Monday, 24 December 2012

All Tied-Up By Tradition

I've spent the last few days in the build-up to Christmas watching festive films while fashioning a giant neck tie out of cardboard and stapling/sticking fluorescent yellow velvet fabric onto it. Every year I watch Christmas films to get myself in the Christmas spirit and this year, avoided the dire looking Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger but unfortunately stumbled across Noel on DVD in a charity shop. Noel managed to steal the title of “Dodgiest Christmas Film” from previous joint winners Jack Frost ( and Santa Who? ( But I'm sure anyone actually reading this is more interested in the reason behind my bizarre over-sized creation...

Every Christmas my family dress up on Boxing Day according to whatever theme the person hosting Christmas has selected. I can't quite remember when this tradition began but we have had all sorts of costumes since; My sister's are generally always the best while mine tend to be more surreal. She made a fabulous kebab shop owner (Turkish), jerk chicken (Caribbean theme), chorizo (Spanish) and Gandhi (Indian) while my cigar and Dali melting clock required some explaining. In the absence of any more exciting costume ideas, I'm going to be a giant tie for this year's Thai theme. This whole tradition may sound strange but I've recently discovered some odder ones in foreign lands:
  • In Austria, Krampus is Santa's evil accomplice who kidnaps naughty kids and takes them back to his lair in a sack so on December 6th men dress up in scary demon costumes and try to scare local children.

  • In the Czech Republic on Christmas Eve single women stand opposite a door with their back to it and throw their shoes at the door and if they land face up a wedding is to be expected.

  • In Japan, KFC is so popular reservations are required over the festive period.

  • In the Ukraine, the person who finds the fake spiderweb hidden among the tree decorations is said to have good luck.

  • In Venezuela, church-goers traditionally wear roller skates to morning mass while slumbering kids are supposed to tie string around their big toe and trail it out of their bedroom window - this way, passing skaters can alert those not already awake Santa has been and gone.

  • In Norway, legend says that on Christmas Eve witches and evil spirits come out looking for brooms to ride on so to ruin the plans of these pesky witches, all brooms in the house are hidden and men go outside to fire a shotgun and scare the evil spirits away.

  • In Chicago, the Chicago Tribune holds an annual "Scared of Santa" contest for the best photo of a kid shrieking on Santa's lap. 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

“Tomatoes Almost Every Day Keep The Doctor Away”

Having chomped on vast amounts of cheese this weekend (16 types to be precise), it's good to know my favourite festive-coloured fruit will help combat the post-Christmas blues. Chinese and Japanese researchers have reinvented the old “apple a day” phrase by suggesting eating tomatoes two to six times a week makes people 46% less likely to suffer serious dips in their mood:

A woman in Germany has also given new meaning to the term “happy endings”, apparently trying to smother her boyfriend with her double D breasts:

Other recent findings from School Stickers (“the leader” in school rewards) perhaps tempts fate and may be equally interesting food for thought for my many pregnant chums. School Stickers looked at data from 63,000 pupils to reveal which names cropped up most frequently among the best-behaved children in 2012:

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sometimes British Is Best

The last few years I have decided to escape my Birthday by being abroad but as we went away earlier this year, I missed out on our normal Christmas market crawl. To make up for it I have spent the last two weekends touring nearby UK markets and alongside Leeds Christmas market I have taken in Knaresborough, Manchester and Skipton.

I love the festive season and everything that comes with it (except traditional foods) but rarely purchase anything other than snacks and mulled wine when shuffling around markets. Each year my family send individual Christmas lists to each other and there's seldom anything on there I'm likely to find in any of the markets I visit.

This year's lists include an array of toiletries I'll have to raid Wilkinsons for and some exceedingly specific items like “jigsaw puzzles with no sky and lots of interest” and “silk ties with little animals on them”. For the first time I can remember, I actually bought a few gifts from Knaresborough market and have decided it's definitely my favourite. I'm not knocking markets imitating traditional German ones but it was a refreshing change to find wholly unpredictable items for sale. Being a smaller market with only a two day lifespan, it also had a really festive vibe with lots of friendly and enthusiastic stall holders.

Lincoln market is the only other market I'd previously been to that despite having German roots, felt pretty British. Although I enjoyed Lincoln's sprawling stalls, its one-way system and tannoy announcing the market's imminent closure made it feel far less friendly than Knaresborough. Skipton's market also felt more low-key and had an array of festive local entertainment but many of the stalls were clearly regulars to the town's weekly market. Manchester is another biggie with many repeat stalls so this year's winner is Knaresborough hands down. Although, Manchester did bring the number of random cheeses I have purchased up to a whopping ten. Looking forward to tasting the madras curry cheese, Norwegian Gjetost, chilli & lime cheddar... But that's another entry...

Sunday, 2 December 2012

This Is The "News"?

Another week on and I've finally ditched the bag of old newspapers. Combing through old news I came across yet another series of “bizarre-but-true” stories. I used to have a bit of a thing for Jared Leto after watching My So-Called Life so was amazed by almost unrecognisable images of him after he's shed some serious pounds in preparation for his role as a transvestite aids patient in The Dallas Buyers Club:

As an avid fan of Groupon, a light-hearted human interest story about a man proposing through the voucher site's newsletter caught my eye. Since trying to do a Google search for Amir Michaeel's proposal, I've discovered more Groupon unions:

The start of December heralds the beginning of Christmas and the end of Movember. I was rather taken with Gillette's retro style ad campaign supporting the annual fund-raising event. If, like me, Gillette's “revivalist” campaign managed to pass you by, images of the adverts are available at:

As the festive season is now officially upon us, our Christmas decorations go up today and I'm going to wrap the first of my Christmas gifts. Having read a ridiculous story about the cost of Christmas, I'm going to avoid purchasing anything listed in The 12 Days Of Christmas – particularly the swans that now apparently cost around £625 each:

With British Heart Foundation research in mind, as we power through December towards the New Year, I'll be contemplating resolutions:

Sunday, 25 November 2012

"O brave new world...That has such people in't!"

For the last week I have been carrying old newspapers around and have so many now I have almost filled a large carrier bag. I am not planning on re-experiencing the joys of paper mache making or stuffing a rather belated Guy Fawkes dummy. I have to confess I'm a rather obsessive reader and like to read everything (minus the sport and business sections) from the TV listings to the front page. For various reasons, each day I have failed to make it through my preferred sections and I'm now left with unfinished business in about four papers and three magazines. As tiny “News In Briefs" (NIBs), various stories have caught my eye over the last few weeks that may well have slipped the casual reader by:

The Perfect Partner?

An American Twihard is marrying a Robert Pattinson cut-out in Las Vegas early next year:

I'm wondering what happens if she decides to re-marry – does she need a divorce first? How can you file for a divorce if your ex- is unable to sign documentation?

Giving Them What They Want

In Holland two therapists at Amsterdam Hospital have proposed paedophiles should be shown computer-generated virtual porn to ease their urge to prey on children or watch films of real sex acts:

Arguing against the controversial proposal, Psychotherapist Jules Mulder, of the De Waag clinic has said: “For some people it will certainly increase the likelihood of going through with sexual abuse. It would also be very difficult to cover all tastes - some want photos of naked children, others want children having sex while someone else wants an eight-year-old boy with dark hair and a certain look in his eyes. It's not possible to satisfy these different desires with a bit of virtual child pornography.”

Tire Them Out

And in Sweden researchers have found drugs like Ritalin can reduce criminal behaviour by a third and potentially stop re-offenders:

The NIB this last story originally came from failed to explain the drug would be used to treat those diagnosed with ADHA and not all prisoners. Until further research had been carried out, the Nib seemed to be suggesting Ritalin could have a dulling affect much like Aldous Huxley's Soma in Brave New World.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Life Begins At Forty?

I turned really old last week and I'm starting to believe I am ageing for the first time ever. Asked what I wanted for my Birthday, I drew a blank – not because I have everything in life I could ever want but because the few things I do want are either too expensive to ask of anyone or too difficult to find. Without a desire for yet more material possessions and the ability to use pay cheques for such luxuries, Birthdays no longer feel exciting. I don't experience a sense of dread quite yet but more of inevitability.

Equally, annual dates on the calendar like Bonfire Night and Halloween no longer elicit such feelings of anticipation. Like the rapidly growing number of friends around me, I guess I need to somehow muster the desire to reproduce to rekindle that childhood enthusiasm.

I do at least have my forties to look forward to. A recent study by Travelodge has revealed a fifth of Britons in their mid forties admit to “Skinny Napping” (sleeping in the nude) because it makes them feel liberated. From the 2,000 people surveyed, the results showed Yorkshire to be the top “Skinny Napping” region and Leeds as the UK's “Skinny Napping” capital, apparently suggesting “life begins at 40” (

If my 30s continue to be fraught with indecision and personal instability, I can look to the forties as a time I might finally feel comfortable in my skin. As time seems to have sped-up with ever year that passes, I've unfortunately not long to wait. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Day Of The Dead Derriere

As I am getting aged now and chose to be away exploring foreign lands over half-term, I missed Leeds Film Festival's horror film all-nighter. To make up for it, I attended Day Of The Dead this weekend. In comparison there was no atmosphere and it was a damn sight easier to stay awake but the seats were just as uncomfortable, the timings off and films equally variable.

First up was Room 205 Of Fear from Germany that bored more than frightened. The next film was from Indonesia but bizarrely delivered in American English. Modus Anomali was certainly better than its predecessor but included an unnecessary twist explanation that dragged for a whole 15 minutes. The third feature of the night, Thale, from Norway was not very horrific but an original idea with superb lead performances. The finale of the night proved to be worth the wait. Kern Saxton's Sushi Girl had an incredible cast (including Mark Hamill) and was on a par with early Tarantino.

The shorts weren't as consistently good as previous Night Of The Deads but there were a few gems in there, including a series of animations from the exceedingly talented Lee Hardcastle. My favourite undoubtedly being his version of The Raid in 60 seconds:

Him Indoors surprisingly starred Reece Shearsmith (League Of Gentlemen) as an agoraphobic facing an impending eviction from his family home who gets an unexpected visit from his new neighbour, Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman):

The equally oddball short, Saw Misgivings, was reminiscent of a darkly humorous Chris Morris Jam sketch - a suburban housewife prepares for dinner guests while being hampered by a hapless husband and medieval head trap that could kill her at any moment:

Unfortunately none of the above shorts seem to be available in full but if anyone else is impressed with Lee Hardcastle's work, more can be found at:

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The GREAT British Queuing Tradition

In Love Actually, as the Prime Minister, Hugh Grant says, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that.” Unfortunately the same isn't true of departures.

Coming back from Riga late on Sunday night, we arrived just over two hours before our flight, despite already having pre-printed boarding passes. We're always a tad paranoid and overcautious when flying but on this occasion our feelings were justified. The queue for Ryanair was enormous to check-in bags and ate up a lot of this time. Security was surprisingly painless, despite virtually needing individual changing rooms to meet their demands. It was at the boarding gate the whole experience suddenly became rather stressful.

Descending the stairs, we entered a small room rammed full of people reminiscent of a gig venue and moshing crowd. There were groups of passengers waiting for two different Ryanair flights who'd merged into one rowdy mess. The scene was stressful to watch from a distance let alone become a part of. Completely lacking any form of queueing system, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder awaiting instructions that never came.

Eventually one uniformed woman pushed her way through the irritable crowd and started pen marking checked boarding passes – a futile job without queues to track who has been checked and who hasn't. As she passed from passenger to passenger, rumours spread where each flight queue actually began and passengers frantically turned in different directions in order to avoid being at the back while others blatantly stormed towards the doors completely disregarding obstacles in their path – two men actually battered a toddler around the head with their luggage.

While I hate queues in England, I appreciate the fairness of them so found myself getting progressively more incensed by people feigning ignorance and unashamedly pushing in. But hey none of this matters when we land because after the famous fanfare sound we're told we've just had the privilege of being on yet “another on time Ryanair flight”.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Mysterious Cobweb Fetish

I'm in the bathroom dressing after a shower and the door suddenly opens very slowly. From the light of the bathroom through the open door I can see The Maj porning. He's lying on his back with legs akimbo perfectly framed by the doorway while The Boy slumbers in our darkened bedroom. I'm puzzled by the door's movement wondering if a friendly poltergeist is trying to draw my attention to The Maj's comedy pose. It's only after I lean forward to investigate that an explanation presents itself.

As a house cat, The Maj doesn't get the same amount of exercise an outdoor cat might so we've attempted to create various distractions around the flat to encourage activity. One of these attempts at inspiring physical exertion is a piece of elasticated string that dangles from the bathroom door at a height requiring The Maj to jump in order to successfully attack. On this occasion (like so many others), he has failed to disengage his paw and a trip wire of elastic stretches between the bathroom door and where he lies.

Many times, have I entered the bedroom to find The Maj looking startled as he gives a Nazi salute unable to attach his claws from one of his scratching posts. He is a constant source of entertainment and more recently has taken to spring cleaning. On the terrace outside, he's perpetually licking and eating cobwebs – behaviour perhaps indicative of cats' curious nature. Like small children, animals seem to want to sample the world through their mouths and are attracted to movements, instinctively wanting to touch.

Research shows spiders often eat their own webs as they are made of protein so I at least know The Maj's web fetish is harmless and actually acts as a kind of healthy supplement for him. And while his hair may give everything in our flat a ginger tint, I now know if I hold him up to the ceiling, he's at least happy to get rid of some of those hard to reach pesky corner cobwebs. 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Fashion Refuser

I've never been that interested in following fashion and seem to favour a mishmash of styles. Recent shopping excursions have left me entirely uninspired by current trends and even despairing at times. The Boy and I went shopping a few weeks ago in an attempt to buy him a new “look”. Wanting to make a change, he was keen to try new styles but instead of returning home with a “whole new wardrobe”, we managed to fill his iphone with comical images of hideous chunky cardigans and jumpers with dubious necklines. In order to avoid rail after rail of geometric prints, trawling through charity shops seems to be the way forward and with this in mind, I thought I'd share this bizarre find that caught my eye in the curiously-named St George's Crypt in Oakwood:

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Selling School

“So why should my child come here if I'm only going to have to move them to another school after their G.C.S.E.s?” I struggle to answer this question and can truly appreciate how a salesman must feel when faced with an equally awkward customer.

In my first teaching job “open days” were held in the evening after the school day and merely entailed tidying up displays, answering the odd question and eating vast amounts of biscuits to pass the time. I'm not a contracted member of staff here and merely on maternity cover but still part of the school's open day. After numerous staff meetings weeks ahead going over plans for the day, a half-day of preparation and last minute panicked arrangements, I can truly appreciate the amount of work that goes into selling the school – special workshops are being held around school showcasing each subject, there's a concert in the school hall, a stall selling Halloween-themed products made by artistic pupils, tours of the school and even students dressed in costume wandering around as historical figures.

Those visiting the school this weekend will be the September 2013 cohort so will be affected by government plans to raise the legal age of school leavers to 18. After this summer's G.C.S.E results fiasco, schools that were once perceived as successful, really do need to sell themselves to secure “the right” intake. The school I'm working in does not have a sixth form so like so many other schools across the UK may struggle to encourage parents who are sceptical of colleges (“University is for that kind of experience.”) and prefer continuity, it's the right choice for their children.

Every time they make a change or introduce a new policy, the government and examining bodies fail to consider the knock-on affects to teachers, schools and pupils. Education ministers would have us believe there's been no major overhaul to education since O-levels were scrapped but anyone on the front line will tell you otherwise.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Regrets, I have a few

“Poo... wee... jobs...” a small voice gleefully cries, intermittently interspersed with hysterical giggling. This is the sound of a pre-pubescent me recording over one of my Dad's Andy William cassettes. If you listen carefully in the background you can hear a justifiably angry Old Dear shouting, “Are you recording over my Andy Williams tape?”

Back in those days I wasn't a huge fan and was more interested in saying “naughty” words than listening to his music. Fast-forward to the mid-90s and the release of Danny Boyle's excellent big screen debut, Shallow Grave. Aside from introducing me to Ewan McGregor, Shallow Grave helped me to understand my dad's earlier enthusiasm for Andy and prompted the beginnings of my vinyl collection. I have many happy memories of sitting in a friend's car or hanging out in another friend's barn belting out Happy Heart.

Last year, The Boy and I contemplated visiting Andy's Moon River Theatre in Branson for his annual Christmas concert. Although we knew he'd recently been diagnosed with bladder cancer, we thought being Andy, he was indestructible. Branson is far off our ideal North American travel route and pretty tricky to get to. On hearing about Andy's recent demise, I'm gutted we never made it but at the time it just wasn't practical. I can't believe I've seen other crooners like Tony Bennett live doing the festival circuit but not Andy. I'll forever regret not seeing one of my musical heroes but I'm at least comforted by a whole array of fond memories sound tracked by the man. RIP Andy.

Friday, 28 September 2012

A Diet Fad You Might Forget

Tree trunk legs, ham arms, love handles, tyres... I have never been particularly pleased with my body shape and doubt I ever will. One of the earliest memories I have of a photograph being taken I still unfortunately have in my possession is my first day at my second school. In the picture I am standing in a classic photographer's pose stance with hands beside my hips and gargantuan legs slightly apart. It is an exceedingly unflattering photograph, from the pre-brace days when I had rather distinctive rabbit teeth with a gap between them more than accommodating enough for a two pence piece to slot between.

Over the years I've lived off both the Atkins and The Cabbage Soup Diet and contemplated the Thatcher Diet but been too disturbed by the vast quantity of boiled eggs you're required to eat. I've more recently settled on a more successful but an unhealthy mixture of daily pilates style stretches and calorie control interspersed with binge style meals out.

This week, I discovered the first diet that has appealed to me in some time. A tiny little NIB in Metro alerted me to the Schroth Cure in Oberstaufen Retreat, Germany. Dating back to 1949, this diet involves consuming a mere few hundred calories a day (vegetables, cooked fruit and salt-free crackers), a spot of exercise broken up with rest and most importantly alternate dry and "drink" days. The non-dry days and exercise aim to take your mind off the hunger, help you forget and “spur on [the] immune system”

Although apparently hugely successful, the diet does have one drawback – dieters are risen at 4am in order to be wrapped in freezing cold sheets covered in hot water bottles and blankets. First reading the Metro Nib, I honestly believed they'd published this bizarre news item preposterously late or far too early for April Fool's:

Bizarrely, since discovering it involves early rises, the diet now seems more credible. After all “no pain, no gain” eh? Or perhaps “loss” would be more appropriate? Either way, if work permitted, I'd be more than happy to sample this Schnapps heavy highly efficient “life-changer”.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Stand-Off

We've been warned we'll be disturbed but it's 10am and we're still lying on the inflatable mattress like beached wales. Clutching my throbbing head, I'm relieved my virtual nephews have been kept at bay. Having first woken an hour earlier, I could hear the excited cries of a six year-old ready to start his day.
Slipping in and out of sleep, I imagine my virtual brother and sister in-law instructing both boys to leave their Uncle Andy and Auntie Leo alone and to remain upstairs until they hear evidence of our waking. I've already snuck out for my morning bathroom visit and know the sound of the door is tempting fate. As if to confirm my suspicions, I hear a small voice chirp inquiringly: “Is it morning yet?”
Upstairs they're equally hung-over and unlike me have the added pressure of keeping an energetic child entertained and away from their slumbering guests. I wonder how long this amusing stand-off could last for if there wasn't a Liverpool match to return to Leeds for. Feeling as rough as I do, I visualise the entire family later watching TV with me still marooned on the air bed in the centre of their living room. Unfortunately there is a match and the stalemate is broken with The Boy's cheeky very English request for morning tea. As he finishes shouting up the stairs, cries of “Uncle Andy” are heard and our Sunday begins.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

On The front Line

I'm back and already on the front line. After extended travels around Morocco, I've returned to mayhem in school and have been buried under vast amounts of marking and writing assignments. The mood in school isn't good. The examining boards have left a large percentage of last year's Year 11 without the college places they were virtually guaranteed. The number of students achieving grades A-C for English Language has dropped from above 70% to just over 50%. As the media scandal continues and schools fight for a return to the original grade boundaries, tomorrow's future are learning hard lessons in the unfairness and unpredictability of life.

In the meantime, I've discovered bus spotters actually exist (surely only in Bradford?) and that the Romans like the Moroccans favoured a direct no nonsense approach to advertising:

An advertisement and sign for a Roman brothel in the ancient city of Volubilis.

Above and below: products on sale in Essaouira's medina.

I've also undergone yet another traumatic experience shortly after arriving at Leeds Beer Festival: 

And once again chewing gum temporarily saved the day... Tune in next week for yet more pointless (but hopefully entertaining) observations and reflections.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Appy Olympics

I've never really been that into spectator sports so the Olympics doesn't excite me too much. Although The Boy is well into his football, tennis and cricket, he wasn't too interested in the Olympics either, until some friends came to stay and were keen to watch the opening ceremony.

Since then our television has permanently been on the Olympics' interactive setting. We'd both actually also planned to entirely avoid London during the Olympics but he's now furious he didn't apply for tennis tickets and I've had to travel through the capital and experience the joys of the one way system at London Bridge. As Team GB are actually doing surprisingly well, there's quite an amazing buzz in the city and aside from possible delays, it's a great time for tourists to visit with help at hand all over London.

Heading off to Morocco tomorrow for all of August. I'm going to miss the end of the Olympics and will have to neglect anyone reading this blog until my return so thought I'd share an amusing Olympics related discovery as a final August offering. The Boy drew my attention to this BBC app:

The results were quite amusing - I seem to have most in common with a male canoeist from Angola, how about you?

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Importance Of Context

My head is bowed and I'm frantically blinking. Anyone watching may think me a tad peculiar. In any other context I'd probably look completely insane but in Thornbury Hospital there may just be a few other relatives who understand and appreciate the sentiment behind this repetitive action.

Blinking is a sign of affection and friendliness between cats so right now I'm using it to try and keep a slightly stressed Major calm. An enormous dog enters the surgery and sits opposite us because we've of course managed to sit away from the “dog free” section. He's panting heavily and drooling to such an extent his owner has a large handkerchief to wipe his mouth free from spittle. To me, the dog looks like he could do some serious damage but his owner rather sadly informs me, he's old so slow-moving and having been attacked in the past, is afraid of anything smaller than him. Although I'd feel intimidated to be confronted by this dog, from the safety of his carry cage, the Maj is contentedly blinking away at him. “Major Richard Parker,” one of the receptionists calls with glee and it's finally our time to go in.

A week later, we're back and this time, the surgery is almost empty. Waiting to be reunited with a slightly shaven Maj who's been scanned and kept in all morning, we can't help but overhear a telephone conversation: “At six weeks, he needs waxing and then it's castration... ” The guy opposite has just walked in and these are the first words he will have heard – we exchange slightly alarmed looks. In any other context, our reactions would go well beyond slight alarm but here, we presume and hope the receptionist is talking to a pet owner and not about her husband!

Reconciled with a hungry Maj, we go through the motions before leaving: “I love his name. It's such a good name – where'd you get it from...?” asks yet another receptionist. After explaining one tenuous link and the obvious reference, we head out. She seems amused and I'm amazed, having just overheard one final shocking piece of information - a castration costs a mere £44 (at least thirty pounds less than a cat scan!).

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Gnashing Teeth

It's time for my monthly clothes exchange and I'm sitting in Oranaise Cafe in Hyde Park, gate-crashing a City Social meet-up. The host of today's rendezvous is an old teacher-training friend and is complaining about a recent “CS” event. 

I've read interviews with Kate Nash justifying her change in musical direction and brief entertainment news items, reporting how disaffected her fans have become. She recently played Brudenell Social and apparently a large chunk of her audience up and left well before she was done. At lunch, it's joked that the CS member who misplaced her ticket was lucky to have missed this gig and some speculate Nash has suffered some kind of breakdown. The passion of their debate leads me to carry-out some of my own research. Although I'm all for kooky, I've never been a huge Nash fan and have never listened to a whole album.

Back at home enjoying the brief sunshine with another friend, I tell her about the animated lunchtime discussion and she recalls hearing one of Kate's earlier songs and her disgust and amazement. Up until now I've managed to avoid Caroline's A Victim and once we've sniggered through the video, I'm surprised Nash ever made it. I can't help but wonder whether the Caroline the song is based upon is a real person and if she's flattered to be the song's inspiration:

After reacquainting ourselves with early Nash, Caroline reminds us both of the legendary Leigh Bowery's insane and short-lived 90s' experiment, Minty. I never saw their scandalous live antics but remember being amused by their single That's Nice being played on Mark and Lard's show:

Having made this bizarre journey through time, we quickly skip to some of her recent tracks and even find a live video of the offending Brudenell gig:

My grungy roots mean I actually prefer the new Nash and agree she has every right as an artist to experiment with her sound but if you compare the above videos to tracks like Mouthwash, it's easy to see why her fan base feel alienated. The late John Peel would have championed such experimentation and her brave move away from a more commercial sound but whether she manages to replace old fans with new ones remains to be seen.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Precision Punctuality Arrives On Time

I'm in Bradford and once again to my amazement I've been called upon to explain how the ticket machines operate. I'm less surprised this time and even less shocked when my train is late. As normal I've run (a jog to many people) for my train and arriving at the platform discover with relief it's due shortly. Minutes pass and the board still says the train is “on time” despite its scheduled departure having already passed. A group of us mill around the platform internally grumbling until the train disappears from the board and is replaced by the next service. I'm used to buses seemingly being sucked into the void, never arriving despite information boards announcing their imminent arrival moments before but trains?

Back in April, I remember being flabbergasted by various news articles claiming that Network Rail had improved punctuality figures. I spent January to June commuting between Leeds and Crossflatts and experienced delays every day without fail on my return journey. I'm relieved to recently read that new punctuality tables are soon to be published using new criteria that no longer allows five to ten minute delays to be considered as “on time”. The new figures suggest regional trains are “on time” 71% of the time while long-distance journeys only make the cut 59.7% of the time ( Somewhat different from the 90% old calculation methods threw up and still hard to believe for the regular commuter.

In search of station staff to query, I go towards the barriers where three ladies mull over the information board, who seem equally confused by the disappearance of a whole train. One of their number is less fazed, impressively reassuring us she can see it in the distance. I can't but several minutes later her point is made.

Boarding my metal steed, I wonder whether alongside punctuality tables Network Rail plan to improve information boards. After all, acting as company spokesman Network Rail’s Robin Gisby (their operations managing director) recently said: “We will be open and honest with the public about our performance and the capacity constraints we’re working under”. I dubiously look forward to the days when information boards are less misleading and trains stop being abducted by alien ships.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Local Tourist

While others attempt to Salsa and Zumba, I’m ageing before my time to join a free walking tour of Leeds’ riverside. Having watched the dragon boat racing at last year’s Waterfront Festival, I’ve decided to become a tourist in my own city. I may not have grown up in Leeds but I’ve now been here for most of my adult life and nearly half of my life so far so feel justified in calling it “my” city. After all, I spend much more time in the North than I do in Kent – not so long ago, I even managed to quite remarkably get lost in Cranbrook (the tiny town I grew up in).

Today’s tour makes me feel aged. There are three young backpackers in the group, an older couple and a latecomer who looks about my age. The three real tourists avoid asking questions and leave the tour early. One of them seemed to spend longer on his phone than he did listening to our Civic Trust guide. The older couple keep to themselves too but nod appreciatively when our enthusiastic guide makes a subtle joke. The latecomer walks with our guide as if they are old friends chatting away about developments in the city. I eventually join them and repeatedly experience moments of Déjà Vu as we appreciate the age of the buildings and agree on the importance of looking up in order to do so.

By the end of the tour, I feel able to conduct my own diluted slightly less informative educational walk, having soaked in some of the history of the canals. I could tell tourists about the first company to champion the redevelopment of the dockland, explain the reasoning behind the man-made island or explain how Clarence Dock came into being but the thing that most surprised me has prompted my only photographic souvenir of the tour (aside from the gift of knowledge that is)....

I’m amazed ducks have actually chosen to inhabit the centre of our bustling city. And with the click of the camera, I gratefully I feel a wee bit more childish again....

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Gender Neutral People And Pronouns

Once again, I'm waiting in Bradford Interchange after another Cineworld stint. I'm regularly irritated by this train station's lack of ticket facilities and have missed trains before after office hours when long queues of folk are waiting at the only working ticket machine. I've even complained about how under-staffed the station is at times and have accordingly received compensation.

Tonight, few people are about and there's only an elderly lady in front of me who seems to be having problems working the machine. I decide to ask if I can be of assistance. As she turns to register my concern, I try to conceal my shock - "she" is neither old nor female. Standing nervously in front of me is either a cross-dresser, a transgender, a transexual or a guy in fancy dress who seems to favour more mature fashions. She or he is carrying a large momsy cream handbag and wears a neck scarf with a matching pastel-coloured floral skirt/jacket and small kitten heels. S/he is exceedingly nervous and apologetic about his/her incompetence. I ask where s/he is trying to go and select the appropriate fare as s/he cluelessly looks on, practically waiting for me to insert the correct money. 

When the ticket is printed, I have to reach down to retrieve it and hand it over. I have honestly never seen anyone so dependent for help in order to complete a task so routine to me. Even tourists I've seen trying to fathom the mind-boggling maps of the London Underground, have needed less help when purchasing a ticket from the machine. I walk away, feeling like I've done my good deed for the day.

As I'm about to go through the barrier, I glance back and see s/he is still standing by the machine, looking perplexed. I feel an inexplicable sense of responsibility so turn back. "It doesn't say where I go to get the train," s/he despairingly says with childlike innocence, clearly crying out for more help. I virtually take him/her by the hand and guide him/her to the barriers where I indicate the ticket needs to be fed through the slot. S/he shuffles through anxiously awaiting the return of the ticket. Tickets safely back in hands, we walk to the platform screens and I quickly establish there's no direct train from Bradford to his/her desired destination. I ask the guard the best plan of action and we both board the same train. I'm going straight to Leeds where s/he will have to change trains. I dread to think how that's going to go.

I can't help but reflect how lucky s/he was that there wasn't the normal queue for the machine and someone was on hand to help. I'm also incredibly curious how someone dressed in such unusual garb can be seem so shy and vulnerable. The combination of the outfit selection with s/he not being able to operate a ticket machine or even know how train information boards work, has left me searching for unreachable explanations. Whatever the circumstances, the whole experience has amazed me. I'm almost more amazed by this than the lack of gender neutral pronouns in the English language. Surely by now linguistics could have come up with an acceptable solution to the "s/he" and "their" debate? After all, English is an ever burgeoning and developing language and society has finally recognised people are no longer easily categorised into just two sexes. Come on you influential Linguists!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

“Still A Weirdo” (Magnet)

As a teenager my parents used to accuse me of attracting strange characters; As the lights dimmed in screen 8 of Cineworld in Bradford, I couldn't help but agree. The large cinema was almost empty with a few couples dotted around. As normal, I'd managed to avoid the mandatory 20 minutes of adverts and trailers in order to skip the infuriating Orange intro. I'd chosen to sit centrally near the back and was just getting comfortable when a heavily laden figure entered the cinema. The film had just begun and rather than quickly finding a seat, the latecomer snaked between rows, occasionally stopping to look at the screen. I could have predicted his next move.

Despite their being dozens of empty rows, he walked towards the back and rather than selecting an empty one, chose mine. To top this, he decided to sit one seat away from me, loudly sharing his thoughts about the film. After about 10 minutes of maniacal laughter and commentary, he abruptly got up, leaving his coat behind. Having read enough "report abandoned item" signs before on trains and in the tube, warning alarms began to ring and I wondered how long is customary to wait before alerting staff. 

I'd just managed to settle back down when a man near the front shouted at the parents to my right to silence their children or leave. The unexpected bravery and drama of his complaint momentarily distracted me from the problem of the coat but then he returned. I tried not to look at him but could see him nodding and smiling at me from the corner of my eye, adding to my already growing discomfort. 

Having seen the film years ago, I'm finally reading John Irving's excellent The World According to Garp and can't help but think of Jenny Field's cinema incident. In the book, Garp's mother, Jenny, is hit on by a soldier in a darkened cinema and ends up stabbing him with a surgical knife when he fails to take the hint. I don't carry a knife and even if I did, I doubt I'd use it but I'm still slightly fearful of this man's intentions. Thankfully, he suddenly gets up again, leaving a pile of bags. I'm still trying not to look at him but then he speaks. "Can you watch my stuff?" he unexpectedly asks.

This altogether peculiar behaviour doesn't go unnoticed. As he leaves the cinema, I make eye-contact with a sympathetic looking couple sitting to my left and they seem just as confused. When he re-enters the room moments later, we look at each other again, knowingly sharing a moment before he's close enough to spot us.

It's not long before I sense movement next to me and I instantly think of Jenny Fields again. After all, I have had Italian men expose themselves to me when asking for directions in Rome and suffered through an uncomfortable National Express journey from Leeds to London as the man next to me masturbated beneath a newspaper. I sneak a look and I'm grateful to see he's merely draped the offending coat over the chair next to me, rather than moved closer. His bizarre to-ing and fro-ing in and out of the cinema continues for another half hour and it's only when he speaks again leaning nearer to me that I smell the unmistakeable stench of booze breath. As the film credits start to role, I propel myself from my seat and I'm out of there before he has time to collect his many bags, keen to avoid any further communication.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Exceptions Do Exist

Some time ago, I reflected on how my tastes seemed to change almost overnight for no obvious reason; I went from liking McDonalds to never eating it and listening to Radiohead to finding them depressing. Certain actors like Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson also triggered similar feelings of disdain. In his early years before Scientology and splitting from Kidman, I was quite a fan of Cruise but these days I'm more wary of him. Returning from my mini break in Sweden and Lithuania, I was in desperate need of a film catch-up, having shamefully still not watched Avengers Assemble. A triple bill later and I've seen a glimmer of the old Cruise again.

These days, I'm unable to bring myself to watch anything with Crowe or Gibson as the lead but occasionally and somewhat apprehensively I make an exception. The last Gibson films I genuinely enjoyed were Braveheart and The Man Without A Face back in the early-to-mid 9Os. Although it received a mixed reception, Jodie Foster's The Beaver is my exception to the "no Gibson rule" and I have to say reminded me Gibson was once a great actor and could play sympathetic characters before he started displaying hateful personality traits. Early Crowe (Romper Stomper) clearly indicates talent and films like A Beautiful Mind show he can in fact pull-off non action roles but I am yet to see him release anything that will convince me to watch him again on the big screen.

Actors like Simon Pegg on the other hand are incredibly likable but as much as I want to root for his films, he does seem to make some appalling career decisions (Burke and Hare, Paul...). My triple bill begins with his latest film, A Fantastic Fear Of Everything. About twenty minutes into the movie, I know I'm wasting an hour and forty minutes of my life and this is undoubtedly the worst film Pegg has been in. It is also bizarrely the debut of Crispian Mills as writer/director - once front man for 90s psychedelic rock band, Kula Shaker, and the son of Hayley, who I'm a huge fan of. Before seeing the film, I'm already suspicious but an Empire review suggests it could be quirky so I decide to give it a go and immediately regret the decision.

After thoroughly enjoying Avengers, my final film for the night pitted my patience against two actors I often dislike: Russell Brand and Tom Cruise. Rock Of Ages is a return to less glamorous roles for Cruise like his brief but hilarious stint in Tropic Thunder as Les Grossman. Although those less than keen on musicals may not enjoy the film, rock lovers will appreciate the soundtrack, romantics its cheesy plot line and Cruise is undeniably great in this feel-good air-pumping flick. It's predictable and Brand as usual quite obviously plays himself but thankfully a less irritating version, making Rock of Ages an all round winner.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Celebrating Successful Survival

As we land, a fanfare is played and relieved passengers cheer and applaud our safe arrival. The last two Ryanair flights I've survived have followed this same somewhat worrying and predictable pattern. On the surface Ryanair may indeed be a budget airline but in order to get those cheaper tickets you have to keep your wits about you.

When initially booking tickets, it's necessary to tolerate the lengthy process of checking boxes to confirm you don't want to pay additional fees for priority seating or for car hire. Travel insurance is carefully hidden as an added cost sneakily concealed between options - you must scroll down a daunting list of choices to select the "No Insurance Needed" option carefully sandwiched between nationalities.

If you plan on taking any luggage with you, Ryanair also charge extortionate fees per check-in bag, rapidly increasing the price according to weight. We've opted for one check-in bag to share, in addition to our "complementary" hand luggage and struggle on the return flight. Travelling out to Stockholm we flew SAS and were impressed by the efficiency and ease of check-in. Flights cost a little more but if booked in advance were reasonable and included generous baggage allowances with no extra hidden costs. I practically walked through the check-in and security desks in a matter of minutes and once in Sweden collected my bag from the conveyor belt immediately after leaving the plane. Returning to the UK from Lithuania was a whole different story.

Kaunas airport is pretty small and seemed to be dominated by Ryanair with bizarre pictures of rowers in company uniform adorning the walls. Once we'd established our one check-in bag was overweight and had stuffed more into our already borderline hand luggage, I suspiciously eyed the narrow metal structure check-in bags are supposed to neatly slot inside. Judging distances and measurements has never been one of my strengths but I was sure my "carry-on" would be deemed too large. Gingerly attempting to fit it into the regulation-sized frame, my fears were confirmed, despite pesky Aldi describing it as "check-in baggage-approved".

We made it through security, marvelling at the inconsistency between airports. On the last flight I had to remove my shoes and on this trip, for the first time ever, my hair slides seem to set off the scanners. 

On the other side, a disappointingly compact room houses a series of seats near to "gate" doors, two over-priced cafe-bars, a book sellers and a small duty free shop. The predictable occurs when we're perusing the duty free. Every holiday we attempt to use the majority of our currency before leaving and hold back a tiny amount for emergencies. Thankfully we never seem to need this "emergency money" and at the end of every trip, we end up challenging ourselves to get the most out of this paltry sum. Despite counting up this modest stash and precisely working out how best to spend it, we always discover a hidden note at the last moment, just as we're about to pay. This trip is no different and we end up frantically and apologetically grabbing items. Our flight is called and a line grows behind us.

Having nearly got our money's worth, we join fellow passengers in the enormous queue that seems to snake around the airport. As we move forward, we're frustrated to see the queue has inevitably split and Ryanair staff seem to condone this. A uniformed representative helpfully informs me all duty-free must be put into carry-on baggage in order to be allowed on the flight and we're once again fighting for space, forced to wear more and more layers in the already stuffy airport lounge. Nearly at the gate, baggage is checked again and mine is weighed. I'm relieved they don't also attempt to squeeze my bag into the narrow metal frame but end up wearing yet more clothes and start to resemble a bag lady.

Finally outside, there's the routine rush towards the steps as friends and family keen to sit together try and secure seats. Once on board, the chaos of the gangway is reminiscent of a school corridor as passengers battle to get their desired seat configurations while others search the already limited overhead luggage lockers for space.

Our flight leaves on time and is thankfully uneventful until we land and the laughable fanfare is heard, celebrating "another on-time Ryanair flight". After our shambolic and frankly anal boarding experience, I can't help but wonder what targets Ryanair set themselves? Do they anticipate poor organisation by allowing eight hours to arrive at a destination a mere two hours away? The sad reality is, however much I moan about travelling with Ryanair, I know in the future I'll have little choice but to book with them again.