Thursday, 27 February 2014

Food and Drink

So another series of Food And Drink draws to a close. They have attempted to be topical, with shows on budget eating, using up leftovers to prevent waste, food miles and seasonality. Michel Roux was in full “I’m no longer a scary judge on Masterchef” amicable mode, sincerely welcoming - and pretending he had something to learn from - various top chefs and proper domestic goddess and national treasure Mary Berry. He would then turn away from them to whip up some incredible dish which he insisted we immediately make at home, assuring us of its great simplicity. But soufflé? Really? “Don’t be scared”, he said. And then proceeded to show us exactly why we should be.

The “drinks expert” on Food And Drink has always been the person who has provided the parody over the years.  Jilly Goolden always appeared to have tippled rather more than she needed to with her overly elaborate descriptions of the nose of her wine. (I myself have always wondered how you get to be a “drinks expert” without it being a euphemism for doing serious damage to your liver.) But after posh Jilly, it appears the producers wanted someone more down to earth, which must be why they picked northern lass Kate Goodman, who runs an offie in Didsbury. This series they at least allowed her to be more specific about her chosen bottles, naming specific wineries and prices. Last series, possibly fearing breaking BBC advertising rules, they limited her to saying things like, “Mm, lamb. You know what would be good with this – a nice Shiraz.” “White wine goes quite well with fish.” “Spanish wines are usually quite affordable. This one is very tasty” or "How about a cup of tea with this cake?” Unless that really was the extent of her knowledge, in which case they might as well have offered her job to me.

My husband and I used to rather fancy ourselves as drinks experts. When we look back on our London days, it’s actually quite shocking to think what we would consume on an average evening. Cocktails on our Crouch End roof terrace to start, followed by a bottle of wine with dinner, and then maybe a post-prandial Spanish liqueur or single malt nightcap. We had not one but three full wine racks above our kitchen cupboards. (We lacked a cellar, living in a first-floor flat.) We received deliveries from various wine merchants throughout the land. I rented my husband a row of vines in a Beaujolais vineyard. Now we have a young child and only one household income, if we drink anything at all, we will split a bottle of wine over two or three evenings, and it’s a bottle of wine that we bought half-price in a supermarket or as part of an M&S Dine In For £10 deal. The space in our house in York (still no cellar, living near to the ever flooding River Ouse) we used to store wine has been filled with toys. Probably better for our liver, but it’s a shame we hardly ever get to drink any truly good stuff now. I’ve even acquired an anticipatory wince every time I take my first sip of a newly opened bottle.

Our favourite wine – when we can afford something better - is still that of New Zealand, sauvignon blanc for white, pinot noir for red. Nothing original about that. When we went to New Zealand for a three-week trip the year after my mum died, we were determined to sample as much of the stuff in its native land as we possibly could. So in Napier on the North Island, an art deco town rebuilt after an earthquake in the 1930s which would have had a more Californian feel had the temperature been about 15 degrees warmer, we did a winery tour with a jovial chap named Vince (“Vunce”). He bundled us into the back of his minivan, asked us what sort of wines we liked to drink, then mapped out a personal tour of the whole Hawkes Bay region for us. I am so happy to see on Trip Advisor that Vince is still up and running to rave reviews, as our afternoon with him was definitely one of the big highlights of a generally amazing trip. For some reason (given his popularity), we were the only two people on his tour that day, so we really did get the personal touch. But this put quite a lot of pressure on us to try everything on offer, and buy at least one bottle at every winery we visited. By the end of the afternoon we were so drunk that we bought a bottle of wine with the words “Chris de Burgh” on the label. (It was, to be fair, on special offer.) The Hawkes Bay region is very ambitious when it comes to winemaking and they'll try their hand at any grape - we sampled Tempranillos, Viogniers  and Montepulcianos as well as the more expected Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Merlots and Cab Savs  ...(I did say we ended up off our faces)... and they were all superb. Our hire car was entirely laden down with wine as we left Napier for Wellington, but at least we had plenty of bottles to gift to any subsequent hosts, and most New Zealand restaurants do bring-your-own, so we had got rid of most of it by the time we ended our tour in Christchurch a fortnight later. The only problem came when we had to change hire cars between the North and South Islands. We had to board the Picton-bound ferry carrying several clunking plastic carrier bags brimming with bottles, which, coupled with being jetlagged and dishevelled, is never a good look.
New Zealand Pinot Noir growing on the vine

I would love to go back to New Zealand, but all that way on a plane with a three-year-old? No chance. The journey was tough enough by ourselves, listening to other people’s children screaming for nine hours at a time. So any further wine study, for the next few years at least, will have to be undertaken closer to home. One advantage of climate change is the vast improvement it is bringing to English wine in vineyards like Chapel Down and Denbies.  I do believe there’s even a vineyard somewhere in Yorkshire now.

Ski Sunday

"She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting even as they strike. How did such force and beauty come to be in something so small and fleeting and unknowable?"
(Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child)

My evenings of the past two weeks have been occupied with the Winter Olympics highlights programme. I did try a couple of times during the day to convince my daughter that watching somebody other than Pingu on a set of skis could be entertaining, but she was having none of it. Especially as we have had no snow this winter in Yorkshire, which she seems to think is entirely my fault. I dread the day that my daughter realises that instead of everything, in fact I control absolutely nothing in the world. And least of all her.

The good thing about the Winter Olympics is that its sporting programmes cannot be quite as British focused, as we’ve always been a bit shit at skiing. And we haven’t had a decent figure skater for over 30 years. In recent times, some new sports have crept into the schedules which seem to appeal to the British talent for sitting down, being slow, or verging on vandalism. So this year we won medals in skeleton, curling and slopestyle. We have become successful at hurtling down an ice tunnel on a tray (skeleton and luge) probably because it’s the only winter sport regularly on offer to most of us when snow does come. With most of our towns lacking mountains or – outside of Christmas - ice rinks, it’s probably not worth our investment in a fancy sledge for a couple of snowfalls a year, but a tea tray will do the job nicely, thank you. As for curling, well, we’ve always liked our garden bowls in our parks on lazy Sunday afternoons, but this is better because you get to wear slippy shoes and bring your own broom. And slopestyle has evolved directly from people sliding down banisters on their skateboards. Which, let’s face it, they shouldn’t actually ever be doing.
My daughter attempts luge

Anyway, there’s still not enough British winter athletes out there to fill a highlights programme every single night, so there was usually fairly decent cross-discipline coverage. So much of winter sport is really about gymnastics, which in my opinion makes any event pretty special to watch. At the helm of course was Clare Balding, doing her usual stern, sincere and enthusiastic stuff which possibly makes her appear more knowledgeable than she actually is. There was an appalling attempt at comedy with a nightly selection of people-falling-over-funnies with excruciatingly unwitty commentary. There was an obsession with a shopping trolley that the BBC had hired for 10 roubles a day to transport computer and camera equipment around their makeshift studio in a restaurant in Sochi. Robin Cousins, one of those figure skaters from 30 years ago, would occasionally pop in. No sign of Torvill and Dean, though there have been plenty of other programmes on about them recently, celebrating three decades of Bolero. Which does, to be fair, still look as amazing now as it did then. It turns out that those perfect six scores really could not have been bettered. (My grandparents took me, aged 12, to see Torvill and Dean at Wembley the year they turned professional. I would rate that as possibly the highlight of my entire childhood.)

And then, talking about being shit at skiing, there was Graham Bell, who (with his brother Martin) was our only hope on the slopes when my brother and I used to watch Ski Sunday when we were little. I hadn’t seen him since then. In fact, I had never properly seen him, since thanks to helmets and goggles, you never have any idea what skiers actually look like. That must certainly help you walk down the high street unmolested if you achieve celebrity status. So who knew before what piercing blue eyes Graham Bell possessed? He appears to be a bit of a daredevil even now, and was shown happily skiing down the Olympic courses without sticks, because he was carrying a giant TV camera over his shoulder. Hm, I hope his wife can sleep at night. But he was also a great commentator and genuinely did know his stuff, talking about each sport with a rare and intelligent eloquence. Well, maybe he wasn’t entirely sure of the judge’s scoring system in all the snowboarding events, but who was? He still did better than all the other snowboarding commentators, whose vocabulary consisted only of “Stonking”, “stoked” and “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” I don’t think I am ever going to have proper time for the faux cool of snowboarding.

I have only been skiing once, an afternoon of cross-country skiing one winter in Montana. We were staying in a cosy cabin by a frozen lake in the wilderness. Cosy, that is, apart from the only toilet being a bench above a deep, stinking pit in an outhouse twenty metres away. Brrrr! The snow around the cabin was so deep the only way to traverse it was on snowshoes or skis. And snow shoes are, frankly, ridiculous. Especially the pair I was loaned, which were about 40 years old and bright orange. So skiing it was. I really enjoyed it, even if I was only really doing circuits of the lake, and the only way I could get myself to stop was to lie down sideways. As for downhill, everything I know has been gleaned from a skiing lesson on an episode of Peppa Pig (Snowy Mountain).
Me on skis in the winter of 1992, the year of the Albertville Olympics, coincidentally
My grandmother recently told me that she only went downhill skiing for the first time when she was 40, so you’d like to think it’s never too late. But it rather is for me, I suspect. My grandmother, now aged 93, probably has better knees now than I ever have. I wrecked one when I was 13 and the other a couple of years ago.  But I do love snow, and I would jump at the chance to have a proper Alpine winter holiday, as long as the only winter sports I had to do when I got there would be snowman building, sledging down a gentle slope, Christmas shopping and glühwein drinking in front of a roaring log fire.

Because the injuries sustained during skiing are really quite phenomenal. It’s bloody dangerous. Tragedies like Michael Schumacher and Natasha Richardson aside, it seems to be a world of broken bones and lacerated tendons, concussion and cracked ribs. Every sportsperson is prone to injury which can set their training behind months and months. But the work taken to overcome skiing injuries must be phenomenal. Chemmy Alcott, Britain’s only medal (no) hope in downhill skiing in the Olympics, has broken her leg no less than three times in the past year alone. To carry on from such an extensive series of wounds takes a certain level of crazy. Or maybe she’s is just too posh, with a name like that (though part of me is thinking car leather), to do anything else.

I watched some of Channel 4’s latest ludicrous celebrity humiliation show, The Jump, and it was so bad that the only thing that made me turn it on by the end of the week (apart from the chance of seeing Graham Bell’s eyes again, him being one of “the experts” on this programme too) was to see who had been injured next and how. Because “the scariest elimination task on TV” itself, participating in a ski jump, was - when it came to it - pretty pathetic.  They just kind of plopped off the end of a very short run, the longest jump of a “celebrity” ski jumper registering around 15 metres. They should have made Anthea Turner and the like go down a proper Olympic ski jump. Now, they ARE scary. I have stood on top of two (in summer, I hasten to add) - one in Calgary and one in Zakopane. From the top, the vertigo is extraordinary. And if you reach the bottom of them, you’re expected to fly through the air a distance in triple figures.

The other “expert” on The Jump was of course Eddie Edwards. The only British ski jumper. Ever. Who hadn’t jumped for 18 years. I don’t think this had occurred to anyone at Channel 4. So suddenly poor Eddie had to take up his sport again, all in the name of television. (I was in Calgary, incidentally, five years after Eddie The Eagle’s Olympics there. They still remembered him fondly.)

So farewell to Sochi. Russia has built an Olympic winter sports village that cost more than all the other Winter Olympics put together, in a place where it is so mild that they will never be able to hold winter sports there again, at least not without importing snow from Siberia. We might as well hold the Winter Olympics in Yorkshire. Now there’s a thought.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

On Location (Location Location)

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life: for there is in London all that life can afford." (Samuel Johnson)

Location Location Location this week was one of their tedious catch-up shows. Each series Phil and Kirstie only make three properly new programmes, and then use up the rest of their six-week slot by basically repeating earlier shows, with a few minutes' update tacked on to the end. In these few minutes, they revisit whichever couple was sniffily rejecting all the amazing properties they were being shown before finally finding, finding and losing the property of their dreams, or admitting they were only pretending to be on a househunt so they could be on telly and nose round some fancy houses.

This week they were back in southwest London with a pair of identical twin (refraining from rhyming slang) bankers, and a lone solicitor from the northeast who had persuaded her daddy to buy her a London flat. The twin bankers were obsessed with buying a tiny Victorian conversion off Clapham High Street even though they were both about seven feet tall and the bedrooms were, as Kirstie said, just about big enough to swing a cat in, provided you didn’t want any piece of furniture other than a bed in them. There's no denying Clapham is a great location (apart from it being full of bankers), but there are much nicer, greener parts than the high street. The twins were shown a much bigger pad in Pimlico, but it did have a rather terrifying view of the railway lines (in literal spitting distance) heading into Victoria. And it was ex-local authority, which clearly did not sit well in our city slickers’ minds. The catch-up segment revealed that they eventually backed out of the flat purchase in Clapham and decided to buy one in Balham instead, one stop down the Northern Line. You got the impression that they saw Balham as slumming it, which means that they definitely do not live on my London planet.
Clapham High Street

The northeast solicitor eventually gave up hope of a home in millionaire’s playground Wimbledon Village for her tiny budget (funny that) and also ended up slumming it, this time in Tooting. Tooting is even more of a comedown from Clapham, since it’s an extra stop down the Northern Line from Balham. And I also lived there for a year, moving from Clapham and missing Balham out entirely. The scene of the deal negotiation (where Kirstie and Phil get their client drunk enough to agree to pay the necessary odds) was the Leather Bottle pub in Earlsfield, where I had many a pint on my way to the Wimbledon Dogs, and where, after three bottles of white rioja shared with a friend, it earned itself a blue plaque on the wall for being the only place in the world I have ever thrown up as a result of too much alcohol.

When Location Location Location  features property hunting in London (which it does a lot, since that’s presumably the easiest journey to work for Phil and Kirstie), it always makes us so glad we don’t live there any more. Finding a room to rent in a London flatshare was stressful enough, but buying a flat was even worse, when you couldn’t believe quite what estate agents were having the nerve to show you for your scarily limited but still extortionate budget. A flat above a takeaway, upwind from its ventilation hoods. A flat with boarded-up windows (“ever since the fire”). A flat whose ground floor was entirely derelict from a long-abandoned building project. A skull hanging in a stairwell. A conversion where the only place to fit a kitchen was inside a cupboard. A flat in a purpose-built block which seemed within budget until the estate agent mentioned the £4,000 a year service charge. A flat with sitting tenants so cross about having the roof sold above their heads that they would leave their filthy underwear all over the floor during viewings. Oh no, wait a minute. That was us.

It seems that these days, despite the rest of the country still being in a property nosedive and recession, flats in London are once again flying off the market at ridiculous prices. So the bankers with rhyming slang in full may have bankrupted us, but they can still live where they like, while the rest of us are pushed ever further away from the city. Johnson may have a point, but if life cannot afford anywhere to hang its hat, you have to go elsewhere.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Restaurant Man - Scandimanic Macclesfield

Maybe that's enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind: no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go." (Anthony Bourdain)

And suddenly there was not one but two Scandinavian themed food programmes in the same week. The Restaurant Man featured the opening of The Salt Bar, a Swedish themed establishment in the “cobbled quarter” (which looked significantly less romantic than it sounds) of Macclesfield. Restaurant Man himself Russell Norman rather shot himself in the foot when he declared in his introduction that there is little interest in Scandinavian food in the UK. But Hugh said the exact opposite on Sunday! Noma has been voted the best restaurant in the world at least once. Masterchef finalists were sent to work there one year. And - for that matter - has Russell never been in the jam-packed cafe in IKEA? Clearly not, since (speaking of jam) he also failed to spot restaurateur Debbie’s big fat typo on her menu in her spelling of lingonberry, which meant that Russell referred to it as ligonberry jam for the remainder of the programme. But I suppose that Russell doesn’t really strike me as the sort of person that needs cheap Billy bookcases and uplighters on an eternal Tower-of-Pisa-like lean in his lounge. He’s quite posh.

Actually, to call Debbie a restaurateur is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s certainly what she is aspiring to be, but her experience to date seems to have consisted entirely of two weeks’ bar work a very long time ago, which makes you wonder what on earth led her to believe she could set up and run a restaurant. It’s one thing liking good food, it’s another cooking it, and yet another cooking it for and serving it to 50 people a night, night after night after night. Especially when you haven’t actually written down a business plan or done any sums. It’s lucky that Debbie had a retirement nest egg to invest because no bank would have ever loaned her the money based on how few financial calculations she has done. “Show me some projected overheads or staffing costs.” Debbie’s lower lip instantly wobbles and tears loom in her mascara. Bless her, she means well.

Staffing costs? She was planning on running the whole place herself, with just one chef cooking in the kitchen, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Russell politely suggests that this may be illegal. Oh, he’s charming, that Russell. I dread to think how Gordon “Kitchen Nightmare” Ramsay might have made the same point.

But like all the people Russell is working with in this series, Debbie knows her food, and can cook well herself. This is some relief, but to have so little idea about what is involved in a restaurant service takes some doing.  Has she never been to a café before? (You mean people need cutlery? I should take their menus away once they’ve ordered?) If nice ladies like Debbie don’t get to eat out, then who in Macclesfield does? It is, as Russell points out, when disembarking from the train, a town of boarded up restaurants.

Debbie hasn’t done any market research either. It appears, when allowed to trial some of her signature dishes in another cafe, that people in Macclesfield don’t much care for salad. But the ladies at the local golf club are pleasantly surprised by beetroot on Ryvita.

Time ticks by, and the floor is still a pile of splintered wooden planks tossed randomly around. Debbie has also not realised that she might need a storage area for food and wine once she is up and running. Russell suggests she reduce the number of toilets from two to one in order to rectify this, but Debbie refuses to let the ladies share a toilet with the gents. It says a lot about the blokes in Macclesfield when Debbie says that men are, as an entire species, disgusting when drunk. She clearly also isn’t expecting people in the Salt Bar to skimp on the booze. Let’s hope she is planning on charging Scandinavian prices.

Time is ticking, yes, but as on every other week of this series, there’s still enough of it left for a nice exotic  trip. Last week, our gastropub gamers were taken up to shoot venison in Scotland. This week, Debbie got to serve up her vegetarian meatballs (a contradiction in terms, surely?) in a restaurant in Stockholm.

My husband and I got engaged in Stockholm. He proposed to me at twilight on the harbourside, with dozens of hot air balloons flying overhead. It is a beautiful, waterlined city that I shall always remember fondly, despite its unexpected humid July heat and monster mosquitoes on its archipelago. Debbie appears rejuvenated from her visit and miraculously pulls the rabbit out of the hat, or the gravadlax out of the cold-cure, and the restaurant opens on time, to very decent reviews on Trip Advisor. I love Scandinavian food and I wish her well. But she was astonishingly naive, at least if you believe everything you see on the telly. Thank goodness for Russell’s calm but forceful assistance, a rational and reasoned approach embodied perhaps in the silver tape measure he presents as a gift as he leaves.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

In Search Of Happiness - Scandimania

Bohr: Heisenberg, I have to say - if people are to be measured strictly in terms of observable quantities...
Heisenberg: Then we should need a strange new quantum ethics.
(Michael Frayn, Copenhagen)
Sunday was a day of Denmark, for good and bad reasons. Firstly, Copenhagen Zoo killed a baby giraffe that didn’t fit its gene pool, and secondly, Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall visited the country in the second of his Scandimania series. Bad timing for Hugh, since everyone was probably too outraged at what had gone on earlier in the day in the same city to really be prepared to give his show much truck. And this despite Hugh’s Copenhagen airport transfer being by very environmentally friendly bike.

As with the first part of the series in Sweden (ABBA, lakes, paternity leave, state-owned liquor stores, elk), Scandimania in Denmark seemed to be one piece of stereotypical trivia after another. Danish pastries are called “Vienna bread” (wienerbrød)  in Danish. And they taste better (funnily enough) when hand-made in a specialist Copenhagen bakery rather than when baked in your local Greggs. The Danish make architecture that reflects their mountain envy. The Danish make good murder shows. The Danish have wind farms. The Danish have a world-class foraging restaurant whose owner, surprise surprise, is a mate of Hugh’s. The Danish pay a lot of tax. Hugh only left out a big box of LEGO and a side of bacon. I picked up a copy of the Time Out guide to Copenhagen for 50p in a charity shop last week and I learned almost exactly the same facts from a quick skim through. Oh, and Hugh was even staying in the one hotel room the guidebook has a photo of. (Room 606 at the Radisson Blu (SAS) Royal Hotel, designed by Arne Jacobsen. Nice work if you can get it.)

Hugh’s main focus was on the Danish concept of hygge (a very home-based kind of cosiness that has no literal translation) and the question of why (when assessed using certain statistical criteria) the blonde, healthy Danes are rated by the United Nations as the happiest in the world. He concluded that their happiness was to do with their sense of community and notion of trust. That they can trust each other and, more importantly, trust their government to spend their astronomical taxes wisely and provide for their every need. Well, who wouldn’t want Birgitte Nyborg to be their Prime Minister? (...What do you mean, she’s not real?)

When I first visited Denmark at the age of 17, I too was struck by how much the state provided. The daughter of a family I was staying with was just starting at an efterskole (a one-year boarding school for 18 year olds where they can explore their interests, develop their potential and have their first taste of independent living) similar to the one Hugh visited on his programme, and she took us to see her new accommodation. I couldn’t believe the gorgeous ground-floor studio flat she showed us, complete with her own kitchenette and shower room, where she was going to live possibly for free, or at least for massively subsidised rent. This was long before universities in the UK started smartening up their hall of residence accommodation and providing en-suite bathrooms for the conference trade (and therewith sending rents sky high). Long corridors of small rooms invariably modelled on an urban myth of a Swedish prison, communal showers, no fridges or cooking facilities, and one pay phone for 300 people was the norm back then.

The concept of hygge seems to involve large family meals and roaring campfires, a similar party atmosphere to the one Hugh always tries to create at the picnics which are the prerequisite end to all his River Cottage programmes. In this version of Denmark, the sun always shines. Just like in Hugh’s Dorset, which currently probably only has its highest hillocks peeping out from the flood.
Danish hygge, North Jutland

I have only visited Denmark in summer, so my memories of it are indeed of a very sunny place, of rolling tussocky sand dunes, marshy flatlands punctuated only by church spires and wind turbines, and big blue skies. But there were cold winds fuelling those turbines, so I don’t remember spending a whole bunch of time outside. Apart from on my most recent trip (ten years ago now), a crazy overnight visit to a midsummer party in the North Jutland near Nykøbing Mors, where being outside was compulsory. Having travelled far too light on my Ryanair flight to Aarhus, I sat and shivered next to the campfire where we were roasting our pølser (sausages), and had to borrow a jumper, and a pair of woolly socks to wear beneath my sandals. In those days, I belonged to the namby-pamby Londoners who never know cold. Thank goodness I now live up north in my own country, away from the sweat of the Smoke.
Wind turbines, South Jutland

Illegally parked at the Little Mermaid
I have only been to Copenhagen once, for a couple of days when I was 17, and my memories of it are no longer that sharp. This is not helped by my only photos of the trip being taken on a bad quality instant camera of the pre-digital era. I was staying with some family friends of my then boyfriend, and the husband gave us a tour of the city which seemed to consist of routes bordering on trespass (“It is a little bit not allowed to drive through here”, as we entered the gates of the Carlsberg brewery) and illegal parking (on the Danish equivalent of a double yellow next to the shore overlooking the Little Mermaid). I ate a pølse from a Tulip snack caravan which is definitely well up there on the list of worst meals of my life and about as far removed from a dinner at Noma that you could possibly get. We went to Tivoli in the evening, where it poured with rain and my boyfriend couldn’t stop farting. Which was possibly linked to the sausages we’d eaten for lunch.
Not Noma

The Danish people I spent most time with lived in South Jutland near the German border, and seemed to have a dislike of Copenhageners (or at least of their accent), so it’s hard to know whether they or the people Hugh was talking to were the more typically Danish, or who these studies of happiness are meant to represent. The people I knew were lovely, gentle folk who could not have been more hospitable, and refused to get even a little bit cross when I managed to crash their car. Blonde? Yes, all of them. Healthy? There was a lot of smoking and beer-drinking going on, and they enjoyed using our customs allowance on runs over the border into Germany to stock up on cheap booze (our reward being a visit to the incredible Nolde museum at Seebull). But their home-cooking (often with produce from the garden) was superb. Happy? Yes, probably. “Content in a very earnest way” is maybe a better way to describe it.

The Danish always struck me as a nation very proud of themselves, but it was a gentle pride that you wanted to share. (Though maybe not some of the older generation's attitudes towards immigrants.) They exhibit a true contentment with themselves and who they are. The Danes have a deep love for their flag, which flutters high in everyone’s gardens, and somehow its red and white colours all their buildings and scenery. But the flag always manages to avoid the imperial or militaristic connotations of a Union Jack or Star-Spangled Banner.

Having visited the city separately and become addicted to The Bridge and The Killing, my husband and I have a current yearning to return to Copenhagen. It seems odd that series about serial killers should have that effect on us. But hyggelig and happy are certainly two things that we strive to be, and my Time Out guide ensures me of the city’s family friendliness (despite our daughter being just a bit too young to be bribed by the promise of the biggest Lego shop in the world). Conveniently, SAS is about to launch direct flights from Leeds Bradford, our nearest airport. But after the sad fate of Marius the giraffe this past weekend, I think we’ll have to give the zoo a miss.
Nyhavn in Copenhagen, made out of Lego

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Telly and Travels

There have been many reports that speak of the evil of television. How it saps our brains, making us stupid and fat, and that you shouldn’t be allowed to watch a second of it until you are least 57 years old.

They may have a point.

However, television was my livelihood for the best part of a decade. As a teletext subtitler for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, I was in a fairly unique position of being paid to watch inane daytime TV whilst not simultaneously being in receipt of welfare benefits. I became quite the expert on giving animals “the care and attention they need”, bad name spelling on Ricki Lake, good spelling on Countdown, weird collections, competitive watercolourists and arrogant quiz masters with the middle initial G. I could also tell you quite a lot about job vacancies in the Midlands and petty crime in Northern Ireland.

Occasionally the television I was paid to watch was primetime and less inane. Frasier. ER. The West Wing. Friends. (So I said LESS inane.) Occasionally I would get to subtitle a documentary that would lead me to research its subject online. Or I would discover the work of a new director or writer that would lead me down new avenues of viewing pleasure.

And therein lies MY point. You can actually learn things from television, if you concentrate enough or think a little outside the, er, box. Even if it’s only something that might score you a few points in a pub quiz, or a recipe that you might then go and cook for a couple of friends.

And television can make you laugh, which has to be healthy. One of the reasons I loved my subtitling job was the zany humour and camaraderie in the office, which showed that even those inane daytime shows can have an uplifting effect in the right hands.

So it’s not all bad.

There was an article in the press recently that claimed that people who wrote all these studies berating children watching television hadn’t spent enough time watching CBeebies. And I agree. In its own little way, CBeebies is quite brilliant. Every programme has some sort of arguable educational content. Thanks to programmes like Numtums and Get Squiggling: Letters, CBeebies taught my daughter to count and to recognise the alphabet before many of her friends who spend all day away from television in supposedly more stimulating nursery environments. There are no violent cartoons on CBeebies, aside from a strange brand of martial art called tree fu. There is an attempt at cross-cultural mixing which means that remote Scottish island communities and North Yorkshire fishing ports perhaps have a greater blend of ethnic diversity than you might expect. There are programmes specifically targeted at children with disabilities. There are no adverts. I would be the first to agree that commercial breaks are lethal for your child’s whining pester power. If my daughter watches Channel Five’s Milkshake in the mornings (the home, alas, of Thomas The Tank Engine and Peppa Pig), I hear “Mummy, I want one of those!” recited like a mantra to every single advert. This is undeniably a bad thing. But I do think that a lot of the studies of children and television must have been conducted in countries where every children’s channel is commercially driven.

For CBeebies has been my lifesaver on many an occasion. On paper, I do not want to be the sort of mother who lets her child watch television from dawn to dusk. Or at all, really. But in reality, my experience of parenthood has involved an awful lot of lurching between crises, which have been lessened slightly by the ability of CBeebies to keep my daughter calm, happy and entertained. The week my daughter learned to walk, I ripped my left kneecap out of its socket and had to spend a month on crutches, unable to chase her or lift her or get down on the floor and play with her. My newly mobile child was at that point too little to concentrate on activities like painting or playing games, so I had to switch on the television to keep her still.

I also have a horrid auto-immune thyroid disease which worsened greatly after pregnancy and which, despite being on artificial thyroxine and now getting acceptable blood test results, has left me with a swollen goitre in my neck that occasionally stops me breathing at night, my energy levels at virtually zero, my depression levels at extreme, and my brain feeling like mud most of the time. Most days I manage, but when our daughter is ill and cannot sleep at night, which means we are awake for hours with her too, I lose all ability to function and without local family to turn to for a bit of a break and not wishing to infect the children of my friends with whatever vile disease is riddling our household, I rely on my friend CBeebies for baby-sitting assistance to get through at least some, if not the vast proportion, of the day.

But at some point on an average day, of course it has to stop. CBeebies may be our saviour in a crisis, and may enable me to cook dinner each evening without a child clinging to my leg, but I am not suggesting that it should be the highlight of the better weeks of our lives. However much I am prepared to respect CBeebies, there is only so much Justin Fletcher I can take on a given day. The repetition of shows and links is depressing. And while the presenters are so much calmer than the mass-produced hyperactive maniacs who all look and talk the same on Milkshake, the links between programmes are at best randomly tenuous, normally stilted, and at worst smacking of total desperation on behalf of the writers. And CBeebies may have an educational content for a child, but it has a mind-stultifying effect on a grown-up, and a horrid way of stopping you getting on with anything else.

My use of CBeebies during the bad times has unfortunately resulted in my daughter in insisting on the television being on if we are in the lounge. And this does not make me feel good about myself. Just turn it off, you say. Show her who’s boss. To which I reply, have you ever tried to enter a battle of wills with a two-year-old? Especially a two-year-old with enough grasp of technology to use a television remote. Three year olds are proving a little easier, but the battle is not yet entirely won.

And so we travel. We go out. This may be a jaunt to the shops just to get my daughter off the couch and out of the goddamn house. Or it may be a journey to a toddler class, a soft play centre, a park, a museum (of which our city is blessed with many). Or a day trip to the coast or a historic house or garden (as long as it has a miniature railway or an adventure playground). A couple of times a year, we go on holiday. It is an attempt to ensure that when our daughter is asked what she has done on a weekend, she doesn’t just reply “Watched CBeebies.” (Or that if she does, it’s a lie.) Largely, we succeed. Before she started attending pre-school every day, her first question when she woke up was not “What’s on television?”, but “Where are we going today?”

But even I can’t be true to my own standards. I hate the fact that I am too shattered to do anything on an evening other than stare at television, but that is the harsh reality. My head is running marathons, writing novels, painting pictures, but my body is collapsed on the sofa unable to remember a single one of the things that all day I had been planning to get done once my daughter was asleep. I could go out, but when it’s cold and dark outside, that has little appeal. I also want to spend a bit of time with my husband, even if he’s not much less tired than me and equally desirous of an hour or so of vegging in front of the television.

So I intend for this blog to turn my TV viewing into brain reuse. I will watch programmes, and write about them. And the programmes I write about will have been chosen because they have made me remember somewhere I have been. And I will write about wherever that was.  Telly will lead to travel. Because if telly does rot the mind, then travel broadens it. So this blog will at worst hopefully leave my brain in some sort of neutral condition. Though ironically if I didn’t spend so much time staring at TV, I’d probably get a whole lot more blogging done. Right now, the likelihood of a blog entry appearing within even a week of the programme that inspired it is pretty low. Bear with me. 

The great thing about the Internet is that it enables you to be whatever you want. Suddenly, I am no longer “just” the full-time mother I never intended to be. I am a television reviewer. I am a travel writer.