Soho, television studio green rooms, and posh parties are where you definitley do NOT approach music royalty so seeing A. Lennox at such places and bashes was slightly easier to deal with. But in local caffs, shops and pavements around our neck of the woods it almost forced me to dart behind the odd postbox. I once looked up during coffee at one of those communal tables to discover her at the same table. Jeesh.

In Le Caprice I was at a tiny table with a friend from Arizona and pointed out to her that at the next table but one was Jools Holland, a fabulous muso and TV persona, and whom I had met a couple of times. We might even talk when he got up but rather annoyingly he started to talk to the woman sitting to my left, at another tiny table, whose elbows had occasionally touched mine during dinner. Bugger, I thought, before glancing through the very corner of my eye on hearing this woman speak to confirm that it was...well you've guessed who it was. I froze, fearful of being labelled the Playground Stalker or somesuch. I grimaced and rolled my eyes at my dining companion, doing a kind of muted Basil Fawlty impression, trying to convey who this was and that I could be arrested at any moment for harrassment. Mercifully, we escaped before the rozzers (sleb protection squad) were called.

And then it all went away as Ms Lennox did other things and I moved out the area. Until Friday, when I was near to tears at the sound of her voice again, wondering if I could just pop down to a stage door somewhere and lurk a little.......

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Credit Crunch Paris

It's not my fault that I have to spend a lot of time in Paris, eating and drinking my way around the city. It's a tough job but..... it's not all joie de vivre.

Given the exchange rate fun we're having with the Euro, last week was more pain than joy, prices being calculated UP the way rather than DOWN, so much so that one night I decided to stay in, which I can't ever remember doing before. Admittedly I was in a suite with a large plasma screen TV, free peanuts and a very comfortable sofa.

So I went to the local traiteur, a grocer which makes Fortnum and Mason look like Aldi.
I was escorted from counter to counter by a small lady wearing an apron who cut, sliced, wrapped and generally prettified everything I bought. Some ham, celeriac remoulade, pate, egg and vegetable terrine, etc. Little bits of this and little bits of that. Parisian delicacies rather than a vast takeaway curry or somesuch. She managed to avoid the question "how much is that?" every time I asked.
At the final counter, where one is given a slip of paper which is then taken across the floor to the cash desk, I was smiled at by the manageress as she totted it all up.

"Fifty two euros monsieur" she said sweetly, still smiling.
"Fifty two euros". Her smile was beatific.
There wasn't even any wine. It would have been cheaper going out. Possibly.
Admittedly there was a sliver of foie gras maison which was €25 itself (I later looked at the price tag - €250 per kg - gah!)
I left feeling slightly miserable, wondering how I was going to explain this back at the ranch. I then walked into their wine shop and asked if they had any sauternes.
"Certainly sir, " the man said with a flourish, "This half bottle is €140. Would sir be looking for a full bottle?"
No, sir, would be looking for the exit, rapido, pronto, it's hot in here and I'm looking for the nearest offie where - thankfully - we come back down to planet earth with a jolly little beaujolais costing €8.

I was then introduced to the current Parisian scam du jour, which involves the mug (me) looking down at the gutter while waiting to cross the road and seeing a large gold wedding ring, at which point the perp (small weasely person) picks it up looking both astonished and quizzical, and then asking if it belongs to moi (the mug). Conversation then ensues in which you offer to buy the stupid thing for €10 or something. First time I couldn't be arsed even talking and walked off. Second day I laughed and the third - when the variation was a large shiny watch, I said (in English) while pointing at my forehead - "does it say stupid on here?"

Caution is rarely the watchword in Paris, but it was for the rest of the week. Until after dinner on Friday when I was persuaded to go to our favourite nightspot, a scruffy little jazz cafe I've been going to for years because the music is excellent. I had a cognac and a coffee. Then another cognac before making my excuses and leaving, citing an early Eurostar.
I offered a €20 bill. But our patron advised that there was now a €10 'entrance fee' which I remarked he'd never charged me before. He just looked at me. I rummaged around my pockets and found a €10 bill - the only one I had - and graciously offered that, the man has a living to make after all..
"Non, monsieur," he explained, pointing, "It is €30.50"
I stared, disbelieving and said. "You are joking, aren't you. It's only 50 cents"
He looked straight at me.
"Non. Do you have a card?"
He took my card and processed the entire €30.50. The handset asked 'Gratuity?'
I stamped in 'Non' and left rather deflated.

The Eurostar back to London the following morning was unusually comfortable. Thankfully next time I'm going back to slightly scruffier parts, you know, the ones where they have the riots.
At least the food will be cheap.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Valentine!

OK, you want romance? Sing this to your loved one on Valentine's Night.

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve
And fare thee weel, awhile!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

The choice is yours, accompanied by a large man playing the bagpipes in the corner of the kitchen, some dry ice and Full Highland Dress, or possibly just slipped inside the card.

In the ensuing seconds of silence, as your stunned partner takes in the full might of what you have just done - it will surely resonate for years to come - you can fill the gap with the following fact.

"It's the song that inspired Bob Dylan"

That should do the trick.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Mamma Mia! It's the BAFTAS already!

So, it's prediction day again. After last year's poor show (they only made six right decisions) let's see how well the BAFTA jury does this year in their deliberations. Are they going to get it right?
(results added Monday am)


It should be MAMMA MIA. All that Tom Hanks star-buying money has gotta have some effect!
Obv not going for the pop vote, but Man on Wire is a damn fine film.

STEVE McQUEEN (Hunger) please - although this is the only time JUDY CRAMER (Mamma Mia) stands a chance.

DANNY BOYLE did a brilliant job on Slumdog Millionaire.
Correct. Yay!

IN BRUGES should get it.

Haven't seen Benjamin Button yet. So money's on SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

GOMORRAH. Gotta be.

WALL-E please. I'm the only person in the world that wasn't thrilled beyond belief by Persepolis.

SEAN PENN - no contest - although it has been pointed out that his nose is too big for his face. Nevertheless he is the Nationwide fave actor of his generation still. Man's a creative genius.
Wrong - Boo!
Mickey Rourke? When's it out on DVD?


HEATH LEDGER, posthumously, althoug Aaron Eckhart did a very impressive job in that film too. .

TILDA SWINTON was utterly superb but all five here are strong.
Wrong - ish..

Should ABBA get a BAFTA? The whole film is the music so why not? Give it to Benny and Bjorn!

ANTHONY DOD MANTLE (Slumdog) Fabulous.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE definitely, although I ain't seen this Benjamin Button

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I don't know how they did it - apart from the studio set courtesy of Celador.


No idea. Wall-e? James Bond?

It would be midly ironic if Indiana Jones was to get (or anything frankly) after Spielberg's pre-publicity line - "it's all for real, no special effects". Oh yeah?

Probably Benjamin Button but the hair in MILK is something else.

WALLACE AND GROMIT deserve a British Award!
Correct - yay!

No idea

No idea.

From 20 predictions, 13 were correct. Not bad going BAFTA jury but you must try harder next year.
Oh, and the Americans are going to hate us.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Hooray! Hooray! It's a public holiday!
Well it may as well be in cold, wintry Brighton where the city's tens of thousands of London commuters are stuck at home, building snowmen on the beach and filling the pubs. "It's like the War!" said a blackboard outside one, with a tiny note below "but without the war bit".

Snow doesn't normally reach Brighton, a city more used to the bracing sea air of La Manche, but if it does it just means travel to London is a little more cold and difficult. Except this morning, worst snow for 18 years, there were no trains, buses, or even routes of escape by car. Hordes of office workers suddenly marooned in Snowtown-on-sea.

"You can't have sausages" said the barman, "We only had two to start" perfectly illustrating that morning's expectation of a man and his dog coming in for a half pint of stout at lunchtime, instead of which he's got card schools, men in suits, babies crying and general pandemonium.
"Why don't you go over the road to the shop then?" he was asked.
"Well even if I could go over I haven't got anyone to cook it" he said, pouring a pint of Harveys with one hand a Guinness with the other.

Meanwhile, this being Brighton, beach snowmen with seaweed hair, were being supplemented with anatomically correct snow women,

snow rabbits,

and snow bicycles.

Back in the pub, a man is on his mobile asking bus inquiries if there is likely to be a London service tomorrow. "No?" he asked, slightly worried, unaware that the whole pub was listening to him until they broke into spontaneous loud cheering. "Call the railways too! You're good luck!"

Today, the recession seems very, very far away.

A wee bitta snow

We are snowed in. Hurrah!
And we are not in the Highlands of Scotland or the Alps or the Rockies. We are in the sunny seaside English coastal resort of Brighton, where families and gay couples come to frolick in the sun.

Not today they don't.

In the "worst weather since... etc etc" we've had some lovely snow overnight, with more to come, and outside, while there may be no trains, buses, roads open, or anything normal, Brighton Beach is suddenly white.

In Scotland this morning, the BBC teletext tells me with some glee "flights are cancelled" because English airports are closed - I can hear the sound of raucous laughter all the way down here ("a wee bitta snow??") - but for a few moments it's going to lie and cause some trouble.

Schools are closed, obviously, and if I were a kid I'd be out NOW with a tin tray sliding down the nearest hill which, rather ironically, is likely to be one of the shingle slopes on the beach.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chinese Burns

It is Burns Night, an all too familiar event in hospital A&E wards up and down the country, peaking on November 5th, but on this occasion a celebration from Scotland which recognises Britain's other bard - the one Jeremy Paxman refers to as 'doggerel'. Much haggis, poetry, whisky. and dancing.
It's also Chinese New Year, the year of the Ox, and the two have conjoined as twins.

Burns is 250 this year, which the Scottish Executive - those guys in Edinburgh who call themselves a 'government' - have evolved into a thing called 'homecoming' which purports to attract exiled Scots back home. In the middle of a recession. When the biggest bank bailouts have been for financial institutions whose names include the word "Scotland". No matter, the recession knows no borders really, it's just unfortunate that the Executive didn't see it coming. Like everyone else.

Anyway, we kick off credit crunch style with the bargain of the day, where your humble blogger scores a bottle of Highland Malt for £14 - at least ten British pounds (or a few Euros) under the normal price - and although it's Aberlour that's good enough for the Sassenachs who'll be drinking it. They won't know it's from the Co-op. The Burns Night is a party and those stupid enough to be drinking wine and then agreeing to a 'wee half' (they were warned) are quickly dancing in the living room while the rest of us are scoffing haggis neeps and tatties in the kitchen, MacSween's Haggis don't you know, and it goes down well with the Aberlour. Wee nips of it, not great gulps. That way lies dancing to Abba and Jimmy Shand, before curling up and falling asleep on the carpet.

In the kitchen we also have Tablet, one of Scotland's great health foods. It basically has two ingredients - sugar and condensed milk - left to mix, settle in the fridge, and then be broken into chunks and eaten. It is single handedly responsible for the rotting teeth of several generations but is irresistible. I put several people off by telling them tales of horror, thus securing more for myself. Yum.

The night descends into mayhem, with grown adults wondering why they're whirling and reeling around the living room (they have forgotten the whisky already) and hangovers starting before cabs have been entered.

Sunday is a very quiet day.

But it's not only January 25th (Rabbie's proper birthday) it's also Chinese New Year. However because of the slowness of human movement, let's just call it lethargy, we eschew London's vibrant and no doubt overcrowded Chinatown for Brighton's Good Friends where you can have normal Cantonese or enjoy jellyfish with ham hock, pigs trotters, duck tongues, and a whole variety of soups and savoury dishes which delight the palate.
And halfway through, in from the pouring rain and wild winds of Brighton's seafront, enters The Dragon, a pantomime horse with bells on, followed by a noisy band of players whose determination to play loud puts them up there with the pipers who mark the entry of the haggis at 100 decibels and the announcers on the London to Brighton commuter trains.

Last night's haggis, neeps and tatties (at least two helpings) is followed by at least four courses of astounding Chinese food. Which is why I'm relieved that my two lunch companions the following day, fresh from Beijing, don't really feel like Chinese. They want Greek.

We order the full meze, a whole tableful of plates piled with humous, prawns, chickpeas, then grilled and fried fish then kebabs, which defies all attempts at restraint by the Chinese and Scottish contingents. We hoover it up.

Sadly, I have to leave my greek coffee as I'm late for another Burns Night, where the haggis, neeps and tatties are served by maidens in mini kilts who exhort excessive consumption. They then dance the night away, having eaten nothing themselves except the ice cubes in their whiskies.

A late snack of last night's Chinese doggie bag goes down well as I remember that there are two more Burns Nights this week, more meetings with Beijing execs and no doubt celebratory dim sum lunches for, oh, anything really.

Note to self: stop eating you fat bastard.

And Happy New Ox Chinese Year and Rabbie Burns 250th Birthday Homecoming thingy.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Peas, peas, more if you please...

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I like a pea, me.

Maybe it's just midwinter, freezing, miserable dog days after festive merriment, which turn thoughts inexorably to the summer pea. Or possibly it was that pulao rice. Always ask for peas pulao, even if it turns out to be a few desultory thawed out bullets mixed in the microwave. Last night I was lucky: egg, beans, and lots of little bright green peas.

Peas are one of the joys of spring, but frozen peas are just as good. Picked young and fresh they taste fantastic when heated up (DO NOT cook them). They have a myriad of uses. Straightforward greenery with melting butter. Whizzed up for soup and ham. Braised with little onions, lardons and lettuce. Apparently northern people like them mashed with vinegar (yuk). Or kept in the bag and used as a relief for bad back/ injured knee / hangover (apply to sweaty forehead).
As a kid in the back garden if I managed to get 50% back to the kitchen that was a good day. Most of the young pods I picked would be clicked open and their contents rolled straight onto the tongue. They were then, and are now, the perfect snack food. In cinemas, 500g of fresh peas beats chocolate peanuts any day.

But I find myself in regular argument on the M25.
ItalicMe: (driving roofless with paper bag of peapods on lap, throwing emptied pods into the air while munching happily) "They are NOT rubbish! They are organic! Biodegradable! Whatever"
She: "They are litter! Don't be so disgusting!"
Me: (munching). "Not"

There is nothing quite like scarfing handfuls of fresh peas from the pod (on the M25 they must be opened with one hand, otherwise it gets dangerous. Especially if you're on the phone at the time and don't have hands free). Even late in the season, big, starchy, peas are still better than snackfood wotsits.

When the sun shines, peas should be served with every meal. On their own, with asparagus, in omelettes, in a primavera risotto with fresh beans, cold in salads, warm with chicken. With mint, with onion, with bacon, with fish and chips. In winter no dinner is complete without the pea.

In a two star Michelin restaurant in France recently a sashimi of raw langoustine was accompanied by a disc of aspic jelly, looking for all the world like a paperweight, in which were suspended a few reminders of summer - mostly peas. Delightful.

In pasta it is obligatory. A friend in the Groucho Club will cause trouble, not the drug fuelled drunken variety, but gastronomic when his pasta arrives unadorned with the little green jewels. Some chefs have had the temerity to disagree. Pea-inspired shouting generally ensues.

In the curry last night, a Goan chicken dish was warming, juicy and just the ticket for sub zero temperatures. But the rice was spiked with tasty, juicy, freshly thawed petit pois. Joy. It won the plate competition.

The only thing I hold against the genius of John Lloyd and his Spitting Image puppetry magic was the association he drew between Prime Minister John Major's grey, boring private life with Norma, and peas. Damaged their image forever. Peas, I mean. Turned out, I am relieved to say, to be complete fiction. But the reality came a little late. Peas were boring.

I suppose that's more for me.