Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Monday, 28 February 2011

The Past Master(chef)s

OH MY GOD! There was a shot on Masterchef this week, one of the female contestants sitting on those sofas after serving her food. It looked so much like someone in the living room of the Big Brother house! This series is SO copying other shows on TV…

Except it isn’t. The cries continued about the BBC broadcasting nothing more than ‘X-Factorchef’ on Wednesday, but when a bandwagon exists then people jump on it, if only to feel better about themselves. The truth is, this new series has a real spark: the judges seem to have toned down the hyperbole but increased their own enthusiasm, and it only took until 10pm on Thursday to show how dispensing with the auditions/heats so quickly has massively worked in its favour.

A contributing factor is that Masterchef continues to be one of the most highly stylised – almost over-produced – programmes on television. Whether that production delights or irks you is a matter of personal taste, but it is frequently audacious and occasionally genius. Whoever cuts all those random kitchen sounds – the shred of a vegetable, the thump of a large blade rending a chunk of meat asunder – into the music deserves a handshake (or a punch in the face, depending on your opinion. I’d like to shake his hand). Even if you don’t like why they do it, you have to admire how they do it.

For some years, the idea of a Masterchef soundtrack album has not seemed ridiculous. But whereas in the past the music just sounded like Heart FM played over the finished programme. Now, the entire hour sounds scored. Somebody on an internet forum compared it to the cinematic music of Hans Zimmer; being a Doctor Who fan there are more than a few moments that sound like Murray Gold has been lending his expertise to the soundtrack, and there is no praise higher than that.

Talking of ‘over the years’, Thursday night offered further reasons to get nostalgic. While the current contestants slaved over their pristine, symmetrical work stations in the vast expanse of the studio (making the whole thing look like a cookery equivalent of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony), the past winners of Masterchef – together with a number of other finalists – assembled for a three-course meal that could easily have been incorporated as one of the tasks on Michel Roux’s Service.

Suddenly, years of your televisual life are presented together, acting as a reminder of just how long Masterchef has been integral to your existence. Personally, I wasn’t there for the first two series, so Thomasina and Peter were not familiar faces. Steven, however – his was the victory that infected me with the show’s unique brand of suspense that has yet to loosen its hold. The 2007 final seemed a genuine competition right up to the point he was announced as winner; then felt like it was never in doubt.

2008, where James somehow beat the enchanting Emily (take a guess who I thought should have won… It’s a good job Thursday’s show was so good or I’d have been complaining that she didn’t feature enough!), and Matt in 2009. Perhaps it was the experience of watching those three series that marked Dhruv out so early in 2010, or maybe it was just that his attitude seemed so right. Either way, it is still a bit too early to establish a front-runner in 2011.

What the ‘past winners’ dinner did achieve was to demonstrate exactly what a successful run on Masterchef can do for ‘changing your life’, thus validating the decision to spend the majority of the current series focussing on the final group. If you don’t care about that, then consider this – if we were still in the heats, we wouldn’t have had John Torode yelling, “Where’s my food?” and Gregg Wallace eating all four examples of each course before saying later, “I’m a growing lad!” Television doesn’t get more entertaining than this.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Best And Worst

Following a previous post about it, last night I finally got the chance to watch Scott Pilgrim vs The World. It was reassuringly entertaining, beautifully shot, and consistently funny - every bit as good as hoped, in other words. Trying to put across exactly what the film achieves - the way it fuses cinema and video games without compromising one over the other, for example - is difficult. Of course its appeal is skewed more towards gamers; that is no surprise. But while it may not be a heart-rending drama designed to appeal to the voters of the Academy Awards, that doesn't mean non-gamers shouldn't give it a chance.

They really shouldn't, because it's brilliant. Did I mention that it's funny too?

It also has one of the most delightfully unexpected lines I've heard in a film. Shortly after breaking up with a girl, Scott attends his next band practice. Far from being emotionally beaten, he looks at his fellow band members, smiles, and says gleefully: "I learnt the bass line from Final Fantasy II."

Yeah, it's nerdy. Do I look like I care?

* * * * * * * *

This post is entitled 'Best and Worst'. You've just read the 'Best' bit. What follows is not connected to it - the concept is entirely fabricated as an excuse to share something that wouldn't have a place normally. It does, however, serve as something of an unintended contrast.

A few weeks ago, while out shopping for a birthday card for my better half, I happened upon possibly the most inappropriate greetings card I have ever seen. It was a birthday card for a man to buy for his girlfriend. On the front it said:

"A girlfriend is a sister you choose."

Go on. Spend a few minutes of your day thinking about just how WRONG that is.

Friday, 25 February 2011

"I've Got Something To Put In You!"

While on the subject of innuendo (sort of), I thought I'd throw in this Armstrong & Miller video. Something reminded me of the sketch the other day, and it's one that could easily have been included in 'YouTube Sunday' the other week:


22 Hours In Birmingham (part 2)

Despite basking in the post-gig buzz and reflecting on a superb evening, eventually the need to sleep overcomes us. Inexplicably, my rest is fitful and I struggle to get comfortable in the ‘super-comfortable bed’. Dreams consume my over-active mind – strange, nonsensical, illogical dreams – culminating in a belief that a serpent of some kind (maybe an adder, perhaps a simple and harmless grass snake) is loose in the bed.

There is no physical evidence for this belief to be true (because it isn’t), and yet I am unable to lie there and ignore it. I turn on the bedside lamp and get out of bed to check under the duvet and confirm the non-existence of the non-existent snake. Throughout the commotion, my better half sleeps soundly and with barely a murmur. Part of me hopes she will wake in order to double check that the bed is safe, but I quickly realise how ridiculous this thought is. I return to the bed with an uneasy satisfaction, and spend the remainder of the night in a mediocre doze.

The prospect of breakfast cheers my fatigued mood and we take a seat in the contemporary bar/restaurant attached to the hotel. The service, such as it is in a buffet environment, is nothing short of shambolic. Food and drink items run out without being replenished, and by the time fresh ones are provided the demand is such that they quickly disappear again.

As in the past, the extensive training that comes from having watched Michel Roux’s Service allows us to pick up on all these faults, and tut and mutter accordingly. A man who might be a maitre d’ takes on the task of preparing vacated tables for new guests, and starts by wiping bits onto the floor with his hand. Eventually he sees sense, gets a cloth from the workstation, and proceeds to use the dry cloth to wipe the bits onto the floor instead.

We decide we have eaten our fill and head back to the room.

With no shops open, it is surprising just how many people are out and about in the Bull Ring and surrounding streets. Where are they all going when there is nowhere to go to yet? That includes us, obviously, but at least we must look like we don’t know what to do. Everyone else walks around so purposefully, but what is that purpose? There is a Big Issue  seller already out on New Street, which seems very early for a Sunday. We walk to Chinatown to browse an oriental supermarket and see if there are any new or unusual foodstuffs that take our fancy.

Heading back toward the Bull Ring, a woman sits in a doorway and asks for spare change. A discussion ensues (between me and my better half, it should be said, not with the woman. That would be insensitive…) about being able to tell whether people begging are genuine or not, particularly in a city where Big Issue sellers are out before the shops even open.

The conversation moves on to how best to deal with such people politely, and that offering food is a good way of trying to help without inadvertently funding drug habits etc. To confuse our moral compass even further, we follow this by going to the Selfridges food hall to marvel at products that neither we nor anybody we know can afford to buy.

The hotel chain have a policy of refunding your money if you don’t sleep well, and it occurs to us that we could try and claim back the cost of our stay because of my disturbed (and, in some ways, disturbing) night. However, I am reluctant. Partly because only one of us slept badly, making it hard to accuse the hotel of doing something wrong, and partly because there is a long queue behind us waiting to check out and I have no wish to attempt explaining my fevered slumber with something – “I couldn’t keep my snake under control” – that sounds like a bad innuendo.

The rich potential of a Sunday afternoon in Birmingham (<cough>) escapes us and we prefer the thought of sitting on a bench in the cold, staring at a hedge (I would say ‘bush’, but there is no need for more potential innuendo, especially with the number of ‘adult’ shops there are around), to dragging ourselves round more dull shops. This makes us a natural target for a woman with several teeth missing, who approaches us and says she is homeless, and asks for some money to get something to eat.

Mindful of the large box of doughnuts obviously in our possession, saying we have nothing to spare seems disingenuous at best and so, inspired by our earlier conversation, we offer the woman a sandwich.

"No, don’t worry about it,” she says, and walks off.

We board the train bound for home. There are four people in the carriage, including the two of us. This is welcome, of course, but also seems a little unusual. Maybe after our ‘peculiar’ morning, we simply expect more people to be going home too.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

22 Hours In Birmingham (part 1)


After checking in at the hotel and a quick shower to freshen up, we head out in search of the HMV Institute. In the semi-rural small towns we call home, the high streets are devoid of people and cars well before 6pm, even on a Saturday. Here, the crisp chill of a February evening combined with the still-fervent shopping activity gives New Street a festive feel – it’s almost as though Christmas shopping season is still on. Warm breath tinged with the glow of shop windows; trees carrying strings of lights that you expect to see only in December.

And best of all? We’re going to see Ben Folds.

Our eyes struggle to adjust to the ‘muted’ lighting of the auditorium and we stumble around a few flights of stairs to secure some good seats.

Scratch that; some great seats. Just under two hours to the start of the show and there we are, staring right at the keyboard of the piano. Damn, the anticipation!

The evening’s support act takes to that stage. We’ve never heard of Kate Miller-Heidke, and before she even reaches the end of the first line of the set we wonder how we haven’t. Later on, Ben Folds describes her as “over-qualified” to be a support act, and it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment. Her singing is outstanding, skipping instantly between vocal styles with the sort of ease that demonstrates just why she has won awards. Keir Nuttall’s guitar gets appropriate attention too, especially while indulging in his own comedic moments and frantic solos.

(The songs are all fresh and exciting, and the following videos, while not from the Birmingham gig specifically, are great examples of their work):

(A brief warning about language for this one):

During the arguable highlight of the set – a cover of Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady – a meandering spotlight casts its gaze over the enraptured audience and highlights unblinking concentration and impressed smiles throughout the crowd below us. It seems that more than a few people have perhaps fallen a little bit in love with Kate Miller-Heidke…

The couple sitting next to us prove to be entertaining company during the seemingly interminable waits for music. We compare gigs, share stories of Ben Folds fandom, and marvel at the prices of drinks from the bar. They are good people, a statement evidenced by their good-natured reaction when I start to sing a muttered version of Zuton Fever, only moments after they recount a story of not enjoying a gig by … The Zutons. (‘FAIL!’ on my part, as the saying goes).

Main event time! Ben Folds takes to the stage with a full band; a rarity compared to the usual set up of a bassist and drummer, but the additional instruments add depth to the songs (particularly the Lonely Avenue extracts). Acoustically speaking, seats so far to the front and left are perhaps not ideal, but when the view is this good it hardly detracts. However often we try and sing along to a new song, his skill at the piano eventually mesmerises us and renders us silent, agog at the speed of his fingers.

Toward the end of the set, Kate Miller-Heidke returns to the stage and contributes to From Above and You Don’t Know Me. Seeing the female vocals performed on stage, even when they are relatively minor parts, brings the songs to life in a way the CD versions struggle to match, and You Don’t Know Me is a personal highlight.

From Above:

A brief but entertaining encore (again, with some language):

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Chap-hop Tuesday

Today’s post is due almost entirely to my brother – 

– who recently introduced me to the musical style known as ‘chap-hop’. It is no surprise to learn that my appreciation of hip-hop (and variations upon it) is limited, though that’s not to say these waxy ears can’t enjoy a few rappers every once in a while. Still though, I’d much rather listen to Ben Folds’ version of Bitches Ain’t Shit that Dr. Dre’s original.

Which is why I recommend watching the videos by the following two gentlemen. They might need a couple of viewings, if only because the content can be quite bewildering at first. Once you ‘get’ the concept, however, there is a considerable amount of enjoyment to be had:

“I don’t like your tweed, Sir!”

While we’re on the subject of videos, there isn’t really a category I can think would suit this one so might as well include it here:

Finally for today, a comic:

Thank you, Ishisoft.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Rapid Reflections

It took a little over three years to reflect on Stoke’s 2008 FA Cup match against Newcastle and the steady, reassuring course that events have since followed. Now, 52 hours after winning against Brighton on Saturday, it’s hard not to immediately look back and be amused by the following sentence posted here in the morning:

“That doesn’t mean League 1 Brighton won’t be making the long journey believing they can win.”

Repeating the sentence is not to say that Brighton didn’t believe success was possible and they would have expected better from the game. Sure, it was always likely to be unlikely, but Stoke have had a habit of messing those sorts of games up in the past. Badly messing them up. Even so, maybe it verges on gloating to so shamelessly bask in the 3-0 victory, but they’re as local a team as I’ve got so I can’t help being pleased to see them do well.

Now, with a home quarter-final tie against opposition that shouldn’t be feared, there is the more pressing matter of keeping expectation in check. A semi-final trip to Wembley is perfectly feasible; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that an appearance in the final might be on the cards too given a favourable draw.

Which is why there is nothing wrong in looking back at Saturday and recognising that in another time – another life; maybe a whole other universe – the afternoon could have produced an entirely different story. Therein is perhaps the biggest compliment to be paid to the people who run Stoke City FC and have got the club to where it is now – from a position of hope and aspiration and maybe we can beat Newcastle if this works for us and that works for us too – to being the ones daring to dream, and with not a little confidence.

Stoke for the Cup!

* * * * *

It seems wrong to tack the following on to the end of a post whose only similarity with the subject matter is football, but it does lead on nicely from what I wrote about Inter and – more specifically – Ronaldo the other day. It therefore seemed equally wrong not to draw attention to this article about the talented Brazilian:

Saturday, 19 February 2011

It's A Kind Of Magic

It’s another football themed post today, largely comprised of something I wrote three years ago, the day after seeing Stoke take on Newcastle in the FA Cup and narrowly fail to cause an upset. The topic is a fitting one to revisit – today marks the start of this season’s FA Cup fifth round weekend, and Stoke take on Brighton. Unlike that January weekend in 2008, Stoke are now an established Premier League team. Though they are the home team again, that doesn’t mean League 1 Brighton won’t be making the long journey believing they can win.

As for Newcastle, they of course suffered the ignominy of relegation in 2009 before returning to the Premier League for the current campaign. Irony of ironies, they went to Stevenage this January for a third round tie and were promptly beaten. Funny how things work out...

“Maybe it was the balmy twilight as late afternoon became early evening on a winter’s Sunday. Or – more likely – it was that most English of sporting traditions; the peculiar illness known as ‘cup fever’ on the weekend of the FA Cup third round. Both are as romantic as one another, albeit for different reasons, but only one brings 22,000 people together to watch 22 men play football.

Which is why, two hours before each of those men carries the hopes of a thousand others, you pitch up in the fading light with your box of 360 scarves. You wonder how you’ll sell them all, really, because surely everyone comes prepared for a cold night in the stands? Surely the die-hards will already have their symbols of support? Doesn’t matter how limited edition the things are – we won’t shift all these.

Slowly, though, the people start to drift past, and every once in a while someone stops to offer some money. They’ve paid to get here, they’ve paid for their ticket to get in; they’ll pay for a programme, and a pie and a hot drink at half time. But this is their club, and if paying £4 for a scarf is what’ll spur their team on to something they might not truly believe, deep down, is possible … then dammit, I’ll take two.

Even Mike Ashley, a man worth more money than most of us can conceive of (never mind dream of possessing), gives us a second glance as we good-naturedly offer him a memento of the occasion. He just happens to own the visiting team; it’s worth a try though, ain’t it?

With time the drift becomes a flow, and the flow becomes something akin to a tidal wave. You get the guy who wants to buy one but is cajoled out of it by his mate; you get the guys who are cajoled into it by their kids. You get the people who ask the price despite having it shouted at them moments before; and you find yourself in between two opposing fans whose sole intent, seemingly, is to kick the shit out of each other. Sometimes you just know when not to offer someone their own piece of merchandise…

The displays of ‘macho-ness’ in all its forms, the banter from the dads; the ‘youth of today’ – so often maligned – who buy their little pieces of history (potential or otherwise) and then stand to the side and do their bit to cajole other people into following suit; and the mild mannered Geordie who hands over his money and then has to find the best way of concealing his new possession.

Human nature is a remarkable thing, its capacity for being able to manifest itself in ways you didn’t expect (or weren’t willing to believe) never ceasing to amaze. What is the point of it all? There isn’t one. Why do we do it – idolise this small group of people who can kick a ball better than we can? Because it’s what we do! If the selling of scarves was the measure for levels of anticipation and expectation and – most importantly – belief then there was no way the home side could lose. How can you not get caught up in that?

It continues inside the ground, of course. One man gets himself arrested sitting amongst the group of supporters to which he belongs; countless individuals turn the bits of the card stuck to their seats into paper aeroplanes and direct them toward the pitch. None of it is big or clever – quite fundamentally stupid, really! – but somehow it feels right.

Because it’s more than just an occasion; it’s what the occasion represents. Yes, it’s the underdog team at home, but the underdog aspires to playing this opposition every week. More so, the opposition aspires to these matches being a formality, which is why you get swept up in the singing and standing and shouting of the people who come every week. And you join in, even with the barracking of the players in black and white.

They may be wearing those colours, but sport is so much more than such a common phrase. If the capacity of human nature to amaze is boundless then it’s not difficult to understand the fervent support you offer to a team that ordinarily warrants no thought except at ten-to-five on a Saturday afternoon. And it’s not difficult to understand why you offer slight (but somewhat grudging) praise to the opposition for continuing to do their jobs when thousands of people are insisting they’re crap.

So hurrah for the FA Cup. Such a unique and intensely satisfying experience left me with a warm feeling. Or maybe that was just the scarf around my neck.”

Friday, 18 February 2011

Il Fenomeno

As the years tick by and pay-to-view television continues to dominate sport (particularly in the broadcasting of football and cricket), it becomes increasingly clear just how welcome Football Italia was during the 1990s. Sunday afternoon tradition – the ritual of which has no discernible start or end; there was simply a period where it happened – dictated that if Formula One was not putting on a race then a couple of hours was spent in the company of James Richardson on Channel 4.

From the terraces of stadia all over Italy, one of the finest sports presenters to grace television brought a foreign league, full of foreign players and made up of teams with exotic nicknames like the Rossoneri and Nerazzurri, to life. For a 13-year old, the whys and wherefores of Serie A being broadcast didn’t matter – it was a chance to watch football, with the English equivalent hidden behind a prohibitively expensive pay wall.

Don’t dismiss Saturday morning tradition either – the delightful and always entertaining Gazetta programme, which continued for several years after live Sunday matches ceased to be shown, and provided the lifeline of terrestrial television highlights. The iconic shot of Richardson sitting at an outdoor café (with a grand landmark in the background and a tempting ice cream dessert on the table), translating transfer rumours and news from the Italian papers, is probably the part of the show that still lives in most memories now.

How else could I watch my team, Inter, come back from 2-0 down to get a draw against Juventus (when they were still good) during the 2001-02 season, with Clarence Seedorf scoring two astonishing long-range goals? Those programmes brought the league to life in a way that Match Of The Day has never seemed to quite achieve with the Premier League.

At this point, you might be asking why Inter are ‘my team’?

Enjoying football, but being brought up in a household with no interest in it, meant inspiration had to come from different sources. With nobody taking me to Stoke City or Port Vale every week – or even a local non-league team – during childhood, other attachments had to form. Which is where Football Italia came in…

In 1999, Inter signed striker Christian Vieri to play alongside legend-in-the-making Ronaldo – the Brazilian, original Ronaldo who would be named World Player of the Year three times. To my 15-year old mind this was the most exciting strike partnership in world football, and it made Inter compelling to watch. Injuries to both players frequently kept them from playing together, but rather than cause disillusionment it only served to further the mystique of their partnership.

For all the money that went into assembling the Inter squad, they were a disjointed team who could somehow be classed as underdogs, albeit with massive potential. Chasing a first league title in ten years or more, they were a club often frustrated, while bitter rivals Milan and Juventus continued to taste success. For reasons that can be explained no better than this, they became the team I slavishly followed week after week with the help of James Richardson and Channel 4.

That 2001-02 season summed Inter up perfectly. Ronaldo returned from injury a few games from the end of the season and immediately started scoring goals. Vieri was in imperious form all season and they headed the table with one game to play. Finally, at just the right time, the strike partnership was working as it had meant to for three seasons, and that elusive title would be Inter’s.

Alas, no. Losing 4-2 to Lazio allowed Juventus to steal it at the death. Inter didn’t even finish second, as Roma secured that honour. The disappointment marked the end of a short and unfulfilled era – Ronaldo won the 2002 World Cup for Brazil, moved to Real Madrid, and memorably tore apart Manchester United in the 2003 Champions League. Inter continued to never-quite-make-it until the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 changed the face of Italian football.

Serie A is sadly nowhere to be seen on television following stints on Bravo and Channel 5. Undoubtedly, the quality it offers now does not match that of ten or twenty years ago, but thanks to Football Italia I would still rather have the Italian league on my television than any other. Though I have to follow them from afar, Inter will remain ‘my team’ and someone will have to go a long way to top that partnership of Vieri and Ronaldo.

Ronaldo retired this week, and the following article was part of the inspiration behind the above reminiscences: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/9397354.stm

James Richardson hosts Football Weekly for The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/series/footballweekly

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Welcome Back, John & Gregg

It’s time to tackle one of the big global issues. The world cannot go on like this. Someone, somewhere, needs to impose a change.

That’s right – auditioning contestants on reality television.

The new series of Masterchef, which started last night, is making tentative steps toward mimicking its Australian counterpart. For the audition stage, this involves potential contestants being judged individually while friends and relatives wait on the other side of the studio wall to react to the subsequent joy/disappointment. Although perfectly tolerable when just one person shares the experience, producers really need to clamp down on entire families being dragged along for the day. At worst, the contestant appears exceptionally needy and, where Masterchef is concerned, suggests they might not cope too well when “the competition really hots up” later in the series.

Many UK viewers are complaining that the alterations to the format make the show resemble The X-Factor, but if that were true then ‘new’ Masterchef would be as unwatchable as one of those ITV talent shows: auditions dragged out for six weeks around the country, a live audience booing and cheering every decision, irrelevant interviews with failed contestants, and a focus on deluded individuals with no discernible talent but who make the miserable people watching at home feel better about themselves.

None of that happened last night; the auditionees were recognisably Masterchef, and that is what matters. The Australian version has been a big success, and after six series you can’t blame the producers for trying to freshen up the UK original a little. Considering things logically, the new format is not all that different in content from what has gone before. What difference there is, mainly in style, is arguably for the better.

Whilst they have perhaps come to the fore in recent years, the show has always featured the introspective musings of the contestants; having a guy’s wife saying how much a career in food would mean to him is therefore no more objectionable than hearing the guy himself say it. The only appreciable loss is the comedy of someone confidently stating their desire to open a Michelin star restaurant before failing spectacularly at the first stage.

Furthermore, selecting the final group of contestants over the course of two programmes will, hopefully, allow the show to focus on what it does best for the remainder of the series. An individual audition in front of the judges pretty much combines everything that the initial stages of the original format used to test, and that structure was capable of occasional frustrations – a good group of contestants might lose someone who seemed deserving, only to be followed by a motley bunch where nobody shined but one or two had to go through anyway. Now, we essentially get ten weeks and thirteen programmes of finals!

The final point comes with the caveat of whether television presents us with situations that are entirely genuine. If, for example, the moment when John appeared to feel bad for sending a woman home was real, then it is interesting to have that sort of insight into the judging process. Similarly, Gregg seemed particularly hard to please at times. Is that because those cosy, heavily-edited, sofa-based chats usually excluded the more forceful opinions, or is it a deliberate move to serve the four-way cook-off at the end? Ultimately, it may not matter given that auditions finish tonight, but the intrigue of what lies in store from next week remains.

Whatever the truth, for me Masterchef shines brightest when the judges have freedom to interact with the contestants and, for now at least, there is scope for more of that than before. Even during the first episode of a wholly different format, the show made me smile and laugh like Masterchef always does. If changes produce the odd cringe-worthy moment then so be it – there is every reason to believe the heights it can reach will be that much greater.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Life Is The Name Of The Game

In revealing material that serves as inspiration for a blog post (or, in this case, and perhaps a little unimaginatively, a straight couple of quoted paragraphs), one might be expected to draw on sources a little less obvious than the BBC News website. When something strikes a chord, however, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from, and I would urge you to read the following:

If you don’t feel so inclined as to read the entire piece, then two paragraphs I particularly liked are quoted below. Hopefully you will read the whole thing, because it’s easily one of Alain de Botton’s most accessible articles since he started writing on the BBC site (perhaps because the theme is such a universal one). I like de Botton, and his book A Week At The Airport was the non-fiction highlight of last year’s reading, but it must be said that I don’t always have the mental faculty to follow the entire course of an opinion or argument he might be expressing.

On the topic of requited love, then:

“Humour renders direct confrontation unnecessary, you can glide over an irritant, winking at it obliquely, making a criticism without actually needing to speak it ("By this joke I let you know that I dislike X without needing to tell you so, your laughter acknowledges the criticism").

“It is a sign that two people have stopped loving one another (or at least stopped wishing to make the effort that constitutes an astonishing degree of what true, mature love appears to be), when they are no longer able to spin differences into jokes. Humour lines the walls of irritation between our ideals and reality. Behind each joke, there can be a hint of difference, of disappointment even, but it is a difference that has been defused and can therefore be passed over without the need for melodrama.”

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Edgar Wright vs An Apathetic World

Back in the heady days of this blog’s birth (all of two and a half weeks ago…), the first post made mention of some recent movies, most of which I’d failed miserably to catch at the cinema. One of them was Scott Pilgrim vs The World, a film that appealed to me on several levels, but clearly not enough to most other people. As a result, its box office performance was sadly lacking.

My good friend James, who also had a cameo in that inaugural post, recently purchased Scott Pilgrim  on Blu-ray and sent me his thoughts upon watching it. Because his opinion on film is a worthwhile one, I wanted to repeat those thoughts here:

“It was the second time of watching it, and it definitely requires repeat viewings. Although I enjoyed it at the cinema, time – and a greater appreciation of the source material, Wright’s intentions and the gaming narrative – allowed me to simply relax and enjoy it on this occasion. There is a lot of fun to be had in what is genuinely one of the most overlooked films of last year. It saddens me to think that so few saw it upon its release, and I just hope it doesn’t lead to Wright having to compromise his vision next time in order to gain funding he richly deserves. I may well watch it again tonight.”

The sentiment about securing funding is particularly apt, because another of the films I missed in 2010 was Inception. Everybody’s favourite cult film reviewer – Mark Kermode – repeatedly made the point on BBC Radio 5 Live that Chris Nolan traded on the financial success of his Batman films to secure the opportunity to make it, and duly produced a film nearly as successful as The Dark Knight in monetary terms, grossing in excess of $800million, and presumably giving himself the freedom to make anything he bloody well likes for the rest of his career.

This isn’t a precursor to a rant about the state of cinema; there is nothing I could say on the subject that better qualified people couldn’t, and with more authority and eloquence. Really, it would be foolish to try and draw specific conclusions from just those two examples; it is simply an interesting comparison worth giving voice to. After all, considering the successes of Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, there is every reason to think (hope?) that Edgar Wright’s career won’t be adversely affected by the reception for Scott Pilgrim, and that is as it should be.

As for Chris Nolan – well, who isn’t excited by the prospect of The Dark Knight Rises?

It's A Bit ... Up And Down

Come the day that I finally reach a conclusion about whether the 2012 Olympics are something that excite me then I may well write about it. Regardless, they are happening and today the event schedule and ticket pricing details were released. The merits of one sport over another can be argued from now until July 27th next year; likewise the cost of tickets and whether the pricing is fair and/or appropriate. However, one price point in particular caught my eye while skimming over the schedule.

On each of August 3rd and 4th, there is a two-and-a-quarter hour trampolining session. While I offer no comment or opinion on its entertainment value, it's hard not to think that anyone spending £185 on an 'A category' seat has clearly got far too much money.

Monday, 14 February 2011

A Serious Cake Habit

Or: Concerning Cakes And Dictionaries

Excerpts from e-mail correspondence regarding my organising of a ‘cake night’ in 2010 – one evening where everyone gets together, brings a cake (either of their own baking or bought from a shop, in the interests of being able to compare homemade with processed), and then decides upon a winner:

Date: 13 May 2010 12:45
From: Martin
To: Paul

I’ll finish with a question: Would a cheesecake be allowed?

Date: 13 May 2010 13:39
From: Paul
To: Martin

I’ve just looked up cheesecake on Wikipedia, which describes it as a dessert. I find that no real help in answering your question, because my initial thought was to say yes, but my colleague who sits opposite says that it’s a pudding, not a cake. So I’ll ignore that issue for the minute and tell you that I like the bit of the article that says:

“The band King Missile has a song called 'Cheesecake Truck'. The song lasts for just over one minute, but the word 'cheesecake' is mentioned fourteen times. The song is humorous mainly due to the incredible number of cheesecakes (an entire truckload) that the protagonist claims to eat during the first day of his job driving a cheesecake truck.”

I want to hear that song! I also think a cheesecake probably belongs at a pudding night rather than a cake night, possibly mainly because when I imagined cake night in my mind, I saw a table laden with items all heavily sponge based and cheesecake doesn’t necessarily fit that vision. If you want to argue to me otherwise then I’ll gladly listen!

Date: 13 May 2010 15:15
From: Martin
To: Paul

I'm not going argue about the cheesecake. I might bring one anyway just to open up the floor to some debate. I've never - baked? - one before and I'm intrigued as to how it be done! It does suggest that some clarification may be needed as to what criteria a cake needs to fit, although I guess a pavlova would be considered a dessert and a waffle a pudding...

I'm particularly disappointed that the OED in this case seems of little help:

Cake (noun)
1. An item of soft sweet food made from baking a mixture of flour, fat, eggs, and sugar.
2. A flat, round item of savoury food that is baked or fried.
3. The amount of money available for sharing: a fair slice of the education cake.

I say particularly disappointed as it seems that tired metaphorical clichés have somehow become accepted word definitions with awful examples for usage.

Date: 21 May 2010 14:00
From: Martin
To: Paul

Having formed an idea of the OED state of mind concerning cake, I thought I'd check out the definition of cheesecake to see if the word "cake" is used. Unfortunately, it isn't. Definition (2), however, was something I couldn't help but need to pass on instantly.

Cheesecake (noun)
1. A rich sweet tart made with cream and soft cheese on a biscuit base.
2. Informal images portraying women according to a stereotyped ideal of sexual attractiveness.

Mmm … cheesecake … 

Date: 25 May 2010 08:21
From: Paul
To: Martin

It all leads me to think that saying, “I’m going to make cheesecake” could be an excellent euphemism for something. I’m just not sure what...

You might not thank me for this, but if a cheesecake is a ”rich, sweet tart”, then what is the OED’s definition of a tart? (And no, I’m not asking this to try and get more slang terms for certain types of women!). Because what I would call a tart, and what I would call a cheesecake, are two different things entirely.

Date: 25 May 2010 12:30
From: Martin
To: Paul

Tart, believe it or not, requires entries tart(1), tart(2) and tart(3) to fully define. Unlike cake, which is happy with its wildly different definitions confined to one entry. The mind boggles.

Tart (1) (noun)
An open pastry case containing a sweet or savoury filling.

… and thus, as you say, not what you'd call a cheesecake. Funny how cheesecake seems so woolly to define, when essentially it's a biscuit topped with soft cheese.

Date: 25 May 2010 13:04
From: Paul
To: Martin

Open pastry case? There’s blatantly no pastry involved in a cheesecake. Surely it would be better to revise ‘cheesecake’ to simply say, “a rich, sweet dessert …”?

<End of e-mail excerpts>

Nine of us assembled for the cake night, though as organiser I refrained from voting (albeit didn’t refrain from sampling the baked items on offer, natch). As noted on the original ‘Repository of Fruitless Work’, the in-no-way-exhaustive and not-scientifically-proven results of cake night were as follows (out of a possible 80):

In reverse order:

11. Malt Loaf (shop-bought) - 52
10. Swiss Roll (shop-bought) - 53.5
09. Courgette and Pistachio cake - 57.5
08. Jamaica Ginger Cake (shop-bought) - 59
07. Garbanzo cake - 60
06. Chocolate Mayonnaise cake - 61.5
05. Guinness cake - 62
04. Golden Syrup cake (shop-bought) - 63
03. Carrot cake - 64.5
02. Chocolate and Marshmallow cheesecake - 65.5
01. Banana and Cherry Loaf – 66

As is obvious from the results, Martin did indeed bring a cheesecake, and a pudding therefore secured a somewhat controversial runner-up position. Had he scored himself 10/10, like most others did with their own contributions, and not 8/10, then it would have won.

Whilst being, ostensibly, a success, cake night did demonstrate that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Indeed, the cheesecake’s position in the tasting order – last – was arguably the prime reason for its success, because after ten different pieces of cake everybody greeted the prospect of something non-sponge based with great relish. And there had been some heavy cakes in there, however small a piece you tried to sample. Garbanzo cake, made with chickpeas; courgette and pistachio cake, with its texture and taste not unlike stuffing. By the end of the evening, it was not so much a ‘cake night’ as a ‘cake trial’.

One that was good fun though!

Important lessons continued to be learned a week or so later. Anything involving banana appeared to improve given a while to mature, while chocolate mayonnaise cake (perhaps unsurprisingly) did not unduly suffer for being left a few days. Unfortunately, the courgette cake rapidly developed fur less than a week after baking.

Now, some nine months later and well into 2011, it seems appropriate to recount the tale of that evening in honour of a recent (but now well-established) tradition of attending our local pub quiz every week, and us taking it in turns to bring along baked goods to share with the other members of the team. There is no competitive element involved; just a lot of fun, plenty of tolerance from the landlord at the pub, and, in some cases, new skills being learnt. The roll of honour so far comprises:

- Chocolate rice crispie surprise
- Best-ever chocolate brownies
- Mince pies
- Snickerdoodles
- White chocolate and cranberry fudge
- More brownies
- Chocolate orange fudge cake
- Alternative rocky road
- Chocolate crunch gateaux
- Victoria sponge
- Crème Egg chocolate tarts

Perhaps most oddly, ever since this baking habit was realised, we have failed to win a single quiz. There was one week over the Christmas period where nobody made anything, and we duly emerged victorious. It probably says much about our priorities in life that we have ignored this unusual correlation and duly continued baking things (most of which, it won’t have escaped your attention, contain a serious quantity of chocolate. No wonder I can’t sleep on a Sunday night…). Clearly, cakes and baking are hard habits to break.