Sunday, 23 March 2014

Oodles of Boodles

Whilst my husband was out running last night, I indulged my inner girl and watched a programme about jewellery. The making of a million pound necklace, to be precise. And then, because diamonds are apparently a girl’s best friend, I carried on my millionaire’s fantasy and watched a programme about the making of a diamond-studded Rolls Royce.

Boodles the jeweller’s is full of women who are not very much like me. They might also technically be described as housewives, but they are the sort of housewife who is in fact a lady of total leisure. A lady who doesn’t do a scrap of cleaning, cooking or child care, yet takes an unlimited salary out of her husband’s bank account and gets so bored that she feels the need to go into town to drink champagne with a jeweller who is trying to get her to spend £87,000 on a necklace. Now, I too generally avoid doing much cleaning. With two cats and a three-year-old in the house, there is nothing less rewarding than making the effort to find half an hour to hoover one night, only to have your carpet knee-deep in fur, Cheerios and train sets by eight o’clock the following morning. But I do partake in a lot of cooking and child care, even if I have no great skill at either. However, I only go out and spend my husband’s money on food for us all to eat, and things for our daughter (most of which are second-hand). But I never spend a penny on myself. Which is one of the things I find hardest about full-time parenting – with the loss of our child benefit (don’t get me started, you bastard coalition), I am now entirely without income. I was very used to paying my own way before I had to stop work. So I now feel unable to buy myself a new pair of shoes, or a jumper or a book that isn’t from a charity shop, because I haven’t earned the money to do so. (And I didn't spend our child benefit on these things either, for the record.) I don’t wish to give the impression that my husband is an old meanie – he never spends any of his money on himself and would gladly let me buy something for me (provided it wasn’t an £87,000 necklace) if I asked. But that’s just it - I hate to ask. I detest being financially dependent on someone. Therefore, however much I like shopping, I find it hard to relate to people who just see spending their husband’s money as a hobby. Especially that much money. And especially when they don’t do anything else with their lives.
Trying to look like I belong in Monaco

Casino in Monte Carlo
The people buying from Boodles and Rolls Royce also inhabit a world I cannot relate to. I’m not sure that many of us can. They inhabit places where I have never felt less at home – Monaco, the shops on 5th Avenue in New York City, the ballroom scene in Vienna. In Monaco, I spent a lot of time trudging past roadworks and ate lunch from a portside shack. I’d paid 1 Euro on a bus from Nice to get there. In Boodles’ world, the people have arrived by helicopter, luxury yacht or racing car, and are hosting a glamorous party high up on the skyline, looking down on the casino in Monte Carlo. For me the casino was a long hike up a ton of steps and when I got to the top, I didn’t dare go inside. Not even to use the loo. I did go inside Tiffany’s in New York, and possibly wasn’t even the shabbiest tourist in there, but there was no way I was going to buy anything. Thankfully most of it wasn’t to my taste. I did once have a box at the ballet in Vienna, but it was a freebie from a flautist in the orchestra that I happened to be staying with, and I have never (given that I was in the middle of a student Interrailing trip) genuinely had nothing to wear more in my life. 

The only jewellery shopping I have ever done was to buy my engagement ring. After feeling very awkward in a number of establishments on Bond Street in London where the assistants made it all too plain we were giving off whiffs of “we can’t afford it in here”, we ended up at Arlington’s in Hatton Garden. It certainly wasn’t Boodles, awash with champagne and perfectly manicured coffee and petits fours, but they were helpful and cared, and didn’t make us feel like we shouldn’t be there. And when we finally found the “one”, which was of course so perfect and beautiful and slipped on my finger like something out of Cinderella (no comments about ugly sisters, please), but was also an awful lot over budget, they gave us a massive discount if we paid for it then and there. My husband said that the look on my face made it worth every penny. Ah, we were so in love.

The only time I have been driven in Rolls Royce was on our wedding day. It was vintage and a shade of brown that was very close to my school uniform, and I was too nervous to appreciate it properly on the way to the church. On leaving the church, several Japanese tourists (we were getting married in the heart of the Lake District) tried to climb in there with us.
Me and a Rolls

But these giant oil tankers of a car that Rolls currently manufacture look like my idea of driving hell. Try parallel parking one of those on our narrow York street. They’re not exactly nippy either. But hey, they all come with an umbrella hidden away inside one of the front wings, so that’s OK. Not much use in Abu Dhabi though, where most Rolls owners live. The diamond studded Celestrial car also came with a picnic set of uniquely designed plates worth 20,000 pounds. The owner will probably never even use it. (Sand in sandwiches is, after all, never particularly pleasant.)

The images of no expense spared in both programmes was really quite disturbing – the poor goldsmith had to redo the diamond panels for the Rolls Royce about three times, thanks to tiny flaws no one would probably have ever noticed. No doubt he was being paid handsomely, but it seemed so extraordinarily reckless, that they could just repeat and repeat any process with no cost limitations. Because someone out there would eventually buy the end product, no matter how extortionate the price, and see them recoup their losses. And the luxurious launch parties and car shows were jaw-dropping in terms of extravagance and show. And yet a lot of the people the companies employed seemed fairly normal. Quite posh at the top, but down on the factory floor, you could still feel a connection with them.

Though the team at Boodles trying to think of a name for the emerald million-pound necklace was a farce. You could just see Siobhan Sharpe from Twenty Twelve and W1A in the corner shuffling the yellow Post-Its around before announcing. “Here’s the thing, the thing is, the thing is, here’s the things, yah, the thing is, it’s green, yah? And it’s so like fiery. So let’s call it greenfire, dude, yah?” And that’s exactly what they did.

Friday, 21 March 2014


“So that’s all good.”

Even though it finished way past our bedtime, having so loved Twenty Twelve, we eagerly tuned in to its follow-up, W1A.  Former head of the Olympics Deliverance Commission Ian Fletcher has got himself a new job as Head of Values at the BBC. He’s a bit of a hero now that the London Olympics were actually a success after all.  W1A is all part of the BBC’s attempt to show us that it can, despite its stuffy traditionalist reputation and recent news headlines, laugh at itself. Nonetheless, thankfully Ian Fletcher's role of Head of Values doesn’t mean “Showing the world we’re no longer a bunch of paedophiles” but rather “Show Cornwall we’re not prejudiced against it.” I say thankfully because the former is hardly a sound basis for a comedy show.

I love Hugh Bonneville’s bewildered buffoon character, wandering round trendy officeless office space with his badly folded bike sticking out under his arm, with no idea where to sit or how to get a coffee. It’s so different from his “nice but imperious” role in Downton Abbey. The ocean of hotdesks with rude “Don’t even think about it” messages stuck on every unmanned monitor reminded me of my freelance days competing for a computer, coming into work stupidly early (for a media employee) to make sure I could get one. And I loved the background joke of the terrible live subtitles being transmitted in the presentation Ian Fletcher had to attend. A little nod to my former profession going rapidly down the shitter.

I have done subtitling work for the BBC, but contracted out to another company and not directly employed by them. After accidentally sending us every episode of Fawlty Towers, from then on the Beeb only sent us their absolute dross to subtitle: Bargain Hunt, Ready Steady Cook, Wipeout, Esther. They originally palmed off The Weakest Link to us too, but then it became a hit and we hardly ever saw it again.

I did get offered a job at the BBC once, in their Pronunciation Unit, based at Bush House on The Strand. The Pronunciation Unit (if it still exists) spend their lives making phrase book style databases of how to say the names of everyone in the world ever, so that newsreaders and other presenters don't look stupid when talking on the television or radio.  It was rather a shock to be offered the job, since the interview was really hard (with numerous interruptions from a persistently ringing telephone in the office).  I also had to do a test that involved identifying foreign languages from transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet and I think I got nearly all of them wrong.

But the Pronunciation Unit was situated in a virtually windowless basement surrounded by dusty cramped book stacks, about as far removed from the trendy, light and open plan world of W1A as you could get, and it all just felt a little too dark and airless to me, since I am prone to claustrophobia. So I turned the job down and I’ve never been entirely sure it was the right decision. It’s always been one of those “What if...” moments. Ultimately, I thought I would miss subtitling just a bit too much. I think they were surprised at my rejection, given the kudos attached to working at the BBC back then and the job offered a rare gem to a BBC employee, namely a permanent rather than temporary contract. Perhaps W1A will finally show me just how right I was to send my career path, for what it’s worth, elsewhere.

I don’t think that W1A will be as funny as Twenty Twelve, if only because the events portrayed at the BBC are unlikely to then happen on the news the following week. (Though Lord knows the BBC could use some news that makes us laugh for a change.) Plus the wonderful Olivia Colman is no longer in it. But the PR bullshit, pointless meetings, random voiceovers by David Tennant and surprise cameos (Alan Yentob and Salman Rushdie arm wrestling?) will no doubt prove very entertaining indeed.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Live In Space

"At 600km above planet Earth the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible." (Opening title card of Gravity)

I am not necessarily proud to admit this, but my favourite piece of music as a child was The Astronauts, a tune by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that features on the B side of the Doctor Who theme (the record that has Peter Davison on the cover). WHY were none of the gymnasts in the Moscow or Los Angeles Olympics using it as their floor routine music, I wondered? It has the best tumbling section EVER. (42 seconds in.) I used to do headstands to it.

Anyway, space is almost definitely a place I will never go. I don’t care if Stephen Hawking thinks some of us will be living by Mars at the end of the century. (What would we eat? Mars bars?) And I’ve had enough bad experiences on Virgin Trains (no luggage space, no functioning toilet, no buffet car, unforgiveable delays) to even begin to consider a space tour on Virgin Galactic, even if I had the money and Richard Branson actually manages to get it off the ground. Because it’s just too bloody dangerous up there. Aged 10, standing in my front garden, I saw the Space Shuttle Enterprise take off from Stansted Airport on the back of a jumbo jet. This was exciting. But two years later aged 12, I watched its sister ship Challenger being blown to smithereens, which is an image I will never forget. Then came Columbia. And I recently saw Gravity. Now that there is no longer a Space Shuttle in operation, the Soyuz rockets the Russians send everybody up in just look slightly rickety to me, for all their might. There is no escape if it all goes wrong.

Husband in space!
Soyuz simulator, Space Expo. Noordwijk, The Netherlands

But I’ve always had a thing about space, and stargazing. It’s just so humbling. Whilst all the American astronauts interviewed during Channel 4’s space week seemed to have an evangelical approach to their missions to the heavens, believing that God was definitely out there, for me, it’s proof, as we cross more and more scientific frontiers with our jaw-dropping astrophysics technology, that He simply isn’t. I am definitely with Stephen Hawking on this one. But it is overwhelming to look up at the universe, and so very lonely. With all those millions of stars and galaxies above us, all an unfathomable distance away, is it really, like, just us?

So I was straight onto Channel 4’s Live From Space week, broadcast from Mission Control Houston and the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth. This was far better than Gravity, even if the pictures weren’t as sharp or three-dimensional, simply because it was real. The astronauts were all so terribly nice, and so very jolly, despite being in what is essentially a rather claustrophobic solar-powered tin can, with their only personal “space” being a vertical (or horizontal, or upside down) cubby hole no larger than a phone booth with a sleeping bag fixed to the wall. The universe literally on their doorstep, and the ability to float through the air all day long with nothing to tether them to anything, but such physical restriction at the same time! With just one window.  And the only opportunity for a walk involving being either strapped to a running machine or outside in the void, wearing a monstrous life support suit (but with an admittedly astonishing view). Maybe I’d just about manage a couple of days. But six whole months, or longer? With the same two or three people, day in or day out? What if you didn't get on? It was strange to consider that the International Space Station has been there for fifteen years, and was literally pieced together up in space, but the technology for astronauts to Skype their families and loved ones is so much more recent.

I guess they have to see their work as a privilege since they are living a million kids’ dreams. But they definitely deserved someone with a little more gravitas interviewing them in their micro-gravity. Big kid Dermot O’Leary, utterly distracted and wanting to show off, and without a sensible question in his body, definitely didn’t belong there. (But that said, space stuff does bring out the big kid in all of us – the blatantly more intelligent (Physics degrees versus Media Studies – just sayin’...) Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain were similarly in awe of the ISS in the BBC2 Stargazing Live series.) The live orbit of the Earth broadcast on Sunday night was rather frustrating, with satellite delays and reliance on the camera work of the astronauts, zooming in on clouds that we hoped were the Galapagos. The ISS is actually either a bit too far away or a bit too close to give us a really exciting view – too far to show any detail of the countries below us but too close to show us the true curvature of the planet. Dermot just said “Wow” to it all though.

Cupola on board the ISS...
at Space Expo, Noordwijk, The Netherlands

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Holiday Hit Squad

“I hear those voices that will not be drowned” (Benjamin Britten – Peter Grimes, quoted by Maggi Hambling on the Scallop sculpture on Aldeburgh beach)

I’ve never had much time for TV holiday programmes. Probably because I’m secretly insanely jealous of the presenters, since they are in charge of the show and not me. And annoyed because in truth someone else is doing all their work for them, carrying their luggage, researching their facts, faking their tan. (The presenters usually then rub me further up the wrong way by complaining about their “hard” lives travelling round the world in interviews.) Generally, they have such a patronising air – “Look at me, lying by this swimming pool at licence payers’ expense – but it’s such a bargain holiday at only £5,000 for a family of four!” However, I stopped voicing my contempt quite so vociferously when one of the more patronising presenters was shot dead on her own London doorstep.

I also don’t have a lot of time for consumer programmes. Anne Robinson’s snarl probably has a lot to do with that. Not that some of the people she is snarling at don’t deserve it.

But anyway, last night, here I was watching both a holiday and consumer programme rolled into one. We’ve had a run of illness in the house recently and we are all shattered, that’s all I can say. Holiday Hit Squad was the best on offer in the 8-9pm slot. The other options were hairy bikers and messy hoarders, which really aren’t pleasant to look at after a long day. Angela Rippon looks much better, even if her pronunciation of “brochure” is a touch schmanzy.

The programme is frustratingly bitty, with every single segment returned to later in the show. I don’t know if they expect their viewers to have ADD or if they are broadcasting elsewhere with ad breaks, but it seems they don’t want us to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. Anyway, last night their topics were the dangers of waterslides, a crap hotel in Turkey, swimming pool ear, sun cream and skin cancer, and whether a trip to the seaside is better in Turkey or Suffolk.
Aldeburgh circa 1986
This made me wonder, since I have done both. I spent my earliest childhood holidays in a caravan in Aldeburgh that belonged to some family friends. I have truly happy memories of crabs and kites and brave paddling, and my poor mother being massively pregnant with my brother in the sweltering summer of 1976. But the wonderful thing about Aldeburgh is that when I go back to it now, it really hasn't changed one jot from when I was three. Stumbling over the pebbly beach, the fishing boats and shacks perched at the top of the shingle, the queue snaking round to the fish and chip shop, children floating model boats on the lake outside the Moot Hall, the fascinatingly scary views of the House in the Clouds and Sizewell nuclear power station. 
Aldeburgh circa 2005

When I was 15, I released my inner Benjamin Britten and played in a recorder concert in the church as (a very small part) of the Aldeburgh Festival. Then our music teacher made us go to an Oliver Knussen concert at Snape Maltings, which was like excrement to the ears. He was premiering a new piece of atonal hell. He played it twice. We begged him not to.

And we spent part of our honeymoon in Turkey. We were staying in one of a group of family-run villas in Akyaka, a place we picked because it was described as where Turkish people go on holiday. It was early October and we were caught out a little by the weather – whilst arriving and leaving in 30-degree sunshine, we had a few days of cold and storms in the middle, which meant we had to go and request extra blankets to sleep under at night. Mostly the thunder rumbled at a distance, and we sat and watched the black clouds float by from our sun loungers by the pool, but it definitely made the already icy swimming water even more gaspworthy. We deliberately had a lazy week, with our biggest decision of the day being whether to go up the hill to buy bread before or after the lunchtime call to prayer.
Eucalyptus trees on the road to Akyaka

We read a lot and meandered down to the beach on the better days. There were a lot of dogs lying on the sand, apparently looking for a home. We did a couple of walks, one of which took us past the harbour of gulets, the reeds by the riverbed, ancient farmhouses and wells, and along a seemingly endless shady avenue of eucalyptus trees. We ate ridiculous amount of fish for very little money at a line of restaurants situated along the river, where the fish was delivered by boat every morning. The rest of the week we ate pide, and eggs. The family who owned the villas cooked for us a couple of evenings, which were probably the best meals of all.

We had little time for our fellow guests, two British couples, one of whom went the local market and complained because it was full of Turkish people. They longed to be with their fellow compatriots eating chips in Marmaris. The wife of the other couple hated children (thankfully we had none with us) and the husband worked for “London Airport”, which I do believe was renamed Heathrow in about 1965. We had even less time for the holiday company rep, who failed to give us important information, made us stay in and wait for him to give us alternative information but then turned up at a completely different time, and gave our promised bottle of honeymoon wine to the tosser from Preston who wanted to be in Marmaris.

But at least we weren’t staying in a horrendous hotel like the one showed on Holiday Hit Squad. A swimming pool of green stagnant water that a toddler could literally vanish into, an open drain, non-existent food hygiene, and cleanliness a distant memory. Now that we have a young child, it’s always daunting choosing holiday accommodation, especially abroad. It’s no longer a place where we simply lay our heads, but somewhere we need to spend every evening and a lot of the daytime too. And now that we have three people to pay for, nowhere is cheap, and our budget is limited to start with. And I dislike the price tag hotels attach to the words “child friendly”. But at least we have the sense to read online reviews before making any reservations. Though if you read too many of those, you’d never go anywhere.

I am dreading the day we also have to consider options like water parks, discos and Disney. Maybe we never will. And I am sure even without programmes like Holiday Hit Squad that we can work out the health and safety issues of water slides and balconies. If people are breaking their legs at the bottom of the slides, we won't go near. And if we don’t drink ourselves into a paralytic stupor, we probably won’t find ourselves falling off our balcony either.

As for Suffolk versus Turkey? Both are truly lovely. But I’d probably pick Suffolk, even if the drive there from where we live might take longer than the flight to Turkey. For we saw that Turkey didn’t in fact have guaranteed sunshine. And experience has shown us that our daughter will sit on a beach in literally any temperature. Cloudy is safer for her skin too. My own childhood memories and experience of travelling with a young child have shown me that really, it’s the simple things that make or break a day. You don’t need to spend the earth to entertain a child. As Helen Skelton showed us, all you need is a bucket, a pond, a net and some patience. Otherwise, the fish and chips were great in both Aldeburgh and Akyaka, and while you might not get woken up by a 4am call to prayer in Suffolk, a toddler generally thinks that’s a reasonable time to start the day wherever you are.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Death In Paradise

I was round at a friend’s house the other day when her Tesco delivery arrived. Tucked in the bags was a box of Del Monte fruit smoothie lollies. My friend revealed that she and her husband had one each week in front of Death In Paradise to get them in the Caribbean mood. “Aha!” I thought. “So it isn’t just me who indulges in this guilty pleasure.” Not Del Monte fruit smoothie lollies, but Death In Paradise, a murder mystery series so bad it’s actually, well, quite good. Catchy tunes, nice scenery, good food, beach bars, a few running gags, a touch of sexual tension, The Cat from Red Dwarf – what’s not to like? Add in a supposedly brilliant but eccentric British detective, completely implausible plots, a murderer who is usually obvious from the opening credits (the clue being it’s the one actor you’ve heard of, someone who clearly fancied a nice all-expenses paid holiday to Guadeloupe), and a homage to Agatha Christie as the murderer is unmasked each week in front of a gathering of everyone sipping tea or cocktails in the lounge, and it’s apparently a sure-fire winner. Even if, as other reviewers have commented, it makes it seem as though fifty years of crime writing and television mystery making have never happened.

A bit of a shock horror moment came at the start of this series when Ben Miller, the original eccentric British detective, was killed off in one of the opening scenes. But not to worry, they had found a clone, in the form of Kris Marshall, star of My Family and the BT adverts, to carry on where he had left off. Except that Kris (I can’t even remember his character’s name, he’s that memorable – no, wait, it’s Humphrey! Of course. What other name could there be for a posh Brit? Even if every other surviving Humphrey in the world is at least twice this Humphrey’s age. Or a cat.) drinks something a little stiffer than tea on occasion. And he sometimes wears a tropical shirt rather than a starched and sweaty Savile Row suit. And he does pratfalls. And he did comment in his first episode that it was a little strange that everyone had to be gathered together in a lounge in order for him to arrest the murderer.

The only problem about writing about Death In Paradise is that I've never been to the Caribbean. Or anywhere close to it, for that matter. I’ve been to Notting Hill Carnival and eaten goat curry on Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park. I’ve read a couple of Andrea Levy books. My grandparents used to own a timeshare in the Bahamas, and my grandmother’s cousin served a ministry over there. I wouldn’t say no to an invitation or an opportunity though... Though they may want to lower the murder rate a little before I go.  A bit like Morse and Lewis never quite managed to do in Oxford. In the meantime, a Del Monte fruit smoothie is definitely the way to go.