We’re starting with a task that you have already accomplished just by being here:
DAY 1: START ADVENT CALENDAR. I have two real-life advent calendars this year; a Nicolas Cage one and a cheese one which has to be kept in the fridge door, taking up valuable Champagne space:
Totally worth it though:
I have already eaten the cheese as a mid-morning snack, which is why a cheese calendar is better than a beer calendar, because you can only really have beer for breakfast at the weekend. (There is a beer advent calendar in our house too but it’s not mine and it’s not pretty so I’m not including a photo.)
I looked for an advent-specific pop song to set us on our musical way but the only recent-ish one I could find was by R. Kelly, which didn’t seem to hit the right tone, so instead here is a lovely arrangement of a traditional song by Marty Haugen, whom Wikipedia describes as a “liturgical composer”, which sounds like a great job.
I mean, obviously if I’d had an inkling of what 2020 had in store for us I wouldn’t have wasted Sad Christmas on 2014 or Good News Stories on 2019, both of which were, relatively speaking and in retrospect, perfectly reasonable years. But alas I am no Dominic Cummings so instead of going back to edit an old blog post to make it look as though I predicted the pandemic, I merely acknowledge that if there was ever a year that made it hard to raise the requisite cheer for a musical advent calendar, 2020 is emphatically it.
BUT, wouldn’t it all be even worse without Christmas? Christmas will be different this year; for some of us in small ways, for others in heartbreakingly big ones. But I suspect the reason that so many people’s decorations are already up in November (I walked around Blackheath yesterday and even the middle-class millionaires all had their trees lit) is that we are all craving a little bit of normality, a little bit of love and light and indulgence, even if it’s just a hint of a hope of what we were expecting.
Personally I have embraced making Christmas last for twice as long this year by breaking out the pigs in blankets well over a month too early and ordering two Christmas crates of wine, so that we can drink the first one before the holidays even start. And in that spirit I bring you this year’s calendar, which has been designed not by me, but by my six-nearly-seven-year-old niece Edie, who has crafted an activity advent calendar, with a different Christmassy thing to do every day. We will be following Edie’s advice daily, starting tomorrow.
There will also be music, of course, but in a year when so many of our dreams, hopes and expectations have been trashed, let’s share some miniature Christmassy moments, however near or far away we are from our loved ones.
It is nearly as much fun to write, and to say, as it is to eat;
It is super quick and easy to make and you can do it with ingredients you already have in the house;
The name comes from “okonomi”, which means “as you like” and “yaki” meaning “cooked”, which means you can put WHATEVER YOU WANT on it and it’s still correct.
Last night I learned how to make it in a free Zoom cookery class with the Sozai Cooking School and honestly, if I’d known fifteen years ago how easy it is, I’d have been eating okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake, if you’ve never had the pleasure and OH EM GEE you have a treat coming) at least once a week since then, and so I am sharing it with you now so that you don’t lose any more time either.
There are a few ingredients which you can include if you can find them and which will make it more delicious, but if you don’t have them you can manage without (or order them online, but I don’t advise that for your first attempt because you will want to give it a go immediately and not wait for a stupid parcel to arrive).
This recipe makes one pancake, and as with any other type of pancake I would stick with making one at a time and eating it while it’s hot, if you can. This is snack food or (I’m so sorry) street food, you’re not serving it up as part of a fancy dinner party. (Also I think those are illegal now?)
For the pancake:
50g flour (I used plain but self-raising or gluten-free would be fine too)
Half a teaspoonful of dashi powder (or salt, or anything to add some flavour to the batter mix; I used powdered Chinese chicken soup)
A large handful of diced white cabbage
A small handful of finely chopped spring onions
You can stick with this, or you can add toppings, in which case you’ll want a scattering of fish, meat, veg or whatever you feel like eating. Okonomi, see. (The one in the photo just has sliced white onions, because that was all I had.)
For the garnish:
Mayonnaise (there is a Japanese shelf in Tian Tian, the Chinese supermarket close to Heron Quay on the Isle of Dogs so I picked up Japanese mayonnaise which is allegedly sweeter and richer, being made with less acid and only the yolks of the eggs but the usual stuff would be fine, or if you are a person who makes your own mayonnaise you can make it to the Japanese recipe instead)
Okonomiyaki sauce (as above, but it’s ridiculously easy to make your own, either by mixing ketchup with dark soy, runny honey and Worcestershire sauce to taste, or if you can’t even be bothered with that, by making a 50:50 mix of ketchup and brown sauce)
Katsobushi (fish flakes) and aonori (seaweed powder – both optional; I used seaweed flakes instead of either and you can also use dried shitaake mushroom shavings, or nothing at all)
Gently mix the flour, dashi or other seasoning, water and egg together in a bowl. You don’t want to bash it about too much but you do want to try to fold some air into it. Then add the cabbage and the spring onions and keep mixing until both are coated in the batter.
Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil (or any, I used sesame because vegetable oil is something I consistently fail to remember to buy, but traditionally that is what is used) in a large flat low-sided pan over a high heat. To test the temperature of the oil, drop a lick of batter into the pan. If it sizzles, it’s ready.
Turn the heat down, tip all the batter into the pan and gently shape it into something resembling a circle, patting the top and sides down just enough to give it some structure but making sure the air stays inside – you want to end up with a souffle-ish consistency, so don’t smother it to death. Then add your toppings, if you’re using them.
You can pretty much guess when it’s ready to be turned over, but as a guideline if you can pick the whole thing up with a fish slice without it falling apart then you’re ready to flip it. I think mine cooked for about five minutes on each side, but you’ll know when yours is ready because it will take about as long to do the second side as it did the first.
When it’s done, leave it in the pan while you drizzle the okonomiyaki sauce over it, then lift it out onto a warmed plate and add the mayo, katsobushi and aonori, if you have them, or shitaake, or anything else you feel like trying (I haven’t tried it but I think toasted sesame seeds would be good too), or nothing at all. Eat, then immediately make another and eat that too. You’re welcome.
The reason my series of reasons to be cheerful stopped after part 1 is that my optimistic notion that we might all be able to come out the other side of this unscathed and life go back to normal came crashing to the ground when Bob, who was the kindest, silliest, most generous and funniest man you could ever hope to meet, died last week in hospital after contracting COVID-19. Today when his immediate family said goodbye to him the rest of us could only be there in spirit, although there will, I’m sure, be a chance to get together to remember him once this is all over.
In the meantime it helps to remember what I read somewhere after someone else I loved died, which is that grief is just love with nowhere to go. It’s only because so many people loved Bob that so many people are devastated by the news, and there is some comfort in that; in how much joy he brought to so many people, from the family and friends he loved so dearly to the kids he coached at football to the schoolmates he’d been going to Selhurst Park with since the 1950s to the angst-ridden teens he teased so expertly when we came home and filled his house with incense and cigarettes and noise. We were all lucky to have him.
Obviously, if I’d known at Christmas what I know now, my “things to be happy about” series of advent posts would have included things like “the pubs are open” and “supermarkets sell toilet roll” and they would have been much easier to write. But we’re not called Glad All Over for nothing (yes OK, it’s because of Crystal Palace, but if the official CPFC song was, I don’t know, Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter then I wouldn’t have named my blog after it) and so in these exceptionally trying times I am going to do my best to start bringing you doses of good news, fun links and just cheering things, however small.
And also, things to do when you can’t leave the house! A couple of weeks before This All Started I found myself randomly watching an old episode of Death In Paradise and then somehow helplessly watching episode after episode, completely entranced. Death In Paradise has been going for almost ten years, a fact I only know because the original writer, Robert Thorogood, was the brother of my then-boss who told me his brother had only set it in the Caribbean so that he could go to the Caribbean. This seems entirely sensible to me and it obviously worked, because the next best thing to going to the Caribbean is looking at the Caribbean from afar, and since looking at things we like from a long way away is the new normal I think you should follow my example and watch it all on iPlayer. (But don’t follow my example of starting with S4, because I don’t know why I did it and now I don’t know what series to watch next. Just watch them from the beginning like a normal person.)
I should warn you that it is racially problematic (the comedy characters are all black; murder victims and murderers all white) and every episode follows exactly the same formula (though this in itself is also sort of comforting, especially when you find yourself saying the lines along with the characters), but it is so sun-filled and light-hearted that I can just about forgive it its many flaws, because watching an episode and seeing all of that outside is very much a tonic for being stuck on the sofa in a cold and grey Greenwich.
(Although the best thing that’s happened so far this week was going to the park yesterday and staying socially distant from my sister, but being allowed to say hello to the dog. Outside is outside, after all, and there is, as you know, literally nothing better than a dog.)
For the second year in a row I’m not staying up all night to watch the Oscars, although this year’s reason (I have a work-related call at 10am tomorrow) is less fun than last year’s (I was meeting kangaroos and the world’s biggest spiders at Taronga Zoo in Sydney). BUT that’s not going to stop me from making predictions, any more than is the fact that I still haven’t seen over half of the Best Picture nominees. That second fact doesn’t matter at all, of course, because the awarding of Oscars has nearly nothing to do with how good or otherwise a film or performance is, which is why Uncut Gems isn’t nominated for anything and Laura Dern will beat Florence Pugh in Supporting Actress.
Wait! I was going to leave the cynicism till later! For now I’m going to work my way up to the fun categories by beginning with the ones nobody cares about! So without further ado let’s agree that Makeup and Hairstyling is the least interesting category of all this year, and it’s also one in which a film without a hope anywhere else often wins, which is why my pick is Bombshell, for whatever the hey they did that made Charlize Theron look slightly, but also kind of not at all, like Megyn Kelly:
Personally, I’m sort of fine with people playing other people without looking much like them (a conversation I have already had with myself elsewhere), but if you’re going to make the effort then doing it in a way that isn’t horribly distracting seems like it should garner some sort of reward.
I also don’t care about Costume Design this year, but it seems like a good way to give Little Women some love, given that it’s not going to win any of the biggies (except, I think, Adapted Screenplay).
Let’s talk about the Shorts! Have you seen any of them? I haven’t, because they’ve made the Oscars a month earlier than usual and I thought I had longer than I did to get around to catching up with everything. No matter; I can draw on the wisdom of others here and advise you that the bookies’ favourites are Learning To Skateboard for Documentary Short, Hair Love for Animated Short (and having read about it, that’s the one I’m keenest to see) and Brotherhood for Live Action Short, and I see no reason to disagree with any of that.
Let’s talk about films we’ve seen! Editing, like Cinematography, is one of the awards that gives you a pointer for Best Picture, although because the latter category is calculated differently from all the others it’s not always reliable. But since we’re all obediently pretending that 1917 hasn’t been edited at all I think this is a straight win for Parasite. The former film will make up the difference by winning in VFX, and to be fair to it, although it is a silly film it does have some great effects and giving it to 1917 means not giving it to The Irishman; a decision of which I think we can all approve.
This year’s best Oscars fact is that Randy Newman, nominated for his score for Marriage Story, and Thomas Newman, likewise for 1917, are cousins. Isn’t that cool? But I think Hildur Guðnadóttir is going to win for Joker, because giving an award to a woman for a film about white male rage is a good way to get around the problematic-ness. (And because it’s a great score, but as we’ve established, that doesn’t matter.)
Song is going to Elton John and Bernie Taupin, obviously, for (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again from Rocketman, which you saw five times in the cinema and you’re not ashamed to admit it. It’s only an OK song but Elton is unstoppable, especially since they won the Golden Globe and he told us it’s the first award he and Bernie have ever received jointly, which is a story the Academy are going to be more than pleased to crown with a happy ending tonight, even though Elton is apparently Skyping in for his live performance. (Meanwhile Beyoncé and Taylor Swift aren’t showing up at all, despite having been nominated, presumably because they know as well as we do that they aren’t taking the little gold man home.)
Would you like me to explain again the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing? Try this: if a film was an album, Sound Editing would go to whoever wrote the album, and Sound Mixing would go to whoever produced it. It doesn’t much matter in this instance because both of them will go to 1917, although I think Ford vs Ferrari is in with a shout too, because the Academy likes it when films reproduce difficult-to-find sounds, and 1960s race car engines are that (I imagine).
1917 will also take Cinematography in a deserved win for likeable dude Burt Bacharach Roger Deakins, who having managed a record thirteen nominations without a win between 1994 and 2015 is now going to make it a brace after winning two years ago for Blade Runner 2049. Everything comes to those who wait.
I keep thinking that Quentin Tarantino’s next film can’t possibly piss me off as much as the last one did, and then being wrong. Now, I will admit to having fallen asleep during part of the middle three hours of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood so I may not be best-placed to judge it, but where I think it stands the best chance outside of Best Supporting Actor (which is nailed on for Brad Pitt) is in Production Design, because even I, asleep and pissed off though I may have been, couldn’t help admiring the gorgeous evocation of Old Hollywood, and if there’s one thing we know Hollywood loves, it’s films about Hollywood.
The odds for Documentary Feature are heavily in favour of American Factory and it probably will win, because it’s the first feature film from the Obamas’ production company, and for some reason nobody objects to giving prizes to Netflix-distributed films, which it is, in the smaller categories, but I’m going to stick my neck out and predict a win for For Sama because it has (deservedly) won every other documentary prize going, and I want you to see it more than I want you to see any of the others.
Animated Feature is super boring this year! Nobody wanted a Toy Story 4 and even the fact that it’s quite good does not justify its existence. I think it will win, but it will be a grudging, “go on then, if you must” win rather than a joyful one, which maybe means we’re getting closer to the time when Disney doesn’t win this category (though they will make up for it by winning all the others, so we don’t really get a net gain).
You can’t nominate a film for Foreign Language Picture and Best Picture and not give it the first one, so that’s an easy win for Parasite. Bong Joon-ho will also, I think, win Original Screenplay, so let’s hope he’s got someone with him who can carry at least one Oscar so that he has a free hand for greeting people with at the afterparty. Adapted Screenplay is tougher, because I think a lot of people really like Jojo Rabbit (maybe as many as hate it!) and even more people really like Taika Waititi, but I think even more people than that really like Greta Gerwig and feel bad that she isn’t nominated in Director, so I’m predicting a slim win for Little Women. (We never find out what margin anything wins by, so that “slim” is redundant, but I’m leaving it in anyway.)
On to the only categories you’re interested in! The acting awards have all been sewn up for months and will go to Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern, though eye would give them to Adam Sandler (who isn’t nominated), Cynthia Erivo, Tom Hanks and Florence Pugh (I would give Florence Pugh all the prizes for everything, even for Midsommar which is a bad film in which she is great).
There’s less clarity in the Picture and Director categories, although the bookies will tell you otherwise. 1917 is by far the favourite for both, and I think Sam Mendes will indeed pick up Director (twenty years after he last did it, also for a Quite Bad film), but I think (and hope) that Parasite will dive in and take Best Picture. Here’s why:
It won the SAG Ensemble Award, which means it’s the film that actors love the most, and actors form the biggest segment of Academy voters.
Everybody likes it, which means that voters who rank a no-hoper like Jojo Rabbit or Ford vs Ferrari top will have it at second or third in their list and their vote will eventually be transferred to it.
It’s the best film on the list (though obviously this isn’t relevant).
It could go the other way, with Bong Joon-ho taking Director and 1917 taking Picture, which historical-statistically is likelier (a foreign language film has never won Best Picture; everybody loves Bong Joon-ho and they do give Best Director to foreign language films, as they did last year with Roma; the Academy likes films about heroes which look like they were hard to make) but I think the split, at least, is likelier than not, despite what the odds are saying.
Did you skip straight down to the bottom in the hope there’d be a straightforward list without any of the flannel around it? You’re in luck, though I don’t really see why I should oblige you if you’re so uninterested.
Foreign Language Film
Toy Story 4
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Learning To Skateboard
Live Action Short
Makeup and Hair
(I had to write that table in HTML because WordPress doesn’t have an “insert table” tool any more! The things I do for you.)
Of course this was always going to be today’s song, since it makes me happiest of all. I’m not even quite sure why, except I suppose that Cliff really means it and it shows, and it was Christmas number one the year I turned twelve, which was the year I listened to the most music of all, so it exerts a powerful nostalgic force on me whenever I hear it. But mostly it’s just the way he hits the gong and then launches into that extraordinary dance at 2.25. I’ve tried to emulate it, but it has a magic all of its own which can’t be replicated.
The last bit of good news for this year – from me, at least – is this story about the first commercial electrically-powered aircraft test flight in Canada. In among the doom and gloom of what we’re doing to the planet, there do seem to be people with real ideas about ways to stop it, which, at least, is a small piece of hope. And if we can’t have a small piece of hope at Christmas, when can we? Now, turn Cliff up nice and loud and let’s all dance.
Wouldn’t that be a nice way to spend the year? I love this song and it gets ranked above Slade because the video is so much fun, with its brass band and collection of small children (who must, I suppose, be in their fifties now) with only the very faintest idea what they’re doing there.
Yes, you’re quite right; I forgot to do a song yesterday. I was doing housework all day which, it turns out, is much more taxing both physically and mentally than my actual job. And so it slipped my mind, sorry. To make up for it I have the best Christmas Crooner of all (with apologies to Bing) with the happiest Christmas Croon of all, and if I don’t see you this Christmas, consider this your seasonal smooch from me.
YES I KNOW IT’S A SAD SONG but it makes me happy, because it was Christmas number one in 1994, the year I went away to university, and it reminds me of sitting in my student halls kitchen at Essex watching it on a teeny TV which you had to change channels on by turning a dial and waiting for the snow to mostly disappear (this is how the radio in my bedroom still works). The first year of university, if you are lucky enough to go, is a magical time: you are living independently but with a massive professional support network hidden just out of sight; in my day you had – unthinkably – a student grant (just); you’re only expected to attend about nine hours of lectures and seminars each week (is this still true? I have no idea) and the rest of the time is yours, to stretch your wings, join political societies, drink £1.20 pints of Foster’s at 4pm and fall in and out of love at least half a dozen times.
I address you from my sofa, where I am waiting for a man to finish fixing the dishwasher so that I can open the windows and waft away the strong smell of drains that he has created (via the dishwasher’s workings; not personally) and in some ways my life is more prosaic now than it was then, but it’s also a lot more satisfying and less turbulent, and there are children and dogs involved (not mine, but nearby, which means all the fun and none of the responsibility) and all the people who were important then are still important now, plus there are some really awesome new ones, so really 2019 is better than 1994 I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S TWENTY FIVE YEARS AGO and one excellent illustration of that fact is that for the first time this year renewable energy sources have overtaken gas as the UK’s largest power supplier, as the proportion of our energy generated by fossil fuels fell to an all-time low. Good.