Monday, 28 February 2011

Mum's Gone to see Spamalot

I booked tickets for Spamalot months ago, blissfuly unaware that February was going to be a month of heartache, ups and downs and a succession of car journeys on the A1. However, ending the month with a show full of singing, comedy and pure daftness was actually a great tonic.

Initially we planned to just see the matinee show and come back home again, thinking we would use the Park and Ride as parking is a nightmare in the city. However, on Friday night, just before bed, Dougie and I changed our minds and decided to book a hotel room for the night. The Crowne Plaza, bang in the centre of town, has underground valet parking which worked well when we used it for the Ross Noble gig, once Dougie had stopped hyperventilating after handing over his keys to a stranger.

We checked online and they had a special Family Saver deal which included free breakfast, free parking and 20% off the bar and restaurant bills plus a free gift for the children. As the parking is normally an eye-watering 18 quid, this seemed like reasonable value (well, for Cambridge anyway). The rooms have two double beds in them so certainly plenty of space for two adults and a lanky adolescent (wonder what free toy he would get???!).

After a bit of faffing on the computer, as the website kept booking us two rooms instead of one, we were sorted and went to bed happy but not packed. Next morning was a bit manic, shoving toiletries into bags, but by 10am we were on our way. Ten minutes in, Dougie asked me:

"Did you sort the heating out?"
"Yes, I've got it to come on at 11am tomorrow. We'll be back around lunchtime so that will be ok"
"But it isn't 11 yet today, so the heat and water will come on today too."
"Bugger.....I know, I'll ring your Dad, I'll tell him to pop over in about an hour or so and press the override buttons so it will cancel the timed heating today. It'll still come on tomorrow"
"Not if my dad has anything to do with it"

I took a long time explaining to George how to press the override buttons, just as I have explained our heating to him for the last 15 years they have lived near us. However I was confident he had understood.

The drive to Cambridge was very quick, the key handing-over ceremony quite painless and we even got into our rooms early as I had signed up for their Priority Rewards scheme some months earlier. Unfortunately the room had a funny smell. Vaguely smoky, dampish, old bungalow mustiness. Rory and I weren't too bothered but Sir's extra-sensitive nose wasn't happy. Dougie has a thing about smells and his poor patients always get caught out if they promise him they've stopped smoking and he tells them he knows they haven't as he can sniff 'em out. So he was snuffling about like an old bloodhound.

The windows were permanently shut to make the air-conditioning system work better. Can never see the sense in this in the UK and at times like this, when getting a good breeze through the room would have worked wonders, it is even more annoying. We should have asked for a different room straight away but, not ones to make a fuss, we looked for other options. As part of the hotel group's solution to a good night's sleep, the "Sleep Advantage" scheme had provided two squirty bottles, one to sniff and one to spray on the pillow. Dougie squirted these around the room and near the air vents and we left the room to go shopping.

Two hours later, after exhausting Superdry, Jack Wills and Hollister (which was so dark we couldn't see the clothes), Rory had spent his birthday money and we returned to our room which still stank of old bungalow, but an old bungalow in a pine forest.

Dougie became masterful at this juncture and set off for reception, leaving me cursing Rory for spilling crisps on the floor when we might not be stopping. A few minutes later we were transferred to a much nicer-smelling room which also had a better view. Lesson for the day....make a fuss!

The show (remember that's what this blog post was originally about) was fabulous. Phill Jupitus, Todd Carty and Jessica Martin (replacing an injured Jodie Prenger) were starring in this brilliant musical version of Monty Python's Holy Grail movie, with a splash of micky-taking of musicals thrown in for good measure. The energy in the small cast was tremendous, the singing punchy and harmonious and, all in all, it was a very, very silly show. The tour is continuing around the country so try and catch it if it's near you (Sunderland, Ipswich and  Bradford are the next three venues). If you love Monty Python, can sing along to 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' and remember with fondness the fish-slapping dance, this is definitely your cup of tea.

Our 20% off dinner in the restaurant was really very good. I know we could have found some heavenly little bijou place in town but this was good value food without having to put your coat on and go outside again. Plus, when Rory had finished and didn't want to linger, we gave him his keycard so he could go back to the room for Take Me Out! All this culture in one day.

So much for Crowne Plaza's Sleep Advantage scheme. It might provide gorgeous pillows and lavender spray but it doesn't take into account a husband with a cold. Bloody man snored all night.

A good scoff the next morning, the return of a blissfully undamaged car and we tootled off up the M11. For someone who is quite anal about having a full tank, Dougie hadn't filled up with petrol on the journey and the reserve tank light started flashing near Peterborough. I know Top Gear reckons we probably had a good many more miles available, but it made me nervous so we pulled into the next petrol station. We hadn't used it before and it looked rather quiet. The main entrance seemed to be cordoned off and there was tape near another entrance. Getting lost around the car wash, we carried on driving and ended up in the empty forecourt to be greeted by a harpy in a zip-up fleece waving her arms at us. She accused us of driving through the red tape and cones. When we disputed this, she shouted at her colleague that he'd missed a bit and eventually moved some cones to let us out. So now we had a flashing fuel gauge and the petrol station had some sort of 'incident'. Arse.

Five minutes later we thankfully found a petrol station which was selling petrol and filled up. The journey continued well until we reached be greeted by a waft of hot air as we opened the door. George hadn't pressed the override buttons: he had just pushed both switches down to '24 hours' meaning the heat and water had been on constantly since 11am the previous day. That's what I call a warm welcome home.


Friday, 25 February 2011

Mum's Gone to Jesmond Dene House

My cousin's wedding last Sunday was a fabulous affair held at the highly-regarded Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle upon Tyne. I was quite tempted to call this blog post "My Big Fat Geordie Wedding" but the sophisticated surroundings and the sheer class of the wedding itself put paid to that title. My black sense of humour also had me toying with the idea of "One Wedding and a Funeral" as last week the whole extended family met up twice for two very different occasions. I think I'm on safer ground here, not offending anyone, keeping to my Mum's Gone To theme!

The original Georgian Jesmond Dene House was designed by John Dobson (famous for designing many of Newcastle city centre's historic streets). It was bought in 1871 by Captain Andrew Noble, a partner in Lord Armstrong’s Tyneside-based shipbuilding and armaments business. Knighted in 1902, Sir Andrew Noble moved in high society; Rudyard Kipling, Lord Baden-Powell, Chinese ministers and Japanese princes have all stayed or dined at the house.

It was later extended by a leading Arts and Crafts architect and after Sir Andrew’s widow died, in 1929, the house was variously used as a college, Civil Defence establishment (tunnels still exist under the house), seminary and, until recently, as a residential school. It took 18 months to convert the empty building, Grade II-Listed, to a hotel which opened in 2005.
And what a fine, warm, welcoming hotel it is. The wedding was taking place in the Great Hall at 2.30pm and, as we had decided to stay the night, we hoped to check in before the ceremony. Thankfully we dressed in our wedding gear at my mum's before turning up, which was just as well as the previous guests hadn't yet checked out. I was all for banging on the door and shifting the incumbents but was persuaded to have a G&T in the bar instead. We sat on comfy sofas, sipping our drinks and watching other guests saunter into the dining room for lunch. It may be a 3AA rosette restaurant but it didn't appear to be at all stuffy: there were families and couples, mostly casually-dressed, some in jeans. One chap sat in the bar with a beautifully presented burger and chips with his laptop on the table (free internet connection in the whole hotel - hallelujah, that's something larger hotel chains should seriously be considering).
The groom, best man, usher and assorted members of the bride's family popped into the bar to join us, bringing unfinished bottles of fizz which we thoughtfully helped them to empty. It was at 2.15pm when we realised there was a wedding about to take place and we had no idea whereabouts. A quick word at reception and we were directed to another bar altogether where everyone else attending the wedding had already congregated.
The ceremony was held in the wood-panelled Great Hall, accompanied by a harpist; quite beautiful. One of the readings was from the book The Velveteen Rabbit about how being old and shabby and worn out was a sign that you had been truly loved. I thought of my Dad and had to fight back the tears.

Once the bride and groom had signed the register we all filed out into the sumptuous bar and picked up a glass of spicy Winter Pimms en route. For the next hour photos were taken in the grounds and only once were the whole lot of us required to troop out for a chilly photo. Excellent.

In the meantime the Great Hall was miraculously turned into a dining room and speeches were heard before we ate. A good idea as the three men doing their bit could then relax and enjoy their meal. The Father of the Bride had been a frequent visitor to China on business so, following a tradition from their weddings, he gave everyone a small gift. It's meant to be a gesture, a token really, so his choice was to hand each  guest a postage stamp. He gave us instructions to use the stamp to write a proper letter to someone we love. I intend to use my stamp to write to him and his wife as both of them have, as my Uncle and Aunt, been such a great support to my mum and dad over recent years.

My cousin's speech, as Best Man, was delightfully rude and extremely funny. Thankfully only people with dirty minds would get most of the jokes, so I chuckled away  and then had to explain some of the quips to others on  the table. Let's just say the rabbit he referred to in his speech was definitely not velveteen.

The meal - crab, chicken and sticky toffee pudding - was heavenly and it wasn't long before the room had to be converted again for the evening do. Thankfully this was the ideal time for us to check into our room, kick off our shoes and have a little snooze. The bedrooms were gorgeous, very comfortable yet with all mod-cons and an appealing selection of toiletries which just had to be snaffled away into our washbags!

Unfortunately I snoozed a bit too long and the boys got carried away watching Top Gear on the TV, so we missed the 'first dance', appearing a tad dishevelled at the door just as everyone else was applauding. We joined in the clapping anyway.

We flagged a bit during the evening disco, despite bacon and sausage rolls appearing at 9pm to keep us all nicely topped up. In the end, the three of us crept away before the end and it was only as we climbed the stairs I noticed our part of the hotel had huge painings of naked women on the walls. I peered at them through my sore, contact-lens-stuck-to-eyeball state and thought briefly that these women could really do with a good trim.

Breakfast the next morning was top class: the full English made-to-order, plenty of newspapers to read and most of the wedding party arrived at the same time so we were able to chew the fat with them about the events of the day before.

The only complaint was an incredibly slow checking out procedure: the bride and groom, best man, chief bridesmaid and parents of the bride were all queuing along with us: one poor chap on reception was left to cope on his own while his colleagues could be seen in the office behind him. I'll forgive them for this as everything else was just perfect, excellent value and anyway, I've a couple of bottles of Arran Aromatics Bergamot and Ginger shower gel, two bananas, a couple of tangerines plus a nice pair of slippers to compensate!


Thursday, 17 February 2011

Me and My Monkey

Yesterday's Gallery entry over at The Blog Up North featured a great photo of Garry, aka @himupnorth taken many a year ago with a little monkey. Reading through the comments it was evident that this was quite commonplace when we of a certain age were children. Take your kids to the seaside and be conned into paying money to have your darling child photographed with a primate. Very PG Tips.

I told Garry I had a monkey photo too and would hunt it out so all you youngsters could look on amazed at the un-PC activities of the 1970s.

So here it is. My brother and I in Blackpool around 1969, photographed with monkeys dressed in fetching woollen ensembles. My brother, Stephen, seems to be sporting some pretty cool headgear purchased from a souvenir shop on the sea front.

Happy Days!


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Gallery - Togetherness - Family

I didn't think I would be able to join in The Gallery this week, with yesterday being the day of my dad's funeral. But the theme of 'togetherness' seemed so appropriate for the emotions I am feeling today that I decided to share this photo of some of my family, including my lovely Dad, taken on New Year's Eve 2009/10.

Although yesterday had many sad moments, the overall feeling I experienced was one of belonging, being part of a huge, extended family up in Newcastle. Seeing the church packed with his friends, colleagues and family, all of whom had such wonderful things to say about my father, was very uplifting. The gathering at a local hotel afterwards was just perfect - plenty of memories, lots of laughter.

I just wanted to thank everyone for all their warm words of comfort and support over the last week since my dad died. I was quite amazed at how kind people have been: messages, cards, flowers - so unexpected. I have also realised that many of you have lost someone you love so you understand how it feels.

Today is a new day and I feel ready to face the world get out of my pyjamas first!


Sunday, 13 February 2011

Laughing Through the Tears

My dad and I at my graduation, Emmanuel College, Cambridge 1985.
Since my dad died last Friday there has been a lot of tears but there has also been, quite surprisingly, many laughs. We have known for a long time that Dad's life would be shortened by Motor Neurone Disease and, indeed, when he was first diagnosed 18 years ago, we thought he might only live a year or two more. However he had the slowly progressing form of the disease so we had him with us for so much longer than we'd anticipated: he has seen his treasured granddaughter, Jessica, grow up and was there for Rory being born in 1996 and has seen him develop into a young man of whom he was immensely proud.

In all those years, he never lost his sense of humour. My Dad's humour was always different to my mum's. Dad was born in Ely, Cambridgeshire in 1934, his father an accountant, all very nice and middle-class. He studied architecture at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where I also studied in the 1980s (he was delighted I followed in his footsteps). His laughs were found in The Goons, ITMA, Jacques Tati. He met my mum in Newcastle. She was a singer, from a working-class background and, sexy and feisty woman that she was, swept him off his feet. She could never understand why he laughed like a drain at Monty Python or spoke in silly voices pretending to be Neddy Seagoon. But their marriage worked, they were a dazzling pair and as a family there was always fun and laughter in the house.

When Dad died I expected that, knowing his condition was terminal, there would have been some plans for the funeral arrangements. No. Bugger all!
"So, did Dad want to be cremated or buried?", I asked Mum.
"Well", she said, "he wanted to be buried but I told him that if he thought I was going in that hole with him later on, he could think again. So he changed his mind."
Bless him, that was Dad. Keeping the peace, let's not make a fuss, your mother's probably right!

"What about hymns or songs? Did you talk about that?"
"No", Mum replied, "I asked him now and again but he couldn't decide. Your dad loved his classical music, so we'll have some Mozart at the Crem, but his favourite song was a Country and Western song, Blanket on the Ground!"
"Bloody Hell, Mother, we can't have a song about a couple getting jiggy in the bushes for his final trip down the aisle!"
Why not, she said, I went to a funeral recently where they had Elvis singing Return to Sender!

Blanket on the Ground is now on the CD list for the wake, after the church service and the Crematorium, together with an eclectic mix of classical pieces and a few George Formby songs!

I think the best laugh we had all week was when the Funeral Director came to visit Mum and me to discuss arrangements. Terry and his father Charlie before him, have been our family undertakers for many years so he and Mum were straight away discussing people they knew from Wallsend where Mum and her huge family grew up. Terry was a breath of fresh air, a broad Geordie, with a wicked smile and bizarre laugh, gently helping us with the decisions but mainly keeping us amused with some fabulous stories of leaking ash, coffins in lifts and drunken priests. 

On Thursday I decided I had better sort out what I'm going to wear for the funeral. I have a very smart grey wool dress but couldn't decide on a coat. I came across a perfect one, a black brocade-type coat, from the Spanish company Desigual. It had some splashes of colour on it but overall looked just right. And it was half-price in the sale. I bought it and then came across some smart boots which were also crying out to be purchased. I tried the coat on when I got home so Dougie could see it. He looked at me and then said, "Have you looked at the back of it?" I took it off and had a look. An embroidered design over the back, with flowers, the name Desigual and, in bright yellow letters, the word "Happy!!". Definitely not appropriate for the funeral what with me having to be at the front of the Church. I tried unpicking it but gave up after one of the exclamation marks as I was making too much of a mess.

The boots were no better. Dougie declared that although they were very nice, the fold-over bit at the top was reminiscent of a pantomime principal boy and he felt they were more bedroom attire. So my happy coat and kinky boots have been banished to the wardrobe.

Many years ago Dad started to write his memoirs and I started to type them up. I felt sad and guilty because I had let it slip and for years had just looked at his book and not typed a thing. I picked up the book and found solace in the stories he told. The words in his own handwriting were far more meaningful than the pages I had clinically typed. I'm sure he wouldn't have minded. He stopped writing them when he reached the time that he and Mum got married. When I asked Mum why, she laughed and said he had been getting all his facts wrong. My mum, who has the memory of an elephant, had been correcting him, saying, "No you didn't do that", and "No, that was so and so" so in the end I suspect he said, "Oh sod it, woman, you bloody write it".

To top it all, Dougie, Rory and I went out last night. We had booked tickets months ago to see the comedian Micky Flanagan, at The Cresset, in Peterborough. It felt a little inappropriate to be going out to see a stand-up comic a couple of days before my dad's funeral, but we had all been looking forward to it so we decided to go. Best decision we could have made. Fabulous gentle humour from a very talented man was just the tonic I needed. I laughed from beginning to end. Dad would have loved him.

We have the funeral on Tuesday. I know there will be sadness and tears and the weeks ahead may be a struggle, but just for now I have a smile on my face and my heart is light.


Sunday, 6 February 2011

Back Home

My dad died early on Friday morning. He had been ill for many years with Motor Neurone Disease and looked very poorly at Christmas when his grandson, John, of the same name, was born on Christmas Day.

We knew he might not live much longer but it was still a shock to receive a phone call on Thursday tea-time to say he had deteriorated very quickly and may not last the night.

He died in St Oswald's hospice in Newcastle where he had been a regular patient in their day centre every Wednesday. Their superb care was exceptional and my mum was able to be with him at the end, which thankfully was not as protracted as we'd feared.

Dougie, Rory and I drove up to Newcastle on Saturday. They have returned home this afternoon to go back to work and school tomorrow. I'm staying up with Mum for a bit longer to sort out funeral arrangements, though today we seem to have spent the day rummaging through old photos and reminiscing about a wonderful man.

I feel I can't write much at the moment but will be back soon.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Starter for Ten

The scrunched up bit of paper at the bottom of my son's school bag said:
I'm writing to confirm that your son has been invited to participate in the Senior Schools Challenge on Tuesday 1 February.

This was a "University Challenge" style quiz being held in a rather smart independent school, Nottingham High School, with invited teams from Lincolnshire, including the Grammar schools in Boston, Sleaford, Grantham and Spalding. Each of the two teams from Rory's school consisted of two pupils from the Sixth form and two from Year 10/11. The competition didn't start until 3.45pm so a minibus was taking them, leaving at just before 2pm.

I had no idea how long the event would last so packed his bag with plenty of sandwiches, crisps and drinks. I needn't have bothered as Rory had managed to buy a steak bake from Greggs before he got on the bus and the host school provided a fabulous buffet with "cheesy nachos and chicken things and stuff" according to my lad.

He returned home just before 10pm that night, having lost quite spectacularly but full of excitement about how great the day had been. Far from the normal monosyllabic grunts, Rory entertained us with tales from the day: the extremely clever boy on one team who was so fast on the buzzer Rory's team were 100 points down after ten minutes, how Rory was very chuffed with his answers "oesophagus" and "palaeontology" and how they'd decided if there were any classical music questions they would just say "Beethoven" (it worked!)

The best answer of the day, however, belonged to Rory's best pal who buzzed in with this corker:

"Who was Nadezhda Alliluyeva married to?"

"Erm....Paris Hilton?"

"No....Joseph Stalin".


Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Gallery - Shapes - A Load of Balls!

A forbidden photo taken in Madrid, last October, in the Museo Reina Sofia. I say forbidden because just after I'd clicked the shutter, a sour-faced woman told me I wasn't allowed to photograph this particular exhibit. Of course I apologised but I still had my snap.

It was rather a confusing museum: no photos allowed in some parts, photos but no flash elsewhere. Then there was the bizarre rule for their prime exhibit, Picasso's Guernica - photos allowed but only from the room next door: people were squashed in the archway fighting to get a good shot.

So what is this delightful creation with multi-coloured dress and head made from shiny spheres?

It's a ballet costume designed by Oskar Schlemmer, a German painter, designer and choreographer associated with the Bauhaus school. It is part of his most famous work, "Triadisches Ballett," 1922, in which the actors were morphed into geometrical shapes and danced like puppets. This particular costume translates well into English as "Ball Gown".

The other costumes on show were equally quirky, reminiscent of Bertie Bassett liquorice figures. Shame I couldn't get a photo of all of the costumes, but I was quick to move to the next room before my camera was confiscated. However I have found the other exhibits on the museum's website here,

I've also discovered a very old clip of part of the ballet on YouTube. The costume above can be seen at 1 minute 53. You'll notice the head was actually a head-piece, worn like a wig. The whole thing looked very heavy and cumbersome but is quite gorgeous, don't you think?

This is my entry for this week's Gallery , the theme being 'shapes'.