October, 2016

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When only a scone will help

I can now confirm one new thing from personal experience. Running/dancing/cycling/swimming/walking/any other form of exercise is not just beneficial when you are generally well, it also makes a huge difference when you are properly ill. When I commented to my lovely NHS consultant last week that, for the first time, I was feeling really ill, instead of the full force of the NHS being brought to bear on my behalf to deal with this terrible turn of events, he said that the only thing that surprised him about that was that it had taken me so many weeks longer than he would have expected for me to feel ill. It did shut me up, though. And sent me off to bed to stop feeling that I should be getting more done (that is a genetic curse – we can trace it back through our family tree). I think I should have got to that same realisation when my accomplishment the previous week was to have run (actually, jog slowly) for a mile before realising my body was begging me to stop and go home. Of course, by then I was a mile from home, so it meant walking back with the odd lifting of feet to pretend to be running just a little bit. One mile in six weeks is a little below my normal running mileage!

Since then, I have been more than a little grateful for the BBC’s iPlayer, even if our broadband speed is such that I have to set it to download a programme overnight to watch the next day. And I have – finally – discovered the Great British Bake Off. Yes, I have managed not to watch it for however many series it has been running for, but I now think it should be prescribed as something to cheer you up if all you can do is stay in bed and try not to be a nuisance to everyone else. And once I could start to think of food in a positive way again, it made me want to bake something – just not as complex or difficult as some of the creations on Bake Off. Did you see the peacock cake? Remarkable.

I could tell I was feeling better today because I announced in the early afternoon that it was time to bake some scones. The girls have been wanting to make some for a while and today became the day.

One of the best bits about cooking or baking at home is doing it together. Everything seems to go so much faster and having several pairs of hands means a healthy combination of chaos and fun. Of course we used Mary Berry’s recipe (super simple) and we shared our thoughts throughout on what she would have made of our efforts (general conclusion – happy that we were enjoying baking something together; we doubted we would win the technical challenge).

They seemed to turn out fine:

scones-2

And of course we then had to make a bit of an effort to present them a little better, if nothing like the level or creativity of Bake Off, but then we did start off by having to work out which ingredients we even had. You have to begin somewhere.

scones-3

We are currently working through the pile, half of which have been frozen for a day when you just want a simple scone. Some days, that is the best medicine. I think I will look back on today as the day I started to get better again, courtesy of the simple scone. Maybe I will even manage a two mile run in a few days!

How politics works?

For the comedy approach to how British politics works, we have the immortal Yes, Minister starring Sir Humphrey et al. And then the series moves on when the bungling Jim Hacker MP becomes prime minister as the candidate least offensive to either wing of his party.

The less amusing version of a man wholly unsuited to becoming prime minister is in Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards, which is probably more recently better known as the inspiration for the US television series of the same name, starring none other than Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

house-of-cards

It’s an interesting combination. In the book, we have Francis Urquhart, the Chief Whip, who decides that he would prefer to be prime minister. How he goes about this is an exercise in the mind of a villain. In the TV series, we have Francis (Frank) Underwood, whose ambition is to become President. Again, his character is wonderfully bad. And in both cases, we find ourselves rooting for someone we would in real life want to have put in jail (and who should, in fact, be there). No matter what the men do, no matter how good the motives and actions of those opposed to them, we are drawn to the central characters. It’s awful, but we seem not to care.

In the book, we have insights into the philosophy of Francis Urquhart in the form of little soundbites at the beginning of the chapters.

Some politicians think of high office like a sailor thinks of the sea, as a great adventure, full of unpredictability and excitement. They see it as the way to their destiny. I see it as something they will probably drown in.

Loyalty may be good news, but it is rarely good advice.

Politics. The word is taken from the Ancient Greek. ‘Poly’ means ‘many.’ And ticks are tiny, bloodsucking insects.

It’s a very effective way of showing us the way Urquhart thinks in just a couple of lines a chapter. The TV series achieves something similar by having Underwood turn to the camera and give his commentary to us, the viewer, and the feeling is very similar to being the reader, seeing everything, hearing everything, and knowing the thoughts of the main character. It also keeps us close to Underwood through his machinations, feeling we are one of his confidants.

Behind all this is Michael Dobbs. He was chief of staff and deputy chairman of the UK Conservative Party and the first person to tell Margaret Thatcher that she had become prime minister. He now sits in the House of Lords. He knows of what he writes, even if it is rightly embellished to turn his knowledge into effective fiction.

As a result, like Yes, Minister, what lies behind the fictional plot feels worryingly close to the truth.

An unelected prime minister, in his position largely through his manipulation of the behind the scenes process for being appointed by the MPs in his (or her) party… a few hundred people out of a population of millions. Perhaps even without any eventual opposition. Well, we have had two of them in the last decade, haven’t we?

This is how the fictional king describes such a prime minister:

May I remind you that you have not been elected as Prime Minister, not by the people. You have no mandate. Until the next election you are no better than a constitutional caretaker.

Then there is the question of whether to hold an early election to secure such a mandate during the ‘honeymoon’ period. Recent history suggests that prime ministers in that position prefer to hold on to their power rather than risk the outcome of a democratic process.

We have a fixation with the relationship with the owners of the various media outlets and the press this can garner for or against them. With the mutual back scratching which takes place, circumventing any concept of democracy. We are left with the distinct impression that we are being manipulated. You knew I meant in the novel, right?

And we see the difficulty for anyone who tries to stand up to the (abuse of) power they see being played out. The network of relationships which shuts them out, puts pressure on them to leave things be, the subtle and not so subtle threats which non-conformity will bring with it.

Highly recommended as a good read. And a good watch.

As to whether this novel (or the TV series) holds up a mirror to the current practices of our government? As Francis Urquhart would say, ‘You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.’

All’s well that ends well

Last week was an unusual one, but it ended well. It started with a few days in hospital, which had not been in my plans, especially as I had been in the previous week and had hoped that would have been enough, but they needed a second go and this time were less keen to let me make a bolt for the door afterwards. After two days, I was offering to help make the toast for the pre-lights out snack – they were not keen on the idea, or on me helping out with anything else that seemed to need doing – and one of the nurses came to find me as I had been away from the ward for so long and they were concerned that I might have wandered off. I think it’s called cabin fever. And I did have visitors, so I needed somewhere better to entertain them than the side of my bed.

The issue that was really preoccupying me was the fact that LoLo and I had trains, hotels (if Travelodge counts as a hotel) and ballet tickets booked for Thursday, and I started the week thinking there would be no issue there. Then Monday turned into a procedure on Tuesday, then I had to stay in Tuesday night as well, have bloods taken at 6am (yes, I had finally fallen asleep) on Wednesday and then the wait for the results and the consultant to find each other and then get to me. I managed to get the ‘I don’t think you should go to London’ on Tuesday to ‘you can maybe go’ to ‘see how you’re feeling on Thursday morning,’ and I accepted that it might just not happen in the end. The only card I could play to bolster my case was along the lines of ‘it’s the last classical ballet performance of the best male dancer of his generation’ – and I’m not going to miss it.

royal-albert-hall

This was the final farewell from Carlos Acosta to classical ballet, in the Royal Albert Hall. And we made it. We took it easy, had rests when I needed to, and had factored in so much extra time (I know, not like me at all) that we were unfazed by anything that might come up.

Carlos Acosta grew up in poverty in Cuba and ended up dancing with the Bolshoi and Royal Ballet, and becoming something of a dancing superstar. At the ripe old age of 43 (I know, I know, just a bit younger than me, what have I done with my life?!) the physical demands of classical ballet are simply too much, so he is moving on to contemporary dance and his dance school in Cuba, as well as everything else he is involved in.

carlos-acosta

The evening was a mix of the old and the new, some to our taste, some less so, and fortunately included the only thing LoLo had said needed to be included, a piece from Don Quixote with some spectacular leaps and spins (yes, it was the pas de deux with the grand jetés and 32 fouettes if you want to get technical about it).

You can see the memorable part here (at about 12 minutes in), just with different dancers – make sure you watch both of them, it’s all over in less than two minutes.

And you can see Carlos and Marianela Nuñez – the two we saw – dancing a different part of Don Quixote here, just so you can see the calibre of these dancers.

The second part of our (train) road trip was the following morning, when we finally managed to go on a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Ballet. In the past, we have always tried booking a tour too late in the day, but the middle of October is a lot easier than in the school holidays. We booked the morning tour, knowing that it was the time we were most likely to get to see some of the dancers in their morning class, then crossed our fingers.

When the lift doors opened on one of the upper floors and we found ourselves in front of a window looking right into the studio, LoLo just said ‘Federico Bonelli!’ without missing a beat. It turns out he is one of their principal dancers and was directly in her line of sight. She then listed off all the other principal dancers who were in the same studio, so it was pretty close to having most of her heroes dancing in front of her for a few minutes, including some who we had seen perform the night before. And imagine the joy when Marianela Nuñes walked out of the studio in front of us. Nobody else seemed to quite grasp the significance of the occasion.

Speaking of not quite understanding such momentous things, the following is the result of a request to include some basic ballet-attendance etiquette in my blog, some of which was sorely lacking last week. There is not much to it really, and if you follow these basic rules, you will contribute to being part of a well-trained audience, and we will all be so much happier for it. We like well-trained audiences.

  • Arriving on time is really helpful. But if you do arrive 25 minutes late – and for some inexplicable reason are allowed in – do not spend your time wandering around trying to find your seat. Park yourself somewhere, anywhere, out of the way, not blocking the view of everyone else in your befuddlement.
  • Please get back to your seats after the interval before the performance starts again, not five minutes afterwards clutching food and drink and trying to climb over people.
  • Do not eat during the performance. This is not a cinema. There is no popcorn. We love the cinema and popcorn. But while they are good companions, they do not work with the ballet. There are no action scenes to disguise you munching crisps or rustling sweet packets or whatever else you mistakenly thought would be appropriate to bring with you.
  • Before the performance and during the interval is the time to read your programme, not during the performance with the bright light from your phone.
  • And finally, clapping. Rule of thumb – if nobody else is clapping, there is a reason for it and you should not be either. You don’t clap just because you liked something you just saw. Go with the herd on this. Sit on your hands if you have to until you get a sense of when a piece has come to the end and it is appropriate to clap. There are exceptions – like the 32 fouettes in Don Quixote. But everyone else will clap because it’s a stunning piece of dancing.
  • It is absolutely acceptable for your dance-literate daughter to lean across and whisper when the ‘good bits’ are coming up so you don’t miss them. I made this one up but I think it’s a good one.

LoLo and I thank you for this.

Easy on the eyes

Not many words today. Just some pictures. Not even a commentary. Or colours. Talk about minimalist. I hope you like at least one of them!

peebles

three-watchmen spreading-out  falling-water edinburgh-night edinburgh-2

edinburgh-1