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Posts from the ‘Entertainment’ Category


Really Inspirational Father’s Day Gifts

Why not plant a tree with dad?

Why not plant a tree with dad?

Most people seem to agree that finding the perfect gift for their dad is one of the least easy tasks of the year. Here are some ideas from our thoughtful team to inspire you:

Wine holiday in Oporto Built into the hillside of the spectacular Duoro Valley, The Yeatman hotel in Oporto is inspired by the celebrated wines of the region. Guests can seriously indulge themselves during the weekly wine evenings, tasting soirees and cookery courses. The extensive wine cellars hold 25,000 bottles alone and the in-house Michelin starred chef, Ricardo Costsa, is always on-hand to educate guests about food pairing. Even The Yeatman’s vinotherapy spa will be difficult for Dads to resist, as it offers a Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Bath or body scrub. Prices from €150 per night.

Failing that why not a bottle of Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2005, available from £13.79 at most retail outlets nationwide. Here is a link to information on the website

Or he might have loads of the stuff in the cupboard but may not have some luscious glasses to savour it – we would choose the beautiful Riedel Port Glasses available at John Lewis and Amazon.

Reidel port glasses

Reidel port glasses

How about a short holiday break for someone mad on fishing? Forget Salmon Fishing in the Yemen although a couple of tickets might go down a treat! – how about Fly fishing in the Maldives  All hard-working fathers deserve peace and quiet once in a while, and you would be hard pressed to find a more relaxing and tranquil outdoor pursuit than fly-fishing. On a secluded private island in North Maldives, Island Hideaway resort boasts deepwater channels and expansive shallow flats, ideal for whiling away the hours until that longed-for catch comes along. Prices from £1350 per week during low season, and £2300 during high season. OK, so that might be a bit over the top! How about The Ultimate Guide Book to Fishing? This Google page might give ideas.

Right, nothing so far appeals? What about a luxury wet shave? Harking back to simpler times when every man had a trusty barber to see to his beard and whiskers, in London the Spa at Dolphin Square offers chaps the rare chance to pamper themselves with a range of traditional Moroccan wet shaves. Choose from the age-old Savon Noir shave, which  cleanses by combining crushed olives, olive oil and Eucalyptus (£35), or go all out with a Moroccan Cleansing Ritual, incorporating a Hammam and Shea Butter Massage, followed by the relaxing shave (£104). This would appeal to many men I know so it could be a winner!

Dolphin Square Spa

Dolphin Square Spa

On a more basic level though why not a gift voucher from B&Q? Lots of us like browsing in DIY stores, especially new and improved gadgets!

 Or why not some Ogilvy’s honey – their Balkan Linden Honey is rather special. Gathered from colonies in the Danube region of Serbia. This honey was one of four varieties of Ogilvy’s Honey to win gold stars in the 2011 Great Taste Awards organised by The Guild of Fine Food. It is rather special – you can find more information on the Ogilvy’s website.

If you live in or near London then of course you could take him for a meal – Ping Pong in Soho is excellent, The Sanderson in Berners St  has a wonderful dining area as has the Lanesborough Hotel opposite Hyde Park Corner.  What about some tickets to a game at The Arsenal? A visit to the House of Commons to see Parliament in action and a meal in one of the boats on the river. Or a boat trip on the Thames? Of course you could just go for a walk in Hyde Park and have something to eat in one of the many cafes in the park.

The Arsenal

The Arsenal

Or how about an App for his iPhone or iPad – he doesn’t have one? There’s two more ideas!

Hope you might find one of these inspiring! Good luck – you have just three days left!

Val Reynolds Brown, Editor


Not as Lively as I would like, How it all Began

A traditional ‘who did what and what became of them’ story, How it All Began is an easy read that doesn’t really challenge the intellect. I found it only mildly amusing – a candidate for ‘pick up when bored’ book status. Definitely not on the compulsive can’t put it down list, I think it could be referred to as a pot boiler on a rating of 5 on the 1-10 scale. I have to say she is good at character studies, but I didn’t like any of the characters and found little pleasure in her artful descriptions.

Written much in the same style as Mary Wesley but not as memorable or engaging. My memory of Mary’s Jumping the Queue and subsequent books that continued the theme of an illicit love affair, still makes me smile, eighteen years later, and I know if I re-read it I would love it. So, would I be interested in reading more of Lively’s books, I’m afraid not, I’m seldom bored.
The Penelope Lively website gives details of her background and all her books.
How It All Began is published by Penguin
Val Reynolds, Editor

A Decent Read – suggestions for a quiet break

How often are you at a loss to know where to find a good book. What is a good book? To me it’s one I can lose myself in. All the angst of the day goes to the back of my mind. So a book at bedtime is a joy and pleasure. But I’m not prepared to read books that don’t satisfy my curiosity, don’t stimulate my interest, or from which I learn nothing new.

So we have decided to provide our assessment of books we have enjoyed, or not. Short, pithy asides and plaintive squeals of dismay are included, so you don’t have to waste time turning off at page ten. That’s the crunch time for us … unless page eleven beckons that tome is passed on to Oxfam, or some such charity shop where maybe someone will view our assessment with disdain and totally disagree with us!

Here are three books all read and finished and assessed by Les Tucker, our intrepid bookaholic.

A Small Circus  Hans Fallada* One of the Penguin Classics ISBN 978-0-141-19655-8 *Other books by Fallada

Do not read A Small Circus expecting a similar experience to the later Alone in Berlin.  Fallada’s portrait of life in wartime Berlin is a universal tragedy which is impossible to ignore.

A Small Circus, published in 1931, is just that: a much more parochial examination of politics in a small town.  It is a local eye’s view of the collapse of the Weimar Republic  (Germany’s first democracy) leaving a situation ripe for the rise of National Socialism, and subsequently, the promotion of Hitler.

The book is not a dry history.  It is full of sardonic humour, as pompous local officials tussle over bribes and ill-gotten gains.  Outside the little town, the country is spinning off its axis, but a greedy bunch of politicians and journalists seem not to care.

The greater proportion of the novel is written in dialogue, so there is no authorial voice.  In many ways, this worked to Fallada’s advantage, as his breakthrough novel received praise from both sides of the political spectrum. It appeared as if he was not taking sides, although a modern reader might beg to differ.

A Small Circus may not make you laugh very often, but it might have you nodding with agreement at the portrayal of human foibles and frailties.

  Noughties  Ben Masters  Published by Penguin ISBN  978-0-241-14526-5

Ben Masters’ novel is helpfully divided into three sections, entitled; “Bar”,  “Club” and “Pub”.   My advice to the reader would be to stay in the Bar !

Imagine a dodgy episode of Skins combined with a literary pub quiz and half an episode of Morse chucked in for good measure.

This is Oxford, but beyond the colleges, overheated young things are drinking themselves into oblivion, clumsily bonking each other, but then spoiling the whole experience by agonising about it!

Noughties is a Top Trumps pack of literary references and allusions.  Forget about the narrative, just play spot the disguised quotation.  The protagonist, Eliot Lamb (get it?) is trying to resolve the dilemma of his love life.  As his journey to the light includes such evocative meetings with the opposite sex as, “She places her warm breath inside mine..” one can only hope it is achieved speedily.

There are lots of topical music references and characters spend an inordinate amount of time texting.  You don’t need to join Eliot Lamb in his final days at Oxford to enjoy the richness of that experience !  Try the Open University.

  The Pale King  David Foster Wallace   Penguin   ISBN  978-0-141-04673

Did you ever read the one about the American Internal Revenue Regional Examinations Centre ?   No … and I wonder how many people will actually finish The Pale King.  The author didn’t, as he died in 2008 before it was completed.  This edition has been assembled and published by his editor, Michael Pietsch.

Try this chapter opening :

“Until mid-1987, the IRS’s attempts at achieving an integrated data system were plagued with systemic bugs and problems, many of these exacerbated by Technical Branch’s attempts to economise by updating older Fornix keypunch and card-sorter equipment to handle ninety-six column Powers cards instead of the original eighty-column Holleriths.”   Come on … keep up !

Wallace is feted as a truly great writer, especially in his love for precision and meaning.  This unfinished work is about boredom and sadness, but as it stands it is too great a challenge to the reader.  The tedium of the daily tasks of the IRS is plain enough.  It is detailed in well over 500 pages.  There are jokes, lots of jokes, strange observations, descriptions, and even characters, but this is still a novel about tediousness, and it is act of daring to leave the reader to extract from it the individual stories within.  For many, the doors of the tax return processing centre will remain closed. For the legions of Wallace’s admirers, this unfinished work may well achieve the status of an icon.  If you enjoy James Joyce, you’ll love this.  If not, then tax avoidance may be the answer.


A Great Day Out – Warwick Castle!

Caesar's Tower, Warwick Castle

Caesar’s Tower, Warwick Castle

Whatever time or financial limits parents may have at half term, a special trip is always a lasting memory especially when you are very young. Can you remember the first time you visited a zoo, or a circus. I must have been all of six years old when we visited Whipsnade Zoo and still have the memory of the taste of my first ice cream! It was a Walls ice cream wafer sandwich that dripped all down my front and the memory includes the smell of the elephant house and the screaming of some monkeys in their big outdoor cage. In Balance reader Karen, with her husband, six year old Ben and four year old Aeryn visited Warwick Castle last half term and had what was clearly a memorable visit and would love to go again.

Karen writes:

I have visited Warwick Castle several times – around the age of 8, 15, mid 20s and now in my mid 30s with my husband and two young children and I can happily say that I have thoroughly enjoyed every visit and can foresee more visits in future, it is that good.

We decided to base our day around the verbal and visual displays that were well described on the website.

So we started off at the ‘Raising of the Portcullis’.  It was great to see the portcullis being lifted and to imagine that you are walking into the past.

We went straight on to the ‘Attack & Defence Tour’. The lady made a point of getting the children to the front used some children to demonstrate the width of the wall – which helped put it in perspective for them.  As they don’t fire the ballista maybe they could consider having some mini ones set up somewhere so that children, or indeed adults, can have a go to get an understanding and respect for the weapons.

Loading the trebuchetWe then walked around to ‘The Mighty Trebuchet’ which was easily seen and heard as the trebuchet is across the river and the commentator had a set place to stand.  He was also miked up to several speakers that were spread out over a wide viewing area.  It takes quite a while for the trebuchet to be prepared and fired but there is detailed description and historical explanations during each stage.  Facts like using blind people to be the ‘walkers’ as the motion sickness generated from viewing the slates could cause people to fall and break their necks.  Tip bits such as using the trebuchet to send dead animals or beheaded messengers over the walls to spread disease and fight a psychological battle are gruesome enough, images that strangely cause fascination with the use of such devices during sieges ie it’s so much more than just something which throws balls of fire.  Which, to be fair, on its own is an amazing sight and the way our six year old’s eyes lit up when it happened was testament enough that it’s well worth the wait.  I thought it was great that over 18s could volunteer to be part of the team that prepped the trebuchet.  Hands on history is always the best in my opinion.

Eagle with handler Warwick Castle

Eagle with handler Warwick Castle

The ‘Flight of the Eagles’ was held in the main arena so benefitted from speakers and four wooden posts which the man lead each bird to in turn so we easily got a good view of each bird.  Our six year old particularly enjoyed watching the vulture as he was “walking funny”.  The use of questions and answer time to one side after the show was particularly thoughtful as it meant that our shy child was able to ask a question that he wouldn’t have done in front of the whole audience. It also meant that we got a good close up picture of one of the birds.

The ‘Warwick Warriors’ probably held our children’s attention the best as there were three main people involved and there was plenty of appropriate and amusing banter between them.  There were lots of visual demonstrations alongside interesting explanations.  The idea of destroying Hollywood film  myths really did challenge the average concept of what it would have been like to be a knight.  They also included some great references for the children such as comparing how Scooby Doo quickly hides in a suit of armour and yet real knights would have needed someone to dress them.  The actual demonstration of this amplified the point.  Once more humour was used to maintain attention, for example, the fully armoured knight demonstrated that he could run, jump and even do star jumps.

Fire juggler and knight in armour

Fire juggler and knight in armour

Lots of facts were given throughout all these demonstrations and at the time we were not sure just how much our children were taking in but a dinner time conversation a couple of days later reassured us that our visit to the castle was not only a fun day out for our family but also very educational even for a four year old.  Both our children couldn’t say enough about what they had seen and heard when asked to tell their uncle and nan where they had been.  “Did you know that they learnt how to use a sword when they were six and a bow and arrow when they were eight” Benjamin, aged six.

With all of these displays the people leading them were all of an impressive standard.  They all kept the audience’s attention well and had a good mixture of information and humour.  The information was also pitched well starting from small and factual for children to recall, to enough detail for proper historians without boring the more average visitor.  There was also a good mix of visual, audio and kinaesthetic techniques used to involve the audience without overly applying the audience participation which can put some people off.  The use of characters for most of these displays was very well balanced between ‘in role’ and ‘not taking themselves too seriously … often explaining why out of role’.  We loved the delivery, as I’m sure you can tell.

After all these displays we stopped off for a toilet break (of a good standard and easily found) then visited ‘The Mound’, ‘Dream of Battle’, ‘The Tower and Ramparts’, ‘The Kingmaker’ and then ‘The Chapel, Great Hall & State Rooms’ (although the rooms were disappointing – not much information and not really geared up for young visitors).  The Mound and The Ramparts were great for the children to get excited pretending that they were defending the castle.  The Kingmaker was well set out with plenty of mannequins and brief bits of information (both verbal and written) so that it was easy enough for the children to imagine what life might have been like but without being too scary (although our four year old was a little wary especially in the slightly darker areas).

Aeryn in the stocks

Aeryn in the stocks

We ended our visit with the Peacock Gardens, Conservatory (although not much to see in there) and the Rose gardens (which were being renovated and obviously the roses were not out yet but we still appreciated the layout).  Finally, we took photos of our children ‘stuck in the stocks’.

Ben in the stocks

Ben in the stocks

I did weigh up the possibility of taking my father on our next visit. He is disabled and would need the use of wheelchair to experience a day long visit. I do think there would be enough to justify a visit for him. Although I could not find information regarding the price of ticket for a disabled visitor – I hope it is heavily discounted as probably only a third of the whole attraction (if that) is accessible from information gleaned and accessibility assessed on our visit.

We heard later of a spine-chilling new addition to the programme: Witches of Warwick which promises to thrill visitors from March this year – are you up for the challenge?

Karen Fletcher, contributing author

DID YOU KNOW? Just an hour and fifteen minutes by train from London, Warwick Castle is rated by Tripadvisor as one of the most talked about attractions in Europe and is the most visited stately home in the UK. It has a variety of attractions to appeal to families, retirees and mid-30 something culture vultures alike.

Go to the Warwick Castle website for further information and booking online

Photography Karen Fletcher & Warwick Castle


The Day I Sang at The Albert Hall

Well, me and 3,840 other people!

Armed Man at the Royal Albert Hall, July 2008I’d heard about the huge choirs of amateur singers that sometimes gather at the Albert Hall to sing together, but had never got further than thinking vaguely that it might be nice to join in. It took another member of my local choir to start the ball rolling and whip up some enthusiasm, and eventually tickets were  bought for “Messiah From Scratch” in November. It was unfortunate that all four members of our little group then did the same thing – put the tickets aside without checking to find out exactly what was involved – so it was just a few weeks before the date of the concert before we realised that when the organisers called it “From Scratch”, they really meant it.  We were to turn up at 6.15pm in order to be ready for the concert to start at 7pm, without even a few minutes in which to warm up, let alone actually practise the music!

At this stage, we had no way of knowing how many people would be singing with us, and therefore how exposed our own singing abilities and knowledge of the music would be. If we’d known then that nearly 4,000 people would be there to sing, we probably wouldn’t have worried so much, but even so, The Messiah isn’t especially easy music to sing and none of us had sung it all the way  through for years, if at all. Our first task obviously was to get hold of copies of the musical score, and even this wasn’t simple as the organisers specified the exact version to be used. Here, though, we were very lucky as our local library still had just enough copies left for us to borrow even though Christmas was approaching fast. Recordings of the work then had to be found/bought/borrowed, and our unfortunate families had to suffer the dreadful, dirge-like sound of amateur singers droning their own rather approximate version of Handel’s great work along to a professional recording. All four of our group are contraltos, which means we sing the lower of the two female parts, mainly to provide harmony, so we never get the good tunes. I have to confess that in our household, even the cat found pressing reasons to go out once I and/or my daughter started rehearsing!

Soloists at Messiah from Scratch, November 2009By the week before the date of the concert, we were all beginning to wonder why we’d volunteered for this event. Some friends and colleagues were incredulous. “You mean you have to pay in order to sing at the Albert Hall? You don’t get paid to do it?” And no, we don’t get paid, and we do have to pay (£20 for this performance) because this was a charity event, and the proceeds were going to the British Heart Foundation.

An added complication was the dress code. As ever, men got off lightly as they were only required to wear a dark suit, but ladies were requested to look elegant, with sopranos wearing blue, and the contraltos red. None of us had anything red which could remotely be described as “elegant” so several hours had to be spent in going around the shops in the search for red tops to be worn with black skirts or trousers, but eventually we managed to cobble together some respectable outfits, and by 4 pm on the day of the concert we were all dressed up and heading for the station for the trip to South Kensington.

Altos wearing something red Messiah from Scratch 2009We were in luck; the trains and tubes ran perfectly, and within an hour and a half we were outside the Royal Albert Hall, where people were gathering and chatting enthusiastically. After demolishing the sandwiches which we’d brought with us and paying a quick visit to the Ladies, we made our way to the seats which we’d been allocated, right up in the Circle. Already nervous and a little bit prone to vertigo, I found the steepness of the rake and the height above the main auditorium alarming and for a few minutes was wondering if I’d have to remain sitting for the whole of the performance, but I became acclimatized to it surprisingly soon and began to relax and take in the scene. We’d taken our seats quite early, so were able to watch the other singers gradually arriving and taking up their positions all around the Hall. Lots of people were greeting friends, while others were arriving on their own, clearly content just to be there and to sing. The majority of singers were probably in the middle-aged to mature bracket, but there was a substantial number of young people too. There was also considerable variation in dress. While a lot of women had opted for the safe combination of black bottoms with a red top of some kind, others had made only a minimal gesture towards the dress code with perhaps just a red flower or brooch pinned onto a black T shirt. A few had decided to take the light-hearted approach and were apparently wearing fancy dress, with one rather substantially built young woman happily wearing what looked like the costume of the Red Fairy, complete with frills and red sequins.

By the time we’d arrived at the Royal Albert Hall, it had felt as though we’d travelled quite a long way on a dark winter evening but when Don Monro, the man who had dreamt up The Really Big Chorus in 1974, stood up to speak, he welcomed singers from around the world! Singing alongside us would be singers from Australia, Canada, South Africa and many parts of Europe, so popular have these events become.

His short speech over, the soloists and the conductor, Brian Kay, took their places, and the orchestra struck up the overture. At this point, I noticed a really interesting phenomenon. Up until then all the people I’d been watching, far away on the other side of the hall, had been sitting relaxed in their seats, sometimes bending down to adjust their belongings, sometimes chatting to other singers beside them. But the moment that familiar music started it was if an electric current had passed through them all, or as if an order had been barked out. In an instant, everyone was sitting bolt upright, heads erect, their entire bodies looking alert and ready to sing.

After a beautifully sung aria from the young tenor (“Comfort Ye, My People”) the conductor signalled to singers on the ground floor of the auditorium to stand. It was really at this point that we became aware of how different it would be to sing in such a huge hall with so many other singers. We could see the conductor, but from our position high up in the Circle, he was just a tiny figure far below, and when we lifted our music to sing, he became invisible behind it! Instead of relying on him for cues as to when to come in, when to slow down, and all the other more subtle variations in the performance, we’d be dependent on hearing other voices singing our part in other areas of the auditorium, the singers who were much closer to the conductor and could therefore follow his directions.

I think it’s fair to say that the first few choruses were a little bit ragged, while the singers gradually got used to the acoustics. At one point, I could see the conductor frantically signalling to the huge mass of sopranos to sing more quickly, but, however distinguished and able he may be, it’s a brave man who takes on a thousand sopranos alone, and very wisely he  deferred to their group judgement and allowed the choir to find its own pace. Before very long, our little group had relaxed in the knowledge that any musical mistake we might make would be lost in the huge volume of sound being produced by so many singers.

One of the delights of singing with these big choirs at the RAH is being able to watch and listen to the soloists. For this performance, the soloists were all very young singers in training for professional careers, and to me at least their extreme youth added poignancy to the music.

Our position in the Circle meant that we were well placed to make a dash in the interval to the bar, so by the time the second half began and our gin/vodka’s were taking effect, we were feeling quite comfortable and ready to tackle the remaining choruses with enthusiasm. By now, the choir was (almost) singing as one, so that by the time we reached the famous Hallelujah Chorus, I think we produced a very creditable performance. Knowing that our audience would all have been eagerly anticipating this most famous of all choruses probably tipped the tension rates up a notch, and I think we all gave it all we’d got. It certainly got a rapturous reception from the audience! Many people think that the Hallelujah chorus is the final part of the Messiah but in fact there are more arias to follow, before the last chorus “Worthy is the Lamb”  leading into the final section known as the Amen chorus. This is a far more sombre and spiritual chorus, and I felt that the huge choir sang it with a surprising amount of sensitivity and feeling, perhaps aided by the knowledge that this marked the end of the occasion.

Discussion of the evening had to be postponed until we’d accomplished the journey back to the railway station, but, once on the homeward-bound train, we shared our thoughts. My daughter and I agreed that we hadn’t experienced the huge rush of emotion felt by a lot of singers, which was a surprise and a bit of a disappointment, but I suspect that this was due to our position in the Hall. Because we were so high up, the sound of the rest of the choir was coming to us almost as if we were listening to a recording, whereas I think that if we’d been seated downstairs in the main auditorium we’d have been far more aware of being part of a huge group of singers. We agreed that it was only towards the end of the concert that we’d really relaxed and enjoyed ourselves, so we’re all keen to have another go before too long. It was clear from the joy and sense of achievement on some of the faces around us that taking part in this event means a huge amount to many people and I suspect that like them, we’re already hooked and will be booking our places for the next big chorus. This time though we won’t get so stressed about our musical abilities (or lack of them) as all we need to do is relax and prepare to enjoy ourselves and let  the music and the other singers scoop us up and carry us along with them.

Contributing Author: Janet Hamer

For more information about how The Really Big Chorus began, and how to get tickets, the website to go to is


A View from the London Fringe Theatre

Mme Tussaud, photo Tim Parker

Mme Tussaud, photo Tim Parker

Readers familiar with my contributions to In Balance magazine will know I’m not the greatest fan of formal, expensive West End plays, nor of the plethora of crowd-pleading musicals that come and go. So as usual, I have been spreading my theatre-going activity amongst the smaller stages of the London’s fringe theatres.

New venues pop up from time to time, and it was one of these, that had albeit been in existence for a little while unbeknown to me, that I visited recently. It’s the New Diorama Theatre, tucked just off the busy Euston Road in Regent’s Place, a new development of offices and housing which has a pleasant village-like feel about it. I was pleased to learn from the charming members of staff there that there is a statutory obligation to include a community space in such new developments, which is how the theatre came into being. It has, of course, a cafe cum snack restaurant which hits all the right modern buttons, lots of organic stuff, herbal teas and sausages made from happy free-ranging pigs!

But back to the theatre. The production I saw was Waxing Lyrical, the story of Marie Tussaud, a one-woman show featuring Judith Paris who I have watched performing other such shows in the past about different women, each one mesmerizing. This tale of the enterprising wax-worker from Switzerland, to France and the revolution of 1789 and beyond, and then to her life in England was both informative and entertaining.

A Walk On Part – The Fall of New Labour PosterOn to the Soho Theatre in Dean Street to see the excellent adaption of Chris Mullin MP’s diaries entitled: A Walk On Part – The Fall of New Labour. Another excellent evening out, with a very talented actor taking the part of the writer, and four others playing a total of 96 parts! Not quite an impressions show, but close sometimes; you have to commend an actor who can bring Tony Blair, Tony Benn and Denis Skinner (among others) to the stage, all of them quite convincingly!

Finally that week, to one of my favourite local venues, the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, to see one of their admirable verbatim plays, The Riots. Again, with actors playing several parts each, including politicians, this was not just a worthy exercise but a truly engrossing evening presenting, as they used to say on a now-forgotten US television show ‘just the facts, man’. The Tricycle is not always so serious and worthy, though. They are currently reviving their excellent Stones In Their Pockets, and bringing a new Alan Ayckbourn to their stage in the spring – Neighbourhood Watch runs from 10 April to 5 May.

Needless to say, tickets for all the above productions were very good value for money; and the average for a concessionary ticket was around £10.

And now to an apology. I wrote recently in the pages of this magazine of my outrage at the increase of ticket prices at the newly refurbished Swiss Cottage Odeon, just weeks after its opening. I have since discovered that I was wrong to condemn them thus, but not entirely. It seems that they have adopted the most complicated of ticket pricing systems. So there are indeed relatively cheap seats still, dependent on the time of day, the film you want to see and which of the many screens it’s playing in. But it seems that for the majority of films, the price is quite out of proportion to a simple visit to the cinema; I’m not talking about the live performances of opera or theatre, which, though I have yet to see one, will obviously benefit enormously from the great technological advances the cinema boasts of, but of relatively ubiquitous films that could be viewed at a cinema down the road for almost half the price.

Call me old-fashioned, but I do get a bit fed up with the amounts of choice we have these days. I find it confusing enough to have to choose utility suppliers or simply a type of coffee in a cafe; I’d just like to go to my local cinema and know that all the films in all the screens are the same price!

Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic

A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.


Alexander McCall Smith – Short Stories – Train Related

The Flying Scotsman

The Flying Scotsman

Long since a fan of Alexander McCall Smith and especially his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, we were delighted to find five short stories written on a promotional page of the East Coast train website.

Entitled The Flying Scotsman, Trainspotting, The way the world used to be, Classical Landscape with train, and Brief Encounter we consumed them slowly, savouring the turn of phrase and delectable irony. Hmm, more please!

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith


Vanished Kingdoms

This is an almost impossibly enjoyable volume, which purports to discuss fifteen past European states as the basis of a reflection on the impermanence of things, and the dangers of interpreting the past through the eyes of the present.

Such is the entertaining approach taken by Davies, showing no reluctance to quote from internet sites, guidebooks and secondary sources, that the central thesis becomes almost irrelevant  as he charges through a series of essays which are full of unexpected observations and stories.   How many spectators at an “Old Firm” football match in Glasgow would be aware of the Strathclyde Kingdom which founded their city ?  How many flag-wavers at this year’s Diamond Jubilee will reflect on the fortunes of the royal house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha?  The Windsors have successfully airbrushed their German origins.   Do wine-lovers know that there  were at least fifteen versions of Burgundy?  (And that is not counting the fictional state in “Passport to Pimlico”!).

This is a work of great scholarship and strong opinion.  It is full of insight and no little humour.  If it remains the sum of its parts, who will argue?  For, where else would we learn, for example, that it once looked as if the empire of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would last for all time.  Norman Davies makes a convincing and thought provoking case for studying the fortunes of states which no longer feature in modern history.

Vanished Kingdoms written by Norman Davies
Published by Penguin – to read an extract go to the Penguin website

Reviewed by Les Tucker
Les enjoyed a teaching career in Further and Higher Education, moving from English to leading a Drama and Performing Arts Department. He studied Spanish History at University and still lists History as one of his main interests. He has never stopped being a trainspotter and wears his anorak with pride. His other sources of pleasure, if not profit, are the Turf, the British brewing industry and experimental theatre. Les is a scriptwriter and drama examiner. He describes himself as an omnivore where books are concerned.


The Girl on the Cliff

This is by no means lightweight romantic fiction.  The Girl on the Cliff  rumbles in at well over 500 pages, and what a well plotted piece of storytelling it is.

Novels, where the female characters sport names like “Aurora” and “Grania”,  and the man is known as “Matt”, usually carry built-in health warnings.  Lucinda Riley has, however, constructed an intricate plot, linking wartime London and contemporary Ireland.  The story largely revolves around a secret (which I may not reveal) from 1914, which is disguised until late in the novel.  Aurora, who is the narrator, has lost her mother, and Grania is a sculptor, and let us say that they discover a family connection.

There are familiar themes here: the triumph of hope over loss; romance; a foundling; a missing brother; but the writer skilfully steers her story between past and present with energy and freshness.

The narration is very occasionally irritating – it seems as if the reader is being told how to react or feel, but the only real weakness is some perfunctory characterisation of the minor players. Take the Russian dance teacher, for example.  Not only is she burdened with the title of Princess Astafieva, but she is also made to pronounce (a Sobranie to hand, of course): “Zen we shall put on some music and see how the leetle one respond.”    A minor criticism, I admit, and although the device of the past returning to invade the present may not be another Atonement, this novel is good, hearty storytelling.   If this is “Chick Lit” then count me in!

Girl on the Cliff is written by Lucinda Riley
Published by Penguin ISBN: 978 0 241 95497 3

Reviewed by Les Tucker
Les enjoyed a teaching career in Further and Higher Education, moving from English to leading a Drama and Performing Arts Department. He studied Spanish History at University and still lists History as one of his main interests. He has never stopped being a trainspotter and wears his anorak with pride. His other sources of pleasure, if not profit, are the Turf, the British brewing industry and experimental theatre. Les is a scriptwriter and drama examiner. He describes himself as an omnivore where books are concerned.


Black Shuck (The Devil’s Dog)

This is a very spooky tale about the North East coast of Norfolk, to be precise, the area round Blakeney and Cley. We know the area reasonably well, having spent many days wandering in the area, and can vouch for its spookiness in bad weather, though none as awful as described!

Nature film maker Harry Lambert, has just lost his best mate in a filming accident and returns home to find that his wife has left him for another man. Urgently needing peace and solitude, he books a cottage in Blakeney for a few days bird-watching, or so he thinks. While there, he gets to meet the locals and finds that they have a lot in common, such as a love of nature. From there he goes to see the seals on Blakeney Spit. He finds a strangely mauled seal and reports it to the warden. Since, by this time he has to leave the cottage he is staying in (his room is booked for someone else), and spots the lonely Customs watch house (currently used as a hostel) on the spit, which he thinks it could be the ideal spot for peace, solitude and reflection and moves in. Needless to say he gets only one of his expectations!

Well into the class of Stephen King and Conan Doyle (Hound of the Baskervilles); it seems strange that so many of this type of story involve mad dogs/wolves/rats! We never hear of mad horses for instance! I suppose these tales reflect our deepest fears, which could be why we like them!

Very good, but don’t read late at night!

Black Shuck (The Devil’s Dog) Written by Piers Warren  
Published by Wild Eye £7.99 ISBN 978-1-905843-01-5

Reviewed by John C Reynolds

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