Wednesday, July 14, 2010

UNKLE Live at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Last weekend I was dog-sitting in Eastbourne while my mother escaped to her annual spiritual retreat at Walsingham cathedral; I was glad of a change of scenery after what had been a gruelling and emotional week and am always happy to spend time with the lovely Pascha. It so happened that some friends of mine were off to the De La Warr Pavilion - just up the road from Eastbourne in Bexhill - for a gig on Saturday night and suggested that Ant and I should come along, since we were in the neighbourhood. I didn't know much about the band that was playing, though Ant seemed excited when I mentioned it to him, so we booked tickets and tagged along.

The band was UNKLE, aka James Lavelle and Pablo Clements, who were being accompanied by the De La Warr's own Heritage Orchestra for a special performance as part of their current album tour. What had been a scorchingly sunny day turned into a beautiful evening on Bexhill seafront and as always, the DLWP crowd was buzzing with arty types from all across Sussex. I bumped into several old childhood friends from Eastbourne and spotted mates from Brighton including the couple who used to live upstairs from us. It was a great convivial atmosphere in which to soak up what turned out to be a magical gig.

UNKLE's dreamy, symphonic trip-hop sounds were beautifully interpreted by the 30 piece classical orchestra and two vocalists, and for the first half of the set I was totally swept away. After a good start, it all got a bit self indulgent towards the end when Lavelle took to the mic and started gushing and that combined with the sweltering temperatures up on the balcony was enough to make me lose my appetite for an encore. Even so, it was a fantastic evening, topped off nicely with a nightcap on the refreshingly breezy balcony of the De La Warr, chatting to friends old and new. 

If you want to hear more about the gig itself, there's an excellent write-up on XYZ magazine's blog, and this YouTube video from a recent gig at the Union Chapel will also give you a flavour. For a bit more background on UNKLE in general and the Heritage Orchestra collaboration in particular, pick up a copy of the latest East magazine, where you'll find an interview with James Lavelle on page 35. For details of other upcoming performances at the De La Warr Pavilion, have a read of their Live Music Blog or the Events & Performances page of the website.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Ode to Poppet

Poppet came into our lives five years ago when we liberated her from the Raystede animal rescue centre near Ringmer. Out of all the beautiful and charming cats needing new homes at that place, I was drawn to her intense one-eyed stare which seemed to say "take me away from this place and I will reward you with love". She came as a pair with Marcel, who, it soon transpired, was her nemesis rather than her companion; they were a classic double act in the Tom and Jerry sense. She would chase him down and beat him up daily, but I do think he eventually came it enjoy it and would even occasionally venture a retaliation. 

When we first arrived back at our flat with the two furry beasts, Poppet strutted straight in and staked her claim on the place, while poor timid Marcel hid under the bed and various other bits of furniture for two weeks before being gradually coaxed out. A creature of many moods, Poppet was by turns the most affectionate, spirited, cross and characterful cat I have ever known. She'd sit on you and purr for an entire evening and be most put out if you needed to get up - and heaven help anyone who tried to move her when she didn't want to be moved; the memory of that rage-fuelled "leave me alone" hiss still sends shivers down my spine. Her voluminous ginger fur seemed to change colour with her temperament and could be anything from deep amber to bright strawberry blonde. She was magnificently beautiful, and she knew it.

At the risk of sounding like a mad cat lady (and honestly, I don't care if I do), I have loved my mogs as if they were my children. When you get to my age and have yet to breed, your maternal instincts have to transfer somewhere - and I am not ashamed to admit that mine have been poured wholeheartedly into the two dear creatures with whom I have shared my home, my bed, my heart these past few years. They have been my constant companions, providing warmth, comfort and entertainment throughout happy times and bad. Poppet in particular would always be waiting behind the door for me when I got back from work, looking up with that "where do you think you've been?" glare, demanding attention - which I was only too happy to give.

When a lump on Poppet's neck was diagnosed as an inoperable tumour a few weeks ago, I was devastated. At first she soldiered on as normal, but gradually the growth in her mouth made it more difficult to eat, and last weekend we had to make that most awful decision to have her put to sleep. I have lost many family pets over the years, but this was the first time I'd been responsible for making that choice and to have been present while it was carried out. I held her in my arms as she slipped away, felt her heartbeat fading under my fingers and her so familiar body go limp; It was the saddest, hardest, most heartbreakingly harrowing thing I have ever done.

Losing Poppet has left a massive hole in my life, but I have no regrets about bringing her into it. She gave back as much, if not more, than I put in and though I'll never get to stroke her soft fluffy coat or watch her chase an excited Marcel down the garden ever again, I know she'll always be around. Thank you, darling Poppet, for all that you were and are to me.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ash Cloud or No Ash Cloud, I'm Having a Holiday and Just You Try and Stop Me

Ant and I were due to go on holiday to Sicily back in May, but thanks to the Icelandic volcano and its pesky ash cloud, our flight was cancelled and our carefully constructed travel plans scuppered. Determined to find adventure regardless, we threw some camping gear in the back of our ancient Nissan Micra, and hopped on a ferry to the continent from Newhaven, praying that the old jalopy could survive another long haul jaunt.

We'd booked ahead for one night's accommodation in Orleans, but the rest of the trip was a complete fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants mystery tour. My GCSE French was tested to its limits, frantically reserving hotels over the phone and ordering dinner in the remote rural non-English speaking villages in which we found ourselves. The camping thing didn't really work out (we're getting separate air mattresses next time), so we ended up bimbling between B&Bs as we made our way down towards the South coast, taking in Montpellier, Le Grau du Roi and Sete along the way. A visit to the beautiful hillop town of St Guilhem le Desert - with its picture postcard perfect winding streets and rustic monastery - was a highlight of the Languedoc stretch of the trip.

From the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean we swung a right and ventured into the majestic surroundings of the midi-Pyrennes and by pure luck and some garbled Franglais, found ourselves a delightful farmhouse gite in which to kick back and wind down for a few days. The village of Bourieges has nothing but a church, a (lovely) cafe, post office (only open on the Third Thursday of every month) and a handful of rustic houses. We were welcomed by Mr & Mrs Pous, who also left us several bottles of locally brewed plonk, including some from their own vineyard and an excellent Limoux bubbly, alleged to be better (and cheaper) than Champagne. I'd have to agree, it was super.


Having fond memories of cave paintings from a childhood family holiday in France, I was keen to explore the famous Niaux, just a short drive from where we were staying. Poor Ant came along too, despite his fear of small spaces and caves in particular. It was a magical experience, a small group of us trekking into the darkness with only handheld torches to light the way and mind-blowing underground landscapes all around. I have been known to get spooked in very dark outside spaces, but the womb-like surroundings felt somehow comforting as I imagined men and women making the same journey some 13,000 years before into what archeologists believe to have been some kind of spiritual sanctuary.

The paintings themselves were fascinating and surprisingly accomplished - considering the tools with which they would have been working back then. On the way back out of the caves, I asked if anyone in the group minded us all switching off our torches to experience complete darkness. It's an amazing sensation being in such pitch black that you can't seen your own hand in front of your face, or even the faintest outline of a person next to you.

Another adventure in these parts was to Carcassonne - the fortified town that inspired the game of the same name (now available as an iPhone app, FFS). Much like the famous Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, Carcassonne is overtly touristy, packed full off naff souvenir shops selling everything from frdieg magnets to medieval costumery. But it was a pleasant place to wander around and the castle itself was most interesting and well presented. We drove back from Carcasonne to Bourieges via the quaint little cloistered town of Mirepoix, which I shall always remember as the place where I received news of our dear old family cat Go-Tabs having to be put to sleep. The disproportionately large and rather pretty catherdral there made a perfect sanctuary in which to reflect and have a little cry.


Heading North back in the direction of Dieppe, we'd arranged to stay with friends in the Dordogne for a couple of days. After a quick pit-stop in charming Albi (where we just missed the opening hours for the Toulouse Lautrec museum), we arrived at Bellevue, near Bergerac, where we were thoroughly spoiled with wonderful food, stunning surroundings and exceedingly good company. We were even introduced to 'Click', a Carn family favourite after dinner game involving dice, paper and in this case, a generous helping of Alan's hearty homebrew. The Sunday market in Issigeac was one of the loveliest markets I think I've ever been to and Ant even managed to find a sunhat to fit his massive head there.

Our final stop off was in the little town of Azay-le-Rideau along the Loire, where we found a very cute B&B just around the corner from a spectacular Chateau - which proved a lovely place to bimble around on a sunny day. As we got behind the wheel once more for the final stretch of the trip home, I was frankly amazed that poor old Lottie was still going. It may not have been the highly-planned Sicily trip we'd hoped for, but we'd certainly managed to pack in a decent amount of adventure and a whole huge helping of stunning scenery to boot. And we discovered pear jaffa cakes, which really was the icing on the cake.