Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Good parenting - some thoughts from the far side of the universe

Good parenting is such a noble mission that it spans galaxies. Such is the vastness of space that statistically life is likely to exist in some form elsewhere in the universe. Equally such are the unimaginable distances that we are very unlikely to make contact. However the nature of alien life be it humanoid, super-intelligent blobs, or lichens will share one aspect of existence with us – the need to nurture the young.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Childhood memories - sounds

This is the first in a five-part occasional series focused on my memories of childhood – more specifically what each of my senses recalls from more than 60 years ago when I was around five years old. I’ve excluded the highly personal (for example, a parent’s distinctive cough) and concentrated on sounds that might strike a chord with readers.

1. The rhythmic thump of a distant bass drum. On a silent Sunday in central London you could hear the approaching Salvation Army band before it arrived in our street where it would hold a service.

2. The screech of a circular saw slicing through wood. Out of sight but not sound there was a carpentry factory adjacent to my bedroom window.

3. Brahms Lullaby. I had a much-battered music box, which could still hold a tune despite its missing handle.

4. The sound of a wind-up gramophone spinning without a record.

5. Greensleeves. The music of the Elizabethan song was a feature of the May Day celebration held annually by my Church of England primary school, which was traditional right down to maypole dancing.

6. Listening to the Saturday football results as my father checked his pools coupon.

7. The cry “rag-bone” (or something similar) as the rag and bone man toured the streets with his horse and cart plying for household junk,

8. The newsvendor’s cry of “Star, News, Standard” – London’s three evening newspapers The Star, The Evening News, and the Evening Standard. Only the Standard survives as a free sheet.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Comic songs - the poetry of the masses

I’ve always had a weakness for comic songs. I find in the very best with humour come human truths. Poetry is a kindred art form. I hasten to add though that my taste is closer to music hall than Gilbert & Sullivan.
Starting with Charles Penrose and The Laughing Policeman (first heard on Uncle Mac’s radio programme Children’s Favourites in the 1950s) subtlety wasn’t a prerequisite, clever lyrics and a strong tune were.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Over The Rainbow and down the pan for the BBC

'Over The Rainbow' the BBC’s latest collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber exemplifies everything that is wrong with the Corporation.
My licence fee is helping to publicise the composer and theatre owner’s forthcoming West End production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. The pretext is an audition show to find the musical’s Dorothy.
Once would have been sufficient but this will be the fourth time the Beeb has promoted a Lloyd Webber production in this way. It guarantees him a sell-out even before he has finished casting.
You can’t blame multi-millionaire Lloyd Webber for exploiting the BBC’s poverty of original ideas but it underlines just how far down the creative ladder the Corporation has slid.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

A SMALL STEP - a short story by GG

The heavy red curtains were almost closed to keep out the sun but it was still difficult to see the television pictures clearly. He sat on the broad arm of the armchair next to his mother. “That’s the moon, Georgie, that’s the moon. A man is really going to walk on the moon. Isn’t it wonderful?”
The boy pointed at the screen. “What’s that?”
“Rocks. Moon rocks.”
He looked closer. “I’ve got a moon rock.”
“No, you haven’t, darling. No one has ever been to the moon before so I don’t see how a seven year old boy could have a moon rock.”
“I have.”
“Why don’t you go and play and I’ll call you when they get out of the rocket ship. Megan will be here soon.”
“Is she still coming?”
“Yes and remember what I said. She is going to be shy. She’s your age and I want you to play nicely.”
His friends had stopped calling his name from the street. “Please, please, mum, let me go down. I promised I would. Please.”
“I said ‘no’. I want you to stay and watch. This is a day you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”
“It’s because she’s coming. Why does she have to come?”
“Because I promised Megan’s mother I’d look after her for a few hours.”

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Move over Darling - this is your last Budget

I was at my desk every Budget Day in a career of more than 30 years as a City reporter. It is the most important day in the financial journalists’ calendar and I would always come into the office even if it broke into a holiday.
Under normal circumstances – excluding bank crises and the like – the Budget can be guaranteed to project the City Desk to top of most newspapers' pecking order in terms of column inches if only for one day. I never wanted to miss the action.
But I soon came to dread Gordon Brown’s Budget speeches when he became Chancellor after New Labour's 1997 victory.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Sophie Dahl is a dish but I can't stomach another food programme

Model, author, and cook Sophie Dahl is a talented, gorgeous looking woman and new husband Jamie Cullum is a lucky man. Even so I shall not be watching her television series The Delicious Miss Dahl, which launches tonight. I gave up on food programmes a long time ago stuffed to the point of nausea.
Whether it is the charmless Gordon Ramsey or some other celebrity chef or amateur cooks competing in reality contests, I can’t see why shows with food-related themes are so popular with the viewing public.
I get no sense that general cooking standards are raising in Britain. Perhaps viewers watch food programmes while eating TV dinners in the hope they might taste better by some miraculous transfer between plate and screen.
Salads are more common and sushi outlets have been added to the variety of foreign cuisines available in London. But, for the most part in terms of every day eating, the same old pizza, fried chicken and hamburger joints abound.
When friends meet a good night is judged by the quantity of the booze consumed. A reasonable standard of the accompanying food is all that is required. This explains the continuing popularity of curry houses. This is why there will never be a Campaign for Really Nice Food to match the Campaign For Real Ale.
Food is never likely to enter the intellectual life of the capital. French grand author Marcel Proust was sent spinning back in time when he dunked his madeleine. For Cockney minstrel Joe Brown “Jellied eels, jellied eels/Wogg-a-ling about like wonky wheels” had much the same effect.
Too many cooks spoil the TV (and book publishing) broth. There used to be one at any one time – Philip Harben, Fanny Craddock, Graham Kerr, Keith Floyd. It all changed after Delia Smith.
Perhaps she did register a step change in the popular conception of food, as a generation weaned on convenience meals looked for a better alternative.
There were big bucks to be made in the new food entertainment industry. Along came Jamie Oliver, Ramsey and the rest including Sophie Dahl's predecessor in the sweets course, Nigella Lawson.
The TV shows are relatively cheap to produce and have a ready audience but their growing number reflect a dearth of original ideas by programme makers rather than a hunger for a diet of more of the same by viewers.

Monday, 22 March 2010

How to have a West End night out - and not break the bank

No memorable visit to London is complete without dinner and a show. There are countless restaurants and around 40 theatres in the West End area of central London alone. Whichever combination you chose, there will be one constant – to be completed at any level of style is going to be expensive. But I have a few tips, which can help keep the cost down.

Friday, 19 March 2010

What are your top 10 historical dates?

From the most modest pub quiz evening right up to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, there is clearly a public appetite for general knowledge quizzes. To my mind the heart of such information is historical dates yet I get no sense that ‘important dates’ are taught in our schools.
Learning dates was the most boring aspect of history lessons when I was at school but they provided the framework on which to build more interesting detail. Children may have a good sense of what life would be like in a Norman fort or the Blitz but little sense of the centuries in between.
So if you had to settle for just 10 vital historical dates relevant to British history – though not necessarily occurring within the UK – what would you choose?
Here is my selection:-

55BC – Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain
1066 – Norman Conquest
1642-51 – English Civil War
1775-83 – American War of Independence
1789-99 - French Revolution
1914-18 – First World War
1939-45 – Second World War
1969 – First Man on the Moon
1989 – Fall of the Berlin Wall
2001 – 9/11 attack on Twin Towers
The above list excludes key events like the signing of Magna Carta, Waterloo, and the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima and so is far from perfect. What changes would you make?

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Celibacy, child abuse, and the Catholic Church

The distressing stories about child abuse in the Catholic Church in previous decades and the subsequent cover-ups that spanned continents show no signs of abating. I don’t know if locking up geriatric offenders will bring victims much relief if they aren’t satisfied with the Pope’s apology but no one can blame them for seeking retribution.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Victoria Beckham - her fashion success leaves critics looking shabby

The rise and rise of Victoria Beckham in the US has left a lot of her critics back home in the UK looking foolish. From her days in the Spice Girls she has been the target of gibes from journalists – mostly female – determined to show that she was anything but posh. It is ironic that the woman tagged Posh Spice should have been the target of so many snobs. Grudgingly the word “transformation” has been attached to Victoria Beckham once it was clear she had settled happily in LA and seen that her latest fashion venture is a success.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Hampstead's best kept secret - the Pergola

The Pergola and Hill Garden are Hampstead’s best-kept secrets. So secret in fact that though I know this part of northwest London fairly well, this little patch of Edwardian magic sandwiched between Golders Hill Park and Hampstead Heath had alluded me until about six months ago.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Julie London - the sexiest singer ever

Give yourself a treat and listen to this. Recorded over 50 years ago it's sexier than the whole output of Lady Gaga and Beyonce put together. If Lily Allen had played 'Go Slow' by Julie London to the man who was so selfish in bed in 'It's Not Fair' she might still be with him. Maybe Julie London didn't possess the all-round vocal ability of jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Peggy Lee. But as a sultry torch singer she was in a class of her own. She had it all. Unmistakable voice, pin-up good looks, and she could act.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Notting Hill Carnival - Europe's biggest street party

Think again if the name of the west London district Notting Hill conjures up only thoughts of the 1999 rom-com movie in which floppy-haired bookseller Hugh Grant romanced Hollywood star Julia Roberts. Its focus on the well-heeled, media-types who inhabit the posh terraces of renovated Victorian townhouses and quaint mews all but missed the vibrant heart of what is traditionally one of the most multi-cultural icons in the UK.
Nowhere is the original soul of Notting Hill more apparent than in its annual Carnival – the biggest in Europe – where more than 1 million people regularly whoop it up. Here the Caribbean community, which arrived in the UK in the 1950s, returns to share its sunshine culture with the rest of the world.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Alice in not quite so Wonderland

A sunny day about three years ago I found myself in Belsize Park, an area of north-west London, when I saw ahead of me a familiar looking couple who might have dressed hurriedly in a charity shop.
It was film director Tim Burton and his partner Helena Bonham Carter. Burton was pushing a baby buggy and singing to its occupant. I assumed they might be heading home because I remembered they were said to live in the area.
My thoughts went back to that day at the close of Burton’s latest movie Alice in Wonderland in a crowded cinema last night.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Living in sin - the evolving power of words

“Living in sin” was a frequently used term for co-habiting couples even after the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Now the description is most often used ironically or for comic effect. Love and marriage no longer go together like a horse and carriage.
Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach is set in 1962 and revolves around the disastrous wedding night of a young couple that have remained virgins.
I would suggest that now only the strictest parents would object if their offspring said they wanted to set up house ahead of a planned marriage to their beloved.
These days anyone can see why the Black and White Minstrel Show was offensive (see picture above), although it drew big audiences in its hey-day. It ran on BBC television from 1958 to 1978 even though the first petition opposing white men appearing in blackface dates from 1967. Today it seems odd if a white actor plays Othello.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

When did British television go down the tubes?

When did British television go down the tubes? We still do a good documentary and costume drama but television production in the UK doesn't come close to the boast I heard when growing up – “Britain has the best television in the world.”

Monday, 8 March 2010

Dave's heading for the abyss faster than me shock

It is painful to think that weeks from now Gordon Brown could be in a position to claim victory at the General Election. A hung Parliament looks likely; if Labour has the most seats, the LibDems can be expected to lend Brown its support.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Porn - protecting young minds

It is a thankless task trying to ban older children from anything. Outlaw it and any child with an enquiring mind will want to know what the fuss is about.
This is not to say if you discover your child behind the wheel of your car or playing chicken on railway tracks you shouldn’t threaten to call the police. Hit the roof – but, of course, not your kid – if you find them smoking or drinking. You explain your reasons, state your rules – and if nothing else they’ll take more care next time not to get caught.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Exclusive: the truth behind Michael Palin's haircut

It was nice to discover I have something in common – however slight - with Michael Palin, the Monty Python co-founder, travel writer and television documentary maker. We share the same barber.
His photo has pride of place on the wall of the local one-man barbershop on the borders of Hampstead in north-west London. And earlier today he followed me into the chair chatting away about the England v Egypt soccer friendly yesterday evening.
I’m not a massive Palin fan of his later travel work and having nothing intelligent to remark, I left him to his haircut in peace.
Sparked by the coincidence, I thought over the little I knew about Palin as I walked home. Certainly as far as his public face is concerned, he has enjoyed an enviable life – and may he long continue to do so. Talented, rich, successful and yet has led a scandal-free existence and would appear to be liked by all.
For Life of Brian, A Fish Called Wanda, and the Dead Parrot sketch, Palin’s place among the 20th century comedy greats is secure. His other film, television, and literary achievements are considerable. And his haircut is pretty good too.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Tinnitus, statins, hypochondria, and me

It is a cruel irony that someone such as myself who values peace and quiet above most other pleasures should be revisited by a bout (I hope it’s only a brief attack) of tinnitus. The ringing in my ears is like the noise of continuous distant traffic.
The condition is probably hereditary – there is a history of ear problems in the family. I’ve had low-level tinnitus for over 15 years during which time there have been spells at bothersome levels.

R.I.P Michael Foot - a Labour leader of principle

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Vancouver's success sets the bar high for London in 2012

After a rocky start the Winter Olympics that has just ended in Vancouver proved a success. The Canadian crowds climbed out of the shadow of their American neighbour to relish the Games; the opening and closing ceremonies wowed television audiences; and competitors were on peak form both in their events and the Olympic Village - supplies of free condoms ran so low emergency stocks had to be shipped in.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Talk to your child not your mobile

It’s a long time since I knew the difference between a pram, pushchair, stroller, or buggy. But my parenting isn’t so ancient that I’ve forgotten the importance of talking to your child when you are out and about.
I would have thought it's only sense to have very young children face you when you are pushing them along. But let’s say they are a bit older and so require more street stimuli – other children, dogs, pigeons etc.