Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Telly and Travels Review of the Year

I've been following the Guardian's list of top 30 television programmes for 2014. It's probably a dismal omen for my television writing career to realise that I only watched one programme out of the top 10, which was The Trip To Italy. Which I personally wouldn't have put in the top 10, for reasons already stated. I missed two (Game Of Thrones, True Detective) because we only have access to Freeview channels. Some of the programmes I deliberately avoided - like Fargo, simply because I am such a huge fan of the original Coen brothers film that I didn't want to see it messed with. (I couldn't have written about it anyway, since I haven't been any nearer to Minnesota than a Garrison Keillor book on my shelf.) And others I only found out about too late into the series to be able to catch up. Peaky Blinders is one - and I have been to Birmingham, so it would have made a nice little blog entry. The number one choice, Happy Valley, is another. And that was even set in Yorkshire, where I am nearly every single day.

Because I haven't scored too highly on the Travels front either - one week in a caravan near Leiden in Holland, travelling over on the ferry from Hull, and one week at my dad's house in Grasmere. Plus a long weekend in a cabin in the woods near Hutton-le-Hole, which didn't even involve leaving Yorkshire. If that isn't a motivation to go out and try and earn some money when my daughter starts school in September 2015, then, well, the fact that all my clothes are falling apart would be a close second. Except that even if I manage to gain some sort of salary, once we are tied to travelling in school holidays we probably won't be able to afford to go anywhere ever again.




Langdale Pikes

Woods at Keldy

A cabin in the woods
I score marginally (but only marginally) better in television programmes number 11-30. Rev. Gogglebox. Grantchester (SERIOUSLY?!). Sherlock. Doctor Who (just a couple of episodes, mind, to check out Peter Capaldi. who I used to share gym space with). And finally, I was there for Bingate in The Great British Bake-Off.

I suppose on the plus side this means that I don't actually spend my whole life watching television.

Or it means that nothing on CBeebies was shortlisted.

I have too bad a memory to be able to put together my own television top 10. Did I even watch ten different programmes during 2014? Over 50 blog posts suggests that I did, but the year seems to have been one long series of Masterchef. Anyway, such things seem trivial when you look back at what was happening in the rest of the world during 2014. Gaza. Syria. Pakistan. Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia. The Somerset Levels. Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds. Flight MH370. Flight MH17. Flight QZ8501. This happened just the other day up the road from here. Storms, bombs, unspeakable crimes, haemorrhagic fever: there is much for us to work on in 2015. (So no excuse for channel surfing on the sofa.) But please don't be fools and see Nigel Farage as the answer. Nigel Farage isn't the answer to anything other than the question "Who is the biggest tosser of 2014?" I am frightened by the possible result of the General Election in May 2015 (= Conservative/UKIP right-wing racist coalition?!) more than anything else as we enter the New Year. That and the fact that in April it will be ten years since my mother died, which I find impossible to believe.

But at least we can still celebrate Hogmanay in the United Kingdom tonight. We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Carols From Kings

"When the band finished playing, they howled out for more..." 
(The Pogues, Fairytale of New York)

There's a very funny Spitting Image sketch where the candlelit choirboys of Kings College Cambridge stand poised to sing, organ playing softly in the background, choirmaster's arms randomly concertinering in and out as if squeezing bellows, the voiceover introduces them...and they launch into Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. It's a little moment of genius, although the most striking thing for those in the know is the accurate portrayal of Stephen Cleobury's conducting.

The service has been broadcast on the radio since 1929 and on television since 1954, which means there is a 60th anniversary to celebrate this year. The radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is live, the television one is not. It is recorded earlier in December, possibly because the Michaelmas term at the University of Cambridge often finishes so early that the students taking part in the service need something to do to fill the time before Christmas Eve. They will only get themselves into trouble if they hang around unsupervised in the college quads for too long.

I always try to watch the television broadcast as for me - like most - it's the proper start of Christmas. We are usually settled wherever we need to be, wine may have been opened, the rest of the world is shut out, and if we had a fireplace that wasn't used for toy storage, the fire would be lit to cosy on down and get ready for the presents, port, good cheer and fine food of the following day. Or the squabbling, family irritations, panicked cooking and overindulgence, depending on how things are going. However, Carols From Kings can never be as entertaining now that my brother is no longer a music student at Cambridge University and therefore no longer able to point out all the tossers. "You see that bass singer?" my mum said gravely one year, "Well, your brother says that he is completely up his own arse."

Yes, even an atheist can enjoy carols in a church. There is euphoria to be found in beautiful singing regardless of the lyrics. I am writing this listening to Paul McCreesh's recording of a Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (aka community singing of Praetorius in Roskilde Cathedral), one of the most stunning performances of anything I have ever heard, and which I break open every December like a bottle of Bailey's. I even hope to take my daughter to the crib service in the Minster this year. I have been to York's own Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve in the past, but a long sit in the cold, crowded aisles and a sermon from John Sentanu are still probably more than a bit beyond the patience of a four-year-old.

I am currently struggling to tell the nativity story (or "In a manger far away" as she calls it) to my young daughter, as to me it seems as fanciful, ridiculous and improbable as the story of a rotund red man living at the North Pole riding a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer that is able to deliver presents via chimneys to every child in the world in a single night. Suddenly I am having to explain God and angels and virgins and Romans and censuses and stables and stars and shepherds and evil and good kings and frankincense and myrrh to my curious child, who sang a song about them all in her nursery Christmas show and wants to know more. And I feel hypocritical gaily lying to her about Santa, but struggling to lie to her about the Nativity story, which I don't believe in either (or at least not the bits involving heavenly beings). I struggle that she is expected to grow out of believing in one, but not the other, when both sound like fairy stories. She may be expected to believe every word of the Nativity at school, when really a lot of it is scientifically preposterous. I feel the need to say quite clearly that this is what a lot of people think happened, but it's not quite what Mummy believes happened. And then I automatically sideline us as ones who go against the grain, which may not be comfortable for her young mind. Ultimately it's her choice what she believes, but I still think she needs to know that she has a choice, because no one knows for sure what did happen in Bethlehem all those years ago.

An atheist can enjoy carols in a pub more. We spent a glorious evening a couple of weeks ago in the company of Kate Rusby, a true Yorkshire lass from Barnsley. She grew up in the culture of the Sings of South Yorkshire, where every weekend from November onwards, people gather in the pubs to sing carols that the Victorians threw out of the churches for being too merry. And Kate Rusby has recorded some of the carols onto CD in her own beautiful folk style, and now takes them on tour each December. Beer is encouraged. The music is delightful. She has crocheted snowflakes hanging above the stage. A brass quintet add the finishing touches. She explains it all for herself here. (And yes, that it is the tune to "On Ilkley Moor Baht' at" in the opening number, one of at least three versions of While Shepherds Watched that Kate sings. However, it turns out that this famous Yorkshire tune was, disappointingly, composed in a place called Cranbook in Kent.)

Anyway, I did buy my daughter a 10p copy of the nativity story in the charity shop. It's an ancient Ladybird book that can be converted into a magic roundabout. I read it to her alongside Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas. They are both, after all, stories of cultural significance at this time of year. Here is Charlotte studying the nativity in the Italian cafe down the road while I tuck into panettone and mulled wine. Buon Natale.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Christmas Television

Christmas reading
I treated us to the Christmas edition of the Radio Times yesterday. Partly because, if I'm quick enough, I can use it to get a free Paddington book from the Early Learning Centre. I took my daughter to see the film of Paddington on the day it was released. We were having some windows replaced at home so I needed to get her out the joiner's way and Paddington was the perfect diversion - the walk to the cinema gave Charlotte some exercise, the box of popcorn fulfilled a promise from a song at her music class the day before, and the film provided nostalgia for Mummy and diversion for the four-year-old. We have a DVD of the original television series, which Charlotte absolutely loves. Notting Hill must have changed almost as much as animation techniques for an ursine Peruvian immigrant between the television series and the film. But the original is a true testament that technical quality is never an issue as long as writing quality is high. Paddington falling on the cream cakes, Paddington in the taxi, Paddington taking a bath and Paddington on the escalator all make Charlotte laugh hysterically time after time. So it was with great joy that we saw that these scenes had been replicated (and enhanced to new levels of funniness) in the film. All of us oldies will miss Michael Hordern's narration. But with Hugh Bonneville as Mr Brown, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown, Julie Walters as Mrs Bird and Jim Broadbent as Mr Gruber in the film, what was not to love?
Cream cakes
What was not to love? Oh, yes, Nicole Kidman as the evil taxidermist, out to stuff Paddington for the Natural History Museum. In a back story at the start of the film, her father discovered Paddington's tribe of bears deep in the Peruvian jungle. But he let them be, after teaching them a love of marmalade and enough English to be able to talk about the weather. Returning to London minus an unlive specimen, he was dismissed in disgrace by the National Geographic Society. And his daughter is determined to succeed where he - in her eyes - failed.

Children's television shows drawn out into full-length movies always have to include a scary baddie. Postman Pat had to battle a tribe of laser-wielding robots (and a Simon Cowell lookalike) earlier in the year. I don't think it's necessary. Charlotte would gladly have watched Paddington falling over and storing things under his hat for 90 minutes. Postman Pat: The Movie took away all that was familiar from CBeebies, and this doesn't work. It's the mind of a pre-schooler - they love slapstick, and they don't need scary. Scary causes meltdowns and trembling and shrieks demanding to leave the building. They don't know yet that things will always come good in the end. That in Paddington's case Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi doing his best Phil Mitchell accent - they were at one point, after all, near neighbours in Crouch End) will stop voting UKIP, the teenagers will stop being embarrassed by their parents, and a drunk Mrs Bird will... well, I'd better not include too many spoilers. It's hard to explain to a little girl that everything will be OK - because in life it usually isn't, and even a young child in a comfortable and privileged Yorkshire home can work out that she is often denied a happy ending. Mummy doesn't always give in to her arguments. The chocolate button may be denied, the broken toy irreparable, and the television switched off.

Anyway, speaking of television, what delights await us over the festive season? I haven't even bothered looking at any scheduling before Iggle Piggle sails off in his boat, because until then my control over the remote control will be, well, remote. But I am very much looking forward to Professor Branestawm, a set of books I loved as a child. I am curious about Victoria Wood's musical about the reunion of the Manchester children's choir who recorded Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds in 1929, even if it does star Michael Ball. But otherwise, with no new Julia Donaldson feature (though I believe Stick Man is promised for 2015), it's same old, same old. Doctor Who. Call The Midwife. EastEnders. Downton bloody Abbey. Dad's Army. Morecambe And Wise. Well, it wouldn't be Christmas without television tradition. Or would it?

Having a young child does bring a lot of excitement and fun and early starts into Christmas. But it's a time of year I always find really hard. I miss my mum. Even if the word she most commonly used to describe Christmas was "crap". And even though the arguments in our house during the cooking of dinner could be spectacular until the opening of the sherry. But all of our Christmas tradition died with her. We had to find new ways of doing things. Even if it meant we just had to all be apart, to try and numb the pain of her absence a little. I can't help but be envious of my friends who all still have their family units intact, and a wealth of doting grandparents to make Christmas huge and lively and involving for their children.

So while cancer denied our family the happy ending ten years ago, we do have the girl, and a happy girl on Christmas Day will bring much of the joy back. I will, however, remain in denial that a happy girl will only be achieved with large doses of Frozen, and frozen fish fingers.

Christmas dinner in a box

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Nigel Slater's Icing On The Cake

Yesterday's lemon & pistachio cake. Just because.
I have long been a fan of Nigel Slater's food writing. He can make the mundane utterly sublime. He can be eating sardines on toast yet give such an evocative description of every crumb that I instantly have to leap up and raid my larder to make some for myself. Well, I don't really have a larder per se. That's a bit posh. But I do have a few tins in a cupboard. When I've been organised about my online shopping.

Nigel Slater always strikes me as painfully shy on television. He sounds so exuberant on paper, but seems slightly awkward on screen. But his excitement over the food he has cooked for his plate is still infectious, and it always looks amazing, but makeable. And I also love his "food history" programmes, like this one about cake. I should call them "food nostalgia", because he has retained his childlike enthusiasm for the (probably actually not terribly inspiring) food of his youth despite the pretty miserable time his autobiography recounts him having. In this programme, the wicked gleam in his eye when he laughs as he bites into a fondant fancy is a telling image of the wonderful effect of food and how powerfully the senses of taste and smell recreate memories.

He starts in Konditor & Cook just behind Waterloo station, home of the most incredible lemon cake I have ever eaten. Nigel says he would just as happily buy a cake from a shop as eat a home-made one by Auntie Marjorie.(When did he meet my grandmother?) He stresses cake's universal appeal. It is the ultimate in comfort food in times of need. It doesn't have to meet Mary Berry's perfection. It just needs to be naughty but nice. But what makes a cake truly a cake?

There's a history bit. It all started with compacted porridge. There's a science bit. Why eggs bring the magic, originally whisked in by twigs. There's the religious affrontery and the banning of buns. There's why we have an innate liking for sweetness. There's a Home Economics lesson that teaches us that dropping cakes fresh out of the oven is actually good for them. There's what rationing did to cakes. Then there are just lots of glorious regional cakes with silly names - lardy, parkin, Rutland plum shuttles, Selkirk bannock, Norfolk vinegar, and Cumberland courting. (Never got one of those out of my husband.) There's the exceedingly crap ones we buy from Mr Kipling and Lyons - the aforementioned fondant fancies, Jamaica Ginger cake and a slice of Battenberg. Cake is what we do in this country to be sociable and make us smile. Or it was until we discovered binge-drinking.

Then Jenny Eclair comes on and tells Nigel why, despite being named after one, she hates cake. It's a throwback to her anorexic days at drama school. She claims cupcakes are the most evil of all - so disappointing and dishonest, so bad for you, as unnecessary and harmful as high-heeled shoes. Much as I personally love cake, I have to admit she does have a point. Cupcakes, piled high with swirls of buttercream and sweetie toppings, usually look so much better than they taste. The insurmountable icing invariably swamps a tiny morsel of dry sponge, and tips off onto the floor at the first bite.

Evil cupcakery
Finally, there's roadkill cake. (Yes, you did read that correctly.) There's cigarette butts on a cake. There's a fondant brains cake to teach people anatomy and fairy cakes decorated with chlamydia icing to educate teenagers about sexual health. And then a giant recreation of Nigel Slater's head. Not sure what he made of that.

But what makes a cake a cake? For Nigel Slater, it's the spirit behind it. The love that creates it. And the fact that we always share it.

It's impossible to deny that wherever I go, I eat cake. Grasmere Gingerbread in the Lake District,  Fat Rascals and macaroons from Betty's all over Yorkshire, Bara Brith in Pembrokeshire, Bakewell pudding in Derbyshire, brownies in Baltimore, Sachertorte in Vienna, tartes aux fraises in Paris, and pink-frosted cupcakes from a bakery on Bleecker Street in New York just like the ones Sarah Jessica Parker ate on Sex And The City (wearing stupid high-heeled shoes).

The winners will always be the Germans, however. Bakeries were the only shops open on a Sunday when I went to university in Heidelberg. Cake was the only thing that made me truly happy in a rather difficult year. There is much to be said for the healing powers of a bite of Apfelstrudel or a slice of Mohnkuchen or Streuselkuchen. Stollen at Christmas, washed down with Gluehwein from the Christkindlmarkt. But my favourite always - the simple baked Quark Kaesekuchen from the students cafe in Heidelberg's Marstallhof. It just about made up for the fact that everything else that the Mensa served was inedible - greasy gravy stodge with a side of cold fruit soup dolloped on to a metal tray. You weren't even allowed a plate. It was all stupidly cheap but utterly revolting. I still feel nauseous thinking about it. But the cheesecake was in another league.
Heidelberg,. The Marstallhof Mensa and Cafe is the building on the right

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Great Continental Railway Journeys: La Coruna to Lisbon

Look, I know, this is getting out of hand. But he keeps going to places I have been.

I'll spare you the Portillo stuff this time. I won't even mention this week's jacket or what he did to a custard tart. Instead, I will magically remove some sickening letters from his name and end up in Porto, which was visited halfway through this programme. My cousin lives there with his lovely Polish wife and many cats, and we went to visit them for a long weekend - gosh, nearly ten years ago now. It was an easy break - still living in London then, we could make the most of direct flights with Ryanair from Stansted.

We saw the railway station and the churches with their fantastic arrays of blue and white tiles. We ambled down the steep and winding cobbled streets of red-rooved houses with sheets of washing flung over the balconies, sidestepping several consignments of dog faeces in an otherwise never ending parade of lovely views. We ended up at the Douro river with its splendid bridges (the Ponte Luis I alas covered in scaffolding at that time) and barges stacked with port barrels. We sat in the bars and restaurants on the quayside eating rustic meals of salt cod and sow ear stews. And drinking port. Oh, yes, lots of port. Port on the water, port with a view, port on a boat, port in a port lodge or five, port at home. White, ruby, tawny, vintage, ancient. You name it, we tried it. We had excellent hosts.

Parts of our visit are consequently a bit of a blur.

A few bottles for the weekend

Thursday, 27 November 2014

John Lewis Christmas Advert

"All my little plans and schemes
Lost like some forgotten dreams
Seems that all I really was doing
Was waiting for you..."
Ah, Christmas time. Band Aid, mistletoe and wine. And a new tear-jerker advert from John Lewis. This year, perhaps inspired by Oliver Jeffers' wonderful book Lost And Found, the advert shows its regular model boy child (Can such a kid exist? One who helps, sleeps and never moans?) passing on his dreams of things on a higher plane to his cute pet penguin.

For cute pet penguin is looking for love. He's not interested in snow, trampolines, footballs or fish fingers any more. He just wants to watch couples kissing - on Oxford Street, in the park, on It's A Wonderful Life. Penguins do, after all, mate for life. And unlike in this image of suburban bliss, they face impossible odds to find their mate and propagate their species. For the South Pole generally doesn't come equipped with central heating and a freezer full of Birds Eye.

The model boy child, as well as being impossibly well behaved and jolly good fun to be around, has an awful lot of nice furniture in his house. It must all come from John Lewis. Just as well the penguin turns out to be only a cuddly toy, otherwise it would shit all over the family's lovely taste in haberdashery.

Don't get me wrong, I love John Lewis. The greatest day of my life was when I was let loose with a barcode zapper in the store on Oxford Street to compile our wedding list. Theoretically, you see, I could choose anything I liked in the Kitchenware department. It didn't mean anyone would buy any of it for me, but it was still - briefly - like a dream come true. I was out of control with excitement. My fiance had to take me to the cafe for a croissant and a cup of tea to calm down.

And then we moved to York, which didn't have a John Lewis. I missed it. I wanted it. A more religious version of me would have prayed for it. Our nearest store was in Sheffield. And I have just written a blog post explaining why I couldn't go there.

The Christmas present everyone in York was dreaming of
But at last, a few months ago, York finally became middle-class enough to get a John Lewis. Several great-crested newts had to be relocated during its construction. Its out-of-town location provoked much ire amongst local traders. Nonetheless, the finished place - really just a big rectangle - is a thing of beauty. It has a curved television in the audiovisual department that my daughter will sit and stare at for hours, though I am not sure whether Mr Lewis is aware that the store offers such a convenient free baby-sitting service.

But alas now that John Lewis is here, because I haven't been in paid employment for over four years, I can't afford to buy anything. I can't stay away though. I can still dream. But I am probably only really going for my monthly free tea and cake in the cafe. Only now the bastards have stopped this offer for Christmas. Because they only want to give it to rich people who will spend thousands of pounds in their Gift Department while they are there.

Which is why I think their Christmas advert is a load of poo. Ner-ner-ner-ner-ner. Stamps foot petulently.

But we do love our penguins in this house. (We don't actually have any penguins in this house.) One year for his birthday I adopted my husband his very own penguin in the Falkland Islands. The penguin was called Sausage. Sausage was a part of our lives for quite a few years. But we let the subscription lapse when we realised that the man running the protection programme was possibly insane. Anyway, to celebrate the original adoption, we spent a day at London Zoo watching penguin feeding time, before going to see March Of The Penguins at the Screen on the Green in Islington.

Resident at Harewood House
And Yorkshire has its fair share of penguins for our daughter too - Sewerby Hall, Harewood House, Scarborough Sea Life Centre and now The Deep in Hull as well. DVDs of Pingu, Lost And Found and Happy Feet are regular fixtures on the television, although our daughter is terrified of the elephant seals and violent birds in Happy Feet and - bizarrely - the library scene in Lost And Found. Scary things, books. Pingu is at least more or less devoid of anything terrifying. Which is perhaps why the model boy child on the John Lewis advert loves him too.

John Lewis tells us to "give someone the Christmas they've been dreaming of". Easier said that done when your daughter has requested Tinkerbell shoes with pom-poms on and hand-made clothes for her toy monkey Stripey. (She must have been watching some darn advert that turns cuddly toys into pets!) And she will no doubt moan about whatever present Santa gets her as an alternative, like the ungrateful four-year-old she is. Maybe I should send her off to work in a soup kitchen for the day instead. "Please, sir, can I have some more?" Or I could make her learn to knit (she'd have to teach herself, mind) so that she can make all the lovely Christmassy things on my friend's blog. Which is what the model boy child would do.

Bah humbug. Good luck getting through December, folks. May the wine be plentiful and the television full of things I can write about.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Remember Me

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
It's hard when writing a blog about television programmes that make me reminisce about travel not to slide into an easy rut of only writing about travel shows, of which there are plenty. Usually celebrity driven. Sue Perkins sailing down the Mekong. John Bishop in Australia. Trevor McDonald on the Mississippi. Paul Merton in India. Stephen Fry in America. Michael Portillo on all those trains. Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O'Briain and Rory McGrath in a boat just about anywhere. So it's ironic that when I finally find a drama to write about, it stars the original celebrity travelogue presenter, Michael Palin, in his first acting role for 20 years.

This is a spooky ghost story, set in a northern mill town, where the mill has been turned into an old people's home and the town is full of second generation immigrants, which people thankfully try very hard not to be racist about. "I bet you've seen some changes" says a social worker to Michael Palin's curmudgeonly old gent Tom after he fakes a fall down the stairs in order to get moved out of his house. OK, so his reply doesn't even attempt not to be racist, but the conversation reminds me of an acquaintance once talking guardedly about "families from Bradford" taking over a Sunday afternoon at Bolton Abbey, anxious not to reveal their ethnic origins.

Anyway, unusual Yorkshire tact aside, all the paint-by-numbers spook creators are there in this supernatural thriller - creaking floorboards, crying corpses, photos coming to life, dripping taps, rocking chairs, doors slamming, lights that won't turn on but candles that do all by themselves. The social worker falls out of a window which is blasted clean out of its socket on the top floor of the mill. Not the best thing to see at the start of a week when we are having seven windows replaced in our house.

There's a body on the beach rising from the dead of the drowned. There's a connection with India that isn't to do with the other residents on Tom's street. The stone of the houses and the clouds in the sky are dark and rain-soaked. Sea shells mysteriously appear out of nowhere. There is an alarm going off by itself repeatedly in Room 027 of the old people's home in the mill. The piano stool is full of different sheet music versions of Scarborough Fair. There is a cascade of water down the stairs reminiscent of the rivers of blood crashing out of the elevators in The Shining.

Michael Palin still has too much of a kindly twinkle in his eye ("I'm 80-odd") to be believably grumpy, I would say. The other familiar faces to me are Mark Addy (clingfilm, shed, Mars Bar, Full Monty) and Julia Sawalha. It's now Julia Sawalha's turn to play a drunk and incapable mother whose goody-two-shoes daughter goes out to work and acts responsibly and takes care of her younger brother. How sometimes television can come full circle. ("My life just flashed before my eyes." "What was it like, a Bergman film without the jokes?")

The series is set in Huddersfield. My only experience close to Northern mill towns is six miserable months at Sheffield University. I know what you're thinking - Sheffield, Huddersfield, Chesterfield, Dronfield, Driffield, they're all interchangeable in my ignorant southerner's mind, and I am conveniently ignoring the differences here. Not true. There are connections to be found between Remember Me and Sheffield. One is that Michael Palin was born in Broomhill, which is the part of the city I lived in.

I apparently skipped the "love Sheffield" gene possessed by the rest of my family, since three of my cousins have gone on to do degrees there and settle permanently in the city. Sheffield is a lot nicer now than it was in 1992, but I still can't set foot in the place without feeling physically ill. It haunts me like the ghost story of Remember Me. Going there was one of the worst decisions of my life. I probably couldn't have picked a more sad time to go - the steel industry was being shut down, the city council was bankrupt after hosting the World Student Games, and several hideous 60s concrete structures were not yet knocked down (Sorby Hall) or filled in (Hole In The Road). The trams that now glide along the city streets were merely an idea. So the city felt incredibly run-down and depressed. "Ah, but it's built on seven hills like Rome," the locals sighed wistfully. To which I wanted to shout, "Have you ever been to Rome? Do you think the Park Hill flats look anything like the Piazza Navona? Is Italian catwalk chic available in Meadowhall? Does the Moor back on to the Vatican?" "Ah, but it does back on to the Peak District," others said, offering an escape. That's all well and good, but it lashed it down with rain every single weekend I was there and outdoors was the last place I wanted to be.

The main reason I felt so miserable was that I hated my degree course - it had sounded good in the prospectus, but was in reality very different. Modern Languages without many languages other than English in the lecture halls. And I just wasn't in the mood for my party-on hall of residence where drunken students set the fire alarms off every single night. Call me a bore if you will.
Party-on hall of residence, with Sorby Hall just visible back left

The Arts Tower
But what haunts me most is the paternoster lift in the Arts Tower. Paternoster lifts - open conveyor belts of cubicles that never stop moving so you have to leap on as they pass by - were big in the 1960s but are now a rarity, thanks to more stringent Health & Safety and disabled access regulations. But the one in the Arts Tower at Sheffield University is listed (it's the world's longest) so has to stay. I still to this day have nightmares about it. I don't know why, as I didn't mind it so much at the time, apart from finding the narrow cabins a bit tight to share with a stranger. I didn't suffer from vertigo then and learned to get on and off with something resembling aplomb on my way to French classes on the 9th floor. But now the very thought of riding that paternoster scares the proverbial shit out of me. I fear ending up as splatted as the social worker plastered on the ground in Remember Me, even though nothing remotely dangerous happened on the 200 or so rides I took on the paternoster during my six month stint in the Arts Tower. I never even got stuck, which is quite a miracle as the paternoster was forever breaking down. When it did, the passenger cabins would stall halfway between floors, too far for anyone to climb out or risk jumping out. The breakdowns were usually caused by people riding over the top or round the bottom, which threw the balancing mechanism out of kilter. I never had the courage to do this but there is now a video of it on You Tube (or two) so you can see this terrifying rollercoaster journey from the safety of your own armchair. The paternoster also featured on an episode of The One Show, which held a race between (1) the paternoster and (2) the conventional lifts opposite that have doors and buttons and work as you might expect. In the time the paternoster had delivered 50 students to the 18th floor (9 minutes 20 seconds), the conventional lift had only transported 10. Which is why every Arts student at Sheffield in my day had to learn to ride the paternoster.

So these days I avoid Sheffield as much as possible. Instead, I'd rather go to the mills at Saltaire. It's such a beautiful place. And I love David Hockney, whose works are on display throughout the shops and galleries. Here I have family roots too, since my grandmother's family all came from the aptly named Idle, up the hill on the outskirts of Bradford. (We were once a family from Bradford.)

Scarborough hasn't yet played too big a role in Remember Me, but the songsheets in the piano stool indicate that it will. We go to Scarborough several times a year, although never to a fair to consume culinary herbs. We used to be able to take in an Alan Ayckbourn play at the Stephen Joseph theatre, but nowadays we go and eat goo, ride the donkeys on the beach or the railway out to Scalby Mills, watch the dragon boats in Peasholm Park, make sandcastles (in all weathers) and generally return home refreshed and in love with all things Yorkshire.
Making sandcastles on Scarborough South Bay. This was January.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Walking Through History - Nazi Occupation: Channel Islands

It seems they have made Tony Robinson stop scrabbling around in trenches (by this I mean archaeological digs - come on, he hasn't been Baldrick for over 20 years!) and go on a series of solo walks along routes of historical interest. This week he was on Guernsey and Jersey, learning about the German occupation during the Second World War.

The Channel Islands were occupied between 1940-1945. The Nazis invaded the islands believing they were merely a stepping stone to London. But the Germans got no further. However, the British didn't manage to get rid of them either. Churchill sent a group of 150 elite commandos by boat on a rescue mission to Guernsey, but it was a disaster - one boat crashed, two capsized and one ended up on Sark by mistake. Only 40 men actually arrived at their destination but then couldn't find any Germans. It was apparently the sort of "cunning plan" that Baldrick might have dreamt up.

The Germans built the Atlantic Wall from Norway to the South of France to protect their occupied territory from Allied attack from the west. The Channel Islands were part of this defence scheme. A million tons of concrete were used to build bunkers and sea walls along the beaches of the islands' west coasts, which still stand today. Some have been converted into cafes, some are museums, others simply stand empty and eerie. The whole scheme was never tested (since the Allies eventually came from Normandy in the east, although they never really had any intention of taking the islands back by force) so ended up being a very expensive white elephant. The German soldiers sat around bored in the bunkers and gun emplacements, waiting for a big event that never happened. Some of the younger ones craved to be sent to Russia instead to see more of the action. The older, more experienced soldiers probably realised they were on to a cushy number and should count their blessings and patiently sit out the war instead.

Sea wall at St Ouen's Bay

The Nazis did not treat the Channel Islanders badly, in the grand scheme of things. The Germans were allegedly on a bit of a charm offensive after they invaded, so that the British wouldn't mind as much when they turned up in Southampton. Generally, the Nazis let life on the Channel Islands continue as normal (allowing locals to pray for the Royal Family in church, for example) although the clocks were moved forward to German time and the pound was linked to the mark. The native islanders agreed to help the Germans build bridges and roads, but refused to help them build the sea defences. They could do this with justification, since the Hague Convention forbids the forcing of nationals to work against their own country. Though it seems quite surprising that the Hague Convention was adhered to.

To build the bunkers, gun emplacements and military railway, the Germans imported 16,000 forced and slave labourers. Forced labourers were paid: they came from Western Europe or were Spanish Republicans. The slaves were prisoners of war from Russia and the Ukraine. The Soviets were all treated horrendously. They were starved and beaten, and kept in 12 labour camps across the island. The islanders attempted to protest at the Germans' treatment of the Russians and intervene where they could. Some went so far as to shelter escapees, at great personal risk.

There was collaboration, as citizens denounced their neighbours. Some anonymous letters to the Nazis, warning them of illegal radios or underground activity, are displayed in the War Tunnels. While Tony Robinson comments on their sickening nature, the positive side of them shows that there was at least a Resistance movement in operation on the Islands.

After the D-Day landings, rather than going on to invade the Channel Islands, the Allies decided to try and starve the Germans out. Their aim was to avoid huge loss of civilian life in a large military operation. But unfortunately this "cunning plan" meant that the islanders starved too. They were already battling hunger as a result of food rationing (which limited dietary intake to around 1000 calories a day). The islanders were heavily reliant on substitute food (Tony is made to try some parsnip coffee), but eventually all supplies from outside were cut off. They couldn't fish the seas any more as the beaches were mined. Thankfully, on New Year's Eve on 1944, the Allies allowed the Red Cross to send food aid parcels in to help the islanders survive the winter. By the end of the war, food deprivation meant that Jersey schoolchildren were on average an inch shorter than they should have been for their age.

Eventually, in May 1945, the islands were liberated. Bob Le Sueur, who assisted Russian escapees during the Occupation, remembers suddenly bursting into tears. Uncontrollable sobs, at a time when "it was highly bad form to show any form of emotion in public". But the sight of another man crying nearby made him feel better. Who wouldn't have cried at the years of fear and hunger being over, and at their beautiful island finally being returned to them?

Tony Robinson is blown away by Jersey's stunning coastal scenery on his walk. He is there in the height of summer, the heather is in full bloom, and the sunshine is a bright and cheerful background to the darker, more macabre stories he is telling. The military railway has been replaced by an arboretum of palm, sycamore and oak trees. Yet he also describes a K418F field gun as "beautiful", which struck me as an odd turn of phrase for the machinery of war. And although Tony Robinson hasn't been Baldrick for over 20 years, I couldn't help at this point but have a flashback to Baldrick's poem, The German Guns ("Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!....").

But it is undoubtedly true that the beaches on Jersey are lovely, despite all the concrete. The sand is perfect for making sandcastles, and some of the beaches are overlooked by real castles, like Mont Orgueil at Gorey. The sea surrounding the island is an azure blue, and the cliffs covered in wild flowers. I'd wanted to go to Jersey ever since I was a child, when I spent Saturday nights watching too much Bergerac. (My mother had a massive crush on John Nettles.) We finally spent a fantastic week there a couple of years ago. The style of the houses, French street names, the vineyards and the narrow country lanes framed by foliage made us feel that we had gone more abroad than we had. Until we saw the large Waitrose down the road.

La Mare wine estate

We stayed in a self-catering holiday park called Les Ormes. Accommodation is stupidly expensive on Jersey and this was all that was left that we could afford by the time we got round to booking. The holiday park was situated right beside the airport runway, but on the whole this wasn't a problem. There were no night flights, no Jumbos fly into Jersey and for a toddler “plane-in-sky”s are a novelty. The lodges all had their own hot tub, which is a massive plus when you are being regimented by a two year old's early bedtime.
Les Ormes
Tony Robinson went to the War Tunnels during this programme, a kilometre of tunnels forming an underground hospital complex designed to treat the German wounded in any Allied attack. It was built by Soviet slaves working in challenging and dangerous conditions, though it was never quite finished. It's an impressive and chilling display, brought to life by video diaries and son-et-lumiere effects. I went alone while my husband took our daughter to a nearby park, where they stumbled across Bergerac's car. I was surprisingly jealous.
War Tunnels

Entrance to the underground hospital, Hohlgangsanlage 8

I was more affected by a small military museum in one of the bunkers at St Ouen's Bay. It didn't use fancy gimmicks to tell its story and its displays were cramped and higgledy piggledy. The museum was so disturbing because it was jam-packed with Nazi memorabilia: newspapers, crockery, uniforms, guns, flags. Even an Enigma machine. I had never seen this anywhere before. For obvious reasons, Germans don’t put it on show, and in most places where the Nazis invaded, anything they left behind was destroyed after the war by those who had suffered under their rule. It is telling that all these "souvenirs" survive in Jersey: life was better for the Islanders than in other occupied territories. There were footprints in the concrete on the bunker floor made by the jackboots of German soldiers going about their daily business. They sent a shiver down my spine.

MP2 gun emplacement - now a holiday home

Friday, 14 November 2014

Holiday of a Lifetime (with Len Goodman and Ann Widdecombe)

Thou art pleased,

Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,

Its one green Island and its winding shores,

The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and Cottages of mountain stone -
Clustered like stars...
(William Wordsworth, Home at Grasmere) 

Ah, daytime TV. So comforting. So made on the cheap. So irredeemably awful.

So what compelled me to write about this programme? Daytime TV? Moi? A genre I abandoned entirely after I stopped subtitling it on a daily basis? Apart from a Deal or No Deal thing when my daughter was a baby. (Things were not going well.)

Anyway, the reason is my dad. My dad travels a ridiculous amount. In the past year, he has been to Bhutan, Bulgaria and Botswana, and that's just the places beginning with B. (It's going to be a long time before he gets to "Y" and considers visiting us for a holiday.) He should be writing a blog about travelling, not me. Except he can't write anything longer than three sentences. (Readers may welcome this.) And he couldn't write this blog, because he hardly ever watches television. Certainly not daytime television.

And yet my dad was asked to appear on this programme.

For those of you who know my dad, you will surely agree that the thought of him being on screen with Len Goodman and Ann Widdecombe is television at its most surreal. Like Royston Vasey, Craggy Island and the USS Enterprise all rolled into one. My dad is a bit socially challenged, and when he first told me about this, I cringed at the thought of how he was going to handle himself on camera. Would he accidentally blurt out something rude about ballroom dancing, or be unintentionally sexist about women MPs? Would he finish each sentence with an awkward "I mean it's a sort of er..." or overuse the phrase "odds and ends"? It was going to be excruciating, but very funny. At least for his children.

However, because my dad never remembers to switch his phone on to receive calls from the BBC on the day of filming, it didn't actually happen. But I watched the programme anyway.

The series involves Len Goodman taking celebrities of - shall we say? - a certain age down a memory lane of holidays they enjoyed in their childhood. Ann Widdecombe spent three nights in Grasmere in the Lake District in 1963, the year of the Kennedy assassination, the Great Train Robbery and the third season of Mad Men.  My dad grew up in Grasmere and moved back there a few years ago. In the summer of 1963, he would have been about to leave the village for the first time to begin a Chemistry degree at Manchester University. He would have spent the summer working for his father, who owned the Grasmere Tea Gardens. As back then the tea gardens were pretty much the only catering establishment in the village, chances are that if the 15-year-old Ann Widdecombe had fancied an ice cream during her holiday, my dad would have served it to her. Which is quite a thought. But that wasn't really the reason Dad was asked to appear - he is just one of the few people left in the village who were around then and can remember what it was like. Plus he is mates with the guy from the Wordsworth Trust (Jeff) who did appear on the programme. Jeff was showing Ann newspaper clippings about hooligans who went on holiday to the Lake District that year. Not that he was implying anything, you understand.

Judging by one of the photographs, Ann went on holiday in her school uniform. She was at a convent school in Bath, and this trip to the Lake District was a big adventure, and her furthest trip north to date. She and her mother drove around in a Baby Austin. Len turns up to collect her in one. Ann shrieks and jumps up and down in delight, banging on the bonnet and losing all self-control. Calm down, dear.

When she has calmed down, Len asks her where they are going to go on her holiday of a lifetime. He is trying to imply that they are outside Ann's house in Devon, whereas anyone with eyes can see from the big mountain and dry-stone wall behind her that they are already in a Cumbrian cul-de-sac. Oh, the lies created by the limited budget of daytime TV!

So Len and Ann then spend a couple of days travelling around various places in the Lakes, including the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway and Waterhead in Ambleside, where they dance on the pier. They also take in the Swan Hotel, Loughrigg Terrace, St Oswald's Church and Dove Cottage in Grasmere. They lay daffodils on Dorothy Wordsworth's grave. They go on a boat trip, allegedly on Coniston (in the wake of Arthur Ransome), although they are blatantly on Windermere. They have a picnic featuring anchovy paste sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer. Len is puffed out from walking the 150 yards from the car to the picnic spot. Ann is made of sterner stuff, talking about her "ambles" (as opposed to rambles) on Dartmoor. They also talk about Rupert Bear, fighting socialism, how useful Ann found Latin, and her original career choice of astronaut.

They sample various local goodies in a bid to find something akin to Mother's Cake, which Ann Widdecombe remembers from her childhood. During this tasting session Ann is very snippy about Grasmere gingerbread. I bet my late, great baking grandmother could have whipped her up an authentic Mother's Cake in no time. But Nanna could have also baked her a batch of authentic Grasmere Gingerbread too, since she always claimed her family recipe was the original one, very different to that made by the Sarah Nelson business at the church gate. There's a proper village scandal in there somewhere.

Reminiscing some more about cake, Ann says she used to eat madeira cake with cream. Len calls her posh. He says he preferred to get a "sticky willy" from his local bakery. The mind boggles.

And the only ice cream man they visit is a man with a van, whose family business started in 1902 with a horse and cart. Oh, you missed out, Dad.

As a result of having relatives there, I have always been lucky enough to have free holidays in the Lake District whenever I like. I didn't really appreciate this until I left home. To me, going to the Lake District just meant visiting my grandparents. I paid minimal attention to the scenery outside. (Possibly because it was always chucking it down.) It was only when I lived in London that I properly began to crave that glorious, exhausting mountain air. The stars and the silence at night, bar the the baa-ing of the lambs and hooting of the owls. And the colours - the fields of golden daffodils at Easter, the rainbow azaleas in May, the glorious shades of autumn and the snowcapped fells and holly berries at Christmas. It's all just part of me, in my bones and in my blood.

Like my mother before me, I ended up marrying a Cumbrian. In a bizarre twist of fate, my husband and I got together after having lunch in a cafe on the site of the Grasmere Tea Gardens. The place is obviously jinxed. My mother went to work there one summer as a student because she fancied the owner's son, who she had met through the university hiking club. The same son, of course, who maybe served Ann Widdecombe ice cream in 1963.

According to this programme, most people thought the Lake District was horrid until William Wordsworth started writing poems about it. The Romans marched straight through. Daniel Defoe found it "frightful". Even in 1963, it had very much a summer season only trade and the majority of visitors stayed in simple bed and breakfasts or youth hostels. Wainwright was still to publish his walking guides. Now, millions of people flock there all year every year. But the youth hostels are being forced to close because visitors prefer to stay in holiday cottages that locals can no longer afford to live in, luxury hotels with spas, or boutique B&Bs with en suite bathrooms. In 1963, Ann Widdecombe took a dressing gown to protect her modesty during night time trips down the corridor to the loo.

Now, the inside of my dad's house looks like this:

But the view from the doorstep kind of makes up for it:

And we can use it as a free holiday cottage whenever my dad is away on his travels (so pretty much all the time). This is particularly helpful when he goes away in August, a month when any other holiday cottage in the world would be too expensive. We had a lovely week there this summer, with only one day of torrential rain - quite a result. Our daughter is still too young to be persuaded to do much in the way of walking, though we did drag her around Tarn Hows one afternoon, moaning every step of the way. So the rest of the time we had to engage in more child friendly activities like reading Beatrix Potter stories, feeding ducks, visiting National Trust properties (Allan Bank and Wray Castle are like giant play dens and quite brilliant), going on boat trips (we at least didn't confuse Coniston and Windermere), and doing Gruffalo trails in the woods at Whinlatter.
Moaning round Tarn Hows

Wray Castle

A boat trip on Coniston

Duck Central
Gruffalo hunt
And Charlie Cat came too

Apparently Len and Ann were in a thoroughly bad mood by the time they arrived at Dove Cottage. It seems that they weren't having quite the "jolly hockeysticks" time that the programme implied.

So my dad didn't get to appear on TV, which he was very relieved and I was very disappointed about. Instead, he launched his media career with an interview (in the guise of "local historian") during the breakfast slot on BBC Radio Cumbria a couple of weeks later. He was meant to be "live" from the village war memorial in the park, but was in fact standing outside the Coop. (Radio finds it so much easier to pretend it's somewhere it isn't.) My dad was trying to find out more about the people behind the names on the memorial. And, true to my expectations - boom!- he did inadvertently say something sexist when asked why one of names was female. Thankfully, the subject of ballroom dancing didn't come up.