Friday, 27 February 2009

Lent caveats #1-5

1. 'Sweet things' doesn't include jam or other preserves.
2. Or savoury pastries.
3. Or fruit.
4. Or plain scones (is that cheating?)
5. Or sugarfree sweets (they're pretty grim so I'm saving them for emergencies)

I'm still undecided on diabetic chocolates (no sugar, are they still sweet?). Not that I'm about to rush out and buy some but I was just pondering.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Logan posing for a shot

Still working on the smile...

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

For the next 40 days I will be avoiding...

Lent is a bit of a funny time in our house. Mark is the more religious of us but he thinks Lent is pretty stupid, whereas I'm not particularly religious but love the concept of Lent. I don't know whether it's just childhood nostalgia but there's something about religious ritual that appeals to me (and the idea of abstinence is not solely Christian).

I've given up alcohol a couple of times, with varying degrees of success (the first time I was halfway through a pint, three days in, before I remembered I shouldn't be drinking). But that seems like cheating now that I usually only have a few glasses of wine on a Saturday evening. So this year I'm giving up sweet things.

I think there might be a few caveats as the month goes on - maybe I could have the odd biscuit? We know from years of research that an Eccles cake isn't really a cake, so maybe that doesn't count? I'll let you know how I get on...

Monday, 23 February 2009

Robert Webb, comedy genius

If I get any spare time this afternoon I'll go to town on the Oscars frocks (since Sky outbid the BBC for live coverage I have to content myself with catching snippets on the web, grr).

For now, keep yourselves entertained with one of the most brilliant TV moments of this decade - Robert Webb keeping Saturday night entertainment alive on Let's Dance, for Comic Relief. The man is an absolute comedy genius, and he can actually dance, too.

Almost as funny as Toby Anstis's turn on All Star Talent Show a few years ago - funnier because it wasn't meant to be.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Logan @ The Washington

@ The Washington

The Washington in Belsize Park

Had lunch here with Isabelle and Lauren (both looking as fabulous as ever). It was quiet enough for Logan to run round (he made friends with some of the locals) but he wasn't impressed with the burger and spicy chips (yum). My risotto was nice though, and I love the decor!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Theme of the day - politics and the web

I'm not intentionally tackling a theme a day, honest!

Anyway, the papers may not have noticed by Newcastle City Council last month became the first British council to announce election results on Twitter. It's a bit of a gimmick but hey, if it gives the web generation greater access to politics on a local level then it has to be good.

You can find the council twitter feed here. I don't tweet, as it were - there's enough of me out there on Facebook and on here for anyone - but I'm a bit of a lurker and it is a joy to behold.

Clinton blogs!

Hillary Clinton has thrown herself into the new administration's aim of accessibility by blogging her trip to Asia.

US economic recovery stats

Continuing with their pledge of open government, and their impressive grasp of web 2.0, Obama's administration yesterday launched the website. Once funds start flowing through the ARRA (the economic package just signed into law), anyone with internet access should be able to track exactly where the money is going. And see some pretty graphics too!

Should help to avoid the disaster that accompanied the Iraq reconstruction project a few years ago, which resulted in billions of dollars going missing. Long may this openness continue!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Animal vegetable mineral

In the same chapter of Diana Athill's biography (see Bible post below), she recounts a conversation with a friend who bemoaned the proliferation of animals in children's books, specifically talking, clothes-wearing animals.

A quick glance at Logan's bookshelves confirms it: This Dinosaur Is So Big! (dinosaurs), That's Not My Puppy (dogs), Guess How Much I Love You (rabbits), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (you get the picture). Thomas the Tank Engine isn't an animal but neither is he a person (does anyone else find him a teensy bit creepy?). We're Going on a Bear Hunt, about a family of five, really centres on the bear, not the people. And in Not Now, Bernard, Bernard quickly gets eaten by the monster.

Athill argues that"children respond to animal protagonists because when very small what they need is not to discover and recognise 'real life', but to discover and recognise their own feelings." While learning about themselves is only one reason for reading to children, her point makes sense. The most obvious application is Eric Carle's From Head to Toe, where children are encouraged to mimic animal behaviours (it also serves as a good party trick, Logan has built up quite a repertoir).

The only real exception I can think of are the Charlie and Lola books, by Lauren Child. The protagonists are most definitely children, and aren't "drawn in such an unrealistic way that they might as well be animals", as Athill describes Postman Pat (!). The appeal here is that no adults encroach on the stories - not even partially, like Mammy in Tom and Jerry - and the dialogue is defiantly childlike (the Animals book includes a "biggish elephant" and a "very biggish whale", the Shapes book "squarish" and "triangley" shapes). They may teach basic realities, but they keep that teaching on a child's level rather than preaching from an adult's point of view.

All this reminds me of a friend's mother who refused to let her younger sibling watch The Land Before Time, not because the dinosaurs were speaking but because the film was about dinosaurs, and as all good Christians know, dinosaurs didn't really exist. So we're back to the Bible again. No more religion today, promise!

Everyone should read the Bible

Guardian Education is running an interview today with the poet Andrew Motion, in which he argues for Bible stories to be more central to education. I did a bit of background for it (it is almost impossible to summarise Bible stories in less than 200 words, btw - unless you do it in Lego).

I think Motion's point is a valid one; being an atheist should not mean denying the educational value of morality tales like those in the 'good book', or the writing quality. I keep meaning to read the Bible properly; the Old Testament in particular is packed with juicy stories.

The article quotes the director of the National Secular Society: "Children already get 45 minutes of religious education a week for 10 years. Isn't that enough?" But RE looks at religions as a whole, not at the historical or literary impact of religious storytelling.

Diana Athill addresses that very point in her biography Somewhere Towards the End, which coincidentally is my current read. She too was a committed atheist, but was raised on Bible stories by her grandmother. She says enjoying familiar Bible chapters "does not mean that I kneel down and worship God [but] they still trail a whiff of that old special did certainly influence the way I was to see life; yet it failed to convince me of its central teaching."

It is possible to separate the doctrine from the story, and appreciate the intrinsic value of the writing without believing in the religion. It would be a shame, as we become increasingly atheist, if the beauty and creativity of so many of the Bible stories was lost.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Photos by Logan

Logan got a tutorial in how to take photos from Jo CW at Dave's birthday bash yesterday. He needs a bit of work on the composition but at least they're (almost) in focus...


Fizzy pop

The birthday boy


Still life with fruit

Little online jewellery gem

Most people I know have several websites they like to keep secret, little gems that they can mine for presents they know won't fail to please. The time has come to reveal one of mine.

Eclectic Eccentricity is, as the name suggests, full of unique and quirky jewellery. If you like antique style at (don't tell anyone) affordable prices, this is the place.

It's so fab that even though my in-laws bought me a necklace from the site that wasn't on my wishlist I still love it! If I won the lottery I would immediately buy one of everything. At least.

Be warned: if you are female and a friend you will probably be receiving something from the site for your next birthday, so get your orders in now.

Mmm, let's eat at Chicken Spot tonight!

Could this be the least appetisingly named restaurant in the world? Sounds like a disease. Lucky residents of Caledonian Road...

Logan goes sliding

The first time he got on he shot down the slide, but sadly I didn't have the camera ready so instead I have a sequence of shots of Logan inching down the slide rather painfully. Ah well, still cute!

Is this a coot or a moorhen?

I can never remember which is which. Anyway, I took this when we took Logan to see the ponds at Hampstead Heath, after a lovely lunch with Isabelle and Lauren at the Freemasons Arms on Downshire Hill (overpriced and a bit pretentious considering it used to be a bit of a dive, and nothing like the "country pub" they claim to be, but very welcoming nonetheless).

I'll put some more pics up on Flickr tonight.

Dave's birthday bash @ Junction Tavern

I know, I know, this could be a photo of absolutely anyone, but you'll just have to trust me that Dave M (who my husband insists on calling Filmstar Dave) is on there somewhere. I don't like the flash dammit!

Not about death!

Nice to see Michelle Obama getting into her role as first lady by reading an excellent Eric Carle book to some schoolchildren.

My favourite animals are the rather surreal purple cat and blue horse, no doubt thrown in to confuse parents with no imagination.

Book of the fortnight: The Year of Magical Thinking

Um, you may have noticed that my rather optimistic initial post was called 'Book of the week'. I'm not organised enough to have kept that up even into the second week, so I've scaled it down a bit!

Having appealed to Mark when I got no books at all for Christmas, and resorted to reading more of my Stephen King back catalogue (The Shining this time, an absolute classic even for those of you who hate everything King, but surprising how much was added to the film by Stanley Kubrick - there you go, two reviews for the price of one), I got a mountain of books for my birthday, so I should have plenty of meterial to keep the feature up this time.

The first on the pile was Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (sponsored by Jo Smith). Ostensibly a record of the year following her husband's death, a time when her daughter was also seriously ill, it is really a treatise on the nature of grief, of loneliness, and a memoir of a life lived together.

Didion's writing is sometimes lyrical, drawing on her vast literary knowledge for discussions of death, sometimes analytical, looking instead to medical texts and the coroner's report to make sense of her loss. Some passages of medical jargon had to be read several times over, which spoiled the flow of the writing.

Some readers may also find her style cold - there is no vast emotional outpouring of grief, rather the devastatingly real minutae of living without someone close. But that doesn't make it any the less powerful; the passage about her daughter reading a dedication at the memorial service - "Even more than one more day, as you used to say to me" - gets me even now.

The subject may not be for everyone, but I found it a heartbreakingly brilliant portrayal of loss. Like Jo said, it's an odd book to give someone as a present but I'll certainly be passing it on to everyone I know.

Jade Goody

I've been resisting writing about this because I don't want to become just another blogger intruding on the private grief of others. But the story doesn't look like it's going away - we're running it in tomorrow's paper - so I can't help myself any longer.

I tend to have a lot of sympathy for celebrities who live their lives through the tabloid press then find it impossible to take a step back when things go wrong. Britney and Amy Winehouse are two obvious examples - if you have an addiction or a disorder that skews your perception of reality, the tabloids should take a responsible step back and give you the space to heal, even if you're courting them and inviting the papparazzi in for tea, because you're not capable of making that decision yourself.

Jade Goody's case is a lot more tragic, in that she has a terminal illness; it's also a lot more blameless, even for those who hate "pointless" celebs, because she hardly brought the cancer on herself did she? I understand completely why she feels the need to keep living her life through the papers - saving money for her boys' future, raising awareness of cervical cancer. For a star whose career was made, and destroyed, by the tabloids, this is one last chance to redeem herself in the eyes of the world. It's extrememly distasteful but death may be the making of her.

But the endless stories and front page photos leave a bad taste in my mouth. For celebrities like Jade and Jordan, running to the papers when anything bad happens is second nature (and putting out your own version of events is an exercise in damage control). It's the papers themselves that should be exercising caution. Let Jade tell her story; print the official photos of her wedding and her deathbed confessions, if she tells you to. But if you don't get the exclusive, if your rival outbids you, don't print intrusive pap shots or doorstep her nearest and dearest. Give her a bit of the privacy that we all deserve in death, tabloid-hungry celebrity or not.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Flickr as global photo archive

Just came across this Flickr initiative, The Commons, on their site. I remember there was a bit of buzz when it launched last year, then I forgot all about it.

In partnership with institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the Imperial War Museum, Flickr hosts their photographic collections (where copyright has expired); any Flickr member can tag or comment them, adding their own level of metadata and context in the process.

There are some truly impressive shots - these penguins are sooo funny - and, even taking into account the predictably juvenile comments of some users, it's a vital resource for saving our historical photos for future generations.

Ooh, and happy fifth birthday Flickr! You rule.

Be nice to animals

I like to think I'm pretty up on 'green' issues, so when I came across this RSPCA quiz on animal welfare footprints I rather smugly thought I'd ace it.

I didn't do too badly - I don't eat them, for a start - but there were a number of points I'd completely overlooked. I don't know when I stopped, but it's years since I checked for the 'no animal testing' symbol on toiletries or cosmetics (my new Garnier handcream on my desk doesn't mention it, ominously). And it had never crossed my mind to check for the same symbol on cleaning products (although we do sometimes choose the Ecover range).

So I guess no matter how smug you are there's always something more you can do.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Birthday tea at Liberty's

Spent a lovely birthday with the hubby at Liberty's near Oxford Circus. It's the quintessential independent British department store, much cosier than Selfridges or John Lewis and much more old-fashioned too (there's a whole floor given over to quirky vintage furniture and a huge haberdashery department).

Sadly we forgot to take our gift vouchers (they wouldn't have made much of a dent in the price of these gorgeous set of drawers we spotted, anyway, though we could almost have afforded a cool Rob Ryan tile) but we did enjoy a delicious high tea in the tearooms.

I think they must be feeling the credit crunch (four finger sandwiches between two?) but the scones were warm, there was almost enough clotted cream (I nabbed some extra from the table next to us) and the sponge cake was divine (I also nabbed a spare slice that the couple next to us had left - it was my birthday, I'm allowed to thieve things!).

If you look closely you can see me in the reflection in the teapot furthest away, crouching tiger-like behind the other pot of tea.

Five go mad in York

Spent my birthday weekend with some schoolfriends in York, had such a good time! I've not explored York properly before (Jo's hen night and our two-hour visit on honeymoon don't count) so it was good to see the sights.

We spent ages (maybe a bit too long, sorry!) in the Minster, which is stunning but not as good as Durham of course. Those of us not hampered by pregnancy/dodgy hips made it up the 275 steps of the minster tower. It was a bit parky at the top but we could see the snow on the distant dales and moors. Christine also spotted a 32 carat diamond embedded in a chalice in the undercroft, but we couldn't create enough of a distraction to filch it sadly. My birthday cherry necklace made up for it though!

It was a freezing night for a ghost walk but we're northerners so we battled the elements, along with at least a hundred other hardy souls. Our guide, an incredibly hammy Victorian gent (well they are Equity qualified..), took us on a whistlestop tour of York's many gruesome sites (my favourite was the greedy orphan owner who slit the throats of his (weirdly Cockney) young charges in a drunken moment of madness; maybe favourite isn't the right word but never mind). Definitely worth doing but maybe wait for spring!

We warmed up in several of York's more reputable (for which read: cask ale serving) pubs, including the Yorkshire Terrier and The Last Drop Inn (both owned by York Brewery) and the Tap and Spile, which hosts a regular folk jam session on a Friday. The Yorkshire Terrier definitely gets my vote - good beers, tasty food and a lovely old pub decor.

I rather spoiled my birthday treat of afternoon tea by having two over the weekend, but neither of them came with clotted cream so Liberty's still had something to offer! And we managed to fit in a tasty curry too (not a neon waterfall in sight).

If you're thinking of visiting, I'd definitely recommend the Monkgate Guest House, just outside the city walls at Monk Bar. It was only about £40 a night based on two sharing, we all got our own beds and as long as you don't have a teddy bear phobia it's lovely.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Hoppity comes to town

I got embarrassingly excited this afternoon - Mark would agree - to find this 1941 cartoon classic on Film 4. It was a rainy day favourite at Finchale and was way ahead of its time in featuring a community of insects whose homes are threatened by developers (similar to Watership Down, another school standby - wonder who the eco-warrior was? Not Mr Chapman I'm sure).

I was even more excited to discover that the song sung during the nightclub scene, pictured, is called Katy Did, Katy Didn't. (Oddly I've just finished reading What Katy Did, more of which later.)

Now if only Film 4 could show Hugo the Hippo too...

Army rations look quite tasty

The Guardian ran a story on page 3 today about the new ration kits being tested on 'our boys' in Afghanistan. Apparently the new recipes, which include beef stew with cassava and chicken sweet and sour, are much more palatable than the old seventies-style slop.

A closer look at the accompanying photo throws up a few oddities, though. The kit includes a pack of tissues and a handwipe, which seems a bit over-zealous for soldiers on operation. The only condiment is tabasco sauce - is that to numb the tastebuds? And why Oreo cookies instead of something suitably British, like Jaffa cakes or custard creams?

As a brigade catering warrant officer points out, "One day they can be eating in Colchester, the next in Afghanistan and we want them to feel they're getting the same quality." Good to know they're not setting their sights too high.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Project 365

I've finally got round to starting my own Project 365 on Flickr. For the uninitiated, the idea is you upload a photo every day for a year; it's kind of a photo diary of your everyday life.

I meant to start in January, but I forgot until about the 13th and I had too many holes in my photos to make it worthwhile. Then I meant to start on 1st February, but I only remembered yesterday so it's going to run from Feb 2nd instead. A bit random but nobody says it has to be organised!

So far no photos of Logan, something of a miracle...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Monday, 2 February 2009

Effing Ramsay

Mark and I got totally absorbed in Ramsay's Great British Nightmares on Saturday - Gordon Ramsay as agony uncle, absolute genius - but I lost count of the number of times the f word was used, and it seems I wasn't the only one.

The difference is, I was glad they hadn't edited it out - most of the 'cuss words' came from a very angry, very frustrated Sheffield chef, not Ramsay himself, and the integrity of the programme would have been compromised if he'd been censored. I love the idea of MPs calling for Ramsay to be publicly flogged!

Let's hope Channel 4 doesn't bow to tabloid pressure the way the BBC did (don't they have anything better to report? I thought there was a recession on).

Warhol comes to N6

While we were in Crouch End at the weekend we also discovered an amazing little gallery and print studio called Jealous.

At the moment they're hosting an American art exhibition, and for a one-room gallery it's pretty substantial - I counted four Andy Warhol prints, a Lichtenstein, two Keith Harings and a couple of Basquiats, as well as some incredible pieces by people I'd never heard of (including Leslie Wayne and Allan D'Arcangelo, which I love). Apparently they're mostly from the personal collection of the owner (jealous, moi?), but if you've got a spare £25,000 a Warhol Dollar print could be yours!

Alternatively you could buy a print from one of the artists working in the print studio for a fraction of the price (Obama Tuesday prints were £25 unframed, a large portrait of the man £125).

Apologies for lack of photos, I was so in awe I forgot to take any. If you're in the area take a look, they're on Park Road near the wedding dress shop (which is currently displaying a photo of yours truly in full wedding garb!).

Logan goes to Oxfam

We had a jaunt to Crouch End at the weekend, they've got a comics section in the Oxfam bookshop there. Logan helped himself to a book from the children's shelves then wandered the entire shop until he found somewhere suitable to read, wedged against the revolving shelves by the front door.

Check out the reins that are cunningly disguised as a backpack, too - quite cool, but still don't stop him wandering into the road if you're not careful. And you feel a bit like you're walking a dog.

Muswell Hill in the snow

View from our front room

Muswell Hill Broadway

Why the buses aren't running...

The Broadway

Couldn't resist a detour through Highgate woods this morning

Snow day!

This is what happens when Mark works from home...

Muswell Hill is snowed in - I'm sure when there was a blizzard at home when I was younger the buses didn't grind to a halt (even if the school boiler broke with alarming regularity). That's what I get for deserting the north east for the bright lights of the big city.

Snow pics to follow later for those of you on another continent.