Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mystery House


We live in a mystery house. It looks pretty normal from the outside, and appears very normal inside. But we have a mystery.
We moved a few months ago, a complex set of affairs that you can only really appreciate if you're in mid-move. Being distanced from it is like any painful experience, you erase it as quick as possible. Ironically, in this complex move which involved the simultaneous sell/purchase of two houses in different parts of the country, it was the estate agents who came out smelling of roses. It was the people involved who stank. Including the first vendor who, having led a merry dance for several weeks was eventually revealed to be bankrupt, unable to sell the property, and thus a total waste of everyone's time. By which time we'd lost the house we were buying.... But let's move on, shall we?

The Vendor of House One cheated us out of some money, it doesn't matter how much, suffice to say that all subsequent comunications were through me, alone, a deafening silence emanated from the person sitting next to me on the sofa whenever Vendor Woman appeared. Come D-Day, or whatever removal day is called, communications were at an all time low, but Vendor Woman called to say that she had 'left something' in the house. This turned out to be a dishwasher and various other items which, frankly, could barely be missed. In turn, she had taken a very vital key with her.

I attempted to keep communications open and civilised, despite provocation. At dinner one night, amid boxes and rubbish, two strangers entered the back garden unannounced to take away the dishwasher. Apparently we didn't need to know who they were. More importantly, we couldn't open the bloody door, without the missing key, which caused irritation levels to soar.

But to the mystery...... I had mentioned by text and voicemail that we rather needed the key, like now. We were on the verge of getting a hammer and chisel out. VW was strangely silent on the whole thing.

But without warning, she turned up, slightly flustered, to 'collect her things'.
I asked for the key.
"Er, it's in the bathroom upstairs" she declared, eyes swivelling around her old house, "It's in a secret place where I keep all the keys".

I looked at her suspiciously. She was nervous.

"The bathroom's in use" I stated.

Silence.

She looked at the floor then fished into her bag. "This might be the key" she said brightly, "but I'd still like to check the secret place in the bathroom" motioning as if to suddenly run up the stairs.

I tried the key and it fitted. There was now no need to 'go upstairs'. She suggested she go anyway, and wouldn't say where the 'secret place' was. I gave her her stuff and bundled her out the door, muttering something about coming back later in the week, whatever. She started to panic a little and texted me several times, left a voicemail or two, and indicated that she would like to come round soon and check. "To see if the key's there."

Of course, we have now been through our new, neatly tiled bathroom inch by inch to find the 'secret' place. There is not one loose tile. The floor is sound, the walls are sound, there are no cabinets, holes, compartments anything that might conceal a space big enough to hold even a key. The ceiling is sealed. The windows are tight. We can't find it.

More intriguingly, it is beyond the bounds of possibility that this 'secret place', in a bathroom upstairs, was ever used to hold doorkeys for use downstairs. It clearly holds something else. Something small. Something secret.

But what? And where is it?







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Monday, July 05, 2010

A little schmoke.


So let's just say that in the past the odd drug has been consumed, the odd, say, joint or whatever, and in that dim and distant past when the odd drug was possibly being consumed, to background music of something incredibly hip and cool and possibly even, er, psychedelic, one inhaled, and that one enjoyed to the full, the effects of the odd drug or two. No big deal. (in fact probably less than £4 for a small bag of weed, man -ha ha). And possibly stuff in tablet form. Or on blotting paper. Say.

And let's just say that some considerable time later we're in Amsterdam and have just had a spectacular dinner in one the city's fine restaurants and afterwards are strolling through the warm evening, passing by the many cannabis cafes which make the city so colourful and one has a conversation with one's partner and it is agreed to, ahem, try one out. And so one finds oneself at a counter buying a small, ready rolled joint, of the weaker variety, for 4 euros and then sat outside, talking to a charming American businessman who has his own pipe, and we take a blast or two, constantly borrowing the American's lighter to relight our little rollup, and within a few seconds are enjoying a merry little buzz. A slight feeling of light headed-ness. Good, huh?

And then let's just say that one takes off like a fucking rocket, that one just has time to think WTF WAS THAT? before slumping down into the chair to listen to the 3D music drifting out from the cafe, to watch, slack-jawed, illuminated taxis passing and people who are actually taking photographs of you, and trying to remember ever taking anything this strong, and that if this is the weak one, WTF is in the others? And a whole jumble of other thoughts, now inconsequential but terribly important and lucid at the time.

And then suppose one's partner, who seems wholly unaffected by the thing, possibly because she's been taking girly little puffs and not inhaling, instead of the expert method, sucking the very life out it and holding the schmoke inside for a minute or two, gets concerned and next thing a staff member, employed to look after the unwell, arrives with a glass of sugared water, and a kind expression which says 'there there. it happens to everyone who takes it for the first time' and suddenly you're being treated like an invalid, with the American, who turns out to be a nurse back home, taking your pulse and feeling your cold, sweaty forehead, and all you're trying to communicate is that you're out of your tiny mind, and the partner is suggesting a taxi and you know you can barely sit never mind stand, just for the moment, and the more you are unable to respond the worse it gets until you take a chance and STAND UP and the taxi (a multicoloured blur) whisks you back to your doorstep and you get inside and CHUCK UP in a projectile manner that can only be described as proof positive of the Billy Connolly theory that we all have cubed carrots slipped into our food somewhere every day and then slip into a DEEP SLEEP for several hourzzzzzzzzzz.............................

Well, that would be a terrible thing, wouldn't it?
And a warning:

DRUGS: JUST SAY NO










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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper R.I.P.


Dennis Hopper died yesterday and I'm sad. They say you should never meet your heroes for fear of disappointment and while that can be true, with Hopper it wasn't.
Like most people I found him via Easy Rider and thought he was brilliant. His inability to keep it real on and off screen just endeared him further to me but meant he became increasingly difficult to insure or bond to make movies.
When he disappeared off the screen I found him again first via photography and then art. His early years as a student actor at the Lee Strasberg School had introduced him to the New York Artworld and he took to it like a duck to water. Dorothy's line "You're no longer in Kansas" was never truer. Being a TV arts producer it was only a matter of time before I managed to engineer a crossing of paths.

He was a patron of the Whitney in Manhattan and agreed to show me around a newly renovated wing. We got off to a bad start. He arrived a little late because of traffic and unexpectedly turned up with his wife. During the introductions an effervescent young PR girl made enthusiastic conversation with Mrs Hopper. "I believe you're from Boca Ratan" she beamed, showing off her knowledge of celebrity minutae, and the more gauche communites of Florida.
"No" Victoria Duffy began, "That must have been one of Dennis's many previous girlfriends. Actually I'm from Boston"
Being from the UK, I recognised the use of the word "actually" when it's used as cold steel to insert cleanly into your enemy but I was too busy trying to remember the difference between "frosty silence" and "froidure" at that point, wondering what might have happened if anyone had ever said to Princess Margaret "I understand you're from Peckham?"

I talked us through it and we set off to look at the paintings, the camera crew stifling giggles long enough to bet on an early lunch. They were wrong. Hopper talked and talked and talked. He not only knew every painting intimately but knew the artists as well, including some recently dead.
When we got to Edward Hopper, I joked about them 'being related' and he said that yeah he'd been through all that but actually knew him well, as they both hung out in the same place.
"Where?" I asked, thinking some downtown arts club.
"Georgia O'Keefe's house in New Mexico," he said, "we'd spend a lot of time there. I had my own chair. Took all kind of things out in the desert. Y'know."
I didn't need to ask - the camera was still running - what "all kinds of things" were.
He turned to the (Edward) Hopper painting and stared, wistfully. "It's all about the space, the expectation, the waiting," he said, "It's not the people, or the buildings, it's the nothingness" he went on to describe his last meeting with his namesake and declared excitedly "he showed me this painting he'd done upstairs. There's the room, the wardrobe, the bed, and the window, and you know what? There was NOBODY in it!!" He laughed excitedly, turned on by the very idea, and also the fact that he had been the first person, ever, to see it.
We diverted from the new wing and went to his favourite art, the abstract expressionists, and as he stood in front of the plain black, and red, canvasses of Ad Reinhart, he explained what they meant to him, what their depth conveyed, why there was a stillness on the surface, but a raging maelstrom underneath.

"I don't know how to explain these things, " he said, " I don't know the language of art, I don't read magazines, but I do know how this stuff grabs you"
There was never a more eloquent translation of 'I don't know about art but I know what I like'

We kept in touch and a short time later I suggested a TV show to him, a tour around the 'outside art' of the US in the company of Damien Hirst, then also a bad boy of his art. He loved it. Damien loved it. We set it up. It was a goer. But unfortunately our favourite UK TV company didn't love it, and it collapsed at the very last minute, as these things have a habit of doing.

A couple of years back I was at a London art preview and became aware of a small man in a cap standing beside me. He looked up and greeted me, remembering my name. "Howya doin? What happened to our tour of James Turrell and Walter de Maria? Call me, anytime!"

And after a short chat he wandered off, smiling and waving, a little camera hung around his neck just like all the other American tourists you see in London everyday.
"There goes the man" I thought to myself, "that scared the living bloody daylights out of me in Blue Velvet, looking like an extra from Monsieur Hulot's Holiday."

I liked him.





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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Close Shaves





First off, have a look at this video. I defy you not to smile. Jean Yves Bordier has made the cheesiest (he's an affineur and buttermaker from Normandy) video of all time, borderline excrutiating for the staff I'm sure, but very, very funny for us out here due to it's general bonhomie and sense of fun. Go on, watch it again.

It's a close shave, well done Msr Bordier, you are a hero, not a laughing stock. One day we will meet. In the meantime, read on..

If you like The Onion, the funniest online presence on the planet right now, then you may have read sometime ago one of their wittiest pieces, fuck-everything-were-doing-five-blades, a laugh out loud satire on the increasing number of blades in disposable razors. It seemed unlikely, but the joke is that Gillette were about to manufacture the most preposterous idea ever, five blades to outdo their French rivals Bic.

Idiotic, isn't it? That that number of blades on a razor could make any sense.

Well, yes. Except that I've just been bought a present a few weeks ago. It's made by Gillette, it's got five blades, and at the flick of a switch, it vibrates for God's sake. Not only that, it gives the closest, smoothest, gentlest shave you've ever experienced......

Stop! You probably think I got a free one (I did, it was a present, but from the loved one, not some PR department). And SHE likes it too!

I have history with shaving. If you're 13 and reading this, hoping that one day you'll stop nicking yourself, forget it, it gets worse. I've used more bits of loo paper to stop the bleeding that can possibly be good for me. At one stage I was taking a drug that thinned my blood and I would bleed for hours, if not days.
I travel but never carry very much. The single blade disposables they sell in Africa cut you to ribbons, the two blade jobs in supermarkets around Europe are sore, lethal, and since I never get past the first one in a packet of 5 a waste of money. I never seem to have anything that I can use to remove the stubble that doesn't injure me. Until now.

This new five blade vibrating job is an absolute joy. I have yet to cut myself, my grizzly chin is as smooth as a baby's bum, and the female target of my affections assures me that it works, especially since my face is apparently normally closer to sandpaper.

This really sounds like an advert, doesn't it? Tragically, it's all true. get one!

And talking of close shaves, right now in British Politics, the day after a general election where absolutely nothing went to plan, we appear to be on the verge of chucking out one of the most experienced politicians of all time, a former Chancellor who has steered us through one of the most turbulent economic disaster zones of modern times, a prime Minister who has integrity oozing from his pores and experience that is unrivalled at the top level. He's honest too!
His job isn't finished but two college boys, one even less popular than the other, seem to think they can do the job better, despite having no experience.

If voters had simply looked at their CV's, particularly the posher one, instead of lapping up the rantings of the feral press we now have whose job used to be something to do with informing the public, then we wouldn't be in this position. But surely, we're not really going to do this, are we? (let's see how this reads in a few days)

I mean, that really would be a close shave. But not a funny one.








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Sunday, April 18, 2010

London Moments



Due to Volcanic Ash, London, particularly the South West, is bliss at the moment. Sunshine, brunch and dinner outdoors and best of all - silence in the skies and picturesque sunsets. If Boris's Thames Estuary airport doesn't get a few thousand extra supporters this week, from Housnlow to Twickenham, I'm a monkey's uncle.
But there are still dark corners of London where danger lurks....

After what can only be described as a very agreeable lunch in the City (High Timber since you ask, right on the river) I'm walking to Borough Market to spend a fortune on veg. Cross the Millenium Bridge without wobbling (wasn't that good a lunch) and am entering an underpass when I come across an altercation, a right royal todo straight out of a Dickens novel. We are in the shadow of the Clink after all.

A beggar (his own words I hasten to add) is berating another chap, pinned him against the wall and bawling at what should be his face. Except there ain't a face there, is there guvnor? He's one of them wotsits, that you see in Barcelona's Ramblas. They just stand there, painted in gold. But this one's got no head. He's the invisible man, see? (or rather not).
"Why don't you jaas fuck off??!!" the beggar is shouting. I should point out that this particular beggar is quite well dressed. Oxblood docs, cords and a dark sweater, all neat and tidy like. In his fifties he could have been a cabbie out for a walk.
"Just fack off you cunt!" he continues, the street performer now shaking.
"Why don't you say something, you silent bastard?" And that, I can assure you, is an EXACT quote.
"How'm I supposed to do any begging when you're here? All fucking silent. Doing nothing! I fucking live here! I'm a fucking beggar!" he spits out, pointing at a crumpled but clean sleeping bag over the other side of the underpass.
There's no doubt he would have hit him by now, if he had known where to hit, but since there was no face to punch, our friend was a little, er, confused.

At which point one of Southwark's finest comes along. Not an actual copper, one of those uniformed wannabes who cost taxpayers very little, do very little, but have a uniform.
"Move along" he says, as if he's just been watching some very old TV cop show like Dixon of Dock Green along at the BFI Archive.
I expected a 'Let's be avin you" next but that was not forthcoming.
Spying the uniform, our begging loudmouth eschews fisticuffs with the pretend rozzer and makes an exit. But not without a final act of defiance.
He stops at the end of the underpass and turns to us all.
"I live here!" he shouts.
And then, in what can only be described as a poetic climax, bawls out
"MILLWALL" and raises his fist.

Passing tourists are wholly confused. They can sense the aggression but not much else, having missed the finer points of a turf war set-to.

The street performer remains silent and slowly removes his apparatus. He's sweating, shaking, and speaks a little English.
"He was a bit upset" I offer.
"Yes. Not a nice man" He whispers back.

Our faithful servant in uniform takes a few notes and tells me that he's normally called here to quiten the noisier buskers who disturb the office workers next door.
"This was different" he tells me, furiously scribbling in his pad (see photo, above).



Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Swiss Pakora Yorkshire Horse Melt



We are back from the second gastronomic tour of Switzerland where on this occasion I ate horse. Or foal, as the SO pointed out, hiding her grimace behind the menu. And for good measure it had a lobe of foie gras on the top, just to make sure that any passing animal activists were well and truly incensed.
It was the Italian part of Switzerland and Italians, like the French, eat horse. So when in Rome, or Paris, or Lugano, etc. It came up carpaccio, which just in case you've forgotten means very very thinly sliced. And raw.
So I didn't just eat horse, I ate Raw Horse. Or rather Raw Baby Horsey. It may as well have been My Little effing Pony the way it tasted (of very little) and the way my smile of satisfaction was received (with very little accord). But now I can add 'horse' to that list. Of things never to be touched again, like andouilette and tripe.

Anyway, it was forgotten because on the train back through the Gotthard Tunnels and bridges and flyovers and whoops and spills and thrills we drank nearly a whole bottle of Swiss red merlot, a reserve no less, which three hours later had me off the horse hook as we slowly sauntered towards the departure gate at Zurich, sad to leave, especially since the sun had just broken out and the snow was long forgotten. And as the charming man at security was confiscating our very expensive bottled gifts of essences and oils we thanked the lord that we hadn't bought that foot wide Swiss Army Knife with the twenty seven blades.

No sooner back than we're off to Edinburgh where a comedy weather storm has broken out, torrential rain, freezing temperatures and thick swirling snow have replaced spring sunshine for a couple of days, starting just thirty seven seconds before we arrive and ending as we board the 16.30 to Glasgow Queen Street. To the relief of the Edinburghers the 'weather' had swept west to Glasgow, I think it might have been tied to the bumper of our train, so that we were greeted on arrival by crowds, traffic jams, and, er, weather. But not to worry.

First port of call is the Ashoka, where, I explain to the SO who has never set foot in the city before that the reason I bang on about the unavailability of pakora outside Glasgow is because it is nectar from heaven. Or the Punjab. Anyway, she watches, nibbling wee bits, as I demolish the lot, nuclear pink dipping sauce included, and then head over to Tennents Bar where she remarks that "IT'S A BIT LOUD" because the 200 men sinking pints are all TALKING AT ONCE. So we leave and have a quieter dinner a deux in the city's newest hotel and it is fine.

We leave for Bradford, curry capital of England, (as Glasgow is the curry capital of Scotland) and demolish a monster pakistani takeaway with friends. We remark that the chickpea bhaji is a hit, the pakora is not. But mostly the sound around the table appears to be nom, nom, nom.

And so back to London where we whoosh up to the top floor of the Hilton, a glamour spot if ever there was one (not!) transformed four years ago into one of the delights of London gastronomy by the Galvin Brothers. We peer over the edge of our table down into the back garden of Buck House but can see neither The Queen walking the dogs, nor Camilla popping out for a quick fag during dinner. The staff are no use at all, refusing to divulge ANY nugget of salacious information.
SO advances through the menu first, grabbing the foie gras starter, matched with a sensational Barsac, and leaves me with the scallops. Both are delish but I smugly hint at the question marks hanging over foie gras production (yes, yes, full marks for rank hypocrisy) and suggest she might like horse next.

She doesn't.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who Gets The BAFTAS?



The Nationwide annual BAFTA Film Award predictions are as follows:

Best Film
Avatar obviously since nobody's ever seen anything like this before.
wrong! Hurt Locker got it. The night's most confounding news.

Leading Actor
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. If you've seen it, I'm afraid the others, who all do good work, don't even come into it. Stunning, understated, truthful, etc etc. Makes you cry. makes you laugh. makes you feel good. makes you like Country and Western.
wrong! Colin Firth got it. Very British decision. Well deserved. And hardly anyone's seen Crazy Heart in the UK anyway.

Leading Actress
Well, Carey Mulligan's outstanding breakout debut performance is going to get it. She's a star. Meryl Streep's take on Julia Childs was HUGELY entertaining, but no.
Cor-rect.

Supporting Actor
Stanley Tucci because he deserves it. Not Alfred Molina, please, whom I love to bits but not this time.
wrong! Christopher Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)

Supporting Actress
If Mo'Nique doesn't get it there is no justice in the world. Precious is a superb film with great acting talent doing great things but she is way beyond the competition. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. But Kudos to Kristin Scott-Thomas as aunt Mimi. Outstanding.
Correct!!

Outstanding British Film.
Well it's going to be An Education. Innit?
No, actually it's going to be Fish Tank. Wrong again and congratulations Andrea Arnold.

Outstanding Debut
Sam Taylor-Wood for Nowhere Boy. What a start.
wrong! Duncan Jones for Moon.

Director
I hope Kathryn Bigelow gets it, even though her ex James Cameron probably will.
Correct!

Original Screenplay
The Hangover, puleeze, for making me laugh more than any other film in living memory. But "Up" has got to get something.
wrong! It's The Hurt Locker's night.

Adapted Screenplay
Definitely Nick Hornby's screenplay for An Education, terrific job.
And what is "In The Loop" actually adapted from? The TV series?
wrong! Up In The Air was apparently a better adaptation.

Film Not In The English Language
A difficult one since they are all mesmerising in their own way. Probably Let The Right One In for being the quietest, whitest (ie snowiest) vampire movie ever, with sterling performances and brilliant cinematography. The White Ribbon's possibly too slight, A Prophet too violent.
wrong! A Prophet apparently wasn't too violent at all.

Animated Film
Up. No contest. Best. Thing. Ever.
Correctamundo!

Music
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll because nobody's going to vote for the country and western ditties of Crazy Heart.
No, they voted for Up. Wrong again.

Cinematography.
The Road. Because my favourites aren't in there.
Wrong! But The Hurt Locker was shot by Barry Ackroyd which explains all. Brilliant.

Editing.
The Hurt Locker. You can't give this to Avatar unless Editing is redifined. Although Up In The Air was very clever: it made domestic US Air Travel look glam once again.
Correct.

Production design.
Harry Potter. Yawn.
wrong! Avatar. That's what I get for trying to second guess on the basis of Britishness.

Costume Design
You couldn't give it to Tom Ford, that would be just too ironic. So hopefully Young Victoria.
Correct.

Sound
Can't imagine that Avatar won't get it.
well it didn't. Hurt Locker got that too.

Special Visual Effects
Avatar. This is one it really deserves. Unless of course Harry Potter's producers have bribed the entire jury.
Correct

Make Up and Hair.
Coco Before Chanel. Who else would dream of taking it from them?
Young Victoria actually - wrong!

Short Animation
No idea. (Mother of many)
Short Film
Ditto. (I Do Air)

Rising Star Award
If you can possibly give Carey Mulligan this while also nominating her for leading actress then fine. But both Nicholas Hoult and Jesse Eisenberg deserve it.
totally 100% wrong. Kristen Stewart got it.

So, out of 23 categories (2 I have no idea) how many?
(to be filled in after the event)
An embarrassing 7 correct. Give up and go home time.
To be gracious, all the winners did good, just as all the losers did good too.
Now, when's those pesky Oscars?




Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bejeweled Twist : How to Win.




Timewasters of the world unite! If you have yet to discover the joys of Bejeweled - now in three forms - beware. It is totally addictive. However if you have, and have progressed to Bejeweled Twist, the most 'sophisticated' of them all, you'll waste a lot of time exploring the subtleties of the game, even if you haven't bought it and simply play the ten-round trial version. Here's what you should be doing to get maximum points.

(1) Don't bother 'positioning' anything. Make sure every twist of the circle results in a gem collapse. Make sure you have a 100% hit rate, otherwise the game will get you back. In later stages, you'll find the unexploded ticking bombs will bite you in the ass.

(2) Try to follow the bonus sequence bottom left of screen. The four gems, if targeted and collapsed in order, will accelerate your advance to 10 times score , as well as defusing ticking bombs, adding time, and every now and again giving you a free superfruit.

(3) When trying to follow the sequence in (2) kill off those colours which are NOT in the sequence first, thereby increasing your chances to complete the four. Try to make sure, when you start the sequence, that all four to be collapsed are visible. Once you've been playing for a long time, you'll get to be very adept at this.

(4) In the early stages of the game, say the first three rounds of ten, don't bother exploding those gems which have been set on fire. Keep them to get higher scores (once you're getting 10 times score). You'll have to give some away, but try carrying them over.
(5) You can largely ignore the 'ticking bombs' as they very often get cut off by the end of the round. Even when you've got several jumping and buzzing and hollering for attention, just ignore them, and DON'T let them persuade you to start positioning stuff. In the event of one reaching zero you will ALWAYS get away with it and, if you've maintained a 100% hit rate, you'll invariably get away with a second, and even a third one too.

(6) There's only one way to collapse 5 gems at a time, it involves twisting two of the central five into place. This then blows up two lines of gems and generally blasts you into high scoring mode.
There's no way of organising six to blow up at a time, you inherit it when the gems drop down from above. This flaming conflagration blows up three rows vertically and three rows horizontally, a very satisfying exploding screen.

(7) I tend to ignore the locked gems, as well as the ticking bombs. Not worth bothering about.

(8) Towards level ten (in the free trial version) you should be aiming to get the superfruits which when collapsed will temporarily halt the game, darken the screen, light up and pulsate, erasing all other identical gems around the frame, resulting in high scores.

(9) THEN you must try to follow the SUPERGEMS superbonus which, if completed, will give you the holy grail, a sequence of superfruits which leap out the screen, jump around to music, explode, dance, and shower you with literally thousands of points.

(10) Try to use the exploding gems to your advantage throughout the game, don't just blow them up needlessly. Carry them over, use them to blow up the screen to bring down the gems that you want for the sequence of four.



Oh, and then get on with your work!











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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Clock Work



The memory may be fading but what seems to me to be just a few minutes ago Britain was in the grip of an icy chaos where life stood still and I was forced to join the 'working from home' brigade. London stopped functioning properly, public transport in Brighton was taken off the roads, and trying to actually get anywhere north seemed improbable. Communications were good however, as the world has become blackberried, so emails as well as texts can now be answered from the pub, rather than your desk.
In the middle of this snowy hell I flew off to Switzerland, not to the ski slopes but to the cities, Zurich, Berne and Basel where the snow was even heavier, more relentless and at certain times of the night even colder. But not only was it not front page news, conversation barely steered towards it. What was on the front pages were pictures of chaos from Britain. Our never-ending inability to cope with snow is the subject of much Swiss thigh-slapping.

I was only told that transportation in Zurich was 'slower' when I arrived. I never noticed. At lunch, everyone's coats were hung up, their umbrellas housed properly, and nobody was warned the floor was 'slippery when wet' because it doesn't get slippery when wet because someone realised in advance that that's what happens to floors if you coat them with the wrong, shiny, material. Nobody seemed to even notice the "chaos" outside let alone talk about it.

Of course their cities are smaller, they have more snow, and they have an inherent wealth which provides. But as we boarded a late night tram in Zurich, and shoogled back to the front door of our hotel, we couldn't help but be a teeny bit jealous.
As the week wore on, the snow disappeared slowly, first from the streets, then from the rooftops. By the time we got to the last day in Basel it was simply cold. By that stage we were rattling about in Switzerland's public transport system quite the thing, leaping on and off trams which became trains, bendy buses which move quickly and are popular, and then more trams which in complex interesections never seem to crash. Nobody appears to get run over either. The famous Swiss precision in timekeeping is evident, although the trains don't leave exactly on time. They're on a par with the UK.

The inner city systems enthrall. The Zurich rush hour is a pretty big affair , but you'd barely guess it was happening while standing in the middle of Zurich HB Station, as I did for nearly an hour. Freezing cold, snow falling heavily, tens of thousands of commuters racing hither and thither. Double decker trains shoot in and out, trams are almost back to back, buses barely stop they're going so fast. There was no big traffic chaos either. Nobody was queuing, trains weren't jam packed and everyone seemed to have a seat. It was stupendous and as we left Zurich Airport to head home we agreed what we'd seen was pretty damn impressive.

Back at Heathrow, on a quiet Saturday evening our first problem was the closure of Hounslow East tube, where we'd arranged to be picked up. OK, no big deal, stations on London Underground are worked on at weekends. But the following day, trying to get to Brighton, was not good. First off in London locally it turned out there were problems on South West Trains, but nobody seemed prepared to admit it. Only by knowing the journey times did I guess there was summat up. The journey to Clapham Junction, by a rattly old bus replacement service, took an hour longer than it should, with rail staff shrugging their shoulders in that 'nothing to do with me mate' attitude which we have adopted to easily. The onward journey to Brighton, on a Sunday, was standing room only.
I'm used to this level of anarchy, and have been for a long time, but the contrast between the two systems is sharp, brought into even sharper relief by spending time in midwinter snow.

Yes, yes, they invented the cuckoo clock and Toblerone is the most popular chocolate at the world's airports. But I'm sitting here wondering what public transport is going to throw at me tomorrow, how I might end up delayed yet again, the words of a Swiss colleague ringing in my ears about how it took him two and a half hours to get from Central London to Docklands last year. In Zurich they don't even give it a second thought.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

When In Rome






It's winter, and like every other place in the civilised world, Rome is bloody freezing.

Yes I know, when you were here it was 40 degrees and the cobbles were melting. Well now it's minus something, there's slippery ice on those cobbles and while the fountains still flow and splash, at any moment the Trevi could fall icily silent.

There are many reasons to love Rome. Espresso is just one. 90 cents standing at the bar (paid for first, at the cash desk, then present your ticket at the bar. Stand, don't sit.) rivalled only by the world's most unctious, thickly sweet hot chocolate. Forget Starbucks. Forever.

There's Bernini and Boromini.

There's the 64 Bus to Piazza San Pietro, beloved by pickpockets for its map-reading cash-rich midwest Homers en route from Springfiled to the Vatican. I look at my fellow passengers. How do you recognise a pickpocket? Is it one of those nuns? That elderly man reading La Repubblica? Or the swarthy looking chap in the leather jacket picking his teeth with the flick knife? I bet it's the nun.

And then there's evening, when people come out to play. Work is over and we wander aimlessly around the city centre. It's quiet because every self respecting Roman is keeping warm by huddling in front of Berlusconi's semi naked TV game show hostesses. We're slowly climbing The Spanish Steps, alone, the city skyline unfolding before us. We're only disturbed by a charming (but annoying) man with single roses. No amount of pleading will move him. We are his only customers. After endless minutes of to and fro, he appears to give in, and for free gives the laydee a single red rose. I hate him. I know it's a trick.

Moments later there he is, hand outstretched. I give him the rose back and thank God I don't know the Italian (or Roman) for fuck off. But then I relent because I remember being seduced by the greatest cliche ever, a Romany cantante, greased hair and guitar, singing "Arrivederci Roma" (the full 20 minute version) and nearly crying.
I don't pay him but we seize the moment anyway. and keep ascending, all the way to the top, to the Hassler Hotel, where we take the elevator to the rooftop restaurant and its panorama of Rome's dark, cold, skyline.

This is not the city's best restaurant and I am distinctly uncomfortable in Tourist Central. But I think it's just what we want.

We emerge into an elegant room. There are few tourists, a lot of bankers, and discreet couples.
Smiley staff offer us a seat inland. I smile back. No thanks. Goodnight.
Mysteriously, a table 'might be free' in ten minutes (their English is impeccable, for which I am grateful), so we sit at the bar and are handed the bible, a wine list exploding with eye popping prices. I order a very reasonable Puglian red (Italians don't really rate wine from Puglia) and say we'll take it to our table. The bottle costs less than a single cocktail, and actually I'm never really expecting a table to materialise, so we'll have the view for the price of a reasonable vino rosso.

But the table is ready before the wine. It overlooks the whole of Rome, on a crystal clear, velvety black, cold night. It's ours.
*wipes tear from eye*

We stare at the view. The wine may be el cheapo but it's decanted all the same. The sommelier complements my choice (yeah, yeah, tip coming) and talks to me about Puglian wine, about Nero di Troia and Negroamaro, about this one, and why he selected it for the list. We discuss the Rosatas and concentrates of Puglia and I am charmed. This man doesn't care what we spend, he's happy to know that we know what we're ordering.

At the table next to us, the Super Tuscan red is flowing. The host is an Italian businessman - smooth, exceptionally good looking, slim and elegant; perfectly tailored and coiffed. He is entertaining a small Japanese customer who, like all Japanese, is polite, impeccably mannered, and struggling valiantly with spaghetti and a fork.
("where fucking chopsticks when you need them?")

Between them is a hooker. As Blackadder might say, she is Queen Hooker from Hooker City on the Planet Hooker. She has an obviously false ashwhite wig. In matching nylon, a lemonyellow/pink baby doll chiffon number and industrial makeup. Her eyeshadow was applied by teaspoon. Discreet tattoos, of the Playboy Bunny and something vaguelly Chinese, adorn her upper arms, which are naked. She is smiling. She has killer boobs, on show, the very definition of the word "rack", and a very, very, expensive gold Fendibag. Her heels, thick ones, are sparkly. When she totters off to the bathroom, the bankers' wives follow her every step, their husbands simply glance over for a millisecond. Or two.

Only my menu has prices. Quite unexpectedly, my eyes begin to water.
She is not stupid, and has the appetitie of a sparrow. One thing from Pesci E Crostacei (Sole Fillets) and for me a risotto from the Primi Piatti.
(cf ' cheapskate'.)

We are served tiny freebies which amuse our bouches. The wine is supple, soft and ready. The Sole is Delish. The Risotto is Perfect.

I cook risotto and am obsessed by texture, type of rice and flavour, which should always be delicate. This was beyond anything that ever emerged from the Nationwide Kitchen (even Spring's Primavera). Arborio and Porcini folded with a melted cheese of which I had never heard, finished with a red wine reduction (Aaaah! Sacrilige!). Like The Shawshank Redemption, Sideways, and Groundhog Day; I didn't want it to end.

But it did and as the plates were scooped off, I was rested as the Christmas Turkey. And seduced. I manfully refuse dessert. It would be impolite to scoff while one's partner is staring meaningfully at one's waistline. And not scoffing. (see "cheapskate", above).
The bill is not killer. (sorry, Privileged Information). I do the credit card. There is no tip. The waiter explains that it is unlawful to add it on to the bill. I must pay cash. And of course I have no cash (me and the Royal Family). He smiles as we muster up ten euros between us. He doesn't care. We have enjoyed ourselves. We are clearly not bankers. In his terms we spent comparitively little and we chose well. He likes us and we like him.

We emerge back above The Spanish Steps. The Rose Man is pestering some poor soul trying to take a photograph. It is spikily cold. We decend back to the empty, freezing, cobbled streets. The Trevi is still unfrozen. Our footsteps echo.
Arrivederci Roma.

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