Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Proper tea

A friend recently posted on Facebook that she was at Quilliam Brothers’ Tea House in Newcastle’s Haymarket, where she was drinking “posh tea”.  I’ve not yet visited myself, as it’s not a part of town I get into very much, but I’ve passed by a couple of times and also visited the website, and whilst it seems like a really nice place and I’ve heard several recommendations, “posh” is not a word I’d use to describe what I’ve seen.  To me, a posh place is somewhere you worry about doing or saying the wrong thing, or using the wrong knife, or something, and from what people have said, Quilliam’s seems more relaxed and friendly than that.  “Quirky” would, I think, be my choice – although any establishment specialising in tea, given our coffee-obsessed society, could be seen as out of the ordinary.  When I enquired what made it “posh” my friend gave several reasons about the decor and the menu which I feel say more about her own perceptions, but I suspect that nowadays many people view the use of teapots and loose-leaf tea as unusual and, indeed, “posh”.

As an avid tea-drinker who has tasted enough of the results of different brewing processes to have an informed opinion, though, I’d definitely say that both teapots and loose-leaf tea are fundamental to achieve the best brew (we’re still using teabags in our house, owing to the fact that leaves are difficult to get rid of when you only have one teapot, but I can’t deny they do give a better flavour). Unfortunately, these days most cafés, restaurants and even some self-styled “tea shops” fulfill an order for tea with a mug of super-heated water with a teabag either on the saucer beside, or floating in the top.  Last year I saw a sketch on the comedy show Watson and Oliver which gently poked fun at those who long for a “proper cup of tea”.  I wanted to link it here but can’t find it online anywhere.  The sketch depicts a customer who, on being presented with the sort of arrangement I’ve just described, begins a stirring speech about the loss of real tea as symptomatic of the general erosion of Englishness – as further evidenced by another customer who is eating an American muffin instead of one sold by the Victorian-style salesman who comes in from the street.  In the end, everyone is won round and the customer repeats her order for a tea to take away, leaving fully laden down under a full tea set, spoon, strainer and all, happy despite her difficulty in avoiding being scalded by the teapot!

Clearly, the full tea experience isn’t always compatible with our busy, perpetually mobile, lives, which I believe is one of the reasons Afternoon Tea (or its equivalent at other times of day) has taken on such a significance in recent years.  The opportunity to take time out to enjoy good food and a relaxing drink feels like a little luxury, which is why it’s a disappointment if things aren’t quite up to scratch, as I’ve mentioned above.  I thought I’d share two experiences I’ve had recently of really good tea places.

The Fourteas

The Fourteas

We first discovered The Fourteas by chance whilst on holiday in 2013.  It’s a tea-room in Sheep Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, where everything, from the decor, via the waitresses’ uniforms, to the menu choices, is inspired by the 1940s and WWII.  The first time we visited we enjoyed an Ivor Novello afternoon tea, which comprised everything you’d expect – sandwiches, cakes, scones and of course tea.

Inside The Fourteas

Inside The Fourteas

At the Fourteas they take tea very seriously indeed, and want you to enjoy it at its best, so loose-leaf tea is used in a filter cup which fits inside the pot.  The pot is delivered with an hourglass timer (different durations depending on the blend) and instructions to wait until the time is up, remove the filter and place on the tea-pot shaped saucer provided, before pouring the tea.  It’s definitely worthwhile and I’d like to find a filter to use in my own teapot (you can buy a set of pot and filter to take away, but having acquired a new teapot only a year ago I’m not really in the market for another!) Since our first visit there I’ve longed to go back, and I was lucky enough to get the chance last week.

My parents’ Christmas present to me and Southern Daddy was an overnight stay in Stratford, including tickets to a play (Love’s Labours Won – usually known as Much Ado About Nothing – which I’d strongly recommend.  If you can’t get to the RST it’s shortly to be broadcast live to several cinemas around the country, so go and see it!).  The following morning we went to The Fourteas for brunch, and both thoroughly enjoyed a Monty’s Breakfast, which felt particularly well-deserved once we’d walked down into town from our hotel.  The tea in particular was most welcome!

A more local find has been Delicious Decadence in Jesmond, north Newcastle (sorry no photos as yet, but I found this blog which has a good review and some pictures!)  SD and I visited last year with a Living Social voucher for a choice of breakfast dishes, which are served throughout the day.  Despite having a really lovely time, we hadn’t got round to returning until this week, when I was considering birthday present ideas and remembered seeing that Delicious Decadence had started serving afternoon tea.  I emailed Kate, the owner, about the possibility of buying a voucher for pre-paid afternoon tea, and she assured me that would be possible, so a few days ago I took a friend for lunch there and to pick up the voucher at the same time.

Delicious Decadence is a sweet and tiny café (6 tables, I think, although the first time we went was summer/autumn and there was another table outside on the pavement) with a very relaxed, welcoming atmosphere and a menu that is extremely good value compared to other, similar establishments I’ve visited around the city.  My friend and I both had a sandwich served on half a baguette, containing our choice from a selection of fillings, with crisps, coleslaw and a small salad on the side.  Afterwards we decided to treat ourselves to some cake from the enticing array on the counter – my only small disppointment was that the buttercream was too sweet, but this was really my own fault as I know I don’t like buttercream and only really chose the cake because my friend was having trouble choosing between the orange and the blackcurrant sponges, and I selflessly suggested we take a piece of each and share!  Along with all this we had tea, of course – there’s a huge list of options displayed on a blackboard behind the counter which extends even to chai lattes or the interesting-sounding “Fog on the Tyne”, comprising Earl Grey, vanilla syrup and steamed milk.  Our much more traditional tea came in a substantial-sized pot which kept us going throughout our lunch.  Whilst I was paying, I took the chance to chat to the very friendly Kate about the outside catering service they offer, so that I can bear it in mind for SD’s 40th birthday party in the summer.  It sounds like a promising plan!  As soon as we left, my friend and I were discussing when we might make our next visit, and who else we could take who might enjoy it.  I’ve since bought a Groupon voucher for afternoon tea there, and hope to return soon – the only difficulty is that it’s becoming so popular I’m struggling to book a table!

Leave a comment »

The new way to watch telly

Following on from my (relatively) recent post, where I rounded up things I’d been enjoying, here’s more information about some of the web-series I’ve seen, and my thoughts on them.

Since The Lizzie Bennet Diaries came to an end I’ve investigated several more similar series.  Some I haven’t really got into.  Some I’ve persevered with despite their failure to live up to early promise.  I’ve just finished watching Pemberley Digital‘s latest venture, Frankenstein M.D. and was inexplicably disappointed, since they were only being faithful to the original (or, at least, I think they were, I’ve only read the Ladybird version and that bothered me enough – not in a scary way, just a sad way – that I never wanted to read the real thing).  One thing’s for sure, LBD has set the bar very high for other attempts!

The ones I’ve really enjoyed this year are Nothing Much To Do,  an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing set in a modern-day New Zealand high school, and Classic Alice.  NMTD interested me as the original play is one of my favourite Shakespeare works – I’ve been in it, studied it for A-level and seen about 6 or so different productions.  The series has finished now (I think – a couple more little episodes have popped up since I thought it had ended) but of course all the episodes are still there, and there’s a playlist which helpfully presents them in the correct order.  What’s great about it, apart from the fact that the updating process has been really well thought through, is that it was broadcast on several different channels to represent the various points of view of the characters (who weren’t always watching each other’s videos), and to highlight the accidental way in which Dogberry and Verges become involved in unravelling the plot (and I adored their homage to Sherlock, including kazoo theme music).  The makers (The Candle Wasters) have promised a follow-up, Lovely Little Losers (loosely based on Love’s Labours Lost), in due course, so I’ll be looking forward to that.

Classic Alice isn’t an updating of a book as such, but centres around a creative writing student who decides to live her life according to the decisions made by characters in various classic plots, following each through to its conclusion before embarking on the next.  Her friend Andrew who is studying media (or something) is filming her for a project and he also gets involved in the stories, as does Alice’s roommate Cara, and a range of other characters.  So far they have worked through Crime and PunishmentPygmalionThe ButterflyMacbeth and The Wind in the Willows but cleverly the plot created by their responses to each of these is ongoing and continues to develop despite each book’s coming to an end.

I’m not great at following the transmedia bits of the shows on Twitter, Tumblr and the like (what is Tumblr even for?), so I’m sure I’m not getting the full benefits, but the Facebook pages tend to link to the most significant tweets, etc, so I’m not missing anything important, and my main interest is the updating and presentation of the stories.

One more that’s just getting going is In Earnest, a version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The first episode is DULL, but give it a chance because it’s warming up OK and the actor who plays Algy is especially good. This is one I think would benefit from the multi-channel approach – having everything broadcast on one channel is convenient to find, but doesn’t really make sense within their universe – and it seems a lot less “real” and more of a performance than some of the others, but is nonetheless engaging and entertaining.

My final pick, for the time being, is A Mid-Semester Night’s Dream.  I can’t work out how much I like this, it’s a strange beast – set on a modern-day college campus but performed in the original text (with modifications), and with fairies?  It does at least show that there are other ways of approaching an update of a classic, and I’m waiting to see how it pans out.  I’m definitely impressed by some of the clever updates to the text, however, my favourite for now being:

PUCK: I go, I go: look how I go;
Swifter than arrow from Katniss’s bow.

 

Leave a comment »

Summer round-up

So I’ve kind of got out of the habit of blogging. There are 2 main reasons for this: the first is that I now have a newer iPhone. This is much better, and quicker, at accessing everything Internet-related than our laptop, which is now on the older and creakier side, so I only really switch on the laptop when I’m word-processing. However, the WordPress app for iPhone is A PAIN, chiefly because whilst writing is fine, anything else (linking, adding pictures) is a really struggle, so if I think of blogging I have the choice between awkward app and laborious laptop, and neither tends to appeal.

The other reason is just that I have’t thought of it as much. I used to have thoughts that I wanted to share, things I’d seen that sparked off a chain of ideas which came together on the page, but lately that hasn’t happened so much. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as in some respects I’m just living my life, rather than looking at it through the lens of how I’ll report it later.  But I do still want to record and share things, so I’ll do that sometimes and maybe get back to being a more frequent blogger eventually, or maybe remain as an occasional one.

Over the summer I’ve enjoyed a lot of things.  Here’s a round-up of the best, some of which I’ll describe in more detail in future posts.

Meeting up with all my family, on my dad’s side, at my Aunty’s 75th birthday party in July.   I wasn’t looking forward to this much.  As a family we’re not into big regular get-togethers in the same way as Southern Daddy’s family is, so the last time I’d seen some of these people was at my sister’s wedding in 1999.  Now, that’s not a problem in itself, and obviously we’d have plenty to catch up on from the last 15 years, but I’m not great with people I don’t see on a regular basis – my dad’s neighbours and church friends, mainly – because of one main reason: they can’t tell me and my sister apart.  I don’t know why this is.  We don’t look alike – I am short with brown eyes and look like my mum, she is tall with blue eyes and doesn’t look like anyone much.  I studied languages, she studied sciences.  I married my university boyfriend and we live in the North East with our two children, she married her school boyfriend and they live in the North West with their three children.  Her in-laws live round the corner from my dad, my in-laws live at the opposite end of the country.  And so on.  But for some reason people can’t remember which one is which, who recently had a baby, who’s the linguist, etc.  So there I was thinking that if people I see a couple of times a year can’t work it out, what hope do we have with people I haven’t seen for over a decade?  Plus the fact that people like to point out that I look like my mum, which might be interesting/exciting for them to notice, but for me it’s boring and also annoying after almost 40 years of these comments.  The Bookworm already has to put up with this too.

So anyway, we went to the party, and guess what?  It was lovely!  And amazing.  Everyone knew who I was – because of course (as I realised later) we family, and they all (with the exception of my youngest cousin) remember me from birth, with my proper name and who I am!  And they knew Southern Daddy’s name, and the girls’ names too.  We had a delightful afternoon tea in my eldest cousin’s garden and the weather behaved perfectly the whole time, and we all chatted on and on, and we tried to leave about three times before we made it to the car without being waylaid by someone else who wanted to talk!  And the best part of all?  Everyone there looked like someone else – in fact we’re all just turning into the generation above us.  My aunty has turned into my Grandma, my dad into my Grandad (which I hadn’t noticed till I saw him next to my aunty!), my cousin’s children are all turning into my cousins.  And nobody mentioned it at all.

Attending a performance of Götterdämmerung to complete Wagner’s RingMy best uni friend and I have been meeting up once a year to see part of the Ring cycle, and we’ve now managed the whole thing!

The Bookworm moving from primary to secondary school.  The Bookworm’s year in our tiny primary school went out in a blaze of glory, paired as their final year was with the school’s 120th anniversary celebrations.  This meant exciting activities all year through, culminating in the school play at the end of the summer term.  Usually this is based on a popular children’s book, with the Year 6 pupils taking the lead parts and the rest of the school coming on in groups to play lesser parts (anything from Indians in Peter Pan to chocolate bars in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, depending on age), but this year the play was a retrospective of the school’s history.  All the parts were played by Year 6, with other years coming on to perform a dance, each representing a different period of history.  We saw Edwardian chimney sweeps, 20s flappers, 50s rock’n’rollers, 70s disco dancers, 80s pop-steppers and 90s ravers (the Butterfly’s class dancing to Rhythm is a Dancer).  The Bookworm played the part of the school bell, narrating everything she’d observed over the development of the school from then till now, and it was all fantastic.  We have it on a DVD, I’m glad to say.

Her transition to secondary school has been smooth and relatively straightforward, despite the journey being a fairly long one each day and very few of her former classmates moving to the same school.  It was a difficult decision and it’s good to know we made the right one.

The Handlebards’ second tour.  After last year’s wonderful experience we were keen to see the Handlebards again this summer.  Sadly, the UK tour was in the opposite direction (south to north), meaning that there was no way we could get to Stratford for another visit to The Dell.  We opted to see them in early July at the Cycle Hub in on Newcastle Quayside instead, and we were not disappointed!  It was a much more intimate performance as it took place in the small café seating area outside the hub, so it had a different feel – especially with the noise from boats down on the river interrupting at times (but only adding to the comedy!).  We saw The Comedy of Errors this year, we sat with friends (one of whom got to take part as an impromptu extra), we had a fun picnic… we’re already looking forward to next year!

Visiting 3 different branches of Bettys!  I’ve always loved a trip to Bettys, and this year I decided was the year to try out some branches I’ve never visited.

A holiday in Norfolk.  We hadn’t realised when we booked it, but the holiday rental this year turned out to be part of a Country Club resort which reminded me very much of Kellerman’s in Dirty Dancing!  Most of the time we were out and about exploring the local area, but there were activities provided all week for families and we took part in a couple.  The Bookworm came second in the scavenger hunt which meant that we had to go to the awards ceremony and get-together on the last night, so she could be presented with her medal.  As we all sat there in the bar, in our little family groups, I couldn’t help expecting Patrick Swayze to turn up, complaining about Baby’s being put in a corner and asserting that he always did the last dance (it didn’t happen, despite the entertainment leader’s name being Johnny).

Our trips out and about were wide-ranging and varied – a boat trip to see seals, our first attempt at geo-caching (which resulted in our getting rather wet in a sudden storm!), crabbing on Blakeney pier – and even our usual stately home visits had a different feel.  We’ve been members of the National Trust for many years, but until recently we’ve definitely been a “lunch in the restaurant, trip round the house and adventure playground if you’re good” kind of family, as mine was when I was growing up.  But last year our eyes were opened to more possibilities.  Whether it was the good weather, the fact that our children were growing up or just the increasing range of activities dreamed up by the events team, we ended up spending almost a whole day at Nostell Priory on our way home from holiday – from just after opening time to just before closing.  I’ve never really been an outdoorsy person but there was just so much to do!  This year we visited Blickling, Oxburgh and Felbrigg Halls, as well as Sheringham and Clumber Parks and Peckover House, and on each occasion could have stayed there the entire day (at Blickling we did, and still had more we could have done before we came away!).  There are self-guided garden tours, scavenger hunts and trails for children (indoors and out), second-hand bookshops to browse and giant garden games to play (think Jenga, draughts, snakes and ladders, connect 4 but on a larger scale) at all the places we’ve been this summer.  At Felbrigg there was a box of traditional toys such as skipping ropes, hoopla and balls and cups.  In addition, the 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ scheme means that most places are offering the chance to do some of the 50 things on any given day, from tree-climbing and hill-rolling to nature art and bug-hunting.  One of my children has now passed the 11¾ milestone but doesn’t mind continuing to participate, and I can see us being members of the National Trust for many years to come, since if anything we’re getting more out of it as time goes by.   And some of them are ideally placed for a stop on a long journey that’s much more enjoyable than a motorway services!

New web-based TV seriesSince The Lizzie Bennet Diaries came to an end I’ve investigated several more similar series, some of which I like and some I didn’t so much.

Reading some great books. As usual I’ve been doing lots of reading over the year, and have some thoughts on some of the books I’ve read.

Cooking and baking.  I enjoyed watching Mary Berry’s cooking series earlier in the year and have managed to find some of the recipes published online.  Her lamb dhansak is a particular favourite for a Saturday tea in our family now and it was such a surprise to my spice-hating Butterfly to find she liked it, that she’s been able to try some other new dishes off the back of it, on the grounds that she might like those too!  I’ve also made Mary’s Very Best Chocolate Fudge Cake several times this year, including for each of my daughters’ birthday cakes!  We all enjoyed the Great British Bake-Off too, and I’ve been baking a lot from Recipes from a Normal Mum, a book by Holly Bell who was a finalist in 2011.  A friend and I were lucky enough to go and meet Holly at an event locally, where she was interviewed, signed our books and chatted whilst we enjoyed various cakes and goodies made to her recipes by the hosts of the event.  One of my favourites is the Turkish Delight friendship cake, which isn’t available online, I’m afraid, but comes highly recommended!

That’s it for now – hopefully a bumper post with several little off-shoots should make up for the long silence!

Leave a comment »

Something new

A few years ago, when the Bookworm was small, my sister and music-loving brother-in-law bought her a CD and DVD set called Here come the ABC’s by the band They Might Be Giants.  It’s a fun approach to letter-learning, with a quirky sense of humour, and we’ve enjoyed listening to it and watching it over the years.  My favourite song is Alphabet of Nations, which lists a country for every letter of the alphabet (including a surprising idea for W and X!) and I love the music, which has a very patriotic feel to it!

This gift was followed up some time later with Bed, Bed, Bed, a book and 4-song EP set, which the girls also listened to a lot (although probably not as much as Here come the ABC’s).  I believe Here come the 123’s has also been released now, although my girls were a bit old for it by the time it came out.

Anyway, without knowing very much more about They Might Be Giants (apart from remembering Birdhouse in Your Soul being popular in my youth) I started following their Facebook updates in gratitude for those children’s CDs, which make such a difference in the life of a parent whose personal music interests have had to be set aside almost completely in favour of nursery rhymes and audio versions of picture books.  I see their posts from time to time, usually announcing extra tour dates in obscure American towns I’ve never heard of, occasionally announcing a new track or album available (once we all had to download Birdhouse in Your Soul to see if it could get to number one, but it didn’t. Fun though).

Today they are trying something new and I’m seeing if I can participate.  They are giving away free an entire album, as tracks recorded live on their tour last year, to anyone who requests it.  In return they would like people to share the opportunity with others, on Facebook or Twitter, or in a blogpost.

First of all you need to add downloads@theymightbegiants.com to your email address book (they are pretty clear that it will not reach you if you don’t!).  Then use the widget to send your details to get the download code.  I’m afraid my lack of technical skills is preventing me from getting the widget to embed on this page as desired, but if you click the link below you’ll see the widget and it’s still clickable and workable!

http://www.theymightbegiants.com/widgets/index.php?i=1

After you’ve done that you can use the bottom part of the widget to share the news with others too!

I have mine downloading now – hope it works for you!

Leave a comment »

Stuff and nonsense

I realise it’s been a while since my last post (a different season, in fact, with a different blog background!) so I thought I’d do a bit of a round-up of things I’ve been enjoying lately.

 

First of all, I’d like to introduce you to my new kettle.  As you probably know, I’m a big fan of tea and this is, in my opinion, the ultimate tea-drinker’s kettle.  It’s a lovely kettle in itself – very sleek and shiny and silver, and has useful features like a lovely spout that pours really smoothly, a slow-opening lid so you don’t get splashed with hot water if you need to refill it soon after use, and a transparent water measure so you can see from every angle how full it is, even when looking inside.  However, its most useful feature is its variable temperature options.  Like all cordless kettles, it sits on a base which is plugged into the wall, but in this case the base is host to a range of buttons which control the final temperature of the water, in order to bring it to the perfect temperature for various different teas.  The fact is that the younger the tea when picked (green tea is the youngest, black is the oldest), the more readily it gives up its tannins, and if the drink becomes to tannin-heavy it tastes bitter, so a cooler temperature is required to get the best flavour.  The instruction booklet includes a page listing dozens of different drinks and their ideal brewing temperatures, which I’ve photocopied and stuck inside the cupboard above the kettle for easy reference.

Now I’m expecting a couple of  negative responses at this point: the first being “Surely it doesn’t make that much difference to the flavour?”  Well, after a few weeks of research (I bought the kettle over Easter weekend) I have come to the conclusion that for me, it does.  Even the teapigs’ Mao Feng green tea, which I’ve raved about before as being nicer-tasting than other green teas, tastes better when brewed at the correct temperature – before I was just boiling the kettle, leaving it to go a bit off the boil and then adding the water so it was usually still too hot.

The second objection I’m anticipating, from those who have now googled this appliance, is “That’s a lot of money for a kettle!”  And it is, there’s no denying that (I received an unexpected windfall and we decided to buy it out of that).  But would a lover of coffee meet with the same reaction when treating him/herself to a gorgeous, state-of-the-art coffee machine with all the available bells and whistles, or would the response be more of a “Lucky you!”  That’s the way I’m looking at it – a machine to make myself the best cup of tea I can get, whatever kind of tea I want.  I don’t drink coffee as it makes me ill (and, actually, even before when I did used to drink it I always found it a slight disappointment because the taste never lived up to the beautiful aroma!), so teas are my “thing”.  And since my kettle features a “coffee” button too (95C) I feel it’s far more hospitable than a prejudiced and exclusive coffee machine!

 

As a result of this purchase I’ve been introduced to two new kinds of tea.  The first is Oolong, which I can recommend if you’ve never tried it!  There’s an “Oolong” button (90C) on the kettle and apparently this is the only kind of tea which brews at that temperature, so to make full use of my kettle’s features I decided I needed to try some.  I was placing a repeat order of Mao Feng so I added a sample pack of teapigs’ Tung Ting Oolong to my order and my only regret is that I didn’t order a bigger pack!  It is truly delicious.

A few days later a friend, who had noticed my Oolong recommendation on Facebook, handed me a packet of teabags and told me that if I liked green tea and Oolong, I needed to try these.  The tea in question is Kukicha, or Japanese roasted twig tea.   Sounds… unusual, doesn’t it?  I have to admit I was dubious, especially when I read that it really is made of twigs (specifically, the stems of the tea plant rather than the leaves), but I do really like it.  I totally disagree with my friend’s recommendation based on similarity to green and Oolong, because I don’t think they’re at all the same (despite the fact that Kukicha is classed as a green tea).  For me it’s actually closest to coffee, in a strange way, because of the definite aroma and flavour of roasting that it has.

I’m pleased, anyway, to have added these two teas to my range, not least because I’m trying to restrict my calorie intake for a little while following a period of over-indulgence (in passing, the Hilton Gateshead gets an impressive Cream Tea award score of 17) and very little exercise over Easter, and I find that drinking a large mug of milkless tea is a good way of preventing snacking.

 

Apart from drinking tea I’ve been pursuing other interests, including continuing to enjoy our subscription to Amazon Prime Instant Video (formerly Lovefilm Instant).  I’ve finally been able to catch up with the second series of Once Upon A Time, which was every bit as good as the first (if not better for the inclusion of some new characters) and which I’m not ashamed to say I completely raced through.  Now that’s over (till series 3 appears in the dim and distant future) I’ve returned to my habitual film night on Wednesdays whilst Southern Daddy is out at his church housegroup.  I usually go for a rom-com but there have been some included in the list which have turned out to be more than just a generic girl-meets-boy story, such as The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain which I saw last week.  I felt it had a perfect combination of touching team spirit, historical interest, romance and general daftness!  We’ve also enjoyed some films as a family, including Mrs Doubtfire (which I suddenly realised my children had never seen) and Frozen which they bought on DVD with some Easter-gift money.  I’ve heard it said that it’s the best since The Lion King for a combination of story and music and I can see why.  The songs in particular are very good and (we thought) reminiscent of  the work of Ashman and Menken in earlier Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast.  And on the subject of Frozen, here’s something I enjoyed – hope you do too:

 

The Bookworm and I are still enjoying a bit of one-to-one time together on our journeys to and from piano lessons on a Saturday morning and have been taking advantage of my Audible subscription to provide entertainment en route.  We’re about to start listening to a dramatisation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere tomorrow, but recently we’ve enjoyed Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully starring Julian Rhind-Tutt as a very polite alien commander who’s observing human life in an English village before he rolls out his invasion world-wide, and before that four series of Elvenquest, a Lord of the Rings parody with Stephen Mangan and Alistair McGowan.  And Southern Daddy and I were able to see Mr McGowan in the flesh a couple of weeks ago, appearing in Pygmalion at the Theatre Royal.  Once again we received theatre tokens for Christmas and the only difficulty has been narrowing down the choice of plays to see this year.  We thoroughly enjoyed our first selection – particularly McGowan’s energetic Henry Higgins – but are still choosing between The Mousetrap and Jeeves and Wooster later in the year.  In the meantime, though, we are planning to see The Handle Bards again.  Unfortunately they are doing their UK tour in reverse this year, which means that by the time we’re further south, where we caught them during last year’s glorious summer, they’ll be in Scotland, but they’re appearing near us in early July so we intend to treat the girls to a late night and see The Comedy of Errors.  I strongly recommend you see them if you can, so check the dates on the link above and see if they’re appearing near you!

 

That’s all, I think, for now – I’ve been working away at my Magimix experiments with mixed success, so look out for another post on those soon.

Leave a comment »

The Year of the…. Magimix?

Hello, I’m back!  Have you missed me?

It’s been almost a month, but I’ve been poorly for a bit of that time and, without the Austen-themed reviews to spur me on, I didn’t have all that much to write about.

Some lovely things have happened during January, though:

  • We spent a few days staying with my parents at the start of the year, as the girls and Southern Daddy didn’t have to start back until 6th January, which felt like a real treat as it’s often quite a rush back after New Year.
  • We booked our family summer holiday, which this year will be in a self-catering lodge in Norfolk.
  • I had a good day out at the Sage (now an annual event), learning and then performing choral songs from light operas with hundreds of other people and accompanied by the Royal Northern Sinfonia, which set me up for another season’s singing with choir (whose rehearsals resumed the following week).
  • I booked a spa session in February, with a voucher my parents gave me for my birthday – two hours at a hotel spa (accompanied by my lovely Stepmum) including a massage and a pedicure – looking forward to that!
  • I switched my online grocery deliveries to Waitrose (sounds like no big deal but when you’ve been “locked in” to a 6 month delivery plan with a supermarket who was rapidly becoming more and more disappointing, it’s a really nice feeling to be freeeeeeee! Plus, Waitrose brought me a free bottle of champagne with my first delivery and 4 discount codes for subsequent orders, and I’m very happy with the way it’s going.
  • We had a Burns’ Night Supper with haggis, “neeps and tatties ” and a very delicious cranachan.
  • I had a fun day out with the Butterfly’s class at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, exploring their mini rainforest (and enjoying a good chat with the other mum-helpers in the café while the children had their lunch!)
  • Southern Daddy and I have watched all of How I Met Your Mother season 8, which he got on DVD for Christmas (meaning we watched the whole thing in a month!)

Anyway, now we’re nearly at the end of January.  Friday, as you’ll probably know, is Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year.  Apparently, the coming year is the Year of the Horse, but I’m planning to make this year the Year of the Magimix…

SD gave me my Magimix food processor for my birthday several years ago.  In those days my kitchen was full of clutter with no available workspace, and any gadget I happened to own sat out somewhere.  I used the Magimix reasonably often.  But when my friend Wonderwoman helped me to blitz my house and make it less cluttered and more restful and generally nicer to live in, the Magimix and its accessories were relegated to a cupboard because there wasn’t the space to accommodate everything and I used things like the breadmaker more.  And so I all but stopped using it, because it was such a hassle to drag all the pans out of the cupboard to get it out (it’s heavy), and fish out the appropriate blade/attachment, and it’s been languishing in there for a few years now.  Today, though, I wanted to make a chocolate beetroot cake (it’s from this book, but I think for copyright reasons I’m not meant to give the recipe out here) which requires the beetroot to be blitzed in a food processor.  It has to be a food processor – I’ve tried it in the blender, with very messy results.

And as I was getting it all out, and cleaning the sticky, kitchen-y grease off it, and cutting my hand on one of the blades, I thought I should use this more, and not let it get so grubby through lack of use.

And then I thought I haven’t used the breadmaker in ages, because really the bread it makes is pretty poor, and so I only really use it to make dough, and to be honest a machine which only makes dough doesn’t really deserve a place on my counter, especially when I could make dough pretty easily in this instead.

So then I cleared off the recipe books, old paperwork and Christmas card from 2012 from on top and took my breadmaker and stuck it in the garage ready to be thrown out/given away if anyone wants it, and put my newly clean and sparkly food processor in its place.

2014-01-29 19.36.42

Apologies for the appalling photo quality, the current state of the weather means we’re getting practically NO natural light at any time of day.

So now I need to use it.  I plan to find, try out and share recipes this year which make as much use as possible of this versatile gadget.  And I plan to find out what all the attachments do, having only ever used the big whirly blade and one of the graters.

I also plan to replace the children’s artwork, which has been on display since approximately 2005, with a shelf to hold all the accessories (in the case behind the machine) and maybe some of my favourite recipe books.  And Southern Daddy is hoping that this doesn’t result in our redecorating the kitchen!

Some of the stuff which will be going! (The lady with red hair is not me, by the way - it's my mother-in-law! I think I might be the one with the blue arms though!)

Some of the stuff which will be going! (The lady with red hair is not me, by the way – it’s my mother-in-law! I think I might be the one with the blue arms though!)

So I look forward to sharing the Year of the Magimix with you as time goes by, and please, please do share any food-processor-based recipes with me that I might like to try!

Leave a comment »

Heads up for my next review

As I explained in my September review post, my intention was to review the audio book of Jo Baker’s Longbourn for my October selection in the Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge. However, I discovered last week that the BBC daytime medical soap Doctors is running a week of Austen-related specials and I’ve decided to watch and review them, for a different angle, and defer Longbourn to November.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Doctors is based around a GP surgery in the fictional West Midlands town of Letherbridge. The staff (medical and admin) are the recurring cast and their patients are usually one-off or short-term characters. You can read more about it on the Wikipedia page. I used to watch it regularly but these days I only do so occasionally if I’m ill or if I read that someone famous is making a guest appearance. They’ve done themed weeks like this in the past, including a very good Shakespeare week that I managed to catch. I thought that this week’s episodes might each focus on one novel, starting with Pride and Prejudice, but having seen today’s I’ve realised it isn’t going to be like that so I’ll have to watch all five episodes before I review.

The purpose of this advance notice is to bring it to the attention of anyone else who might like to watch it, because by the time I post the review, today’s episode will be close to being removed. I know some of you are in other countries where Doctors might be running behind the UK, or not screened at all, but if you are able to access BBC iPlayer from where you are, you can find the first episode here. The episodes are available for a week, so today’s will disappear next Monday night.

Today’s episode both intrigued and confused me, and I’m interested to find out more. In the meantime, I’m trying not to become distracted by what may or may not have happened to the long-standing characters since last I saw them!

Leave a comment »

Feels like home

325157_10151141341061773_181846132_o

Last Wednesday marked 20 years since I first arrived, as an eighteen-year-old student, to live in the North East (it was a Saturday, so today is sort of the anniversary of the day!). As I’ve mentioned before, I’d already fallen in love with beautiful Durham earlier that year when I came up for interview, and was overjoyed to learn that I had gained a place there to study languages (after a couple of hours’ panic over a dodgy English Lit result, a lot of tears and two phonecalls – the second because I needed to check that they really had said yes!). I still love the little city (as cities go, it’s tiny and earns the title by virtue of its cathedral and university) and enjoy visiting whenever we can. Throughout my time there I got to know each street, riverbank, bridge and view like the back of my hand, declared every season my favourite each time it rolled round, with the flame-coloured leaves which first greeted me, through the snow on our return after Christmas, the daffodils which came into bloom if you hung around long enough into the Easter holidays and the sleepy sunny days after the exams. Durham, of course, has special memories for me as the place I met Southern Daddy (well, technically we first met in the Yorkshire Dales on a Christian Union weekend, but our courting all took place in Durham), and I am, if required, able to give a guided tour of the city based around significant events in our relationship!

During our student days my friends and I held a slightly skewed picture of the local geography: Durham was (naturally) the Centre of the World, with the satellites of Newcastle (good for shopping and the theatre, and – once – a nightclub in a boat on the river Tyne) and Sunderland (which we visited once to go to a different theatre) situated nearby and accessible by train or bus (preferably train, We took the bus to Sunderland, it took ages and when we got there we didn’t know where we were in relation to anything else and finished up going for tea and cake in a little church hall whilst seeking directions). But the villages around Durham and the towns en route to these two other cities were unknown and uninteresting to us – apart from the almost-mythical Pity Me, home to a branch of Sainsbury’s frequented by those students who had a car, setting them apart from the rest of us who were forced to shop at Safeway. We visited Sainsbury’s the first summer when a friend’s parents let her have a car up after the exams. I seem to remember we bought ice creams and then went back to college. But I digress – my point is that I wasn’t aware at that time of the variety of scenery, landscape or attractions held by this glorious part of the country.

Had Southern Daddy and I not met – or, rather, had we not decided to get married – I should probably have remained in blissful ignorance. I didn’t really intend to stay here – the best places for the Masters degree I wanted to do were elsewhere, and anyway, despite its beauty, North Eastern winters can be miserably cold and dark, which doesn’t suit the temperament of a mild SAD sufferer. But, graduating a year apart, and wanting to see one another regularly, we agreed that the best thing would be for SD to find a job locally until I was ready to leave Durham. We didn’t know then that he would find not only a job, but a church, and a circle of friends, and a life here – and thus the die was cast. Two months after my graduation we moved into our first home as newlyweds, the first of three homes in Newcastle.

It was strange beginning to live in a place I’d previously considered as merely a shopping and cultural centre. For one thing, it was also my place of study now, so the part of the town centre I visited most frequently was further from the station than I’d ever ventured before. I came to know some of the suburbs, and learned that Byker was a real place (and my new home) but that it possessed nothing called, or resembling, a Grove!
I discovered that there are parts of Newcastle almost as beautiful as Durham, that some of the architecture is simply stunning, especially if you look up above the shop fronts, and that there are plenty of places worth visiting outside the cities. I also discovered that it’s not worth taking the Metro from the Central Station into town, as it’s a 5 minute walk, tops (we’d been paying about £1 for this tiny journey, for FOUR YEARS!) and that, with concentration and practice, it is possible to enter and leave Fenwick’s department store by the same door!

Soon after my studies were complete, Southern Daddy was made permanent at work and we bought a house nearer church. I worked for a little while before the Bookworm was born in the impressive Royal Victoria Infirmary, and three years later the Butterfly arrived in our third Newcastle house (in which we still live).

Since becoming a mother I’ve had more chance to explore what the region has to offer families, with its museums, beaches and parks. The girls and I had an unforgettable day last year in summer when we travelled by Metro, bus and foot visiting cultural venues around Newcastle to fill in their Sustrans Green Explorer cards (we took the photo that day – you can see the Olympic Rings on the Tyne Bridge).

One of the elements of our Newcastle life which has proved invaluable is our church family. As well as being supported and nurtured spiritually through our involvement there, we’ve been blessed with a family to fill in for the biological one which is spread across the country. There we have stand-in parents who have taken babies for long walks so we could get some sleep, brothers and sisters who’ve given us advice, shoulders to cry on and babysitting exchanges, and imaginary cousins for our children to play with in the same way they dote on their real ones. We really could not have had the same quality of life without them.

As we make decisions about a secondary school for the Bookworm and move towards the next phase of our family life, it doesn’t look like we’ll be moving away any time soon, and I realise I’ve now lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere.

I didn’t expect to stay this long, but now it really is home.

1 Comment »

Apology

Just a quick apology to subscribers who received notification of a new post this morning… the post in question was one I started writing at the end of last week about the popularity of St Patrick’s Day amongst those who don’t claim him as a patron saint, which lost momentum and had to be scrapped (that happens a lot!).  I went into my drafts on my phone with the intention of deleting it and it was somehow published instead!  In addition, the post I’d just written and had ready to be published was completely deleted, so there’s as much frustration involved for me as for you!  I’ve learned my lesson about the WordPress app which is difficult to negotiate and limited in its functionality!

I’m hoping to have the lost post re-written and up this afternoon, so I thank you for your patience and look forward to hearing from you later.

Leave a comment »

Don’t lose the Wonder

WARNING! THIS IS VERY LONG!  I read recently in Tim Chester’s Will You Be My Facebook Friend? (enjoying it so far btw) that nobody reads blog posts longer than 400 words. Nobody ever told me this before, and given that I tend to read anything if I’m interested in the subject, I’m in a quandary about it.  Is it true?  Does that mean this is too long, at a shocking 5 times the length? I am verbose – possibly even garrulous, but as I think I’ve discussed before, this wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t.  So if you have an opinion on long posts, leave me a note and let me know.  I’ve put subheadings in to make it (hopefully) easier to look at.

Finally, my review

209751_492987144053413_655733065_oA while ago I promised you my thoughts on the film of Les Misérables and I’m finally getting round to sharing them. Other post ideas and distractions such as illness (I’m not really the fragile flower I sometimes come across, but I suffer – relatively mildly – from several chronic conditions which mean that life is put on hold periodically whilst I deal with the latest bout) got in the way in the meantime, but today I’m able to get down to it.

In a nutshell, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. As you’ll know from my previous post, I’m a long-term fan of the stage show and my desire to see the film was partly to enjoy the action once more (and more cheaply and conveniently than going to London) and partly out of interest to see how it would translate onto screen.

It’s important to say from the outset that, as a film of the stage show (I never know whether to call it a musical or an opera!) it must, in my opinion be compared to that version. There have been films made in the past based on the book which could be approached differently, and the stage show itself could also be reviewed in comparison the the book (which I’ve only read part of) but this film really needs to be looked at in the context of its immediate parent. Ultimately I think the translation worked rather well. If you’re familiar with it from the theatre, you’ll know that the set is fairly minimal so that it can all be worked out on a revolving floor in the centre of the stage, using light and image projections onto the floor to add extra effects. The audience sees one side of the set at a time (and one assumes that on the other side any necessary alterations are being made in time for the next 180 degree revolution), and at times the set rotates to reveal a still tableau which can be as effective as action or a song in other parts of the show. One example is after the barricade scene when the audience (whose perspective has been from the revolutionaries’ side) is then able to see the fallen – without wanting to give too much away! – on the other side. These still images are pretty iconic and I had my concerns about how the film would be able to replicate or replace them, but I was really impressed with the way it was done.

Obviously there were many differences in the way the film was set, but I felt that all of them worked well and took advantage of the medium and space available. Probably the most striking, just because it’s the opening scene, is when we see Jean Valjean (Prisoner 24601) and his fellow-convicts at work as they lament their fate in the song Look Down. On stage they are lined up breaking rocks, but on screen they are faced with the immense and altogether more visually spectacular feat of hauling a huge ship into the dry dock. This scene allows for a useful detail to be included, of the prison officer Javert commanding Valjean to “Fetch the sail” which involves the use of his unexpected strength to lift the ship’s mast, thus contextualising Javert’s later comparison of “Monsieur Madeleine” to the prisoner he once knew, when he sees him free a man trapped under a cart.

Another interesting feature of the film which differed from the theatre was in the reinsertion of the “fourth wall”. On stage, some of the narrative (especially scene-setting) is directed specifically at the audience as if they were somehow involved in the action. Highly appropriate for the theatre, but not so much for the cinema, so instead, the action is contrived to suit the conversational tone of the libretto by providing a new audience. So, for example, Gavroche’s How do you do… piece is directed at the surprised passengers in a carriage on which he’s hitched a ride, as he hangs upside down and addresses them through the window!

The cast

The casting was, I thought, very very good. I know people always have their ideals in mind when a star-studded film version of something well-known is made (and I’m probably more guilty of that than anyone!), but really everyone there was utterly believable and expressed the same characters I’ve seen in stage. In fact a couple of them seemed so familiar (eg Grantaire, Gavroche) that I was surprised later, when I looked them up on IMDb, that I hadn’t seen them in anything else. Sasha Baron-Cohen was a magnificent Thénardier, suddenly acquiring a French accent whenever he was called upon to speak to his social superiors and perpetually mistaking Cosette’s name in the way I first saw done by Matt Lucas at the 25th anniversary concert. Helena Bonham-Carter brought her own style to the character of his wife (ironic that the two coarsest characters should be played by actors with double-barrelled surnames!) although I don’t expect anyone to match the standard set by the wonderful Jenny Galloway who has played Madame Thénardier in two anniversary concerts as well as on stage. On the subject of past cast members, I thought it was a lovely and fitting gesture to include two original cast members: Colm Wilkinson, the first Jean Valjean, as the Bishop of Digne and Frances Ruffelle, originator of the part of Eponine, as one of the “Lovely Ladies”. It was also a touching change to include the Bishop in Valjean’s final moments, in place of – and really more appropriately than – Eponine, as I believe happens in the book.

Many of the lead cast, such as Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, have roots in musical theatre and from the documentaries and interviews I’ve seen seem to have enjoyed the innovative recording style of singing directly as the scenes were filmed, as opposed to lip-syncing to a previously recorded track. Only Russell Crowe seemed slightly discomfited by the requirement to sing and act simultaneously – and, although this sounds a lot like the Grade 6 piano examiner who sarcastically remarked on my report that I was not yet confident playing with both hands together, I mean it as much less of a criticism than it might seem! Crowe’s ability and versatility as an actor has been called into question in the past but I am really quite an undemanding viewer and generally very easy to please on that score (I even watch things with Keanu Reeves in and suspend my disbelief!). In this case, however, I just felt that whilst the other leads expressed their characters’ various emotions through their songs, Crowe delivered his two solos (Stars and Suicide) beautifully but somewhat impassively. But it’s about context really – I don’t think I’d have noticed at all if his co-stars hadn’t been quite so good at it! And it’s all a question of taste, because the friend I was with said she much preferred his delivery to the others’ “messing about with the timing and rhythm”!

The slight down side

My one criticism was that almost all the songs had been curtailed in one way or another. I assume that this was to ensure the running time didn’t exceed 2h30, but then again, they found time to include the new (and in my traditionalist opinion wholly unnecessary) Suddenly. For the long-standing, soundtrack-owning, libretto-memorising Les Mis fan, the omission of some of the less well-known verses – including my own favourite, the introduction to Master of the House in which the customers discuss Thénardier, his history and the quality of his establishment (enjoy this LEGO version by Codex Productions!) – is always going to be a disappointment and make it feel more like one of those highlights albums, rather than the full deal.

And in addition to the missing verses, there was some talking in it! “But it’s a film,” said one of my Facebook friends. “I found it weird that they didn’t speak some of the lines, when they were too short to be tuneful.” The fact is, as I said before, that it’s not just a film with songs in it, like a Disney cartoon, or even the film of a musical, like Mamma Mia, but the film of Les Misérables, which contains no spoken lines. If I went to see a film of La Bohème, for example, I wouldn’t expect the actors to start speaking in the middle of a scene. I think it detracts from the essential character of the performance when the clever, rhythmical verse sung by Valjean’s arresting officer, outside the Bishop’s palace, almost interrupted by the Bishop’s calm “That is right,” is replaced with “So you expect me to believe that the Bishop gave you all this stuff, do you?” (or words to that effect). So that annoyed me slightly, more because I couldn’t see the point of it than anything.

The Wonder

On the whole, my reaction to this film is an entirely positive one. At this point, I have to make a confession which will shock some of you:

I didn’t cry.

Sorry for that bombshell, but it’s commonly believed amongst my acquaintance that I have a faulty gene when it comes to emotional response. Unlike most of my friends, I don’t weep my way through my children’s school plays and concerts, and my view of the final scenes of Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel or Love Story is not obscured by tears. (On the other hand when I do cry it’s quite a good gauge of early pregnancy, and Southern Daddy knew something was amiss when he found me sobbing in front of the 2002 Winter Olympic opening ceremony, blubbering “They’re all just so patriotic!”) But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel emotion during the film, whatever Chris Evans said about anyone who didn’t cry at it being made of stone. There were some amazingly touching moments, especially Javert’s surveyal of the fallen revolutionaries after the barricade scene, and the amazing reinterpretation of the final Do You Hear The People Sing? (sometimes I really get what CGI is for!)

Before I saw the film, I read a scathing review written by someone who didn’t like it at all (apparently there are such people). I wanted to link to it but I can’t find it now. It was vicious – the reviewer criticised the plot for not making sense (I think he needed to listen harder, “the text is everything” as we are endlessly told as singers, and in the film it is not unclear) and the music for being uninteresting and lacking complexity. Most of all, he was attacking the audience’s emotional response – he was at a loss to account for it and felt that it was dishonestly evoked by sentimental musical arrangements and exaggerated emotion within the story. So what’s new? Isn’t that what the film industry has been doing since its inception? Even before “talkies”, themed music was played to create an impression and a reaction.

The impression I gleaned from the tone of the article, and its ironic suggestion of other, superior, films and musicals to see instead, was rather one of snobbery. Perhaps – once again – I’m naïve, but I don’t see the difference between watching something which is simplistic or “low-brow” and something which is critically acclaimed and acknowledged as a creative triumph –  if I’m enjoying it. I’m no music scholar, and couldn’t tell you what constitutes a “complex” and “interesting” score, but I know that I admire it when everyone sings their own song, separately, and then suddenly they’re all singing them together and to my amazement they all fit! I love the sound you get when you have ten singers lined up on stage, belting out their parts, whether it’s in Beauty and the Beast or Die Walküre. I love the clever way lyricists play with language – whatever language that happens to be. And the whole is presented with such flair and excitement as to enchant the audience and catch them up in it. If you don’t feel that then you’re either much more skilful than me (I think there’s a certain sense in which you always marvel a bit at what you can’t do yourself) or you’ve become hardened to it in a belief that it’s somehow more grown-up to be critical than to have fun. But I’d rather keep my childish amazement, and never lose the Wonder.

Thankful for…

My trip to the doctor today revealing that the worries I had were unfounded

Southern Daddy being able to work from home today

The new ticket machines having finally been installed in my local Metro station (explanation here)!

The Cross of Christ by John Stott, which I’m reading for Lent

The Bookworm settling into Guides so quickly and being keen to go on camp with them in June (we had to sign up tonight)

A lovely meal and DVD yesterday evening (we watched Noises Off which is based on the play of the same name and almost as funny as when we saw it at the theatre a few years ago.  We liked it so much we’re going to use some of our Christmas Theatre Tokens to see it again in April!)

Leave a comment »