Advent Song for December 15: It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

This is just a lovely warm hug of a song. And Perry Como = Christmas anyway, because they used his recording of Magic Moments in a Quality Street advert and Quality Street are the main type of Christmas chocolate, or at least they were until Nestlé bought them. Let’s not talk about the world of chocolate mergers and acquisitions; it’s liable to make me riled, which is the opposite of what this advent calendar is for. Did you know Magic Moments is a Burt Bacharach/Hal David number? I didn’t, and I’m still not quite sure I believe it, but it is apparently so.

Did you go to a Christmas party this weekend? I didn’t; I spent Friday night watching The Apprentice with the dog and Saturday night watching the Strictly final with my family (and the dog). (Karim was robbed.) But if you are a partygoing sort of person you will know that Christmas party outfits are the kind you buy and then wear at best three times before stuffing them back into the cupboard for next year, which is why it is excellent news that the Stockholm branch of H&M is trialling a clothes rental service this Christmas, so you pay a subscription, borrow what you need and then give it back so the next person can do the same, thus saving money, waste and another little bit of the planet. It would be Stockholm, wouldn’t it? Shall we all move to Scandinavia?

Advent Song for December 8: Let It Snow

And Sunday is always for crooners, and there’s none more croony than Dean Martin. Excuse the lateness and brevity of this post; we were first-night-of-the-holidays drinking last night (whisky for the boys and prosecco for the girls, true story, so I’ll have to hand in my sisterhood card in just for this week) with OVERLY HOSPITABLE friends in Glasgow. Isn’t Glasgow the best place? I might like it even more than I like Manchester. That’s not my good news story, though; and the doggy ballgown at a bargainous £40K that I’ve spent quite a lot of this morning thinking about isn’t it either. Instead it’s this news that an initial trial has indicated that a new drug could potentially reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain. That really would be good news, wouldn’t it?

Advent Carol for December 11: I Saw A Maiden

I’m sorry this so late, but it’s been a busy day: I’ve

(wait for it)

…been to Hull and back.

(True story!)

Anyway, I Saw A Maiden, also known as Lullay Myn Lykyng (and isn’t that a better name?) started life as a middle English poem, the text of which (you can find the original in the British Library) was written in the fifteenth century, making it our oldest carol so far, although the music is from later. It is, as you will have discerned, a lullaby, but this time it’s about Mary singing to Jesus, so we needn’t be harrowed at the hands of any massacres this evening. Good.

I can’t find a video for this song, so you’ll have to be content with a Spotify link and this picture of the Humber Bridge, which isn’t taken by me because my picture of the Humber Bridge was rubbish.

The Humber Bridge

How I learned to love Manchester

This time last year, my only experience of Manchester was a nailbiting three-hour trip to Old Trafford – where, regular readers will remember, Palace beat Man United after extra time in the quarter-finals of the 2011/12 League Cup. It was good, but it could have been in Slough and it would still have been good, and I wasn’t bowled over by Old Trafford itself, which looks a bit – well, it looks a bit like it might be part of Milton Keynes:

Apologies for the poor quality: I was quite a long way away when I took this
Apologies for the poor quality: I was quite a long way away when I took this.

It’s better inside, but in the thrill of the moment I seem to have forgotten to take any photos inside.

Anyway, my next trip was back to the same part of the city, more or less, for last October’s Radio Festival, held at the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays, where I was delighted to find art and music and the fantastically interesting and thoughtful Daniel Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum North all crouching greyly by the waterside. But apart from the inside of Piccadilly Station I hadn’t seen the city proper until I went there a few weeks ago with work, and now I have seen it, I’m cross that I spent 36 years not visiting it, because Manchester is brilliant. Whenever I visit a new city* I end up deciding I would like to live there, but the feeling usually wears off within a few hours, and certainly by the time I’ve spent a day back in London, with everything London has. But Manchester has quite a lot of what London has, and more besides – a compact, walkable centre; space for buildings to breathe and be viewed from all angles; thriving, mixed-use canalside and dockside areas in the city centre; a strong and convincing sense of civic pride – and the tallest residential building in Europe, the faintly terrifying-looking 46-storey, 169-metre Beetham Tower:

Beetham Tower

I became a bit obsessed with the Beetham Tower, and eventually figured out how to get at least partway up it to take some photos of the view – which you can see, along with the rest of my photos of Manchester, here. I even went and had a look at a flat for sale there, not because I was going to buy it, but – well, just to make absolutely sure I wasn’t going to buy it. (I’m not going to buy it. It was 75% amazing, but the bedrooms were poky and the service charge is THREE THOUSAND POUNDS A YEAR, though as at least some of that goes towards window cleaning I had to grudgingly concede that I’d rather pay than do it myself.)

The city is a mishmash of buildings old and new, just like London, but – at least partly thanks to the nineteenth century red brick, which really is everywhere – the contrast looks intended and appealing. And it has lively and unique arts, technology and gay scenes and a genuinely diverse population; all prerequisites for a great city. Every Londoner I’ve spoken to about it since has said “I didn’t think I was going to like Manchester, but actually it was really nice!” – and perhaps its middling reputation with other parts of the country is why it’s so proudly and distinctively itself, in which case please forget everything I’ve said and go back to thinking of it as middling. In the meantime, I’ll be planning my next trip.

*Exceptions to this rule include Norwich and Edinburgh, leading me to believe that perhaps I just don’t like hills.

Fairytales of New York


I’ve just got back from New York, the city where every street has a song named after it, and every vista is a still from a movie. So since I am yet to get over the jet lag and I took so many photos that I am overwhelmed at the thought of uploading them, here as a lazy alternative to a real blog post is a list of my favourite New York films. What are yours?

1. Annie Hall

I could have had any of about eight Woody Allen films, but Annie Hall is the best of them and one of the New Yorkiest, and Annie is the New Yorkiest heroine ever, despite being from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Also, it features my favourite ever line from a film, if I had to choose – you know, the one about the eggs*.

(Actually, I did have to choose my favourite line from a film recently, for work, but I thought the one about the eggs would make me look a little weird and neurotic, and I’ve only been there three months and I don’t need them to know that already. So I went for Sloane Peterson’s “Sooner or later, everybody goes to the zoo” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which sounds profound but, I think, isn’t.)

2. Ghostbusters

Like Annie Hall, would probably make the list of my favourite films ever (actually, so would about half of this list). After nearly thirty years (I know!), still perfect. And really a love poem to New York City, as implicit in its luscious locations as it is explicit in Winston Zeddemore’s “I love this town!”.

3. The Taking of Pelham 123

A proper thriller, set mostly in the bowels of Manhattan’s subway system, with occasional glimpses above ground, where the steam jets that shoot out at street level echo the spikes of tension that increase as the film goes on. If you haven’t seen it, rent it today (I am, in case you’re unsure, talking about the 1970s version and not the recent remake, which I have not seen).

4. King Kong

The 1933 version. Not entirely a New York film, but it makes the cut for that incredible final scene. I also quite liked the 1970s version, and even the Naomi Watts version was OK. It’s just a really really great story. But the Empire State Building was only two years old when they made the original, which adds an extra frisson to the battle between nature and mankind that lies at the heart of the film.

5. Laura

Not just because we have the same name, but because this is the sexiest, dreamiest, most elegant piece of noir you’ll ever see and because it offers a glimpse of high society in 1940s New York, which might just be the most glamorous time and place that ever was. As it happens, Laura is showing at the BFI on the Southbank until the end of next week, so if you live in or near London, do try to go.

6. Dog Day Afternoon

There are films which I think are exemplary, one-off pieces of film-making and which I might watch every couple of years (2001, Badlands) and films which I watch at every opportunity because I love them like you love your slippers, and most of all I love the characters (Ghostbusters, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and then there are films which are both, and Dog Day Afternoon is one of them. Set on a hot, steamy day in Brooklyn, it tells a short but brilliant story which is laden with atmosphere, and it’s one of the films I always immediately lend to people who haven’t seen it, because it is a film everyone should see, today if possible.

7. Crocodile Dundee

There’s a dispoportionate number of 80s films in this list, but that’s because the 80s were an exciting time to be in New York City. When I first saw Crocodile Dundee I was half-entranced, half-terrified by the androgynous, highly-hairsprayed characters making up some of the supporting cast, but as an adult I just find them impossibly alluring, and it breaks my heart a little bit that I will never go clubbing in New York in the 1980s.

8. Coming to America

Like Crocodile Dundee, this film is better now than it was when it first came out, because it speaks so elequently and appealingly of a particular New York that doesn’t really exist any more. Plus, the mean Queens apartment that Prince Akeem rents now looks like a palace compared to the eggbox-sized spaces that people really live in. And, well, it’s just still funny.

9. Q: The Winged Serpent

Monster! In New York! I can’t tell you precisely why this is so good; you just have to watch it.

10. Splash

Slash was in competition with Big and Arthur for the tenth spot, because like those films it shows you the New York we all grew up with; the fantasy version of the city that we knew before we ever went there. But it wins because when I saw it I, too, thought “Madison” was a beautiful name for a girl, and couldn’t understand why Tom Hanks didn’t agree.

Not making the cut are films I love which use New York as their backdrop, but which aren’t really about New York (Synecdoche New York, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rope, The Apartment, Rear Window, West Side Story) and films which make New York look like the worst place in the world (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets). I also haven’t made room for Goodfellas, which would have been eleventh if I had been making a longer list.

*  “I thought of that old joke, y’know… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because most of us… need the eggs.”

Donatello and the eggs

I can’t remember why I decided to study art history at university, but I know exactly why I decided to do it at Essex. I can still visualise that line in the 1994 prospectus, glittering with romantic possibilities:

In the second year, as part of the Renaissance Art and Architecture module, students will make a ten-day study trip to Florence.

When I was seventeen the furthest I’d been from home was France, or possibly Wales. The prospect of a paid-for trip to Italy – to Florence – sounded impossibly, dazzlingly exciting. So I applied to Essex, and was invited in for an interview, in advance of which I removed a sling from my injured arm at my mother’s insistence (“if you go in wearing a sling, all they’ll remember about you is the sling”), and was eventually offered a place. I still didn’t quite believe I’d ever really make it to Florence (Florence!), but there was plenty to get excited about in the meantime.

The trip drew near. “Bring warm clothing”, read the set of instructions which we were all sent before Christmas. “Italy can be quite chilly in January.” “Bollocks”, I thought. “It’s Italy. Of course it’ll be hot.” I packed sun dresses and cardigans. We flew to Florence. It was freezing. We spent ten days freezing, drinking coffee and wine, visiting churches, eating pastries, sleeping for four hours a night, looking at art, falling in and out of love with each other and drinking more wine. I was nineteen and it was everything I had hoped for.

Back in Wivenhoe, we had bonded. We had told each other all our deepest secrets, made each other laugh and cry, and swapped all of our clothes. We wrote essays together and shared textbooks. The one book we each had our own copy of, because it was only £6.99 (I have it here, so I know) was Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, published in 1550; an extraordinarily personal and vital account of the lives of the people whose work we’d encountered in Florence, some of whom Vasari actually knew. As interesting for what it told us about Vasari as for what it revealed about its subjects, it was a book we all knew inside out. And our favourite story was the story of Donatello and the eggs. I’ll let Giorgio tell it himself:

[Donatello] made a crucifix over which he took extraordinary pains. When he had finished it, convinced that he had produced a very rare work, he asked his close friend, Filippo Brunelleschi, for his opinion. But Filippo, in view of what he had already been told by Donatello, was expecting to be shown something far better;  and when he saw what it was he merely smiled to himself. At this Donatello begged him for the sake of their friendship to say what he thought of it. So Filippo, being always ready to oblige,  answered that it seemed to him that Donatello had put on the cross the body of a peasant, not the body of  Jesus Christ which was most delicate and in every part the most perfect human form ever created. Finding that instead of being praised, as he had hoped, he was being criticized, and more sharply than he could ever have imagined, Donatello retorted: “If it was as easy to make something as it is to criticize, my Christ would really look to you like Christ. So you get some wood and try to make one yourself.”

Without another word, Filippo returned home and secretly started work on a crucifix,  determined to vindicate his own judgement by surpassing Donatello; and after several months he brought it to perfection. Then one morning he asked Donatello to have dinner with him, and Donatello accepted. On their way to Filippo’s house they came to the Old Market where Filippo bought a few things and gave them to Donatello, saying: “Take these home and wait for me. I shall be along in a moment.”

So Donatello went on ahead into the house, and going into the hall he saw, placed in a good light, Filippo’s crucifix. He paused to study it and found it so perfect that he was completely overwhelmed and dropped his hands in astonishment; whereupon his apron fell and the eggs, the cheeses, and the rest of the shopping tumbled to the floor and everything was broken into pieces. He was still standing there in amazement, looking as if he had lost his wits, when Filippo came up and said laughingly:

“What’s your design, Donatello? What are we going to eat now that you’ve broken anything?”

“Myself,” Donatello answered, “I’ve had my share for this morning. If you want yours, take it. But no more, please. Your job is making Christs and mine is making peasants.”

We loved this story. It had everything: friendship, conflict, local colour and domestic catastrophe. It made the artists seem human in a way that nothing we’d seen or read before had done. When exam time rolled around we made a pact: we would all try and get the story of Donatello and the eggs into one of our exam answers, somehow. It was a silly story and no doubt we’d all be marked down for including it where it wasn’t relevant, but we didn’t care. We were nineteen.

On the day of the exam, we were all slightly giggly. We entered the exam room. We started to feel nervous (I have an anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach right now, reliving it). We turned the papers over. The first question read:

What evidence is there for rivalry among Renaissance Florentine artists?

The room rippled with suppressed laughter as we all tried to avoid catching one another’s eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an exam so much in my life.

Bath, Box and points west

Forgive me if I seem a little distracted: I’ve just returned from a weekend in the countryside, and it’s left me so calm I’m almost unconscious.

February is a difficult time to take a weekend break in the UK, because it’s too cold to visit the seaside (though we did it anyway this time last year) and the best attractions in the cities are often still closed for the winter. But after a busy few weeks at work and at home the time seemed ripe for a weekend away, and somehow the various options were whittled down until we had arrived at Bath as our intended destination.

Well, I would never stay at a hotel which wasn’t recommended by, and Foggam Barn B&B in Box, a village five miles outside Bath in Wiltshire, had better recommendations than any other guest house in the area, so we booked for a two-night stay. The first pleasant surprise came when I told the owner, Denise, that we’d be arriving by the five o’clock train and taking a taxi from Bath. “Don’t take a taxi,” she emailed; “I’ll come and pick you up from the station”. And she did, and dropped us off again yesterday, and gave us a lift to the restaurant a mile away where we ate on Saturday night.  She also put fresh flowers, chocolates and champagne in our room, unprompted and at no extra cost, and cooked us two very nice breakfasts. Ten out of ten for Foggam Barn.

We spent most of Saturday and part of Sunday in Bath itself. It’s quite as beautiful as everyone tells you it is, with no shortage of interesting things to do. The baths themselves are fascinating, and in places quite enchanting. Also warm, which had become a key consideration to me at this point. Everywhere outside London is colder than I expect it to be.

Afterwards, we tramped up the hill to take a look at the Circus and Royal Crescent, both of which I was keen to see, avid student of architecture that I, um, used to be. The Royal Crescent in particular is possibly more impressive at a distance than up close, the beauty of the individual buildings somewhat obscured by decades of dirt. You would think there would be cash available for the basic maintenance of a world heritage site, but what do I know? The overall effect is still very impressive, and a flat in the Royal Crescent remains on the list of properties I will consider buying when I come into my millions.

Next, we visited the Jane Austen Centre, just down the hill on Gay Street and a few doors away from the house where Austen lived with her mother and sister for a few years in the early 1800s. The rosy-cheeked lady behind the counter told us to take our tickets and wait upstairs in an ante-room. “Your guide will join you there shortly”, she announced grandly. We duly took our tickets and trooped up the rickety stairs to a small room where we watched a film of an unnamed man stripping to his pants. I think he then dressed up in Regency costume, but to be honest with you the memory of his hairy white belly is all I’ve managed to retain. Sorry.

Eventually, the double doors ahead of us swung open dramatically. “Hello”, said the same rosy-cheeked lady who had sold us our tickets a few minutes earlier, “and welcome to the Jane Austen Centre. Please take your seats in here ready for the introductory talk”.

We walked into the front room, elegant with its bay window and original fittings. Chairs were set out in rows, all of which bar the front and the back were filled before we got there. “Shall we sit at the front?”, I asked my beloved. “Let’s sit at the back”, he replied, and thank goodness, because if I struggled to keep my subsequent giggles at bay whilst hidden safely away in the back row, I don’t know how I’d have coped had I been within inches of the rosy-cheeked lady, who proceeded to give us a talk in the style of a Hitler parody delivered by somebody whose first language is not English. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to make an audio recording, because I can’t possibly do it justice in writing. She had obviously learned the whole thing from a script, and either had no interest in the subject matter or was so awkward about public speaking that she couldn’t work out where to place the emphasis. Sentences were cut off midway, dramatic pauses occured in the most unexpected places, sections were entirely incomprehensible and the whole thing was delivered at high volume and in a rattling style that would make an army major proud. It was brilliant. Particularly enjoyable was the fact that in her mind she had so completely separated the words in her script from anything she might say of her own accord that the speech ended like this:

Robotically: “…so thank you for visiting the Jane Austen Centre.”  Pause, breath. Brightly: “Thank you for visiting the Jane Austen Centre!”

Next, we were herded through to a third room where we got to watch another video, this one a knowing turn from actor Amanda Root, full of quizzical looks to camera and lines like “it’s easy to imagine Jane sitting in the window of this house…witty, wise and ironic”. If you say so, Amanda.

The reason for the elaborate preamble became evident as we made our way into the permanent exhibition, which contains – well, nothing. There are some costumes from screen adaptations (but none of the ones you’ll have seen), reproductions of portraits of Austen and various members of her family, and a few photos of modern Bath residents and Austen fans (and she does have fans, in the way that only certain writers seem to) pretending to be at a ball. And that’s it. It’s the most curiously content-free exhibition I think I’ve ever been to, which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. The whole visit was terrific fun, but perhaps not quite in the way intended.

There are Colin Firth-as-Mr Darcy fridge magnets on sale in the shop, which I think makes up for everything. I wish I’d bought one and I can’t think why I didn’t. Two excellent meals and a good night’s sleep later we arrived back in Bath with five hours to kill before our train home, so we had a walk around the city centre, stopped for a cup of tea and then went to see A Single Man, in which Firth stars as a bereaved lover, his more dramatic scenes punctuated by whispered “phwooooaaar”s from the beloved.

The only blot in an otherwise perfect landscape was provided by the local bus services, which seem to be operated by two rival companies. We bought return tickets into Bath on Saturday morning but our driver failed to warn us that the return halves would only be valid for one in four buses running on the return route, so we had to buy new tickets for the journey home. We ended up spending £17 on bus fares that day, which seems extortionate, especially when compared with London prices for public transport. But I’ll forgive Bath and the surrounding district for its shoddy bus service on the grounds that everything else was a delight, and there is almost nothing as cheering as waking up to the sound of a cock crowing (quiet at the back, there). When I’m a grown-up I’m going to go and live in the countryside (as long as I can live somewhere where I can still go to the theatre, and get the Guardian delivered, and buy milk at 3am, and won’t get snowed in).


When I said

Paris does human-scale street life better than any city I can think of off the top of my head, with the possible exception of Beijing.

What I really meant was

Not including London, Paris does human-scale street life…etc etc.

London is bigger, so there are more places where it doesn’t happen, but when it does, it’s as good as anywhere else’s. I was reminded of this yesterday coming through Brixton Market, which is still the most interesting place I know in London.