Monday, 26 September 2011

Nothing to see here...

....but plenty to see over on my other blog, Memoirs of John Michael Grinsell.

I've been busy typing up Dad's memoirs and so far we've covered his early childhood in Ely, Cambridgeshire during the Second World War. I can now picture this lovely little boy with his blond curly hair, pretending to be a soldier filling up his tricycle with imaginary petrol from the garage next door and listening to the Spitfires and Lancaster bombers flying overhead from the nearby RAF bases.

Writing up his memoirs in the form of a blog is proving to be such a good idea. As always, I wish I'd started it sooner as Dad would have so enjoyed reading daily posts on the computer. Nevertheless, the family are gaining an insight into his life and Mum, in particular, is finding it such a comfort to read all about the man she loved whom she misses so much.


Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Joy of the Hotel Book Library

Our bookshelves at home!
One of the rarely-mentioned joys of visiting hotels is having a good old nosey at their book swap/exchange area and seeing what gems they have. You can tell a lot about a hotel's clientele just from the quality of the books on offer, as well as gaining a fair idea about the mix of nationalities.

In Portugal this summer, the book swap area in the Martinhal Hotel was in their computer room. It had dozens of books available and they were mostly English, reflecting the percentage of British guests at the resort. I'm making huge assumptions here but there were less supermarket 3 for 2 stickers plastered on them, as is the case in the cheaper hotels we've stayed in, and far more Waterstones' labels. You could roughly gauge the dads' books from the mums' books (if the couples were anything like us) and if there were any naughty novels, I had a habit of trying to guess who, around the pool, was likely to have been the previous owner, before borrowing the well-thumbed copy myself.

We always take a whole pile of paperbacks on our two-week summer holiday if we know we're going to be lazing about. Husband Dougie gets through a huge amount of shoot 'em up thrillers-for-boys, particularly if the hero is a forty-something, intelligent spy with a penchant for classy cars. I tend to go for a mixture of travel books (often based on the country we're visiting) and some easy chick-lit-but-with-some-substance novels. Once we've rattled through our chosen books, we have a daily visit to the hotel library to try something else, often nipping back to swap again after ten minutes if it doesn't immediately grab our attention.

This year I found two authors, both new to me, whom I might never have been drawn towards at home. The first was Kate Atkinson, a thriller writer with an ability to construct sentences which are pithy and very, very funny. The book I found was Started Early, Took My Dog, featuring a private detective, Jackson Brodie, who appears in some of her other novels. An absolutely cracking book from an author who wasn't on my radar at home but is now.

The other was The Wilding by Maria McCann. An unusual historical novel about a 17th century cider-maker. Beatifully crafted prose, a highly-original concept and an old-fashioned mystery to boot. Thank you to whoever left that one on the shelf.

Of course my worry is, now that people are getting into their Kindles and ebooks, what is going to happen to the hotel 'library' where I spend many happy hours mooching? Will they disappear? It's starting to become difficult to wander round a pool and not be able to work out what nationality people are and whether their taste in literature is of interest. That's part of the joy of people-watching on holiday and it's in danger of dying out. I'm fretting already.

Have you found any interesting finds in a hotel's book exchange? And while I'm on the subject, what have you been reading this summer? Any authors to recommend?


Monday, 19 September 2011

Book Review: The Thread by Victoria Hislop

Katerina Sarafoglou, a young seamstress with exceptional talent, creates beautiful gowns for the rich ladies of Thessaloniki in Greece, the passion for her work shining through as her needle threads its way through the fine silks and wools.

Victoria Hislop's new novel, The Thread, weaves a story of love, family feuds, resilience and loss against a backdrop of the turbulent history of Greece, and, in particular, the northern city of Thessaloniki, throughout the 20th Century.

After her highly successful first novel, The Island, which was set in Crete and the leper island of Spinalonga, Victoria set her second novel, The Return, in 1930s Spain. In this, her third, widely-anticipated, novel, she returns to Greece and readers are once again treated to a tale which not only ticks the boxes for providing a heart-warming love story, but enlightens and educates with an accurate, fascinating insight into the history of this region.

This is how I like my history; a social interpretation of how political, religious and environmental forces affect people in their day to day lives. In 1917 we learn that Thessaloniki is devastated by a fire which has a huge impact on the future of this multi-cultural city, where Christians, Muslims and Jews were living together in a fairly successful symbiotic way. Add two world wars, civil war, communism versus nationalism and it's clear that the city is never going to be the same again for its inhabitants.

The book begins in 2007 so we know the outcome of the relationship for the two main characters, Katerina and Dimitri, before we are taken back to the beginning of their lives. Having knowledge of the ending doesn't, in fact, detract from the enjoyment of the narrative: there are enough questions, surprises and anxious moments to keep the reader entranced from beginning to end.

I suspect comparisons will be made with Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin and it's true this book will excite imagination and encourage travel to Thessaloniki to experience the spirit of a city nestling in the arms of the ever-present Mount Olympus. But for me this book has the same emotional appeal as Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. In that novel I was able to appreciate how political changes and religious extremes impact on normal, diligent families and their neighbours in Afghanistan: in The Thread similar trials are thrust upon a group of hard-working, tolerant, loving individuals in war-torn Greece. Their specific stories may be fictional but their voices are real and resonant.

The Thread, by Victoria Hislop, is published in hardback and ebook on 27 October 2011, by Headline Review


Thursday, 15 September 2011

Why Don't More Hotels Offer Connecting Rooms?

Family rooms in hotels are essential when you have little ones but when your children are older, being all cosy together has distinct disadvantages. Our 15 year old son has no wish to sleep with us when we're on holiday and vice versa. So why don't more hotels offer connecting rooms so our children can be accessible but privacy for all can be maintained?

When I search for hotels for city breaks I very often struggle to find ones which have connecting rooms. Even those that do supply them seem reticent to publicise it. They happily provide junior suites which are, quite frankly, just bigger rooms with a couple of uncomfortable 'comfy' chairs in the corner. Suites are very expensive and even then our son, a gangly six-foot teen, would be hanging out the end of a put-me-up. If he does get a decent bed, it still doesn't alter the fact that he is still in the same room as us. He doesn't sleep with us at home so why would we want him grinning at us from a few feet away when we're on holiday.

Connecting rooms are bliss. It's like being in an apartment: plenty of space, an extra bathroom and the knowledge that children are safe in the next room which you can access at a moment's notice through the inter-connecting door. Everyone can come and go between the two rooms but when bedtime arrives, we don't all need to be looking at each other, moaning about who's snoring or snuffling.

Having two rooms next to each other is not the same thing. We have done this on occasion and it's not ideal. Too often I've been caught in a hotel corridor, in my dressing gown, knocking on our son's door urging him to get up in the morning. Asking the hotel for an extra keycard does help but I still seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in the corridor as I take the keycard for my son's room but forget to take my own so I can get back in again.

We've also had the situation where we've been promised adjoining rooms, only to discover the hotel has been unable to cater to our request, so our son is half-way down the corridor. I know he's a big lad but I want him near me. I'm a mother and I whittle.

Hotel resort complexes seem to have this sussed: many beach hotels abroad are aparthotels so that everyone has their own bedroom, with a kitchen, occasionally an extra bathroom but still having access to hotel facilities. This often isn't possible in city hotels for obvious reasons of space and the design layout of the original buildings. But surely there must be a market for considering the needs of families with older children? Can they not just alter a few rooms to make them interconnecting?

A few hotels which we have used in the past which have this facility:

Palais de la Mediterranee, Nice

Hotel Urban, Madrid

Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle upon Tyne

In Paris we settled on an apartment, which is maybe what other families do. It was good but a bit functional and I missed some of the facilities of a hotel, like the bar!

We have just booked two connecting rooms at the family-friendly hotel, Old Swan and Minster Mill in the Cotswolds, with a reduction on the price of the second room, which is even better. Will report back on that hotel in a few weeks time.

I'd be interested in your views on this. Are there hotel brands which do offer connecting rooms which I should be considering? Suggestions please.


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Dad's memories of the war

Over on the new blog, Memoirs of John Michael Grinsell, I have typed up some of Dad's memories of the war. He was five when it began. There are also some photos - I have to say he was the most gorgeous little boy: look at those golden curls!

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Getting cracking on the new blog

In my last post I explained I would be writing a separate blog, Memoirs of John Michael Grinsell, using the recollections my dad had written before he died earlier this year.

I've been overwhelmed by your encouragement - such wonderful comments about how people would love to have stories of their own families written down for posterity. Jen (Mum in the Mad House) suggested I could use the blog to show off my dad's paintings so I have now used one for the header of the new blog. I got Mum on board yesterday to hunt out more photos to illustrate the narrative as I go along.

Yesterday evening I posted the next part of his story - Let's start at the beginning - setting out a truncated family tree, as it were. I have managed to include two fascinating photographs which offer an insight into the fashion of the Edwardian era and the 1920s. If you click on them to zoom in, you'll be able to look at the detail.

Part of me is cross with myself for not doing this earlier but then, with everything, you don't realise how precious things are until they are gone. My dad may not be with us any more but this new blog is a living, interactive testament to his memory and I think he would be, in his own modest way, rather chuffed.

I won't always use this blog to point the way to his stories but, while it's in its infancy, a little nudge will help it along.


Thursday, 8 September 2011

A Tribute to Dad - A New Blog

My dad began to write his memoirs about ten years ago and, at the time,  I suggested I type them up for him. The pair of us began this process with great enthusiasm: I would type a few pages up, he would check and correct them. But then I lapsed with the typing and Dad, because of his illness, Motor Neurone Disease, found it more and more difficult to write. I bought him a tape recorder and he continued his story on tape for a little while. However he never finished his memoirs and I feel so guilty for not encouraging him further.

Dad died in February this year, 2011, and I have only now picked up his old blue book, with his wonderful handwriting in it, and decided I must type up some of it every day. It then occurred to me that it would be a great idea to create a blog of his autobiography so the family can read his story right from the beginning. Then, if I become lazy and forget to update, I will have plenty of people to chivvy me up.

If you would like to read his story, the new blog is called Memoirs of John Michael Grinsell. Pop over there and subscribe or 'follow' if you'd like to receive regular updates.


Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Box of Frogs in the Kitchen

You just know when something feels right. That's just what happened when I visited a local gallery at Ayscoughfee Hall in Spalding, to see a friend's mosaic exhibition, A Touch of Glass.

The exhibition, held during August, showcased some of the original new pieces by Fiona Gurney of Box of Frogs Mosaics, Deeping St Nicholas, Spalding.

Each mosaic is unique and made to original designs using a selection of glass tiles, handmade porcelain, recycled china, sea glass, jewellery and treasures found in drawers.

Mum was staying with me for a few days so we took a detour from shopping and cappuccinos to pop into Fiona's exhibition. Immediately Mum spotted a very contemporary lamp, the chunky base decorated with exquisite mosaic. She knew exactly where it would go in her house.

I was equally struck by a series of four mosaics called Fissure (i - iv). I had a gut feeling that the four squares, each measuring 20cm, would look perfect in the kitchen, especially as the window end, which now has vertical blinds rather than curtains, has a couple of narrow walls crying out for suitable decoration.

Now the exhibition has finished, I have collected the mosaics and they are taking pride of place in the kitchen. Took a bit of doing, trying to get the spacing right, while ensuring the gold fissure remained in line from top to bottom. But I think we succeeded, near as damn it, if you don't look too close.

Fiona’s studio is part of the Lincolnshire Art on the Map Scheme and she also has pieces on display at the Stamford Arts Centre, The Vales and Fens: Art on the Map exhibition.

If you fancy having a go at constructing your own mosaic Fiona runs day courses at her Box of Frogs studio in Deeping St Nicholas and the Unique Cottage Farm Studios, Low Fulney with the next available courses on August 20, September 17, October 15 and November 19. Courses cost £45 and include light refreshments, with all equipment provided, 2 hour taster sessions and half days are also available on request

Fiona can be contacted via her website,


Monday, 5 September 2011

Emily Murray - Defying Gravity

Further to my last post about the final of Polka Dot Has Talent, here is a video taken on Saturday of Emily Murray, joint winner of the competition, singing Defying Gravity from Wicked. Have a listen to this stunning voice and make a note of her name for the future. As an amateur singer myself I have to say Emily's power and range is quite amazing: I'm very envious.

Beware there is a huge screech from her family at the end of the song which will probably burst any tender ear-drums.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Night I became Amanda Holden - Part Two

Thought I should update you on my foray into the world of being a judge for a talent contest. If you remember my post last week (and if you can't, it's HERE) I had the unenviable task of judging a group of very talented youngsters from a local performing arts group here in Spalding. I escaped unscathed from the heats and prepared myself for the semi-finals and final this weekend.

This is the third year of Polka Dot Has Talent and the stakes are high as the prize for the winner is £1000. Yes, you read that correctly. One winner (a solo act or a group) walks away with a cool grand. No pressure, then, to get the right result.

The semi-final on Friday night was quite tough. How do you whittle down 18 acts, ranging from group dance acts through to three little children with the cute-factor doing a rendition of I Just Can't Wait to be King from The Lion King? We came up with a final 12 eventually, though I went to bed that night wishing we could just have put them all through.

The final yesterday afternoon was held at the South Holland Centre in Spalding. It's a lovely theatre, seats about 350, and the finalists would get to perform on a proper stage with a sparkly backdrop, atmospheric lighting and excellent sound system. I was nervous and I wasn't even performing. They, on the other hand, seemed to grow in confidence and were all very excited backstage.

The other three judges were Neil Couperthwaite, accomplished singer who has performed on the West End and been involved in Polka Dot from the beginning: Mike Raymond, manager of Blackfriars Theatre in Boston; George Barnett, last year's winner in possession of £1000 plus a gorgeous singing voice, and me, local amateur singer who wonders how on earth she got this gig aside from the fantastic job she once did, helping the children perfect their Geordie accents for Billy Elliot (I have my uses!)

We stood waiting for our cue music, the X-factor tune thundered out as we took our seats in one of the upstairs boxes. I tried to channel Cheryl Cole/Amanda Holden but as I sat in the box I felt more like The Queen or Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets.

The 12 finalists performed in the first half, to huge applause from their supportive families and the usual comments, praise and constructive criticism from us. Two of the highlights: the powerful voice of the beautiful Beth Newman, whose performance of I Dreamed a Dream made me cry and a very funny pair of teenage lads doing a Robbie Williams/Jonathan Wilkes version of Me and My Shadow plus a Robbie/Jane Horrocks version of Things, complete with blonde wig and soprano voice.

In the interval the four judges escaped to deliberate. We each had our favourites, to the extent that all four of us had made totally different choices. Scores had to be added up, including those from the audience who were allowed one vote each and became a fifth judge.

In the second half the audience were treated to the semi-finalists who hadn't reached the final but got the chance to perform; and perform they did, brilliantly. Last year's winner, George, repeated his winning song, Sunset Boulevard, and a group from Polka Dot who had been in New York the week before, hoping to perform in Central Park, only for the concert to be cancelled due to Hurricane Irene, treated the audience to a fabulous medley of musical theatre songs.

So, who won? After much checking, the result was a dead heat between two acts who each took home £500. First place was shared between Emily Murray, a 17 year old with a stunning voice who had sung Defying Gravity from Wicked and Double Threat, a very young brother and sister pairing whose perfectly choreographed hip-hop routine to Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO was breathtaking.

Does Polka Dot have Talent? A resounding YES!


I've managed to find a video of Emily's winning performance from Saturday. Hopefully you will see why she was joint winner with a voice I couldn't match in a million years. Turn your volume up and enjoy - but beware there's a big screech from her family right at the end.