Monday, 5 December 2011

"The Way I See It" - Alan Sugar

Lord Sugar's "The Way I See It" is an informative, entertaining, mind-boggling lesson that should be heeded by everyone.

Within its pages he vents his frustrations that are shared by so many of the British populace in his plain-speaking manner, and handles controversial suggestions for improving the state of the nations's unemployment and crime with reason and logic.

He also explains the financial situation within our national sport of football. Those of us who simply follow a team's progress with no idea of what goes on behind the scenes often wonder why despite the eye-watering numbers teams make from television rights the team is actually in debt. Sugar does a marvellous job of explaining in layman's terms the actual income and outgoings of a football team in England.

Time and again he reiterates his message to small businesses that they should expect no help from the government or banks and to do it themselves if they want to succeed. It may seem a harsh, unwelcome message, but it is the same message he himself received when he set out to form his own business. After the extraordinary rate at which the banks were lending money, they are simply having to revert back to their prior position of not lending to anyone who could not provide some collateral.

Having not read Sugar's autobiography "What You See Is What You Get" (it's now on my Sony reader), I was astonished and inspired by how he first seized on an opportunity to make a bit of money at the age of 11. While watching road workers resurface a road in Clapton, he saw them dig up old wooden blocks that had been impregnated with tar. As these blocks were no longer needed, they were to be thrown away. Yet the workers threw a couple onto their fire where they burned with consummate ease, and the 11-year-old Alan recognised that the blocks could be made into firefighting sticks and would work better than ordinary wooden lighting sticks.

How many 11-year-olds nowadays are making their first forays into business ventures?! Aside from selling the odd video game on eBay, there can't be many around with such an entrepreneurial mindset.

As well as delivering his take on such recent news stories as the phone hacking scandal, bemoaning the draconian health and safety and outrageous litigation culture, he indulges himself by telling the reader of his passions for tennis (I love it), cycling (I hate it) and flying planes (not tried it, yet). Then there are the obligatory few paragraphs on his Twitter and personal relationships with Piers Morgan, including a delightfully wicked retort to Morgan's bragging about the advertising in Times Square for his television show.

Although some of Sugar's views will offend, something he freely acknowledges in the first page, the majority of them make sense. The most controversial, after some consideration, do seem a better, more practical option than the current situation; and with a new approach and mindset to a serious issue such as drugs, with proper thought and execution, could work. Frankly, should Lord Sugar stand for election with this book as his manifesto, he would be in Number Ten tomorrow. Sadly, he states categorically that "no way could [he] ever be a politician, let alone prime minister".

"The Way I See It", despite its reality check to small businesses expecting handouts from the banks and government and young people hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, is still an inspiring read.

If you will allow me to end on a personal note: my mother and I agree wholeheartedly with his solution to unemployment: in exchange for leaving their jobs at 55, workers who have paid tax and national insurance should receive a million pound bond to spend on British cars, British homes and British holidays, and make way for the younger generation to get into work.

I am 24, unemployed and currently not receiving any Jobseekers payments because I failed to apply for one job the Jobcentre gave me as I mixed up the closing date for the online application, a job in which my experience is minimal and two years old but I have to pick jobs in that sector as they are more attainable in my local area. Yet since signing on the dole in July I have applied for around 150 jobs that I have found myself, for which I have a degree and over a year's recent experience, and only about ten of them have been in my local area.

Because of one job I have had my payments stopped for four and a half months and will receive nothing until the end of February, by which time I will have no money left at all. As I am under 25 and living at home, I cannot even claim hardship payments and due to some ancient social services legislation my parents are expected to support me financially until I am 25 in March. Then it is a different matter entirely.

I am even going in to do some voluntary work for my previous employer to keep my hand in and my brain ticking over. Clearly I am looking for work, wanting to work and am not content to scrounge of the state. Sometimes I am searching for jobs at one and three 'o' clock in the morning when I can't sleep.

My mother is 64, works two days a week in human resources in HMRC after taking partial retirement at 60 because she wanted to work for a couple of years, yet despite a lot of noise two years ago about government cutbacks and possible redundancies, she is still there hoping they will soon let her go. She stays to earn a bit extra money and to get out of the house for two days a week. My father is already retired, so we don't have much money.

After reading "The Way I See It", should I receive no answer from any of the jobs I have applied for by the end of the year, I will sign up as an Avon rep to earn some money.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

11.22.63 - Stephen King

11.22.63. The day JFK is assassinated.

But what if he lived? This is the interesting question posed by Stephen King in his epic new novel.

What if someone could time-travel from 2011 armed with the details of the assassination and prevent it from happening? Would the world be a better place now had he lived?

Jake Epping, a sensible, respectable English teacher is convinced to do just that after the proprietor of his favourite eating place ages radically and starts dying of lung cancer seemingly overnight. Al Templeton has found a "rabbit hole" in the back of his diner that leads to 1958, and no matter how long one spends in the past, on returning through the rabbit hole only two minutes have passed in 2011.

Al, having made numerous trips to 1958 to buy the meat for his burgers, has collated together all the information he can about Lee Harvey Oswald, his movements, his family and acquaintances, his living quarters, but now he is too sick to stop Oswald himself.

Of course, as the rabbit hole appears in 1958, Jake has five years to spend in the past before the 22nd October 1963 comes around. He also has to ensure that Oswald is actually the shooter.

Even as Jake accustoms himself to late 1950s customs, even as he partakes in the normal, everyday existence, tribulations and exultations of a schoolteacher in a town outside Dallas called Jodie, King masterfully keeps up the tension of Jake's real reason for being there. The very date of 11.22.63 seems to loom over the story like the Dome looms over the town in Under the Dome.

King captures the essence, perceptions and prejudices of the late 1950s perfectly. Sexism, racism, the political split, nothing is kept back. Yet there is also the kindess, the community spirit, the comparative liberty of the time. There is also humour. I laughed out loud at a snippet of conversation that took place on the 22nd November 1963, even though I could see it coming a mile off.

Once again King picks up on small, mundane acts of human life and turns them into something big, even meaningful, in once small action showing the character of the time and the people that lived through it. Not even including Jake's actions, every one of which there is a sense it could have radical consequences, but something as simple as a woman washing a car with one hand and holding a cigarette in the other.

We grow to know and love the characters over the five years, from Jake, to his (very) mature student Harry, to Sadie, the woman Jake meets in the past. We are as horrified, saddened and gladdened by their experiences as the characters that surround them and care for them.

The premise of the story is gripping, as is the storytelling. I devoured the 700 pages in five days, half of it on the coach-trip home from a weekend in London on Tuesday.

I challenge anyone to read this book and the afterword and not to immediately search YouTube for "Zapruder Kennedy".

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Jamie's Italian Restaurant - Glasgow

I will admit, we ended up in Jamie Oliver's Italian in George Square in Glasgow by accident.

Mam and I had been wandering around the city for a while on a Saturday night, the 17th September, looking for somewhere to eat. Searching on my iPhone I found Prezzo's just around the corner, but as we walked through the Square we passed Jamie Oliver's restaurant.

We took one look at it, situated in a big, grand old Glaswegian building, and dismissed it as "too expensive", but I had a look at the menu on the wall outside anyway, "for a laugh".

What I saw surprised me: under the not-so-good lighting in the white text on the pink background, I thought I could see two prices for the pasta dishes, presumably the ones for £6-£8 were half portions.

We went inside and were told we may have to wait up to an hour for a table, but we decided to treat ourselves, not having had a proper meal since Thursday due to going to the Davis Cup tennis at Braehead on Friday and Saturday.

Inside, the restaurant was one huge open-plan room, full of tables, but not crowded. It was noisy, but in a bustling, chatting way; not like a pub or bar with loud pounding music that prevented any conversation.

We went downstairs to the bar for a drink while we waited for a table. A G+T and a ginger and lemongrass presse (basically ginger beer with a hint of lemongrass) was just under £8.

The bar was smaller and noisier than the restaurant, but we could still talk easily enough. The number of people waiting for a table encouraged us: it must be good if there are this many people wanting to eat here!

Scouring the menu again, we settled on two half portions of spaghetti bolognese, and a bowl of crispy polenta chips between us.

By the time we had read the menu cover to cover and had a bit chat, our table was ready, maybe about 45 minutes after we arrived.

The decor was kind of modern-rustic, if you get my drift. The chairs were bright red, and would not have looked out of place outside some charismatic little European bistro. The tables were dark wood, and although the lights were low it was still light enough to see what you were eating.

The place had character, it had a buzz about it. Lots of satisfied, happy people filling their bellies with good food, and lots of people waiting patiently for their turn.

Our orders did not take long to arrive, but when they did, being half-portions, they looked tiny. But, when you're used to getting huge platters of food in restaurants, small portions are going to look small.

However once we started eating, it was surprising how filling the food was. Although just a humble spag-bol, it tasted doubly delicious after living on fast food and quick bites that could not even be called snacks for the previous two days.

As I ate I could not help but wonder what it would be like to eat Jamie-inspired cooking every day. There would probably be more food in a meal, but it would also fill the stomach, potentially stop you from snacking and so would be healthier as well as tastier.

I even managed to clear my plate of the bolognese sauce. Usually I only eat whatever sauce happens to stick to the spaghetti and end up with half a plate of mince left over. This time there were only two or three forkfuls left, and it was worth finishing.

We could have gone to Prezzo, to a chain that has the same restaurant with the same menu in every major city and paid £10 each for a meal I would not have been able to finish due to it's size, but we tried something that was different yet familiar, that was just enough to comfortably fill the stomach despite its diminutive appearance, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The chips were a large potato chopped into six pieces, cooked, and topped with rosemary and Parmesan cheese, they too were scrumptious. This, to me, is the way to go with vegetables. All my life my parents have simply chopped the veg into a pressure cooker and boiled them in nothing but hot water. Boring. Boring. BORING!

When I move into my own house, I won't even own a pressure cooker, they're evil things. I once followed Jamie's 30-minute Sunday Roast recipe when I was home alone; simply cooking the potatoes then sautéing them with some garlic and rosemary made all the difference, as did cooking the carrots with a spoonful of sugar, which certainly helped the medicine go down. For once I actually enjoyed eating the vegetables, and not just the cheat's roasties.

Now I might just have to add Jamie's Italian cookbook to my copies of 30-Minute Meals and Ministry of Food.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The King's Speech

The King’s Speech is a veritable Pride and Prejudice of 1995 reunion. We have Mr Darcy as King George VI, Elizabeth Bennet as his speech therapist’s wife, and even Mr Collins makes a cameo as a theatre director.

Even the dialogue is akin to that of Jane Austen. The whole film is something that seems closer to her time than to ours, in everything from the settings to the culture and society.

As Hitler rises to power, pushing Europe closer to War, King George V is ailing, and his eldest son Edward is getting closer to twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. Edward’s younger brother Albert (Colin Firth on top form) has tried every speech therapist in London to try and cure his stammer, to no avail.

His wife Elizabeth (a regal Helena Bonham Carter) is recommended to try Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist played with understated wry humour by Geoffrey Rush, and after initial reluctance, Albert attends and continues to attend his unorthodox sessions.

As their relationship develops into what Albert can call a friendship, Logue prods gently deeper into the underlying causes of “Bertie’s” impediment, constantly arriving at Edward. This only intensifies when the King dies, and Edward inherits the throne, despite still being infatuated with Wallis.

Albert’s impatience and temper grows shorter as his brother wavers between his duty and the woman he loves, coming to a head when Edward finally abdicates, passing on his title and responsibilities to his frightened younger brother, who becomes King George VI.

When War is announced, and the British public look to a King who can lead them through the hardships, George VI has to prove himself by delivering a nine-minute radio speech.

The King’s Speech does a fine job of showing the Royal Family as a family. Royal, yes, but still a family. From Albert telling his two daughters a story about penguins, to a family get-together where Queen Elizabeth and Wallis Simpson are on frosty terms. It shows the love between Albert and Elizabeth, and her resolve in helping him overcome his stammer.

There is even a good deal of humour. A scene during his therapy in which Albert vents his frustration at Edward by unleashing a series of expletives had even the elderly members of the audience laughing. A rare moment when the use of the F word was genuinely funny. Writers and comedians take note.

As George VI haltingly but resolutely delivers his speech, and the country comes to a standstill to gather around their radios in terraced houses, country mansions, pubs and army barracks to listen to him, it could not fail to bring a lump to the throat.

We are also treated to a parade of well-known actors portraying famous historical figures: Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Michael Gambon as King George V, Guy Pearce as Edward, Derek Jacobi as Archbishop Lang, and even Outnumbered’s Ramona Marquez as the young Princess Margaret.

Yet every time the new King was referred to as “Bertie”, I could not help but think of Bertie Wooster.

Despite this, The King’s Speech is sumptuous. The production, direction, locations, performances and soundtrack are all pitch perfect. It tells the story of a man thrown by birth and circumstance into a role that he did not want to play, and his determination and courage to adapt to it.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Meat Loaf - Newcastle Metro Radio Arena - 14/12/10

Halfway through Meat Loaf’s concert at the Newcastle arena, a young boy in the row behind me commented: “I feel like I’m at a pantomime!”

The morning after the night before, I see where he’s coming from. For two mad hours of high energy we were treated to a melee of cheeky banter, oversized - sorry, replica-sized - props, a mixture of grim and barmy stage-sets, topped off with the overblown, glorious songs that have defined The Loaf’s career, as well as those from the new album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear. In one word, it was fun. In lots of words, it was this:

With a stupendous roar from the crowd, Meat was welcomed back to the stage he was so abruptly forced to leave after half an hour of a show in 2007. Throughout this concert he mentioned it, joked about it, sincerely apologised for it, and thanked us profusely for coming back tonight.

He began with ‘Hot Patootie’. He sounded just fine. Behind the stage, a large screen played the scene from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (he hasn’t changed a bit!), but the sound was all him and the band.

After ‘If It Ain’t Broke’ and ‘Bat Out Of Hell’, he then introduced us to the new songs. Although ‘Peace On Earth’ shook the earth, and ‘Living On The Outside’ rocked and rolled, it was ‘Los Angeloser’ that was best received by the Newcastle crowd.

‘Song of Madness’, my favourite track from the new album, was thunderous. For all the trouble they had gone to in putting together some imagery to go on the big screen, I’m sorry to say I didn’t notice it; I was too busy watching Meat, my mouth hanging open and my fingers wrapped around my forgotten camera lens. My head rang like Big Ben as he bellowed “carry me to my graaaaaaaaaaaaaaave!”, I didn’t want it to end.

Although The Voice had the occasional crack during the new stuff, it grew in confidence, strength and beauty as the night wore on; varying from high but perfectly held notes to low, sonorous rumbles not unlike that earth-shaking thunder-roll the Tyne-Wear area felt that night during the snow.

The band has changed somewhat. Bassist Kasim Sulton was absent, and pianist Mark Alexander was replaced by the ludicrously talented 30-year-old Justin Avery. His arrangements to the intros of the songs kept me guessing even during ‘Anything For Love’, my most favourite song ever. From the way he was playing you’d think he had 20 fingers.

This tour also sees the return of the lovably feisty Patti Russo as Meat Loaf’s foil. My own “Patti’s Back!” moment came during ‘Anything For Love’ when the duet begins, and she eased into “will you raise me up, will you help me down?” as if she’d never been away.

Even Happy Bob made an appearance! The This Is Spinal Tap-inspired inflatable bat (thankfully 20’ high, not 20” high) grinned stupidly down at us during ‘Bat’, drawing the biggest laugh of the night.

For all I strictly Do Not Dance, once again I had to make an exception. The music was so head-noddingly rock with a lot of roll that many a time I found myself trying to take a photo while dancing. Even after two hours I still hadn’t learned that it was impossible, especially from Row J.

Despite this being the Hang Cool Tour, most of the audience were here for the old songs. Many of the crowd in Block A even sat down during the Hang Cool songs; which, while rather rude, was great for me: being only 4’11” and ten rows from the stage with someone six foot tall in front of me.

Yet everyone was on their feet for the Jim Steinman-penned songs. There was a rather amusing moment near the end of ‘Paradise By the Dashboard Light’ when the crowd simply kept on merrily singing even where lyrics did not appear.

Everyone in the room joined in with ‘You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth’, and everyone simply basked in the heavenly productions of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Dreams Come Through’ and ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’.

Over two hours since he first appeared, he and Patti launched into ‘Dead Ringer For Love’ as their encore, before finally bidding us farewell.

With this concert, Meat Loaf laid the demons of his last appearance here to rest, both for himself and for his fans. From the number of times he grinned at us or his band, he was enjoying himself as much as we were.

I judge Meat Loaf’s concerts on how much pain I’m in afterwards. Therefore I am happy to report that I had a headache, my neck was stiff, my spine felt squashed, my leg was aching and my feet were sore. Not to mention the physical and emotional exhaustion that follows.

For the seventh time in my life I had that euphoric, otherworldly experience that only comes when Meat Loaf sings and the band plays live. There are some moments that cannot be compared, repeated, or relived. ‘Took The Words’, the beautiful outro to ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Dreams’, ‘Los Angeloser’, not to mention ‘Song of Madness’ provided some such moments, whether it be for their power, awe, or simply pure unadulterated joy.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Rock Band 3 - Xbox 360

There are two reasons why this is my first time playing Rock Band. First of all was the price, but then I found the drum-kit for £15 on I considered it, but after checking the prices and soundtracks of the games, decided against it.

A couple of months later, the drum-kit was down to £9.93, and I discovered that the upcoming Rock Band 3 had Huey Lewis and the News' “The Power of Love” on its setlist.

I knew then that I had to have this game in my life.

Thr drum-kit was ordered and despatched on the same day, and, unable to wait until the 29th October for RB3, signed up for a free trial with Boomerang, which gave me 21 days to try out RB 1 and 2, and the Lego version.

However, once I knew the drums were on their way to my house, and as Boomerang had not sent me any games, I went and bought Lego Rock Band second-hand.

Despite being a Rock Band virgin, I managed to maintain a mid-80% or higher score for the songs. I also found some tracks on Xbox Live to download and play. I loved the Lego Queen band on “I Want It All”!

Two days before the release date of RB3, I received the email to say it had been despatched, and on the morning of the 29th when the post came...there was no RB3.

It arrived this morning.

Rock Band 3 has the best soundtrack out of all the games by far. Mainly 70s and 80s rock, along with oddballs such as Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” (rather tricky, that one) and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” on Xbox Live (really enjoyed playing that song!).

It also has the most extensive setlist, which admittedly takes some scrolling through, but it’s worth it for the amount of songs available both on the disc and through download.

Among my favourites are Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” – although I found it harder than the others at first, Dire Straits' “Walk of Life”, REM’s “Stand” (looked all over for that one on Xbox Live!), Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting – on which I achieved my highest score of 105,000-plus, and of course, “The Power of Love”.

There was something very satisfying about getting the opening beats exactly right at the start of Huey Lewis’ classic before launching into the chorus with gusto.

Yet for all the uninhibited rocking exuberance of Elton and Alice Cooper, John Lennon’s “Imagine” brings a gentler feel to the game, and even when concentrating on hitting the right notes, the words of the song still filter through to your mind.

I’ve only had time to go on free-play, as I like picking my own songs and don’t like being told what to play next, but already I have unlocked a few rewards such as clothes and designs. No doubt they will be useful to play with when I embark on the career path.

As with Guitar Hero, after a couple of non-stop hours of watching a scrolling fret, objects around me appeared to be levitating, and now I have a bit of a headache. Perhaps then, it is best enjoyed in moderation.
Now I just have to re-arrange the cluttered underneath of my bed to find somewhere for the drum-kit to live when I'm not playing on it. I have ordered the drum silencers to dim the monotonous thud of wood on plastic when I strike it, and to protect the thing: at times I had to give it a right bashing to keep up. Also I may have to invest in a USB microphone as well as the guitar to go along with the drum-kit. I tried the Lips microphones to no avail.

Finally, I cannot write this review without submitting my own song requests: let's have some Meat Loaf songs available for download, please! Preferably those written by Jim Steinman!

Oh, and the drums are now up to £13 on TheHut!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Michael McIntyre: Life and Laughing

It is apt that Meat Loaf gets two mentions in Michael McIntyre's "patchy memories", Life and Laughing, as it is because of the former that I was introduced to the latter.

In 2006, I was watching the Royal Variety Performance on television solely to see The Loaf, and wondering how long I would have to wait for his entrance.

I was not particularly thrilled to hear that not only was the next act not Meat Loaf, but was a stand-up comedian, a phrase that normally fills me with dread. Almost all of Britain's contemporary comedians I found to be miserable, offensive, and decidedly not funny.

Yet not a minute later I was smiling, laughing out loud, and quoting Homer Simpson: "it's funny because it's true!"

Since then I have followed McIntyre's career on television and stage. I even deigned to go to his show at Newcastle. Being a Sunderland lass the only two people I would go to Newcastle to see were (you guessed it) Meat Loaf and my orthodontist.

Naturally I was interested to know how McIntyre went from being an unknown, to being the only comedian to make me laugh, to performing sell-out gigs in the country's biggest arenas, and getting 2,500 people in the Sunderland Empire to cheer at the word "Sunderland", even though half of them were from Newcastle.

Frankly, his journey to the top is depressing. After all his dedicated years spent as the effectively "least experienced" understudy at Jongleurs, it is remarkable that he has not turned into a depressed, bitter alcoholic with no future in comedy ahead of him.

As a Chinese-looking baby born to definitely white middle-class parents, he and his younger sister Lucy lived a bizzare existence around celebrities and television studios. His father wrote for The Kenny Everett Show, and his young, glamorous mother was frequently photographed with Kenny, then Britain's biggest TV star.

His rich, eccentric, Hungarian grandmother would give him £50 for playing a game of Scrabble with her, giving him a better salary than his schoolmates.

However his parents grew apart, and eventually split. His father met an American woman, and they moved to Los Angeles; while his mother got together with a Patrick Swayze look-a-like who rag-rolled her walls.

They sold the family home to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, along with little Jack and baby Kelly, and the McIntyres moved to Golders Green. Michael and Lucy then had something of a double-life, spending holidays in LA with their father, doing and eating all things American, and attending school in England.

Then, out of nowhere, his father phoned to say that he could no longer afford to pay their school fees. To be suddenly thrust from public to state school was quite a culture shock.

It was while at Edinburgh university that McIntyre decided he wanted to be a film writer, however his first script called Office Angels never made it to the screen, despite its potential.

He knew he wanted to make people laugh for a living, and seeing live stand-up only confirmed it. Finally he made it onto the lowly Jongleurs circuit, occasionally getting the odd gig elsewhere.

However three weeks in Edinburgh for the Perrier awards ended disappointingly when he could not even sell a ticket. After parting company with his first agent, he managed to get in with Off the Kerb, who count Jonathan Ross, Lee Evans and Jack Dee among their clients.

The legendary agent Addison Cresswell got him a stint on the Royal Variety Performance, and we know the rest…apart from family life, of course.

His unorthodox courting methods of his wife-to-be, Kitty, their wedding, and the birth of their first son Lucas are all recounted with much affection and joy.

As a newly-married couple moving into their first home, there were the usual hurdles for Michael and Kitty, such as a shopping experience on eBay that can only be likened to the Stonehenge scene in This is Spinal Tap, and just as hilarious.

There is also an anecdote involving a cremation urn that I thought only happened in an episode of Frasier and seemed too ludicrous for real life.

Although McIntyre professes that he does not read, Life and Laughing is well written, eloquent, and of course, very funny. Yet there are poignant moments, such as the sudden death of his father, and his grandmother cutting him off after he introduced her to Kitty.

The photographs provide an extra insight, along with laugh-out-loud captions. I especially liked the one taken at Disneyland.

With hindsight, it is hard to imagine McIntyre as a struggling comedian. Even with his family connections, he still had to do it the hard way to get to the top. I know I’m not the only one who is glad he is there.