Pride – movie review

Saw Pride on a soggy Wednesday evening in Guildford. Went in feeling autumnal, came out feeling positively spring-heeled.

Reviews have likened it to Made in Dagenham, The Full Monty or Billy Elliot, feel-good movies which dramatise historical events or periods, and sugar-coat them with audience-pleasing tweaks.

Pride tells the story of a group of anarchic lesbians & gays in London in the 1980s who end up supporting the miners’ strike and befriending a battle-hardened Welsh community. A classic tale of overcoming prejudice and surviving adversity.  Eventually.

A great cast, capturing the social history of the era well, and with an excellent soundtrack….go and see it if you haven’t already. And prepare to laugh and cry in equal measure.

Book review – The Rosie Project

I’m currently in the middle of reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.

The narrator and main character, Don Tillman, is a brilliant 39 year-old genetics professor looking to settle down. But he’s never had a second date with a woman.

He’s on the Aspergic side of logical, and can’t help committing social gaffes. A serial gaffer. Unwittingly blunt. Socially inept.

With the help of his philandering colleague Gene, Don uses his considerable intellect and persuasive logic to devise The Wife Project, a scientific approach to finding his perfect mate. The resulting questionnaire is sent out to qualifying candidates, leading to some entertaining, and inevitably unsuccessful, dates.

Gene throws a wildcard, Rosie, into the Project and despite clearly being the world’s most incompatible woman for our logical professor, he’s soon using his genetic knowledge to help identify Rosie’s biological father in a picaresque journey and subliminal desire to stay in contact with this most inappropriate female of the species.

I’m about halfway through and I’m enjoying the direction of travel…..emotions are not rational, love is illogical, science is not a good method of selecting a wife. I suspect and hope Don and Rosie find love because of, rather than despite, their obvious incompatibility.

So when does logic outweigh emotion? Should you ever make decisions for the right reason, rather than out of instinct or gut feeling?

Of course you should. Just not where love is involved.

My brother introduced me to Gill when they were working together back in 1996. Logically (that word again) we probably didn’t have much in common, but there was some sort of chemistry and we married within a year of meeting.

Gill is incredibly practical. I’m not. As I write this, Gill is creating an arbour as part of her redesign of the garden.  She will do most DIY in the house. I’ll read, or learn Italian or plan our next trip while Gill is making curtains, playing the guitar or baking cakes. Gill’s family background is very different to mine. I’m tidy, but – how best to put this – that’s not Gill’s strong suit.

If I had sent Don’s Wife Project questionnaire to Gill, we would probably never have had that drink at The Old Emporium in Fleet. Fortunately we did and, amongst the outward incompatibility, we’ve happily found loads of areas of common interest over the years……travelling, walking, skiing, theatre, dance, cinema, cake eating. And plenty more.

And love.

I really hope Don and Rosie reach the same conclusion.

Before I Go To Sleep – movie review

Before I Go To Sleep

Gill had read the book Before I Go To Sleep a while ago, and we finally got around to seeing the movie adaptation mid-afternoon on a Wednesday – yes, a normal working day before justretiring.com – after a long, historical stroll around Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury.

We shared the cinema screen at Vue in Leicester Square with just two other afternoon mid-weekers. Positives….a joyful lack of constant chatter through the ads, trailers and opening credits; no mobile phones ringing injudiciously; a delicious lack of popcorn-crunching and coke-slurping. Negatives….nope, can’t think of any.

Mark Kermode has reviewed the movie here in a much more erudite, and inevitably more cynical, way than I can. And I can’t improve on his tag line – enjoyably preposterous.

Nicole Kidman still looks good – ok, very good – and just about carries off the challenging task of playing the traumatised 40 year-old amnesiac Christine as well as her younger 20-something self. In the real world she’s 47.  But as Gill asked….why does she whisper throughout the whole film?

‘Creeping paranoia’: Nicole Kidman as Christine finds horrifying memories via her video diary in Bef

Colin Firth plays Colin Firth – and Christine’s faithful husband Ben – well, but I preferred Mark Strong’s performance as the mysterious and emotionally involved Doctor Nasch.

All in all, an enjoyable piece of movie hokum for a Wednesday, and an integral part of a fun day in London….a filmic filling in a London sandwich of historic stroll and Waterloo cocktails, rounded off by a sweaty, sardine-packed South West Trains trip back to Godalming with my erstwhile commuter chums. Ah, the memories.

 

A tale of two restaurants

Michelin starred restaurants are just like buses, eh…..you wait years for one to come along, and then you go to two in one week.

Well, Gill and I did, anyway.  And what a contrasting experience they both were. The restaurants, not Gill and I.

First up, L’Ortolan, just outside Reading. The restaurant building is beautiful but there has been plenty of development around it over the years, and you have to drive through a housing estate to reach the manicured estate of Alan Murchison’s temple of gastronomy.

With one Michelin star and 4 AA rosettes, their aim is to provide exquisite contemporary French cuisine, exceptional service and a warm welcome.

The service was indeed excellent, if a little too formal for our liking. We prefer informal and knowledgeable to stiff, starchy and un peu reverential.

We threw a blanket over the Menu du Jour, and covered off most options between us. Without exception the food was picture-perfect, presented up like a virgin to the slathering audience at the altar. But sadly there seemed to be a lack of overall depth in the flavours. She didn’t come through. A case of style over substance. A bit Tony Blairish.

 

A couple of days later we rocked up to JSW in the sleepy Hampshire market town of Petersfield. A very different proposition to L’Ortolan, JSW is located in a quaint 17th century building in a quiet street, just next to Thai and Indian restaurants. No showiness here, from the get-go, as our American cousins might say.

Jake Saul Watkins has presided here since 2000, earning the coveted star in 2002: It’s no coincidence that I cook what customers want. By keeping it simple, the food my chefs and I cook allow the ingredients to speak for themselves. I believe that cooking is a craft, one of the few remaining crafts left in society. It’s expressing our creative side and through cooking part of it is giving happiness to others. Our food has a practical, eatable quality about it. There are few, if any, garnishes on the plate.

Not just lip service either. The food was outstanding, the service friendly but professional from the ridiculously youthful front of house team, and the ambience relaxed and comforting.

We spread ourselves around the larger of two set menus, luxuriating in John Dory fish with mushroom risotto, whimsically titled lamb spag bol, lemon curd parfait with raspberry…and just about all other compass points on the well balanced menu.

Simply elegant presentation combined with a real depth of exquisite flavours. Style and culinary substance, in spades.

JSW 1, L’Ortolan 0 in this battle of the stars.

How long before another food bus comes along….?

 

Mondays

April always conjures up images of the Masters golf tournament for me. The first major of the year, from anachronistic azalea-clad Augusta from the deep south in Georgia. A symbolic start to the summer.

Monday is back to work day. The start of a challenging week, psychologically hard enough at the best of times but exacerbated by a particularly fun weekend, or after a  routine-busting holiday.

By Sunday lunchtime that invisible, but weighty, cloak drapes itself around your shoulders. So uplifted on Saturday morning, they sag now as you chomp your way through Yorkshire puddings, thinking about that long to-do list facing you tomorrow, or wondering whether another sad jumper will delay the already painful commute to the office.

Monday is inextricably linked with hard graft. School, college, work. Inescapable for the first 60 years of your life. Joined at the metaphorical hip, like Crackerjack and 4:55 pm. Or the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day, just as you wilt from the festive excess.

But not for me any longer. Friday was my last day at work – possibly ever – and I wrote this in bright early September sunshine, at 11 am Monday morning on a park bench by the bowling green, in the shadow of Guildford Castle. My Monday agenda was making sure a friend’s birthday present was safely en route to France; sorting out a few technical issues on my new phone; a walk around London’s Westminster & Whitehall areas; and seeing an intriguing new musical Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse.

All a far cry from business meetings, financial forecasts, cash flow projections and tax compliance.

Mondays will hopefully forever be brighter from today. And Sunday’s roast will taste even better.  And my shoulders won’t droop.

Restaurant review – Koshari Street

Stumbling across Koshari Street in St. Martin’s Lane last week was one of those finding a £20 note in an old pair of trousers moments.

We were in the Big City for the Wednesday matinee performance of Shakespeare in Love. Yes, Wednesday afternoon. Still milking the newly-retired feeling before it becomes the when-do-I-have-to-work-next stage.

The main culinary event of the day was supposed to be an early supper at Hawksmoor, the uber-posh hand-reared corn-fed OMG-steak place. But in many ways, the cheap but oh so healthy & tasty Koshari Street Egyptian street food place, directly opposite the Noel Coward theatre, usurped it.

The proposition is very simple: enjoyed by thousands daily, this humble and healthy yet outstandingly tasty vegetarian dish of lentils, rice and vermicelli, topped with a spicy tomato sauce, chickpeas and caramelised onions, comes from the heart of Egypt and is a national dish sold on road side stalls and restaurants in Egypt.

The tomato sauce can be mild, hot or mad, the chickpeas and onions add good texture variations.

At just over £10 for 2 medium sized pots of Koshari, with all the trimmings, and some mini crispy pitta breads and hummus, this was amazing value for a kiss in a bowl, to plagiarise the bald, fat bloke from Masterchef.

We ate inside, teetering on top of stools in the narrow space. Definitely more a takeaway experience rather than a sit-down restaurant, but that doesn’t detract from the  enjoyable surprise we had at Koshari Street. A healthy, warming appetiser to a Shakespearian main course.

JR rating = 19

  • Food = 8
  • Service = 7
  • Ambience = 4

A Testing Walk

Test walkers

River Test

Conceptualised by Simon Ware and executed by Gill Morris of justpoppingout.com, courtesy for one day only of fancyfreewalks, we enjoyed a fun cross-border walk by the gentle River Test in Hampshire last week.

 Setting sail from Godalming in leafy Surrey at the workmanlike hour of 9 o’clock, adventurers Simon, Gill, Alex Overington and I started out at peaceful Wherwell, fortified by caffeine & sugar supplies at the excellent Caracoli in picture-perfect Alresford.

Simon had been seduced by the meandering Test when recently passing through and wanted to explore more closely. The rest of us, newly retired, fancied a day out and didn’t mind humouring him in his worthy quest.

The walk was 9 1/2 miles of gentle strolling  by or near the river, with the following highlights:

  • Longstock Park, with water gardens acquired in 1946 by a certain John Lewis. The Waitrose theme continues as they manage the gardens and the nearby nursery, as is the nearby Leckford Farm shop
  • Longstock village, with thatched cottages aplenty and the fine – if somewhat upmarket – Peat Spade Inn
  • the wide, open Hampshire skies….a distinct contrast to the more wooded Surrey Hills vistas
  • the gloriously named Spratt and Winkle railway line, now disused but running alongside the river and its swaying, bankside reeds
  • lunch at the riverside Mayfly pub in Fullerton. The vast clouds of mayflies that hatch in May and June sustain the fish that make the Test the most perfect fly fishing chalk stream in the world. We saw plenty of trout as evidence, but there are also grayling and salmon
  • Wherwell village, another thatched & timeless beauty – church, houses, pub and river joining forces to enhance its attraction to residents and to interlopers from across the borderMayfly

We enjoyed a brief embrace with our neighbouring county but headed home to Surrey, our enduring love, where we will soon be justpoppingout again.

Restaurant review – Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Remember that first date with someone which went so well you thought: maybe, just maybe, this could be the one ? And the frisson of excitement anticipating the second….only to be left with a hollow feeling of back to the drawing board after a disappointing rematch ?

I’d been to Hawksmoor Seven Dials just a few weeks earlier, with my brother and his two lads, to celebrate Paul’s BIG birthday. You know, one of those mad, alcohol-fuelled weekends where eating at a vegetarian restaurant just wouldn’t cut the mustard.  We needed meat. And the good stuff. So we went to Hawksmoor, and devoured the rib-eye and the Chateaubriand…and then told everyone we’d eaten the best steaks ever.

So when I wanted to celebrate retirement with my wife Gill, Hawksmoor seemed the perfect accompaniment to a Wednesday afternoon performance of Shakespeare in Love.  Decadence piled on decadence. I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit (Master Shakespeare – Twelfth Night)

Hawksmoor plays the shy coquette. The sign is barely visible in Langley Street, one of those narrow Covent Garden alleys a far cry from the tourist-strewn Piazza. And the image of a Prohibition speak-easy continues as you descend into the subterranean meat-pit, all exposed brickwork and subdued lighting.

The service is nicely informal, but slick. First name terms as you’re passed from ground floor reception to the downstairs speak-easy front-of-house , and then a smooth affability from the waiter when you reach your table.

We hit the cocktails to embrace the sense of midweek bravado. The slug of alcohol from the Bitter State concoctions (Appleton Rum, apricot liqueur, Campari & lemon) bludgeons us between the eyes, and sharpens the appetite  in an instant.

At £24 for 2 courses and £27 for 3, the Express Menu is a relative snip. Well, we are eating into our pensions now. And the pre- and post-theatre options look attractive enough for star-crossed lovers with not long to live.

Gill’s Doddington Caesar Salad and my Potted Mackerel are accomplished first acts, but the main player of the drama – our 250 gram rib-eye steak – should have been better prepared, and fluffs its lines. It’s cooked medium rare, although slightly too rare for my taste, with more blood than Lady Macbeth’s dastardly dagger. The quality is good enough but the main villain is the chewy, sinewy edges. A disappointing performance after the theatrical hype.

The extras are multi-textured beef dripping chips, and buttered spring greens – cabbage and overly chewable, tough spinach that do little to upstage the flailing central character. Thank goodness the Argentinian Malbec has played its part in perking up our spirits.

I mentioned our meaty disappointment to the waiter, exacerbated by the outstanding recent performance I’d enjoyed so much. An off day? Complacency? Forgotten lines? No matter, his reaction was word-perfect….an abject apology and immediate offer of free desserts, despite my genuine insistence that wasn’t necessary.

The final acts of peanut butter shortbread and white chocolate cheesecake with strawberries did much to recover the happiness of the occasion, and Hawksmoor’s image in our eyes. But you’ll always come away wanting more if Hamlet has messed up, no matter how good Henslowe’s small contribution was.

JR rating = 21

  • Food = 6
  • Service = 9
  • Ambience = 6

 

Norway – August 2014

A different, but hugely enjoyable, travel experience for us recently….a short suck-it-and-see trip to Norway with Great Rail Journeys.

Flåm Railway from Myrdal to FlåmGRJFlamRailway(photo courtesy of GRJ website)

Gill and I are independent souls and would usually recoil in horror at the thought of following an umbrella-hoisting tour leader on and off a coach, barking orders to the camera-toting flock….right, it’s now 4:30, you’ve got 20 minutes to explore the ancient ruins, have a comfort break, exchange your currency and buy some souvenirs. From that place over there, where I get the best kick-back. Meet here at 4:50, otherwise make your own way to the hotel for the gala buffet dinner (wine not included, the salmon’s rubbish), in the Peer Gynt Suite at 7:35.

But we were travelling with good friends Sam & Annie Key, from the Dordogne via Yorkshire, and they had valued highly the GRJ guided experience on a recent trip of their own to India.

Our concerns were quickly allayed. Tour leader John – a diplomat and businessman in previous lives – was an urbane, informative host who imparted useful information with good humour. And without an umbrella in sight.

The itinerary was essentially to spend 2 nights in Bergen on the west coast, 2 nights in Flåm in the Western fjords and 2 nights in Oslo, with thrilling rail journeys connecting the destinations.

Bergen highlights:

  1. The fish marketBergen fish market 3Bergen fish market 2Bergen fish market 1
  2. Bryggen waterfront, a UNESCO World Heritage site, including a museum portraying the powerful Hanseatic trading organisation’s key site for 400 years from the late 14th centuryBryggen
  3. The walking tour with a local guide, giving real insight into the history and hidden parts of the delightful city
  4. A trip on the Fløibanen funicular railway to the top of Fløyen Mountain…and the walk back down into Bergen

Flåm highlights:

  1. The serenity of this small community at the edge of the Aurlandsfjord…when a huge cruise ship wasn’t in dockAurlandsfjord
  2. The wooden church in old Flåm, built in 1670Flam church
  3. Hospitality, food and service at the Fretheim Hotel…and the dream-like fjordic views from every window Flam cruise ship

Oslo highlights:

  1. The spectacularly contemporary design of the Opera House, allowing you to ascend to the roof, almost by stealth
  2. Culture, especially museums. We barely scratched the surface, but enjoyed the Henrik Ibsen museum and Norway’s Resistance museum….both very different but equally insightfulHenrikIbsen
  3. The Aker Brygge area, originally home to Oslo’s shipyard industry but now imaginatively converted to a vibrant car-free area of shops, restaurants, bars and free entertainment
  4. A guided coach & walking tour, especially through the thought-provoking Vigeland Sculpture Park, containing more than 200 bronze and granite creations from this controversial artistVigeland4

Vigeland3

Vigeland2

Vigeland1

On balance, a different and hugely enjoyable holiday, with thanks to Sam & Annie, John, GRJ and our fellow group members for opening our eyes to the benefits of being led. Sometimes.SamAnnieGill

 

Just Popping Out

The Short Walk to Freedom

Wednesday morning. 8:30 am. 20th August, 2014. The sun is shining.

But instead of my usual long commute to work in London I’m standing outside our house in Godalming, meeting old and new friends, to experience my first official justpoppingout (“JPO”) walk since justretiring.

My wife Gill has nurtured her love of the Surrey Hills, maps and walking over the last 15 years. To such an extent that she has now set up a walking enterprise to share these passions with a wider audience.

If it’s fresh air and exercise you’re after, Gill will do all the hard work for you. She will plot a route to meet all your requirements….time, distance, degree of difficulty, pub and tea shop quotas, just name it. Leaving you to enjoy the sociability and scenery, without fear of getting lost for days in the Surrey wilderness or being late back for Jemima & Joseph’s school run.

There are 6 of us chomping at the JPO bit on this beautiful, late summer morning – Gill and me, regulars Simon, Barry & Alex, and fresh meat Kate.

Today’s collective brief is:

  • 8-9 miles
  • a medium level challenge, preferably with a decent hill to get the blood pumping round ageing arteries
  • a coffee stop
  • back by 12:30

Gill has designed a route from Godalming to Enton, then on to Hambledon, up to Hydons Ball, and back to home via Clock Barn Farm.

The natural rhythm of a walk allows social interaction with everyone in a group this size, and Kate is soon fully integrated into the JPO family.

The coffee break is at the delightful, community-owned Hambledon Post Office & village stores. The sausage rolls and cakes, eaten at a picnic table by the pond and overlooking the quintessentially English cricket green, taste all the sweeter in the knowledge that it’s mid-morning on a work day. Does that sound just a tad too smug?

We take a second, briefer break at the top of Hydon’s Ball, sitting on the well-worn stone bench commemorating Octavia Hill, one of the co-founders of the National Trust. We revel in the expansive views back to Hambledon and beyond to the Devil’s Punchbowl in Hindhead, before heading back to Godalming via Clock Barn Lane .

Gill gets us home within a couple of minutes of the requested deadline. We’re all warmly satisfied from the exercise, sociability and natural beauty of the morning’s walk. I think I’m going to enjoy this retirement lark, and I’m looking forward to plenty more JPO walks.

Sunshine & good coffee guaranteed of course, Gill?

Not dead yet! Make the most of your post-work years