Category Archives: Family Life

My top three Christmas Films

love actuallyThe internet has been getting its knickers in a twist over what constitutes a “Christmas Film“. Does a film need something more than simply being set over the Christmas period to be a Christmas film? The particular focus of the controversy in the article is Die Hard. Set on Christmas Eve it is a classic, all-action, shoot-em-up with a shoeless, bare-chested Bruce Willis single-handedly outwitting the evil gang led by Alan Rickman and saving the hapless hostages, including his wife. Declaration of interest : I love Die Hard and I have no doubt whatsoever that it qualifies as a Christmas film. However, it doesn’t make it into my top three favourites.

For me, number 1 must be Love Actually, the Richard Curtis rom-com that includes practically every half-famous British actor of the past 25 years (including the much-missed Rickman). Tracking the intertwined lives and loves of a group of London residents in the month leading up to the festive season, it always makes me laugh and cry. And its got Keira Knightley in it, so, you know.

wonderful

Just behind Love Actually, my second favourite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life. This classic, starring James Stewart and produced and directed by Frank Capra, is everything that a Christmas film should be. It recounts the tale of a trainee angel sent to earth on a mission to show a local building society owner facing ruin as a result of the accidental loss of depositors’ money, that his worth is greater than any bank balance. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie and generates all the same feelings of warmth and faith in human nature that must surely be essential prerequisites for a Christmas film.

muppetsxmas

Finally, my number 3 on the list. It can only be The Muppets Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge, the wizened money-lender who completely reviews his priorities following visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmases yet to come, one fateful Christmas Eve. And all told through the uniquely, Muppet-focused eyes of Gonzo, assisted by Rizzo the Rat. When a cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone, but there’s nothing in nature that makes you feel better than a Muppet re-telling of a Christmas classic.

So – there’s my top three. Do you agree? What films would you have on your list? I look forward to hearing from you!die hard

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God save the Queen, but not as we know it!

Manchester University Wind Orchestra’s (MUWO) latest concert was held on Saturday 25th November 2017 in the wonderful Cosmo Rodewald hall in the university’s Music School. MUWO is one of a number of ensembles managed under the banner of the University’s Music Society. Musicians, conductors, orchestra managers and front of house staff are all drawn from the student body and learn a whole set of transferable skills from their involvement. Players gain performance experience under a range of different conductors and conducting styles; conductors have the chance to hone their skills with ensembles that may be new to the music being performed; and ensemble managers and front of house staff pick up all sorts of organization and management skills that are highly transferable into almost any workplace post-graduation.

The concert on Saturday featured three American composers, and one Englishman whose inspiration came from the east coast of the US, whose works spanned the whole of the 20th century. The opening piece “Watchman, Tell us of the Night” by Mark Camphouse is a tribute to the survivors of child abuse, and fluctuates between the frailty and discordance of the survivors stories, and the soaring, harmonious themes of hope and future possibilities.

Nigel Hess took the geography and people of the US east coast as the inspiration for his East Coast Pictures. On Saturday, MUWO performed the Pictures beautifully, effortlessly capturing the coastal solitude of Shelter Island, the grandeur of the soaring Catskills Mountains, and the vibrant energy of Manhattan.

Charles Ives “Variations on America” was a tour de force. Written in 1891 and based on the then popular American tune “My country, tis of thee”, it is more popularly known in the UK as the melody for the UK national anthem, “God Save the Queen”. There was something almost prophetic in the way that the melody was set to some deep south, New Orleans-style orchestration that conjured an image of a jazz funeral procession. Somehow, the image of the UK’s funeral being played out in a US jazz style seemed entirely appropriate in these days of Brexit and Trump! Have a listen to a version of the piece here and see what you think.

Eric Whitacre’s piece Cloudburst was originally written for voices, but was later transposed for performance by wind orchestra. It charts the development and climax of a mid-western storm, including audience participation involving random finger clicking in the final movement to replicate the sound of the falling rain.

The concert finished (as all wind orchestra concerts focusing on American and America-themed music must) with a piece by Bernstein. This series of excerpts from On the Town gave each section of the orchestra the chance to show their virtuosity, and they didn’t disappoint. The little girl sat just in front of us, who danced all the way through, was the litmus test to how enjoyable this piece (and indeed the whole concert) was.

Well done to everybody involved. I can only hope that you enjoyed being part of it as much as I enjoyed listening.

 

 

Intimations of mortality

My knee is really painful. It started about two weeks’ ago when I’d been crammed on a Cross Country train from Birmingham New Street to Bristol Temple Meads for two and a half hours. I’m quite tall, and public transport isn’t designed with me in mind. I thought that I was fine, until I cam to stand up and found that whilst most of my body had reverted to standing shape, my right knee was still at 90 degrees and seemed reluctant to revert to straight without an encouraging shove. Initially, I assumed that it was just a reaction to having been stuck in the same position for too long. Now though, I am fearful that I have done something more serious. A trip to the doctor’s is required (a bit of a challenge when I’m in Bristol Monday to Friday and my doctor is in Cardiff). On ringing the surgery, I am non-plussed at the suggestion that the next bookable appointment is available on 12th December (do we have to predict when we are going to need medical intervention three weeks in advance now?). On further questioning, it transpires that if I need to see somebody before then (YES I DO – did I mention that my knee hurts?) then I can report to the surgery at 8.30am any morning and I will be allocated an appointment for some time that morning. Thank goodness I have an understanding boss. So, I will be dragging my sore knee (it really hurts, you know) to the doctor’s surgery next week and sitting with all the sick people waiting for one of that day’s appointments. There’s a good chance that in 10 days’ time, my blog will be about the chest infection I contracted while sitting for 2 hours in a waiting room next to somebody with borderline tuberculosis.

In the meantime, here’s a poem from John Whitworth on the theme of growing old, and dedicated to Alan Bennett, who – let’s face it – was born old.

oldage

ps I aspire to “dismal b*st*rd” status, and I’m moving very nicely along the pathway to achieving it!

Correlation, causation and chocolate labradors

I have been subject to an unrelenting and highly targeted form of lobbying in recent years. To give you a sense of the intensity of the campaign, those responsible could teach Russian social media bots a thing or two about psychological manipulation. Normally, I would be immune to this sort of thing. Being a contrarian by nature, my usual reaction is to assume that any attempt to sway my opinion one way or the other is really just a smokescreen to mask the weakness of the case being promoted. Unfortunately, my natural defences are not enough on their own to protect me when the people running the campaign are my wife and daughter.

puppy

Their aim is to persuade me that what we really need in our lives is a non-contributing, utterly dependent, mess generating, allergy-inducing, four legged friend. Others call such things a dog, apparently. I have been implacably opposed to agreeing to this proposition for as long as C. and I have been married (which is a long time now). However, recently, and possibly as a sign of my own weakening mental capacity, I may have given a non-time-bound commitment to allowing a chocolate labrador into our lives in the future.

There are lots of reasons for my historic hostility to the idea of allowing a dog into our house. I do have a minor fur allergy (although admittedly this seems to be triggered more by cats than dogs); and it strikes me that dogs (unlike children) remain dependent on you for ever, never opening up the hope that eventually they’ll grow up and start drinking all the milk and ice cream in their own homes. To be honest, there’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to open myself up to the distress that results from injury, illness or (worst of all) the death of a ‘surrogate child’.

My objections are not helped though, by news reports of research that seems to show that owning a dog is actually good for you. The most recent such report was covered by the BBC news website earlier this week. Summarising a study from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the article claims that : “Dog owners have a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or other causes”. This is an astonishing claim – owning a dog apparently means that your chances of contracting heart disease are reduced and you will live longer.

The reality of course, is much more complex than the headline writers would have us believe. In the first case, it’s far from clear whether it’s dog ownership that makes people healthy, or if healthy people tend to own dogs. The correlation between dog ownership and improved cardiovascular health is greatest among owners of hunting breeds – the very people who are more likely to live active lives in the first place. It’s a good example of the maxim that correlation does not imply causation – that just because two data sets may have a statistical relationship, it does not mean that one causes the other.

In contrast, there is a causative relationship between the incessant pressure applied by wife and daughter and my diminishing resolve in holding out against a dog. And chocolate Labradors are really good looking dogs – but not just yet.

choc lab

Retour a Bordeaux

I first visited Bordeaux last summer to watch Wales playing football at the Euro 2016 tournament. You can read my blogs from that trip here and here. It’s fair to say that Dan and I had a fantastic time in this south west corner of France; but to be honest, I didn’t really get much of a chance to look around the city itself. When C. and I were thinking about places to go to help celebrate a significant birthday for C. therefore, a return to Bordeaux in September 2017 seemed an ideal choice (and not only because the flights from Bristol were astonishingly cheap!).

Having stayed in what was effectively a glorified youth hostel for the football trip, our first task was to find a hotel that was more typically French and accessible to the city centre. This is where we really fell on our feet. The Hotel Au Coeur de Bordeaux is so quintessentially French that its only a bike, beret and onions away from being a pastiche. From the moment you enter the downstairs reception/dining space, to the point where you ascend the spiral stone stairs to a room dominated by ceiling to floor French doors and a Juliet balcony, there is no doubt about the country that you are staying in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe staff at the Hotel were excellent hosts, happy to help out with restaurant recommendations and hints and tips on places to visit and things to look out for. The breakfast that was included in the room rate was excellent – a choice of cereals, yoghurt and fresh fruit, cold meats and cheese, and (of course) croissant, pain au chocolat and baguette – all washed down with coffee or hot chocolate.

Bordeaux itself is at the heart of the great claret vineyards. Incidentally, ‘claret’ derives from a period in the 17th Century when wines exported from the region were much lighter (clearer) than those from other regions. Marking this heritage, La Cite du Vin is a modern, fully interactive and (frankly) enormous celebration of all things wine and wine-related, drawing inspiration from all four corners of the globe, and across the past 3,000 years of history. The building itself is unashamedly modern in appearance, and whilst the entrance area and ticket hall are perhaps a little austere, don’t let that put you off. This is a place that is well worth a visit, and devoting some proper time to. Included in the admission price is a complimentary glass of wine from a wide selection, served in the top floor viewing gallery of the building. Sommeliers will guide you through the choices on offer, helping you to select the perfect choice for you, before you wander around the building taking in the panoramic views of the city.

Bordeaux owes its city status to its strategically important location on the river Garonne, with excellent access to the sea. Historically, ties between the region and England and Scotland in particular have been strong, and even at times of ‘official’ war between France and England, claret was still available via the merchants in London and English provincial cities. This trade generated significant wealth for Aquitaine families, which was invested in impressive buildings around the city.

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Palais Rohan, reflected in the water mirror on the quayside opposite

One of the paradoxes of Bordeaux as a city (similar to both Cardiff and Bristol in many ways) is that it is small enough to easily walk around, but big enough to offer all manner of museums, galleries, shops, bars, theatres and places of interest. The problem with walking everywhere, though, is that you inevitably end up finding delightful places to stop for coffee or (after 11.30am of course) a glass of wine! Thus it was, that on several occasions we set off with the clear intent of visiting such and such a church or museum, and then ended up whiling away a very pleasant hour in a pavement café watching the world go by.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne place we did make it to, however, was the roof-top spa at the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. This was undoubtedly the most luxurious and relaxing part of the whole trip. There is nothing quite so satisfying as sitting in a hot tub on the roof of a 5* hotel overlooking the main square of a busy city on a working day. Especially as the sun was shining and the sky was a near cloudless, azure blue. It was very nearly heaven.

I could write many more words about the excellent food and wines that we enjoyed from an ecelectic mix of traditional and modern restaurants around the city; the wonderful range of shops (from outlets of Paris boutiques to local independents), and the beautiful gardens and squares that bring space, colour and nature right into the heart of the city. However, what I will say is simply this : if you get the chance to visit this wonderful place, don’t think twice. You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running in overtime

It’s now thirteen months since I embarked on a personal challenge to run 200 officially timed race miles before my 51st birthday. Despite a great start and being well ahead of target at the midpoint of 2016, a major change in my life circumstances in August brought an abrupt end to my running. Having lived in Cardiff all my life, and having reached the stage where I thought it unlikely that I’d ever leave, I was presented with an opportunity to take on a new role as the Pastoral Team Leader for two halls of residence at the University of Bristol. The role comes with accommodation, and so in September last year, Charlotte and I packed up some key essentials and moved our home to the southern side of the Severn Estuary. As if that wasn’t upheaval enough, we also then fell in love with a house in a new development that was being built not far away from ours in Cardiff, so promptly put our existing property on the market, sold it, and are now waiting for the new one to be completed in May of this year!

Whilst all this was going on, I was left with the guilt of knowing that many people had sponsored me to complete the 200 mile challenge, and that I was still some 60 miles short of the target. And so, on the first Saturday of January, I found myself once more lining up for a parkrun – this time in the beautiful (though foggy that day) surroundings of the Ashton Court Estate on the edge of Bristol. What they don’t tell you about the Ashton Court parkrun until you arrive for the pre-run briefing, is that it’s run up the side of a very steep hill. This makes for extremely asymmetric mile times – typically, in my experience, the third mile (on the way back down) takes about 4 minutes less to complete than the first one! Nevertheless, you do get used to it with practice, and I am now back to completing the 3.1 miles (5 km) in under 30 minutes, and I hope to make further improvements in the coming months. Just for a change, I’m actually going to be visiting the Llanelli parkrun this coming weekend, and I am reliably informed that this is as flat as it gets. I can’t wait.

In terms of the challenge, I estimate that (with weekly parkruns and some 10k races booked in at the start of March and April), I will complete the 200 miles in time for the Easter holiday. Just to be on the safe side, I’m also going to be running the Great Bristol and Great Manchester 10k races in May. The challenge will eventually be complete, but my running habit is hopefully here to stay now.

The positive impact of worrying

I used to have a poster on my bedroom wall which read : ” Don’t tell me that worrying doesn’t work, most of the things I worry about don’t happen!”

The reality of this has been brought home to me this week, when a number of potentially stressful situations – sources of severe worry at different times – have all been negotiated more or less successfully. Of course, the psychologists will point to the fact that a moderate amount of stress is a necessary precursor to successful completion of difficult tasks. We need to be ‘up for it’ and ‘on top of our game’ to be able to perform to our full potential. That has been true for me this week, but to be honest, it’s also quite wearing. There is a need to balance the stressful times with some rest and relaxation. Batteries need time to recharge. Stress enzyme levels need to be rebalanced. It’s not possible to keep operating at full speed all of the time.

So – sorry – no : there’s no chance of me making any progress on that list of jobs in the flat this weekend! 😉