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since 23/09/2002


Lausanne (Switzerland) 23/05/2013

A city break beside the lake

Lausanne (Switzerland) As the world's least intrepid, non-flying traveller I was predictably daunted by the prospect of a three-train journey to Switzerland including a crossing of Paris, even if it was to reach a comfortingly safe destination. In the event, my week-long stay in Lausanne went with nary a hitch. Why Lausanne? Admittedly, the destination was decided for me. My far more adventurous daughter is spending her gap year au-pairing for a French family near Lausanne. We wanted to visit her and decided to make a holiday of it. She has chosen well: the city overlooks Lake Geneva, with the French Alps on the horizon. It promises a range of delights for the leisure traveller. Getting there For the more sensible visitor, all London and many regional UK airports serve the nearby Geneva Airport. For example, EasyJet offers flights of under two hours from Leeds Bradford from around £26 each way. Frequent trains link the airport with Lausanne. We did it the hard way though, taking trains to London, then the Eurostar to Paris, whence we took the TGV direct to Lausanne. Total fares (booked three months ahead) were around £100 per person each way. What's it like? Lausanne is a medium-sized city in French-speaking south-west Switzerland, on the north side of Lake Geneva approximately half way between Geneva at the western end and Montreux in the east. Compared to those two places, it's fair to say Lausanne is a shade less glamorous and is thus pleasantly un-touristy. It's nevertheless attractive and ...

The Sopranos - Series 1-6 - Complete (Box Set) (DVD) 30/06/2012

Mob rules

The Sopranos - Series 1-6 - Complete (Box Set) (DVD) Sleeping with the fishes Over its six-season, seven-year run, the New Jersey of The Sopranos amassed a body count that Morse's Oxford and Midsomer would, well, die for. Watch this box set and you'll see 102 corpses. It's not all homicide either. For the murder-phobes among you, there are deaths from cancer, a stroke, suicides. One character even checks out, Elvis-style, on the can. A show based around the Mafia is always going to feature violent departures. But the show's creator, David Chase, despairingly admitted that he was to a degree, forced to maintain the death-rate in response to audience demand. Bloodthirsty viewers were quick to express dismay if an episode passed without a vicious 'whacking'. However, as Chase would presumably hope, the show's ability to sate your blood-lust is its least rewarding feature. The reason it hooked me, and why I have enjoyed re-watching via this DVD box-set, is the way the actors and writers create characters that engage you. The psychological truths, the humour and the integration of wider issues into the human drama, are impeccable. The realism and attention to detail, the music and photography all support this in ways that few other TV shows have ever matched. So much so, that even five years after its finale, The Sopranos regularly crops up in media debates about the Greatest TV Series Ever. It's always there, alongside The West Wing, Mad Men, The Wire and George and Mildred, in those web-forum and column-inch filling debates ...

Everything that starts with H ... 02/01/2012

For whom the bridge tolls - 2012 update

Everything that starts with H ... From small beginnings I wrote the following review on this campaign against Humber Bridge tolls nearly five years ago. The first major breakthrough in that campaign has prompted me to add this update. Back in 2007 I thought campaigning would have minimal effect. I am old and cynical enough to have little confidence in online petitions, and that was all we really had at that stage. My cynicism is still largely intact today, but I hope my experience might encourage those who doubt their ability to change things. Since I wrote this account, a lot of water has passed under the (Humber) bridge. Slowly things have changed. That petition I mentioned exceeded all my expectations. Over 8,000 people signed it by the time it closed. Some of those were people who read my original review and for their contribution, thanks. Local media reported the progress of the petition, and the issue of bridge tolls became news. From small beginnings - such as local parish councils linking to the petition - interest grew. I was fortunate in working for a local council myself, and other colleagues with political influence were able to muster support among councillors. They in turn enlisted colleagues in other councils, across the political spectrum. Letters were sent to government ministers; the regional media reported these facts, and momentum picked up. Muddying the waters Within three months of the start of the petition, a local MP had spoken in Parliament about the issue of the tolls. It was ...

Whole Earth Smooth Peanut Butter No Added Sugar 17/07/2011

Not just for when your mum's in prison

Whole Earth Smooth Peanut Butter No Added Sugar I realise that I'm in a minority in that much of my culinary inspiration comes, not from Heston, Gordon or – god help us – Jamie, but from The Simpsons. The popular cartoon series is acclaimed for many achievements, but those of us who follow it for recipe ideas are mercifully few. However, I am a living testament to the benefits of a diet of Krusty Burgers, Lard Lad donuts, and 16 pound "Sir Loin-a-Lot" steaks from The Slaughterhouse kill-your-own beef restaurant. Less well-known in the Springfield cookbook are the domestic concoctions. Surely the most poignant - yet mouthwatering - among them features in the scene where Bart opens his lunch (prepared by Homer, as Marge is in prison) to find that it consists of a pack of sugar, and peanut butter smeared on a playing card. It was expressly with the purpose of re-creating this recipe that I bought a jar of Whole Earth smooth peanut butter. As you'll see from my picture, I deviated slightly from the original recipe by using 'golden' unrefined sugar. I thought this was more in keeping with the 'natural' aura of the Whole Earth brand. The result was a convenient and nourishing snack, and the playing card, though not really edible, was easily cleaned for re-use. If you don't have any playing cards handy, I can also recommend it spread on hot toast. Here, it really comes into its own as the heat makes it melt slightly. It is also usable in cooking. Savoury recipes such as satay sauce rely on it, and you can add it to cake and ...

Castle Howard Estate, Castle Howard, York 03/05/2011

Castle Howard Revisited

Castle Howard Estate, Castle Howard, York Howard's beginning A day out in this country, particularly for the more mature person, carries a high risk of a visit to a stately home. They're the theme parks of the middle-aged, the default attraction for those of us too lazy to scale the peaks, but not yet at the stage of driving to the coast to sit in the car staring across a grey sea, wordlessly munching sandwiches and drinking from a tartan Thermos. I've often succumbed to the Stately Home Experience (S.H.E.) myself, mainly before I resigned from the National Trust in a mighty huff many years ago. The routine is always, always the same: a saunter round the gardens, if the weather isn't too bad, maybe a picnic lunch, a dutiful trudge through roped-off rooms, then a visit to the tea room, exit through gift shop, and back to the car park. There are always peacocks, old people, a guide/warder in every room, and invariably a residual feeling of mild boredom and class guilt at perpetuating and deferring to, inherited wealth, privilege and the subjugation of the masses. After a few mansion-free years, my recent visit to Castle Howard brought all this back to me. I had been there before, around 20 years ago, but only took in the gardens. Both then, and more recently, I felt it was a cut above the standard S.H.E. - in terms of variety, facilities, value, interest and the overall tone of the place. Boar, boar First thing to clear up is that Castle Howard is not, in the fortifications-and-moat sense, a castle. It does fit ...

Few Are Chosen - M. T. McGuire 22/03/2011

First bout of the flying Pan

Few Are Chosen - M. T. McGuire K'Barth time In a parallel universe, maybe not so far away, lives The Pan of Hamgee. A clumsy, cowardly, mouthy young man whose only skill is his knack for escaping, he is blacklisted by the evil, humourless Grongle rulers of his home country of K'Barth. He is thus constantly on the run from nearly everyone. We first meet The Pan as he contrives accidentally to burn down a block of flats belonging to criminal boss Big Merv, whose bank-robbing gang enlist him as getaway driver, as an alternative to encasing his feet in concrete and dumping him in the river. And if that doesn't sound perilous enough for our hero, there's more to come. He's being followed by person or persons unknown and tangles unwisely with evil tyrant and wannabe world ruler Lord Vernon. He also manages to upset the leader of the equally brutal Resistance. Only his driving skills (in a Snurd - a sort of flying sports car) and the kindly ministrations of pub landladies Gladys and Ada, shield him from certain death. That, and the protection offered by a mysterious old man who turns out to be a high-up in the Nimmist religion, as was The Pan's late father. The 'Chosen' of the title refers, possibly, to the selection of the Architrave, or leader of the people. It's part of a mysterious, quasi-religious process, but it is one that Lord Vernon is determined to usurp. There are hints that The Pan may be a possible candidate for this role, but along with some of the other elements of suspense in the novel, we ...

Vision Express (Shop) 26/11/2010

The Poor Sight Saga

Vision Express (Shop) It takes a lot to anger me. Global injustices, political chicanery, workplace irritations – even pictures of Michael Gove's face – I shrug them all off with a worldly sigh. But my recent experiences with Vision Express have kept me awake at night, seething with impotent fury. I'm not sure why; after all, frustration comes as standard with most consumer transactions more complex than picking up your groceries. For instance I know, even before I've booked my MOT, that I'm letting myself in for the standard garage lies, delays and rip-offs. Maybe with an optician, you just expect some sort of quasi-medical professionalism, rather than greed, indifference and broken promises. It all started well enough. My glasses bought from Vision Express a couple of years earlier had become so scratched that the lenses were almost opaque. But I’d previously had no complaints about their service, and had been impressed by their wide, if relatively pricey, choice of frames. I’d reasoned that it’s worth paying a bit more for a good service, especially with something as valuable as one’s eyesight. So I went on to their website to book an eye test. I put in a few dates and my phone number, and the site promised a call from the local store to confirm a time. There was no call, but a text came through within a few minutes with a time and date, so no real problem there. Another reminder text message arrived the day before the appointment and I duly turned up. I was told to wait for a few minutes in ...

How Not to Grow Up: A Coming of Age Memoir. Sort of. - Richard Herring 16/09/2010

Winning the sperm marathon

How Not to Grow Up: A Coming of Age Memoir. Sort of. - Richard Herring Comedians' autobiographies are outnumbered only by misery memoirs in the nation's bookshops these days. From Alan Carr to Dawn French, Paul O'Grady to Jo Brand, they've all done one. It seems that no sooner do you pull in 20 punters on the Edinburgh Fringe than you have publishers waving contracts under your nose. And I'll admit, I've done my bit to encourage the flood of humourists putting pen to paper. Just musing whether to write this review, I was surprised by how many of the genre I've read. Griff Rhys Jones, Frank Skinner, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, Rory McGrath - I've read their all cheery confessions. Mercifully I've not gone as far as reading Frankie Boyle or ventured anywhere near a Booky-Wook. But I know they're lurking around the house, ready to snare me. I can easily see why such books appeal. They promise an undemanding read, revealing insights into career ups and downs, with a few laughs almost guaranteed. You can also rely on most comics to tell a good yarn and set up a gag. Few of the genre offer anything very challenging though, so I often feel guilty that I really should be reading more improving and sensible stuff as befits my great age. Which is where comedian Richard Herring comes in. Because he is a defiant advocate of the inner child. His mid-life memoir is a plea in defence of the childlike, but also manages to make some serious points about life and how to live it. Galaxy Such a paradox is typical of our author. His comic writing and ...

New Musical Wicked, Apollo Victoria Theatre 29/08/2010

Green witch mean time

New Musical Wicked, Apollo Victoria Theatre To me, West End musical theatre evokes the same distaste bordering on horror that most people reserve for haemorrhoid surgery or Piers Morgan. However, I recently found myself in the audience for the capital's biggest 'Hit Musical', as Wicked modestly styles itself. The occasion was daughter Sophie (A Teenager)’s birthday treat. In the spirit of parental selflessness for which I am widely admired, I had forked out over £180 for three tickets. Despite the size of the outlay, I shall try to be objective. We’re off to see… Following its 2003 Broadway debut, Wicked, ‘The untold story of the witches of Oz’ transferred to the UK's Apollo Victoria theatre four years ago. The London show alone has since grossed a recession-busting £100m. Worldwide, it has spawned a legion of devoted followers (21 million people have seen it). By most standards then, it has been an astonishing success. The audience for our visit was a surprising mix of ages. Though predominantly young and female, there was a decent smattering of older people and a surprising number of men (friends of Dorothy maybe?). Even staggering ticket prices of up to £90 don't seem to have deterred such capacity crowds. Why should that be so? Well, the show has been heavily marketed. Though nobody I've mentioned it to locally had heard of Wicked, few visitors or residents of London can have missed the ubiquitous advertising for the show. I can only assume that it also taps into the taste for sorcery and fantasy literature ...

Ginger Geezer - Lucian Randall, Chris Welch 01/05/2010

Family motto: omnes blotto

Ginger Geezer - Lucian Randall, Chris Welch Hi there, nice to be with you Redheads, they say, feel more pain than the rest of us. They may even have a layer of skin too few. However literally true this might be, it certainly seems to be the case for Vivian Stanshall. As his second wife says in this excellent biography of the man, “There’s nothing between him and all the sensations the world has to give us”. Vivian (real name Vic) was born in 1943 to Londoners Vic (real name Vivian) and Eileen (real name Eileen). He is best known as singer of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. The Bonzos, as they were invariably known, were an anarchic adornment to the late 1960s English pop scene. Arty but never serious, they veered between recreations of obscure 1920s jazz songs and straight pop. Their stage act involved huge masks, mad machines and explosions. Lots of explosions. In its accounts of those Bonzos years, Ginger Geezer is at its most entertaining and joyous. First, it briefly despatches Stanshall’s childhood and teens in Southend (including his time as a crocheting teddy boy). Then the authors – former Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch, and music researcher Lucian Randall – plunge into endless anecdotes from Viv’s former bandmates. The pranks played on managers and the public are, in the oft-repeated but rarely true cliché, laugh-out-loud funny. As the presiding genius behind this mayhem, Stanshall was never happier than in front of an audience. Whether on stage or in the street, however outrageous his garb and behaviour, ...

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years - Michael Palin 25/11/2009

Monty Python's Life of Michael

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years - Michael Palin And now for something completely different“Never meet your heroes,” goes the old adage. “Never read their diaries” might be equally sage advice. That’s probably why I didn’t tackle Michael Palin’s collected daily journals until now. Along with the rest of the Monty Python team, he was without doubt a hero of my teenage years. Today, when so much television is disposable pap, such admissions stretch credulity. But I derived more enjoyment, education and social acceptance from Monty Python’s Flying Circus than any other influence on my nerdish adolescent self. Even now, 30 or more years later, I was wary of anything which might demolish the façade of those shows, which could reveal that my telly gods had feet of clay. So I opened this hefty, 600-page distillation of the Python years (1969-1979) with trepidation. I came here for a good argumentIn many ways, my fears were justified. Inevitably, as Palin sets out his daily experience of the show and of his developing career, the abiding impression is of all the work involved. On screen he may have been the “the nice one” of the team: affable, easy-going and tolerant, but the diaries reveal the steely streak which must drive any truly successful person. It shows itself here in his tireless work ethic, sometimes to the detriment of his family, and a surprisingly strong business sense. That was bound to erode some of the magic of the shows, but you always risk paying that price: curiosity killed the parrot. Comedy, we learn, is ...

The Jonathan Meades Collection (Box Set) (DVD) 25/09/2009

When Benny met Geoffrey

The Jonathan Meades Collection (Box Set) (DVD) Eagle-eyed TV viewers may have spotted a recent three-part series about Scotland that sneaked out on BBC4. Although, hidden away at bedtime as it was, they could have been forgiven for missing it. Called Off-Kilter, it was the latest quirky outing by one Jonathan Meades. If it had been fronted by Griff Rhys Jones or Michael Palin, it would have been endlessly trailed, given a feature in Radio Times and a prime-time slot on BBC2. As it is, the BBC seems mildly ashamed of a programme-maker who, almost uniquely today, fulfils in each programme the complete mission of its founder Lord Reith - to educate, inform and to entertain. Still, we should be glad that Meades is allowed to make programmes at all. If most current TV is dumbed-down, Meades is the opposite - smartened up, maybe? Dressed in his trademark dark suit and tie, as in all 13 shows on this three-DVD collection, he certainly fits the bill sartorially. He comes across as smart in other ways too. When it comes to the style of his 50 or so documentaries, from which these are drawn, he is a self-proclaimed maximalist. He never uses one syllable when four will do. “More is more,” as he tells Mark Lawson in the 40-minute interview included as an extra on these discs. His verbal style no doubt puts some people off, despite the popularity of his shows. But myself and other Meadophiles revel in his unapologetic sesquipedalianism. I might not understand everything he says, but it is refreshing not to be patronised. There’s ...

Jordan (The Comeback) - Prefab Sprout 30/04/2009

From Witton Gilbert to Vegas

Jordan (The Comeback) - Prefab Sprout Starter's orders It has come to my notice that some people may be unconvinced of, or even oblivious to, the merits of Prefab Sprout. Such oversights are forgivable. After all, 20 years have passed since the band’s heyday. If people remember them at all, it is for a knowingly cheesy novelty hit: The King of Rock and Roll. The daft band name doesn’t help either. It’s equally possible that even those who've heard them would still consign them to the dustbin marked ‘shiny eighties pop’ along with Tears for Fears and Simple Minds. But that would be to ignore the wealth of musical ideas beneath the studio polish, the wit and insight of the lyrics and the timeless sophistication of the songs. Because the band’s mainstay, writer and singer Paddy McAloon, is undoubtedly one of Britain’s finest songwriters. This 1990 release was his band’s fourth album (fifth if you count the ‘unofficial’ Protest Songs). It is his most ambitious and arguably his most perfectly realised project. Both God and Elvis get speaking parts - need I say more? Main course The 19 compositions fall into four distinct ‘suites’ (for want of a less poncy word). The most coherent of these can loosely be termed “The Elvis songs”. The title song imagines The King still alive, but in what McAloon terms a 'compassionate' rather than a sensationalised way. Paddy narrates the spoken word verses in the guise of Presley, a recluse in the penthouse of a Vegas hotel, waiting for the right song to come along. Jordan here ...

Culinare One Touch Can Opener 05/04/2009

Can-do attitude

Culinare One Touch Can Opener With the advancing years, I’ve noticed a growing need for electrical assistance with basic everyday activities. First there was the electric toothbrush. That’s here to stay, as my wrists are now too weak to manipulate the manual version. Then last year the electric shaver arrived - see my previous review (rated 23 per cent exceptional – equal to an A* at GCSE, I’m told). By the time I hit 60, I’ll have one of those electric toilets beloved of the Japanese so that I can blow-dry my cobblers. The latest step in this decline into robotised senility is a battery-operated device to aid the irksome chore that is opening a can of beans. In mitigation, I’ll stress that I didn’t buy this myself. When my mother asked what I’d like for Christmas, I suggested a posh can opener as the Morrison’s 99p traditional ‘butterfly’ version which had done sterling service for all of six weeks had just fallen apart. Apart from the terminally lazy, I imagine an electric can opener would be of most use to those with disabilities of some kind. In which case, the design of this item is not ideal. Its smooth plastic surfaces, whilst giving it a sleek aerodynamic appeal, could be hard to grip for the target market. Though to be fair, I notice on the Culinare website that newer versions have rubberised grips in a range of gaudy colours. The ‘One-touch™’ resembles a cuttlefish in shape - without the messy tentacles. Its top surface is plain white apart from a big circular blue button at one end. You ...

Philips Philishave HQ8150 Speed XL Shaver 07/01/2009

A fairly cool depilatory tool

Philips Philishave HQ8150 Speed XL Shaver Rash Decision It started with a couple of small spots on my left cheek. Within two days, half my face was covered in weeping sores (pictures available on request from me, or on my wife's mobile phone if you're one of her ghoulish mates). For the first time in 15 years, to the appalled fascination of young children in the waiting room, I had to seek the advice of my GP. "I've only ever seen this sort of thing on people's buttocks," he chuckled. Thus, armed with a prescription for weapons-grade antibiotics, The Man With an Arse for a Face slunk from the surgery. Unable to shave for fear of spreading the sores, two weeks later I sported my first ever 'beard'. I use the word advisedly, for I am not one who can sprout Desperate Dan, or even George Michael, stubble in the space of a morning. In fact, you'll see old ladies in Morrison's with more luxuriant face fungus than I managed after a fortnight. But even allowing for the currently fashionable three-day stubble, I knew I wouldn't pass muster as the new Noel Edmonds or Brian Blessed. Some time, I knew, I would have to shave again. Ever since I first scraped off my teenage bum-fluff at the age of 22, I had wet shaved. Despite the daily blood-letting, occasional rashes and the aforementioned plague, I had persisted. But now, I thought, my delicate skin would not stand such trauma. Forgetting to look on any consumer review web sites, I consulted Amazon in search of Depilation for Dummies. Imagine my surprise when I ...
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