Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar: Utterly Ridiculous, Gloriously Entertaining

Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix - where would we be without silly sci-fi films to transport us away from the monotony of daily life into another dimension? Certainly it is one of my favourite things to sit in a cinema with spaceships flying towards me, losing myself in unfeasible plots and wondering whether it's wrong to fancy weird looking aliens.

I didn't know much about Avatar before we went to see it - only that it had cost a shedload of cash to produce and had been 15 years in the making. I'd seen a few snippets of willowy blue people with bows and gung-ho American soldiers brandishing guns, but that was about it.

Ant decided that we should go for his birthday, even though he was intent on hating it. I was actually looking forward to it, especially the fact that it was in 3-D. In the end we both loved it for all its gloriously overblown Hollywood silliness. It had spaceships, it had half naked aliens, it had clear cut goodies and baddies, it had romance. It also had summer season style UV garishness and the most obvious, flaky plot ever - but that's beside the point.

Unlike Ant, I didn't want to sit and pick holes in Avatar, I wanted it to excite and amaze me - and was quite prepared to turn a blind eye to its flaws in order to be utterly swept away in a sea of fantasy escapism. If you are out for cerebral stiumlation and astute observation, Avatar is not the film for you. If, like me, you just want to be entertained - don't miss the chance to see it on the big screen in 3D. It is truly a spectacle to behold.


Official Avatar Movie

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Giant Jaffa Cake: Recipe and Philosophy

Inspired by my friend Madame Jo Grey's impressively accurate giant French Fancy (baked for her daughter's 2nd birthday last year), I decided to attempt a similar feat with the humble jaffa cake. Like most sweet-toothed Brits, my other half Ant is a big fan of the jaffa cake and I loved the idea of presenting him with a home-baked giant version for his birthday. After much pondering and a little online research, I settled upon the method below - a mixture of existing recipes, intuition and my own invention. I was rather pleased with the result, which you can see pictured here (next to a standard jaffa cake to demonstrate scale).

The Giant Jaffa Cake was served at Ant's birthday party last night and became the subject of much admiration and discussion as it sat waiting to be eaten all evening. But the proof is in the pudding as they say, and I am happy to report that there was a big thumbs up all round from our guests, who scoffed the lot enthusiastically within minutes of it being cut.

Giant Jaffa Cake Recipe

Equipment & Ingredients

  • Wok or large curved frying pan (make sure this will fit in the oven), lined with greaseproof paper
  • Curved breakfast plate or shallow dish
  • Note: the wok/frying pan is to make the base and the plate will be the mold for the jelly, so make sure the two are the right proportions in relation to each other to create a convincing jaffa cake.
For the jaffa cake base:
225g unsalted butter
225g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
200g self raising flour
25g cornflour

For the jaffa cake topping:

Jar of shredless marmalade
Packet of orange or tropical fruit flavoured vegetarian jelly crystals (available from any good healthfood store)
150ml double cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
150g dark chocolate, broken into small chunks

Method

Preheat the oven to 180〬c/gas mark 4

Cream the butter and sugar together, by hand or in a mixer, until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and then the eggs, one at a time. As spoonful of flour between eggs will stop the mixture from curdling. When well combined, add the rest of the flour and the cornflour and finally a little milk to bring the mixture to a sticky batter consistency.

Pour the mixture into the lined frying pan or wok and check after 25 minutes. Use a cocktail stick to see if it is cooked through - if it comes out with cake mix on it you'll know it's still raw in the middle and will need to give it a bit longer. When's it's done it should look golden brown and feel springy to the touch. At this point, remove from the oven and leave in the wok on a rack for 10 minutes or so before carefully turning out the cake to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the jelly using half the amount of recommended liquid. Because I could only find tropical flavour vegetarian jelly, I made it up with a mixture of orange juice and water (boiled together). Add a dollop of orange marmalade to get that extra tanginess and mix with a fork until everything has dissolved. Pour into the plate or shallow dish, leave to cool then put in the fridge to set.


When both bits of the giant jaffa cake are cool, carefully slice the top off the cake to make a flat surface for the jelly. Mix a tablespoon of marmalade with a little freshly boiled water to make a paste. Brush this onto the centre of the cake where the jelly will go and leave to go sticky. Now comes the tricky bit. Carefully lift the cake and turn it upside down, lowering onto the plate of jelly. Holding both bits together firmly, turn the cake back over and hopefully the jelly will come loose. You may need to do a little adjusting to get it to sit centrally on the cake.

And now for the chocolate topping. Rather than using unadulterated melted chocolate - which is difficult to spread neatly and may melt the jelly - I prefer to use a ganache icing, which goes on cool and is much easier to spread. Pour the cream into a heavy bottomed saucepan and add the vanilla, butter and chocolate. Bring to the boil, agitating as you go to stop the chocolate pieces clumping. As soon as the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and whisk until thick and glossy.

Allow the icing to cool for 10 minutes or so, whisking occasionally to keep it smooth and making sure it doesn't start to set. Using a spatula or palette knife (I use the scraper that came with my Kenwood Chef), dollop the icing onto the cake, starting at the top of the jelly and spreading around evenly, working your way down in stages and making sure not to let it drip onto the underneath of the cake. Smooth everything over as much as possible, then use the side of your spreader to mark lines across the top in a criss-cross pattern. Go in opposite directions for each line to get the best effect.

Pop the cake in the fridge to set, then serve with pride.

Thanks and credit are due to my culinary guru Nigella Lawson whose baking bible How to Be a Domestic Goddess proved an invaluable resource in the development of the Giant Jaffa Cake.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Drunk in a Midnight Choir

“Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free” Leonard Cohen

As a devout young choir girl (head chorister no less), I used to take umbrage at the hoards of ‘Christmas Brigade’ punters who would rock up at midnight mass having not seen the inside a church all year except possibly for weddings, Christenings and funerals. It seemed unfair that I should be there every Sunday doing my bit while they just got to saunter in for the fun part once a year. Little did I imagine that one day it would be me rolling drunkenly into the back pew for a sing-song on Christmas Eve.

But why would a confirmed agnostic/pantheist indulge in such institutional religious rites? A sentimental attachment to old times is partly to blame - my spiritual life may no longer be tied to the church, but I still find immense comfort in the traditions and surroundings that were such a big part of my childhood and early adulthood.

The other main attraction is the music. Having been trained and immersed in it for so many years, my singing voice comes alive to sacred music, particularly the good old Christmas carol. My heart does not belong to Christmas until I have belted out the soaring descant to Oh Come all Ye Faithful by candlelight. The past few years I have been exercising my lungs on Christmas Eve at our local church, St George’s in Kemp Town, where I get an extra thrill from knowing that some of my favourite performers have also sung there. But it’s not just about sentiment and singing.

Christianity may have appropriated many of its festive traditions from the Pagans and Romans, but Christmas is Christmas now (not Yuletide or Saturnalia) and there’s no getting away from it. So whether you believe in Jesus or not, it only seems fitting to pay one's respects to the tradition that gives us that precious time off work to argue with family, max out our credit cards and over-indulge on rich food and booze.

Joking aside, I may not be religious but I am a sucker for tradition and ritual and there’s nothing like candlelit mass for conjuring ceremonial magic and summoning the festive spirit (figuratively speaking of course). So call me a hypocrite, but come Christmas Eve I’ll be there giving it all I’ve got in my once a year pseudo-spiritual seasonal devotional. And pious choir girls, please don’t hate me for it.

*******

Nothing to do with midnight mass but suitably festive, the above video is from this year's Wainwright/McGarrigle family Christmas show, 'A Not So Silent Christmas' at the Royal Albert Hall. I recommend the CD or DVD of the occasion as excellent festive listening and have also picked out a few other favourite alternative Christmas albums for fellow music lovers. Enjoy...


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sussex Gastro Pubs Series: The Lewes Snowdrop Reborn

Lately I've been trying to expand the circuit of pubs, cafes and restaurants that we frequent, rather than sticking to the same old places. There have been a few good discoveries this year, though I'm afraid we haven't branched out as much as I'd hoped. So last Sunday, in an attempt to broaden our horizons before the end of the year, we re-visited an old haunt that had gone gradually downhill in recent years but was reported to be back on form.

The Snowdrop in Lewes was a favourite back in my Sixth Form college days, when it was a bit of a crusty/biker/wicca hang-out, serving hearty vegetarian food and pints of Snakebite and black. I hadn't been for years until I started working down the Cliffe end of Lewes earlier this year and popped in to find it a shadow of its former self and barely able to scrape together a sandwich, let alone a decent Sunday lunch. I am delighted to say that this sorry situation has now been rectified by the pub's latest landlords, who have restored the place to its former glory - albeit with a few (pleasant) changes.

In place of the old bric-a-brac stage-set style decor, the inside of the Snowdrop now sports an array of homely canal boat style furnishings, while the exterior has been painted in a fetching shade of pale green. It is back to being a freehouse for the first time in ten years, serving an impressive range of local ales, Bavarian beers and posh ciders on tap, as well as a good selection of bottled booze.

But the most exciting development at the all-new Snowdrop is the all-new menu. The veggie roast I had there on Sunday was one of the best I've ever eaten at a pub - only my own home cooked roast would top it, and even then it would be a close thing. The nutroast was moist and flavoursome and packed with tasty ingredients like capers and sunflower seeds. There was a wide selection of veg including red cabbage, parsnips, peas, broccoli, roast potatoes and cauliflower, all cooked to perfection and packed with flavour. The only (very slight) criticism I could possibly raise was that I would have liked more of the delicious gravy - but then that is probably just me being greedy.

At most Sussex country pubs you'd wait at least half an hour, sometimes up to an hour, for Sunday lunch. Ours came in about ten minutes, even though the place was bustling. Unlike the previous landlords, the staff were friendly and chatty and justifiably proud of their efforts to transform the pub from seedy dive to cosy gastropub.

I'm looking forward to going back to the Snowdrop again for the C&M Christmas lunch next week, when hopefully I'll get to see what the upstairs looks like these days. Let's just pray that my colleagues behave themselves during the festivities, because I'd hate to get barred so soon after re-discovering this once again fabulous joint.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Another Year, Another Mixtape: The Annual Christmas Compilation

With the end of every year comes a string of essential rituals - some imposed by religious and historical tradition, some of our own making. For me one of the best year-end ceremonies is to sit down between Christmas and New Year's Eve to go through all our photographs from the year and put the best ones into an album - something we've been doing as a couple almost since the beginning.

Another rather more self-indulgent custom is the making of the annual 'Ant & Ro' CD - a compilation of our favourite and significant music from the year, usually dominated by bands we've seen live. These are distributed to friends and family who visit over the festive period and sometimes posted to other musically minded comrades.

As our tastes have grown more and more eclectic over the years, it's become trickier to compile a fluent mixtape of accessible music. Whilst my motivation is to share cool new discoveries and inspire musical exploration, I appreciate that not everyone cares as much as I do for the more esoteric Freakzone-ish end of the listening spectrum.

A couple of days ago I started thinking about this year's mix and jotting down some ideas for what might go into it. The hardest part has been whittling it down to just one CD's worth of tunes, from what has been an outstanding twelve months of musical enlightenment; what with four festivals and plenty of local gigs in between, my musical cup literally floweth over with bands that I want to shout about.

The other difficulty is actually tracking down recorded versions of unsigned material, which usually involves various emails to band members and ordering homemade CDs recorded in bedrooms and sold from dubious looking websites, hoping that they'll materialise. But this is all part of the ritual, and gradually the mixtape has started to take shape. It's not 100% finished yet, but what with the impending festive frivolities, I may not get another chance to share my annual compilation here.

The above YouTube playlist contains all the tracks that I could find in a reasonable format, but by the nature of the platform is of varying quality. Below is a complete tracklisting with download links and an Amazon preview widget that lets you listen to snippets from each song (if you want to hear more, go to the band website). The only one missing from the widget (because it's not available from Amazon) is Quack Quack, which I strongly recommend you listen to here (but only if you are into rambling energetic contemporary prog).


Ant & Ro 2009
1) Charlie Darwin by The Low Anthem from the album Oh My God Charlie Darwin
2) There is No Light by Wildbirds & Peacedrums from the album The Snake
3) Purée Hiphop by GaBlé from the album 7 Guitars with a Cloud of Milk
4) I Always Hang Myself with the Same Rope by Birdeatsbaby from the album Here She Comes-a-Tumblin'
5) Stone in my Shoe by Boo Hewerdine from the album Toybox no.2
6) The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid by The Decemberists from the album The Hazards Of Love
7) No Flies On Me (Ballad Of The Jam Head) by The Witch And The Robot from the album On Safari
8) Black Tambourine by Thomas Truax from the album Songs From The Films Of David Lynch
9) Kathy Ray by Joe Gideon & the Shark from the album Harum Scarum
10) Beggar's Prayer by Emilana Torrini from the album Me and Armini
11) Boat Behind by Kings of Convenience from the album Declaration of Dependence
12) Manty by Sebastien Tellier from the album Sexuality
13) Frida Found A Friend (Live) by Efterklang from the album Performing Parades
14) In the Upper Room: Dance V by Philip Glass form the album Dancepieces
15) Aeon by Antony & the Johnsons from the album The Crying Light
16) Mars by Quack Quack, available from Run of the Mill Records
17) Night Terror by Laura Marling from the album Alas, I Cannot Swim
18) Join the Dots by Tim and Sam's Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam from the album Put Your Slippers On



If you would like a copy of the final CD, leave me a comment and I'll see if I've got one spare at the end of the festive season.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sussex Gastro Pubs Series: The Lion & Lobster Has an Upstairs (Who Knew?)

Things are always changing in Brighton & Hove - it's one of those towns where cafes come and go and pubs change hands in the blink of an eye. It can be disconcerting to discover that somewhere you've known and loved has changed beyond recognition, but then again, sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised.

Last night I went on a nostalgic walkabout with Jo around some of my old haunts in Hove borders - the Cooper's Cask (which hasn't changed a bit) and the Lion Lobster (which has). Back when we were living in Bedford Place, the Lion & Lobster was our local and has remained a favourite watering hole whenever we're in those parts.

It's been over a year since I last popped in for a scoop and I was surprised to discover some substantial developments had occurred in that time. Having already been extended to include a row of cosy booths off the back room, the pub has now doubled in size with an upstairs bar and restaurant and even an upstairs beer garden. The sectioned off cosy restaurant - with its higgledy-piggledy pictures and homely lamps - has the atmosphere of a private members' club, and though we were too late to sample the standard cuisine, we did indulge in a pizza from the late night menu (available til 2am Fridays & Saturdays) so that we could sit in the swanky bit. I'm looking forward to going back for a proper meal in due course - but do let me know what it's like if you have eaten there yourself.

Photo of the Lion & Lobster by Koschi on Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Rainy/Sunny Weekend in South Devon

Having tried living in Sussex (Brighton, then Beeding) for a short while last year, my dear friend Harriet decided she needed to be somewhere more rural and departed for the rugged and windswept South Devon coast. She bagged a job at the Field Studies Centre in Slapton, and now resides on site, just a stone's throw from Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve (it's the biggest lake on the South coast, you know) and the nearby sparse shingle beach and rocky shore.

Now I love the countryside, but I could never possibly live somewhere so remote (unless of course I had a little pied-à-terre in Town as well). I've always loved Sussex for its pleasing balance between the bucolic and the urban and have grown to take for granted having certain amenities on tap. Knowing this about me, Harriet has always been at pains to stress the abundance of activities on offer in her new adopted home territory in an attempt to coax me away from my cosy townie existence for a visit.

Last weekend I finally succummed and went to see what all the fuss was about. I've been to Devon many times before - on childhood holidays and camping with Ant in the early days before we could afford jaunts to California and the like - but never to this particular area. As we were driving down the A303 on Friday night in the howling wind and rain, we began to wish we'd arranged something sooner and come in the summer months like any sane person would.

Opening the curtains to reveal a stunning panoramic sea view from our cosy B&B the next morning, we watched a lone dog walker struggling against the elements and resigned ourselves to a weekend of indoor activities. The first thing Harriet did when we arrived in Slapton was to take us down to the beach. In the rain. And the wind. Oh and did I mention the rain? Luckily I had my wellies and waterproof with me, but this didn't stop me from getting wet knees when the waves crashed up more energetically than anticipated. After a "walk" that basically involved us staggering about getting soaked for five minutes, we decide to cut our losses and head for civilisation.

The nearest 'happening' place to Slapton is Totnes, which is a lot like Lewes, only slightly less haughty. Inland, the weather was less severe and a few patches of blue sky had even started appearing. I was right at home amongst the endless hippy shops and lush organic delis, but my ultimate shopping nirvana materialised when I followed a glimpse of sequins spied through a dark doorway into a vintage clothing and costumery cavern the like of which I have only ever dreamed of before. I could easily have spent several hours and many hundreds of pounds indulging my fancy dress habit, but there was a carpe to diem and lunch to be had.

You can't go to Devon without having at least one cream tea and so when we found ourselves in Dartmouth later that day, we made it a priority to find one. We also took the opportunity to stock up on local cider and ale, some of which we drank by the pretty riverside right there and then, as day sloped into evening. Back in Slapton, Harry's boyfriend Ben cooked us up a hearty pie, made with hand-gathered chestnuts. When the booze supply started thinning out we walked around the corner to the pub for a scoop or two before closing and found ourselves surrounded by a bizarre mix of rowdy university students and chatty locals.

Thankfully I was not at all hungover the next day, because Harriet had optimistically booked us onto a guided geology walk at 10am. I haven't been on an organised walk since the days of Girl Guides night hikes but clearly they are popular in those parts, because we weren't the only group assembling in the car park in Prawle. Our enthusiastic steward was flagging down anyone in hiking boots, asking them "are you here for the AONB walk?" to which one grumpy lady disdainfully replied "no, I hike alone". She didn't know what she was missing, because not only was it a stunning tour of a truly dramatic bit of coastline, but I actually learned a lot about rocks along the way.

It had been a packed weekend of activities as promised, and I was sad to have to go home again so soon. I'm looking forward to going back in the spring when I'm assured there will be even more natural delights to see, perhaps even a seal or two. If you are passing down that way any time soon, I can highly recommend Frogwell B&B in Strete, who were friendly and accommodating and entirely free from chintz. And if you happen to be sinking a pint at the Tower pub in Slapton, say hello to Harry from me - because she's bound to be in there.

* * * * * * *

Unfortunately my camera was stolen just after we got back, complete with all the film I'd shot over the weekend. So the above photo of Slapton Ley comes courtesy of me'n thedogs' on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Best of Breakfast in Bed

I was reading the latest post on Simon Hickson's excellent blog, Mummified Fox, when the idea struck me (or rather, I shamelessly stole it) to do a roundup of my favourite posts from the last four years of my own blog. I set up Breakfast in Bed around this time of year in 2005 and finally got round to publishing my first post in January 2006. It makes me slightly sad to think of all those stories languishing in the archive, so I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the best ones in the hope that they will be read and enjoyed once again. So without further ado, here they are:

March 2006 - I Love Taj. A hymn to my favourite Brighton food shop.

May 2006 - Neil Innes at Komedia. One of the first ever Breakfast in Bed gig reviews, this write-up was also published (in a slightly edited version) in the Independent.

May 2007 - Djinn of the Tin. A bizarre and very Brighton episode in which I acted the part of genie to a random stranger via SMS.

August 2007 - Thoughts Like Bubbles. How I went from melancholy to philosophical to down right jolly all in one day through the power of people watching.

January 2008 - An Obsession Explored. A classic fancy dress adventure with me as Karen Carpenter and a look back at how the whole costume fetish began.

February 2008 - Life Through a Lens. My journey from film to digital photography.

July 2008 - A Cup of Tea and a Cake. Some of my favourite places in the world to go for a freshly baked bun and a brew.

November 2008 - A Smile Restored. The end of a fairly miserable and physically painful chapter of my life.

May 2009 - San Francisco, You Stole My Heart. Bit of an epic this one - all about our wonderful holiday in California.

August 2009 - Bring Back Trevor & Simon. A gleeful "welcome back" to my ultimate comedy heroes, whose genius podcasts have been tickling me rotten these last few months.

September 2009 - A Sparkly, Spangly Place. The best music festival of 2009 was undoubtedly End of the Road. Good food, great company, outstanding music and sparkly woodland groves made for a brilliant finale to the summer.

So that's it - some of the highlights from an eventful few years as brought to you by Breakfast in Bed. Thanks for reading and do stay tuned for further adventures coming very soon.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Family Holiday in Brittany

When you are five, life is a confusing mix of alluring fantasy and half-learned reality. Little wonder then that until witnessing proof to the contrary, my little nephew was convinced that sharks did not exist - a fact about which he corrected me repeatedly whenever the subject was raised. Presumably he perceived them as a mythological creature in the realms of dragons and unicorns - the likes of which he is now emphatically grown up enough to refute.

It was the most charming experience to observe my nephew's little face as we entered the shark tank at Saint-Malo Grand Aquarium during a recent holiday in Brittany. "Wow" he exclaimed - much as one might upon encountering a real live pixie during a walk in the woods - "sharks really do exist". The magic of the moment was magnified by its resemblance to a certain scene in The Box of Delights in which the hero Kay Harker (played in the classic 80s BBC version by my nephew's father, my brother Devin) cries "A phoenix! I've really seen a phoenix!"

This was one brilliant moment in a holiday full of memorable firsts: for us, the first time taking Isaac away, for him the first time properly abroad (Guernsey family trip notwithstanding), plenty of new foods sampled and the beginnings of new language skills introduced. It was a completely different kind of holiday for Ant and me, who usually spend our days thinking about where to eat in the evening and our evenings eating and drinking too much. Because there was no chance of a lie in and I was struggling with a grotty cold for the first few days, we tended to be tucked up in our four poster with a good book before 10 o'clock.

The medieval cottage we rented in Dinan - much like the town itself - was like something out of a fairy tale. A huge stone fireplace, crooked beams and a rugged spiral staircase all made for a wonderful atmosphere that infused our days and nights. Isaac was in awe of his huge attic playroom and looked tiny curled up in the corner in his bed at night. Apart from the odd drunken student staggering loudly back towards the Youth Hostel at night, it was serenely quiet - despite being in the heart of town. I relished the lack of television and internet connection which gave us the rare opportunity to actually read books and have lengthy conversations.

Besides the awesome aquarium adventure, we explored many of Brittany's other delights including Dinan's castle ramparts and picturesque riverside, the sprawling sandy beaches of Saint-Malo and Dinard and the rockier coast further West. Isaac seemed to grow in confidence as the days went on - swinging form the trees in a fantastic adventure park, clambering over rocks at the seaside, ordering his own pudding - 'une glace du chocolat' - in French at a restaurant and steering the little motor boat we hired to explore the river. There was so much inspiration in the way of castles and knights and boats and pirates and the like, that we barely heard mention of the dreaded Spiderman or Optimus Prime and instead fostered Isaac's growing interest in all things Asterix.

While we were entertaining their Son across the Channel, Isaac's mum and dad (my brother and his girlfriend) were enjoying their first holiday away alone since he came along - in the pictureqsue but apparently sodden Isle of Mull. So I like to think I can take at least part credit for the engagement that ensued as a result of this rare romantic break - about which you can read here. Congratulations to the future Mr & Mrs Stanfield - and thanks for the loan of your boy, he really was a treat.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kings of Convenience at the De La Warr Pavilion

Last week Ant and I went one of our rare midweek semi-spontaneous date nights, to go and see Kings of Convenience at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. Unless you have seen the De La Warr, you may wonder why on earth any band would choose to perform in Bexhill of all places, but even before you step inside this striking Art Deco building, you start to appreciate the draw. Ever since its refurbishment in the early noughties, the De La Warr has been attracting illustrious artists from Goldfrapp to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and is well worth the 45 minunte trip from Brighton.

Kings of Convenience may not be the most challenging of bands, but they win the prize in my eyes as the most soothing; their dulcet harmonies and expert intricate guitar playing are the musical equivalent of morphine. Way back when Ant and I were first living in Brighton we would often kick back with a glass of red and wind down from the trials of London commuting to their 2001 debut album, Quiet is the New Loud. It's up there with Ben & Jason's Emoticons (just available on Spotify by the way) as a sentimental classic of our 'early years' together.

It felt very special to finally see Kings of Convenience live and in such an atmospheric - and acoustically blessed - venue. The band were in good spirits all evening, playfully bantering between songs and telling us tales of their early days and first ever gig in East Sussex. With their permission I captured the above video snippet which - even though it is only recorded on a basic point and shoot - reveals something of their musical artistry. For the full experience, you will have to go and see them for yourselves.

The new Kings of Convenience album, Declaration of Dependence, was released in the UK this week.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Grab Your Glad Rags Honey, It's The Blind Tiger Club!

Brighton clubbing to many people means the garish seafront strip of venues populated by stag and hen parties and scantily clad teens. Fortunately for those of us to whom this scenario is tantamount to torture, we also have the likes of Born Bad, Da Doo Ron Ron, Dynamite Boogaloo, Vive La Fip, Carnivalesque and Balkaneasca to satisfy our boogie cravings. These are all fun nights, but rarely is there anything on the scale of last weekend's Blind Tiger Club - billed as a "backstreet speakeasy".

If the organisers had wanted it to be a truly clandestine event, they presumably wouldn't have advertised it on Facebook, but the idea was a laudable one all the same. The secret location turned out to be the old music library in the North Laine, an internally dilapidated 1920s building on three storeys, recently opened up for creative community events after years of standing disused. I was right at home in the prohibition era dress code - a vintage style for which flat chests and short hair are de rigeur. Being an "any excuse to dress up" kind of town, most people had also entered into the spirit, with an eye-pleasing array of trilby clad dapper gents and feathered up ladies strutting their stuff.

The faded grandeur of the venue gave the night a suitably speakeasy feel, although the (distinctly un-vintage) security staff and festival style outdoor portaloos did detract from the retro vibe slightly. The irrepressible pedant in me was irked to hear the odd burst of more recent (albeit 1950s) music, as if everything before 1960 should be banded together as "the music of yesteryear". On any other occasion I'd be the first to get up and jive, but in this context found it physically impossible to reconcile Rock n Roll with my flapper get-up. There was also no sign of the promised "live magic shows, cabaret, walkabout performance, grand piano and table service". But mild disappointments aside, I was in heaven - throwing myself around to a jolly selection of swing, jazz and big band and employing all sorts of half-remembered dodgy amdram moves.

Each of the three levels maintained a very distinct vibe throughout the night, with most of the action happening down in the wonderfully seedy basement, where all the more danceable bands were playing. Everyone piled down there for the much hyped Correspondents, but I was non-plussed about them and took the opportunity to enjoy the more easygoing atmosphere upstairs. It was there that I discovered The Roulettes, whose somewhat sinister take on the Puppini Sisters' swing-punk schtick made for entertaining listening indeed.

By 5am I was hoary-eyed and footsore, but still bouncing along as I toddled home - accompanied for part of the way by Matty Mo, who'd been working behind the bar. And the swell thing was that despite the excessive absinthe consumption, there was hardly a whiff of hangover the next day. Copacetic.

Photos from The Blind Tiger Club on Flickr.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Am a Shooting Star: a Spaced Out Sci Fi Party

Ever since the Green Man Festival 2007 I've been trying to track down a song called 'I am an Astronaut', played in the dance tent there by Pete Fowler of Monsterism fame as the final track of his stormingly groovy DJ set (to which I can be seen dancing here).

All I could ever find, though, was a downbeat version by Snow Patrol which you'd never want to play at a party (unless you wanted people to leave). I managed to determine that the original was by Ricki Wilde (younger brother of Kim) and was originally recorded in the 70s - but never actually found anywhere to download or buy it.

When we decided to throw a space themed party for my birthday this year, I knew I had to include the song in my DJ set, and renewed my quest in earnest. With a little more online know-how and some purposeful determination, I eventually found it.

The 'Spaced Out' theme inspired some of the best costume efforts I've ever seen amongst my friends, and with the addition of a robot dancing competition, a superb Clangers cake (made by my talented sister), a screening of the legendary Turkish Star Wars and some out of this world live music from St Anthony's Fire, it truly was a night to remember.

Finally spinning the tune I've been dreaming about for the last two years, I watched affectionately from behind the decks as my drunken amigos stumbled around in a cloud of glitter, hugging each other in that end of the night "you're brilliant, no you're brilliant" way. I like birthdays.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Spangly, Sparkly Place: The End of the Road Festival 2009

It's not often you leave a music festival feeling perkier than when you arrive, but that's exactly what happened to me at the End of the Road festival last weekend. Unfortunately, this wasn't anything to do with the reviving qualities of the festival, but more due to the fact that I'd only had three hours sleep the night before it started. I'd had a brilliant evening on Thursday at Brightwest II, playing 'Murder She Twote', chatting to the assembled Twitterati and knocking back a pint or five of ale at the Black Lion. How on earth we went from this relatively civilised gathering to a seedy all-nighter in the Bulldog (I know!) is anyone's guess . It must have seemed like a good idea at the time; not so much when the alarm went off at 7am the next morning.

"How much muesli does one man need?"
Steve, upon arriving at the End of the Road Festival armed with a mountain of cereal

But the End of the Road was calling (in so many ways) and I had other people relying on me to get them there too. I'd planned on having a disco nap when we arrived in Dorset, but as it turned out, it was all far too exciting. Set in the picturesque Larmer Tree Gardens, the End of the Road Festival is now in its fourth year, and fast gaining a reputation as the serious music lover's festival. Some would call the line-up alternative, I'd say fundamental. Much to my own personal delight, End of the Road is largely a festival for chin-stroking, album-buying, real ale-drinking DINKYS and empty nesters, with only the occasional obligatory festy crusty and over-excited tween.

"Do you consider yourself worthy of a poetic license?"
Paul, to me, sometime in the early hours of Saturday morning.

There were so many highlights during the weekend that it would be hard to boil them down into a single readable blog post, but a few bands stood out in terms of atmosphere and sheer accomplishment. The one I'd been most excited about was the Low Anthem, who I'd discovered back in May at the Great Escape Festival and have been raving about to anyone who'll listen ever since. I was extra thrilled when it turned out they were playing not one but two sets during the weekend.

"Unless it's cake, it can f**k off"
Matty, on my aversion to brandy other than in pudding

The first Low Anthem gig was in the smallest venue - the Tipi tent - which looked cute from the outside, but turned out to be a terrible space for live music. Despite persistent sound problems and noise pollution from the neighbouring tent, Low Anthem appeared composed as they delivered an intimate set, mostly of their more obscure material. But it wasn't until their second gig on Saturday that the band really shone, bringing a packed out audience at the Garden Stage to its metaphorical knees. I've never heard a quieter field of festival goers as in between songs during the Low Anthem's End of the Road performance. Rapturous applause gave way to mesmerised silence after each song as we all eagerly awaited the next. So many other bands get by on catchy tunes and adequate musicianship, that it's impossible not to be affected by the sheer arresting intensity of the Low Anthem's immense talent and potent delivery.

"In the light, I can tell when people's eyes are glazing over"
Nick, on our general inability as a group to pay attention

Efterklang came in a close second as most enjoyable set of the weekend with their uplifting New Wave tinged Post Rock. Not many of the bands I went to see were particularly danceable, though I did have a silly strut about to Herman Dune and hurt my neck moshing to The Heavy. With a choice of four different stages, plus the odd spontaneous gig in the woods, it was sometimes difficult to choose where to park yourself. I tended to wander round until something caught my ear and then stick with it. Out of all the festival's venues, The Local (curated by esteemed promoter Howard Monk) yielded the most exciting new discoveries, including my final band of the weekend, Quack Quack, who succeeded in fulfilling my (quite vocal) craving for a prog fix.

"Behave, or you'll get turned into sausages"
Linda, getting all teacherly on us

I was also really taken with Wildbirds & Peacedrums, who can only be described as 'Drum n Blues' - the set up being a female bluesy singer accompanied only by drums and various percussion noises. Her powerfully husky voice was enough to carry the lack of any other instrumentation, and I have not seen such fervent drumming since the Muppets. A namecheck must also go to Faceometer and his friend the Dapper Swindler, whose unofficial woodland jamming kept us all enthralled, and distracted me from the disappointment of being told not to climb trees by security. To be fair to security, they were pretty laid back in their fun-spoiling, even in the face of my loud protestation: "I climb trees all the time when you're not here. There's no law against climbing trees." All power to Nick for beautifully diffusing the situation, and winning a bet at the same time, when he offered the guy in question £50 to dance the Can-Can for him.

"You're my best sparkly forest band I've ever seen"
Michael, to Faceometer and the Dapper Swindler

It was exactly this kind of jovial, conspiratorial atmosphere that kept everyone smiling at the End of the Road and made it so easy to make new friends along the way. The lack of Hippy Shit and abundance of excellent food and ale also helped a lot. I sincerely hope the organisers are never tempted to increase the capacity, because it felt nicely intimate at the 5,000 mark. I came away feeling as though I'd shared a special moment with a chosen few, and I like that feeling very much. More of the same next year, please.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Happily Hysterical: Steph & Russ Tie the Knot

When two people you love profess their love for one another to the world, it is a deeply moving thing. This is my way of saying that I always cry at weddings. When you get to my age, summers are peppered with weddings and, increasingly, christenings (or naming ceremonies), and it gets harder to find something glamorous to wear that won’t have been seen at a previous event. It also seems to get harder to hold back the emotions that accompany such ceremonious happenings.

The latest do at which I found myself touching up smudged mascara and lending concealer to a complete stranger in the ladies’ loo was the marriage celebrations of my good friends Steph and Russ, who finally tied the knot last Friday after eleven years of courtship.

I wasn’t present for the actual ceremony, but was waiting outside Brighton Town Hall to greet the newlyweds, along with a full Samba band, who serenaded them through the streets of Brighton and onto the party buses which took us to the reception venue in Shoreham. I am not a great lover of Samba myself, but on this occasion it was a touchingly fitting tribute to the pair, who are well known for their love of hip-swinging tunes and for being committed purveyors of the carnival spirit.

But the thing that really lodged a lump in my throat was the groom’s refreshingly sincere speech later that day. In contrast to the best man’s traditionally humorous and anecdotal address, Russell’s speech was a gushing (but in no way sickly) appreciation of his new wife. The icing on the cake was their immaculately rehearsed spontaneous first dance, about as far from the improvised epic Bollywood spree Ant and I spontaneously chose for our wedding, but equally appropriate to the couple in question.

The entire day was bursting with joy, and as the above video testifies, even the most cynical souls were touched by the romance of it all. After throwing themselves into the festivities, the happy couple eventually departed to their swanky Kemp Town hotel, while their guests kept on celebrating - some into the next day I am told.

Personally I was happy to collapse into bed and steal myself for another misty-eyed ritual in the shape of my youngest nephew’s first birthday party the following afternoon. Tomorrow the older one starts school and I know I will howl when I see a picture of him in uniform. Thank goodness I have a festival lined up this weekend to recover from all this emotion - though I am certain something will make me cry during the proceedings. It doesn’t take much these days.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Going La La at Shambala

Usually when I go to festivals, it's all about the music – discovering new bands, hero-worshipping favourite ones and generally jumping up and down in a field (or tent) for three or four days. Of course many of the more interesting festies these days also have other stuff on offer – theatre, comedy, cabaret, craft activities and more - but to me the music is always at the heart of the festival experience. So it was a bit of a shock to the system to go to Shambala, where the music turned out to be more of an afterthought. Unless you are big into smugadelic funk and uber-jolly world music, you would probably feel the same.

Apart from the odd burst of more moody and interesting bands - Kid iD, My Panda Shall Fly, The Legend of the 7 Black Tentacles - variations on a funky theme was pretty much the order of the day. I can handle this kind of music in small doses, maybe even enjoy it for a night, but four days solid is a bit much. Luckily there were plenty of other diversions on offer, not least the hoardes of like-minded, friendly people. After music, people-watching and photography are two of my favourite pursuits, and there was plenty of opportunity for both at Shambala. Once I'd got over the lack of musical inspiration, I threw myself into the spirit of the occasion wholeheartedly, working the colourful fields and woods of Kelmarsh estate with camera in hand and mind firmly open.

The things I remember most from the weekend were the random encounters and conversations, though I am sure there are plenty of those I have also forgotten. As is so often the way, the best party action was all going down in the tiniest tent in the far corner of a field, where those who dared to venture found kindred spirits and music to lift the soul. Saturday's fancy dress parade provided a feast for the eyes, with highlights including the complete cast of Sesame Street, a Tetris troop and a pack of Crayola crayons. I'm sad to say that my own costume efforts were rather more understated, but thankfully more than made up for by my illustrious friends' various ensembles – which you can see in glorious technicolour above.

After dancing and ranting the night away on Friday and Saturday, Sunday brought more sedate activities in the form of a chin theatre, an animatronic horse display and some excellent cabaret, including a pole-tango-acrobatics routine (it has to be seen to be believed) that rounded off my weekend beautifully in a flourish of theatrical splendour. And in the absence of interesting music, theatrical splendour is the next best thing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Discovering Liverpool

Before I met Ant, I hadn't seen much of the North of England - just a few childhood trips to Hull to visit family friends and that was about it. Based on this limited experience, I'd always imagined it to be a depressingly grey and industrial place and not at all holidaying material. In the last decade we've been up to Lytham to see Ant's family at least twice a year - exploring other bits of the North at the same time - and my eyes have been opened to its many delights.

One place that we'd never visited until now though was Liverpool - strange considering it's only an hour's drive from the in-laws. Having been brought up on the Beatles, Liverpool has always intrigued me, so this trip just gone we decided to finally check out the home of the Fab Four and take a day trip down.

I'm not sure what I'd expected from Liverpool, but I was pleasantly surprised. When we arrived it was lunchtime, and I had already looked up a place to eat - the Egg cafe - which had also been recommended to me by one of my Twitter contacts, @misscay. A rustic studenty loft serving homely vegetarian grub, it reminded me of the cafe at the top of Affleck's Palace, one of my favourite Manchester haunts. After a hearty lunch of spicy stew and salad, we came out of there and straight into a funky indoor market, where we lost the next hour or so ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the wondrous selection of vintage clothes.

I was particularly charmed by the glamour of Liverpool - everyone was very dressed up for a Saturday afternoon (especially compared to scruffy Brighton), with lots of maxi dresses and girls in curlers (again, not something you'd ever see in Brighton - unless it was part of a fancy dress costume), presumably preparing for their big night out. Even if I had long hair, I could never be fagged to go to such efforts, but am in awe of anyone who would.

We found the alley where the original Cavern Club once was - now only a boarded up doorway with some pictures and historical bumph. On the other side of the street, a load of Japanese tourists were misguidedly taking pictures of the venue's namesake pub. I Didn't like to shatter their illusion. A quick visit to the the Beatles store on the corner resulted in Ant purchasing himself a rather fetching Beatnik hat - the sort of hat you'd only ever buy on holiday, but marvellous nonetheless.

After that we wandered down to the Dockside to have a look at the murky Mersey and take a bimble round. A visit to the Tate concluded with us bopping on an underlit dancefloor in the middle of a sculpture gallery, listening to 70s funk on silent disco style headphones. As you do. A couple of kids joined in, but I think the other grown ups presumed we were part of the exhibition. It was nice to see Degas' Little Dancer again, especially with the atmospheric addition of a glitter ball's spangly lighting.

I am not a fan of shopping malls, but Liverpool's L1 - an open-topped shopping centre that flows nicely into the surrounding areas - is an exception. It goes without saying that most of the shops were pretty generic and the same as you'd find on any high street, but there were a few gems. I actually ended up buying a load of stuff from Hennes, just because the Brighton branch is comparitively small and always rammed. I was almost goaded into buying a silly holiday hat too, but resisted.

And so my first visit to Liverpool came to an end - though I hope it will be the first of many explorations of this stylish and sassy city.

Picture of 'Sculpture Remixed' taken from: www.artinliverpool.com/blog

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Bring Back Trevor and Simon

Whenever confronted about my 'unconventional' sense of humour, I tend to blame the Dada comedy on which I was raised - Monty Python, The Bonzos, The Goons and co. These guys certainly gave me an appreciation of the surreal, but the drollery and sarcasm can be traced back to a much more contemporary source - those legends of Saturday morning kids' TV, Trevor and Simon.

During my formative teenage years, Trevor and Simon punctuated the weekends with their sardonic sketches and eccentric, often manic or contemptuous characters. Say to anyone of my generation "swing your pants" or "let's roll on the floor" and it's guaranteed to raise a smile of nostalgic recognition. We loved Trevor and Simon because they were the least patronising children's "entertainers" of the time, and best of all, because they ripped the piss out of many an annoying celebrity on Going Live and Live and Kicking. I was such a fan that I even went to see them live - at Brighton Dome in 1991.

Looking at the more offbeat character-based comedy shows of today - Mighty Boosh, Little Britain, Mitchell and Webb - all written by and starring 30-somethings who grew up in the 80s and 90s - it seems obvious that they owe a debt (whether conscious or not) to Trevor and Simon's silly Saturday antics. But whatever happened to our deadpan childhood heroes? By the late nineties we were all off at university and sleeping in on Saturday mornings and they seemed to have disappeared into obscurity; the much-loved Stupid Video started gathering dust on the shelf. Occasionally I would hear of other projects they had going like the Circus of Evil at Edinburgh Festival, but they never seemed to find another niche outside of their original territory.

Then just the other week, Ant came home with amusingly windswept hair and a sporting new goatee, when suddenly Trevor and Simon's World of the Strange popped into my head. Of course I went straight onto YouTube to substantiate the comparison, and found myself heading off on a right old trip down memory lane. This in turn led to a string of other online discoveries, including the revelation that Trevor and Simon were on Twitter (why had I never thought to look before?). But best of all, I found their blog, on which is published a Trevor and Simon podcast.

Having listened to the latest podcast in the series, I am pleased to report that the duo have lost none of their bantering chemistry and are still as waggishly witty as ever. It was a delight to find myself immersed in a world of strange tangents and acerbic rants, delivered by the comfortingly familiar voices of my childhood heroes. The other five installments I am saving for an upcoming roadtrip Up North. All power to the duo for taking the task of a Trevor and Simon renaissance upon themselves - welcome back boys, we've missed you!

Links
Trevor and Simon's blog (you can also download the other podcasts here)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fun in the Sun at Camp Bestival 2009

Summer wouldn't be the same for me without festival season. The magical combination of random dressing up, musical discovery, people-watching, dancing on the grass and sleeping under canvas - you can't beat it. The first festival in my annual calendar is always Great Escape in May, which doesn't really count because it's not in a field and you get to sleep in your own bed at night - but it breaks you in gently at least.

Last weekend I went to the first full-on festival of the year, Camp Bestival down in Dorset. I'd heard good things about its mellow family vibe, and though I don't have littleuns of my own, I always find that their presence at such event makes for a more respectful, salubrious and less manic environment. We took advantage of the small 'non-family' section of the campsite so as not to be woken too early by excitable youngsters, but other than that, I welcomed their input to the weekend's proceedings.

Though it didn't have the edginess of more musically esoteric festivals like Green Man and End of the Road, Camp Bestival scored on many other counts and was a fun and relaxing (and mostly sunny) few days. The facilities were good - especially the compost toilets, which actually became something of a talking point amongst the kids (and some of the adults), who seemed to enjoy throwing sawdust on their poo. Everything felt very well organised, apart from the shortfall in programmes which made it difficult for those without one to find out what was on when.

One of my main gripes with other festivals, especially now that I'm getting on a bit, is the lack of somewhere to sit other than the grass. I love sitting on the grass, but it's nice to kick back somewhere more comfortable when the cramp sets in and the joints start seizing up. Camp Bestival had this covered, with four-poster beds, double deck chairs, sofas, daybeds and other snug reclining options dotted about the place. They also had a real ale tent, which despite its slightly odd location in the kids field, was a cool place to hang out, with acoustic gigs from little folk bands turning out to be some of the best music of the weekend.

On the main stage, Hayseed Dixie got everyone into the festival spirit with a foot-stamping sing-a-long set on Friday afternoon. All the cool kids ploughed down to the front for Florence and the Machine, who provided much entertainment with her flailing dance moves and slightly unhinged banter. Other main-stage highlights included Mercury Rev, Alela Diane, Nancy Elizabeth and 70s soul legend Candi Staton, who still glitters with showbiz brio 40 years after her first hit record. I was surprised to see some of the more popular acts including PJ Harvey, Bon Iver and Laura Marling appearing over in the Big Top, which meant that many disappointed punters ended up watching them on the screen from outside.

After-hours we avoided the big dance tents - from which non-stop 'boom-boom' house music was blaring - and instead got our boogie fix at a groovy little 'secret' bar we discovered that played lots of ska, jazz and funk, with the occasional live band. We also sampled the bawdy delights of the Time for Tease cabaret tent, where burlesque scene stalwart Des O'Connor (not that Des O'Connor) was doing his thing, introducing a variety of camp, coarse and sometimes just gleefully crap, acts.

On Saturday night we ventured into the Big Top for the Silent Disco, a first for both me and Harry. I remember peering into one of these years ago at Roskilde Festival in Denmark and being most perplexed at the sight of people bopping around in silence. They've since become more widespread but I'd yet to sample one for myself. You're handed a set of headphones on the way in, on which you have the choice of two channels from two different DJs, each fighting for your allegiance. It's hilarious to hear 500 people belting out their chosen track, obliviously out of tune and dancing out of synch with each other. Apart from the obvious benefit of being able to keep the party going for longer, Silent Disco is also great for us oldies who like to stop and have a conversation in between dancing. If it hadn't been for Harriet's dodgy ankle, we'd have stayed all night.

Beyond the musical entertainments, there were plenty of other activities to keep adults and kids entertained. We enjoyed a couple of giggly walks round "Dingly Dell", where a troup of very po-faced performance artists were acting out a literal struggle with red tape in some sort of political allegory. We also drew each other in the 'Trace a Face' tent, a simple but most amusing diversion.

The official fancy dress parade was on the Sunday, but this didn't stop folks from donning wigs, masks, face paint and all manner of wacky adornments throughout the festival. Unfortunately I hadn't had the time to create anything very special myself, and my half-arsed bat costume looked embarrassingly lame next to Steve's hand-felted doggy ears and tail, Linda's intricately painted leather bird-mask and fancy wings and Harry's glowing abdomen. But despite my fancy dress inferiority complex, I was well in the spirit with flowers on my face, good friends by my side, ale in my hand and a spring in my step. And that's what festivals are all about.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Looking Back with New Eyes

It’s been a curiously nostalgic and reflective week, thanks to a string of out of the blue, blast from the past encounters.

The first was a random Facebook chat with an old High School friend - someone with whom I’d had a passing but happy acquaintance before changing schools in the second year. Our bonding at the time may have had more to do with a sense of solidarity over the fact that we both had unusual names than anything else, but this is as good a reason as any to be friends when you’re 12.

Looking back at those days tends to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. I always considered myself an outsider, never having the right clothes or attitudes to be one of the gang, but also never wanting to compromise my convictions to fit in. That in mind, it was touching and somewhat heartening to be told by someone who knew me then that they’d always remembered me for not having followed the crowd, and now respected my then alien opinions.

Apparently I once told her (though I don’t remember this) that it was far better to be proud of getting a bargain than to show off about how much you paid for something. In the materialistic climate of the 1980s, this was revolutionary thinking indeed; these days it doesn’t seem so radical.

The very next night, another chat window popped up from one of my old theatre cronies - someone I’ve known for going on two decades. We shared many a crazy night back in the day, but were never really what you’d call bosom buddies. I was a few years younger than most of the crew at the time, and always felt that they tolerated my presence rather than embraced it. So it was nice to hear that he apparently thought my youthful pontificating and feminist views endearing.

How strange that the lingering insecurities of youth can be so easily dispelled by such spontaneous and unexpected conversations.

The nostalgia trip continued when on Thursday night I was in my local, getting ready for pub quiz, and in walked a face I haven’t seen since Sixth Form. We exchanged the usual ‘how’ve you been?’ ‘what are you doing now?’ formalities, then quite unprompted, he uttered the three magic words: “you’ve aged well”. I could have kissed him right there. As if that delicious little ego-boost wasn’t more than enough to make my night, Ant and I rather embarrassingly went and won the quiz with our team of two. And we hadn’t even done any research.

That night I slept marvellously and dreamed that I bumped into a friend from university with whom I have sadly lost touch. That is one era from which I don’t have any particular hang-ups in need of resolving, but it would be nice to see her again all the same. Sandra Borra, if you’re reading this, come out from hiding and join me on my trip down memory lane; it’s turning out to be really rather enlightening.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Special Weekend in Sunny Sussex

The Annual Secret Beach Picnic

The only thing better than a picnic is a picnic on a sandy beach in the sunshine with good friends.

Last year I wrote about my long-overdue pilgrimage to a secret beach in Sussex on which I'd played and picnicked as a child. Together with a small gang of special friends, I'd rediscovered this magical spot, and we'd spent a happy day of munching, bantering and kite-flying. It was so lovely that I decided to make it an annual event, and this year I took a few more people, just as much food, and enough games and activities to keep even the most restless among us occupied for an afternoon. Once again we were blessed with beautiful weather, though there was not enough wind for kites (which was shame as we had brought three). Instead we played badminton, frisbee, Nerf ball and tennis; some of us even swam - though the water was a little like seaweed soup.

My freckles went crazy and a few of the boys turned pink, despite the suncream being forcefully dished out by yours truly. I think most people even enjoyed the mile and a half hike along the cliff edge to get there. The route along the rocky beach - accidentally taken by certain others who shall remain nameless - was perhaps less enjoyable, but worthwhile all the same. During the course of the six hours we stayed, there were moments of frantic sociable activity, and moments of quiet contemplative calm. After a manic few months of almost non-stop work (hence the lack of blog posts lately), it was the first chance I'd had to sit and really unwind since America. It was quiet and still and beautiful, and I felt truly blessed to be sharing it with such a lovely bunch. One small voice of mild hysteria emerged as the tide started to come in, but we all made it out alive - and if anything, improved by the day's experiences.

Hanover Day, 5th July 2009

The next morning Ant complained of aches and pains from our various exertions, but I felt fine and raring to get out into the still-blazing sunshine. It was Hanover Day here in Brighton - a mini festival in what is perhaps the steepest neighbourhood in town. Southover Street was closed to traffic and several stages had been erected about the place. Along the side streets, locals pedalled their bric-a-brac to eager kids with pocket money to burn. We bimbled about, bumping into familiar faces at every turn, and eventually settling down in the courtyard of the Hanover Community Centre - where my ex-yoga teacher's band, Gin Club, were playing.

After Gin Club's foot-stomping dirty blues spectacular, Kate's Kitchen Band took to the stage for a Ceilidh and poor Ant's heart sank at the site of accordions. But he gracefully agreed to partner me for a dance, and was soon Do-si-do-ing along with glee - even doing it with a four year old on his shoulders the second time around. I haven't done country dancing since my school days, and had forgotten what a riot it was. Unfortunately the combination of sweat-inducing hoedown and dry dusty courtyard made for some very grubby legs - but who cares if you look like an urchin, it's Hanover Day! As we strolled back up the hill past clusters of rosy-cheeked revellers lolling around on street corners, it became clear that most people were too cider-fuelled to notice anyway.

I had managed to make it through a triumphantly active and sun-soaked weekend without a hint of hangover, injury or sunburn. I even look a little less pale than I did before - and feel a good deal more relaxed. Weekends don't come much better than that.