Friday, November 23, 2007

What colours do you see?

Do you see in colour? If so, what colours do you see? Are you normal; am I normal? What is normal? Questions, questions, questions - all unravelling before me. Why? A visit to Blue/Orange, a play of psychiatric potency, as envisioned by the amateurs, and I use the term purely in its literal sense, of the Progress Theatre.

A three hander is a tall order for a small team to pull off, and this is a play of words, lots of them. So, there is a mountain to climb in terms of mastering those roles and to concoct a believable world of a small psychiatric unit. The production launches into action through a babel of disembodied voices and dystopian imagery fused into a Tate Modern-like installation piece. The work of Mike Brand, a Reading artist, is on display here both in these echoes of what the disturbed young man at the centre of the work may be hearing and feeling, and in the pleasingly antiseptic set which acts as a foil to the machinations of the plot.

A young doctor and a younger patient, the man around which the plot revolves, enter the stage. They are in discussion. The doctor is concerned. He wants to do the right thing. He wants the best for his patient. He has an approach, a way of doing things. He thinks he needs more time: more time to help this man. There is a downside. The man has had an 'episode', has been detained and is nearing the end of his stay: the time when he can go home, but only if the doctor, the psychiatrist, says so. Power: raw power, one with all and one with none.

Emmanuel Adanlawo is highly accomplished in his display of the emotional range of the highly-strung detainee in this opening encounter and Mark Simmonds plays the college fresh shrink with an authentic nod to the lack of experience that his character feels in the midst of this tense stand-off.

Chris Bertrand as Bruce enters, smoking, and blusters his way into conversation with the doctor, with scant regard for the all-important doctor-patient relationship. He is the self-important consultant, the more experienced teacher. Power: raw power, one with none, one with some and one with more. How will they use this power? More questions.

The consultant role is the keystone of the play. He acts as the disturbing influence in the path mapped out by his pupil in the treatment of the disturbed. He has been supremely cast, with the right air of snootiness, condescension, and I'm the greatest thing to hit this place smugness.

The struggle for power begins now and ebbs and flows between the characters. The writing from the truth-seeking imagination of Joe Penhall is superb. There is a message: is there a sort of institutional racism in the treatment of people with mental health problems? Do the white middle-class professionals of this branch of medicine judge people by their own standards and find them wanting? The message is expertly conveyed though the dramatic tension of the claustrophobic consulting room.

This is a play of power: raw power. A psychiatrist holds power over his patient's liberty. He must exercise that wisely and the widely different approaches of the pupil and teacher examine the intellectual hoops through which they must leap to apply the correct label, the correct diagnosis and its attendant treatment regime: inside or outside the institution? The patient is not without power too, as we see when the plot unfolds towards its tantalising conclusion.

I loved the way that the roles reversed throughout this story. "Pull yourself together" is a phrase that would never grace the lips of a self respecting psychiatrist when dealing with his patient, but when the superior being of the consultant is being heavy handed and superior with his patient-like underling then it's OK.

Get a ticket for this play if you can. The denizens of the Progress Theatre have proved that being amateur doesn't have to be a straight-jacket. After all in the treatment of mental health, that's so last century. They climbed the mountain, they made it real, or was I just hearing voices?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is Ben Elton the new Arthur C Clarke?

Arthur C Clarke is one of those rare creatures: a science fiction writer with vision. I mean a vision that is on the money more often than not. This is strange enough, but every now and again along comes someone with vision and the common touch: a communicator, comedian and writer by the name of Ben Elton, who has proved through his jointly penned Queen musical, "We Will Rock You", that he stands among the ranks of the Nostradamus fraternity.

His creation was first performed way back in May 2002 so it must have been conceived during those bubble days of the first internet boom. Five years is a long time in terms of technological advancement, but soothsayer Elton, 48, accurately predicted the rise of global software corporations that would very soon control our every thought, and more importantly our music. Now it may be that he was thinking of Microsoft when he encapsulated that thought on his manuscript, but little did he realise in those PG days (that's Pre Google to the uninitiated), that the powerhouse of search and online ads would be vying for world domination in the way that it has today.

Another internet prophet, Robert X. Cringely, recently speculated on "Google's plan to host all of our applications", but why stop there? It could be that they really aspire to mature into Globalsoft, Elton's scarcely fictional megalomaniacal mega corporation, headed by a Killer Queen and intent on ridding the world of music it did not control. I must admit to being ignorant of Page and Brin's fondness for British seventies glam rock or indeed eighties alternative comedy, the progenitors of the musical subject of this piece, but you never know.

We have investigated the roots of the ideas that gave birth to this theatrical rockfest, with live music thundering from stage enveloping speakers, but what of the performances? I can say that the whole family, buoyed by expectation of classic singalong tracks whose appeal has bridged the generations, was not disappointed. The event itself, magnified by the majesty of a visit to the capital and the delights of the West End, which started with lunch on the South Bank in the buzzing Strada beneath the newly refurbished Festival Hall, was an assault on the senses.

The staging could best be described as theatre for the video generation, with pulsating pixels on flying screens providing a dynamic visual experience and canvas against which the faithfully rendered songs and lets face it paper thin plot played out. It was a feast for the eyes and ears if not the brain - it left that organ a bit undernourished - after all this was never going to be culture but none the worse for that.

A cast devoid of stars literally popped up out of the stage floor and generally had a great time on the fiendishly flexible set, which awed with its clever ability to lift, rotate and generally thrust the actors deep into the Dominion's cavernous auditorium, over the heads of the posh bods in the stalls.

Ben Elton has taken the spirit of that notoriously difficult to categorise band, made flesh a few of their lyrical characters and melded them together with a joke filled script which showcases all of their hits and packages it into two hours of enjoyment for the whole family. As Paul Weller said 'That's Entertainment'!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Only you go and Aygo

You may go in a Yugo, or the slightly less catchy Zastava, but these days I go in an Aygo. This modern motoring miracle has replaced the ageing Pug that used to grace the drive in front of my house. And why exactly am I raving about it? I am able to swan around town, smug in the knowledge that I am creating a lot less CO2 than most other cars on the road, short of expensive hybrids and those rather unstable looking electric ones. Now I am not naive enough to claim that this is real full on eco-warrior behaviour. After all I didn't cause any pollution whilst riding my two wheeled transport option, however cycling will still be part of my weekly commuting cycle.

No it is not really green because the old car wasn't scrapped - it lives on. So personally I have added to the world total CO2 emissions by buying a new car - it is just that I am the legal owner of less of it than I was a few weeks ago. Fuel-wise the car appears to run on fresh air. I haven't had to visit the filling station yet, and nor do I expect to any time soon. It is more frugal than a Chancellor Brown budget and I may have to have some sort of festivity when I first have to find a forecourt dispensing fuel.

It ticks a number of boxes so far, and I was very pleased when some colleagues complimented it on its roomy interior and ample access through several of the four doors and a sort of window hatch to what is laughingly called a boot. To squeeze four full sized humans into such compact dimensions, the designers have had to compromise on the load carrying capacity. Despite positioning the wheels attractively, one at each corner, the space behind the surprisingly comfy seats is only really suitable for a couple of squashy overnight bags. Best leave behind the matching set of designer luggage or the grandfather clock that you picked up at the musty antique shop, as these are not going to cut it. If you can persuade a couple of your rear-seat passengers that they would like to walk home then this opens up the option of folding the split rear seats and a whole vista of payload conveying options opens up, as long as these items fit through that hatch or can be crammed through the doors left open by your departing travellers.

Am I pleased with it? You bet I am, and would recommend one for any card carrying left-ward thinking, environmentally-concious middle-aged male, or anyone that knows one.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lentissimo - what's in a name

Regular readers - well the especially eagle eyed ones, will have noticed that this column is now located at, my little piece of the internet.

So what's it all about? I wanted the name to reflect ideas about the pace of life and how best to cope with today's lifestyle. We recently paid a visit to friends who live in the New Forest National Park, and I was knocked out by the sheer tranquillity of Furzley Common, a forgotten and lightly trafficked region. The beauty of that essentially English landscape with its signature look honed by generations of wild and not so wild grazing animals was very easy on the eye and on the brain.

2007_0910Image30014A short walk from atop the single hill vantage point took us amongst a smattering of trees. The total lack of intrusion of 21st century noise, which the road planners can count as a success story: the M27 being only a kilometre away, meant that the beating of a crow's wings whilst flying over the forest could be heard as plainly as Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster.

It was the sort of place where we felt that the best option for happening upon the natural fauna was to stand stock still and wait for it to emerge from its collective hidey hole and meet and greet us. So the idea of slow time was born, and not just any old time - very slowly indeed: lentissimo!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Live Earth: a personal view

If you missed my Live Earth post - its because its lower down the homepage. The flood story managed to overtake it. You can read it here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Noah's Art

The citizens of West Berks were subjected to their own personal Armageddon today as torrential rain fell with a vengeance from before we rose at 7am through to 2pm. The weather forecast had been terrifyingly accurate, with no let up in the precipitation for the whole morning.

My lunchtime journey home prompted by a worried call from my family was a shocking adventure as I turned from the A4, itself covered with several inches of water into Fir Tree Lane. The sight that greeted me was like nothing I have ever seen before. I have used the expression 'the road was like a river' many times, but on this occasion it was never truer. The sight of a torrent of muddy brown water streaming between the kerbs, gushing from risen manhole covers, towards me will stay with me for ever.

Worse was to come though, as I drove through Manor Park I saw water coursing down Yates Copse and making a sweeping turn into Waller Drive, where it entered an impromptu lake which stretched as far as I could see past Passey's yard. I turned around and luckily found a passable route home. A reconnaissance mission later on when the rain had ceased revealed the true extent of the flood, which had claimed a car, the occupants of which had to be rescued by the residents of Fleetwood Close, by swimming to retrieve them.

Apparently the water level had been several feet higher and had subsided back to that pictured here, even though it had only just stopped raining. The cause of this was immediately obvious when we walked through the dried out area later on. A wall around the scrapyard was damming the water when it gave way under the pressure and allowed some respite on the drowned road.

Several houses in the area had been under water, at least one up to its letter-box, and so the clean up must now begin after what should have been a day of joy for the children of West Berks: the last day of term before the summer break. A day we will not forget in a hurry.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Live Earth: a view from the top tier

2007_0720Image30026There are some things that a middle-aged father of two shouldn't see... but Live Earth definitely isn't one of them. To arrive at the new, majestic Wembley Stadium on what seemed like the only fine weekend of the summer was an occasion, filled with anticipation of participation in a major planet-saving event. It was a shame that my own personal carbon footprint was erring on the 'size 12' - what with the fleeting visit to Birmingham for the Dan, and a journey to the Cotswolds planned for the very next day, but sometimes things just have to be done.

"Who are these old men?" asked my eldest when the first main band came on stage. Our seats were in the rarefied atmosphere of the top tier, whose gently curving wave arced over us a few rows back, where Chris Moyles' announcement sounded like 'Nghnges' by the time it reached us from the stadium engulfing PA system. The sunlight glinting off the lead singer's pate was a huge clue - "Its Genesis; old man's rock," I said. "Don't worry, there will be acts you've heard of later". Eighties classics brought out a long-forgotten nostalgic streak in me. (Don't get me wrong here - there was no getting my kit off and running around the stadium in my birthday suit.) There would be more of this to come (nostalgia, not streaking) what with Duran Duran on the bill.

We soon moved on to America - the Razorlight anthem that is - and at last the crowd were treated to material that had been created in the majority of their lifetimes. The lager was going down and the pulse was going up around the stadium and crowd singing filled the air like seventy thousand post pub Saturday nights.

The Black Eyed Peas pumped it louder as their frontman used the catwalk stage to maximum effect, and from our lofty perch in the upper echelons, the standing masses in the bowels of the auditorium rose and fell as one, conducted perfectly by the bobbing singer. Unfortunately the slowed down style and sophistication of next up John Legend's urbane soul was lost on the hyped up crowd - perhaps it was a hard act to follow.

We were then treated to the surprisingly nifty sounding Duran Duran, another band swinging the needle of the nostalgia-meter far to the right. They belted through a trio of greatest hits with only their waistlines to show that perhaps they were merely 'acceptable in the Noughties', now a couple of decades from their heyday. After all we were a long way from the action and the screen was tantalisingly out of sight at our oblique angle, so the wrinkles were rendered invisible by the diffusion of distance.

2007_0720Image30020The Red Hot Chilli Peppers reached a new standard in crowd lift off, as the riffs from the guitar thinned out from their opening chord medley to the opening bars of "Can't Stop'. The expectant punters locked in to a recognisable signal and you could feel a warm tingling feeling in your extremities as the palpable wave of love went zinging back to the stage. They were truly stunning, and the next real high after those crazy, energetic 'Peas.

At festivals you get used to queuing, but the effect of too many hits on the concession stands meant that I had to join a mega one for the ATM to replenish much needed funds. Consequently the hour long snake up and down the corridors meant that we missed Corinne Bailey Rae (no particular loss), Bloc Party (see previous note), and rather more importantly Keane. I suppose you could call it a near live experience here, since I could see the band on the handily provided screen (with a better view than from my seat) and I could hear the sound wafting through the openings into the seated bowl, but I couldn't face the thought of losing my place to check them out properly. Shame.

In the latter stages we went considerably down the metal route - that of the heavy variety. Now I must admit here that I have never actually seen Spinal Tap - the movie - all the way through. The usual clips have registered themselves in my conciousness, but the the mini Stone Henge sequence had passed me by and I had to have it explained to me afterwards - never a great idea. So the notion that the little people dancing around the henge were as a result of a scale cock-up and that they weren't children was completely lost on me. Consequently they weren't as high on my enjoyment factor as they were on their amp volume controls.

Metallica continued the rock vein and my notes for this section simply say: 'loud, damn loud'. My eldest wanted to see them though so we braved the assault on our ear-drums, which despite the band's best efforts, remained free of post gig tinnitus, which in my youth would have been the lasting impression left by the really iconic events.

The Foo Fighters are in the melodic metal category on their recorded releases, but in the stadium, with the sound muddied and distorted over a highly amped PA, Dave Grohl's urgent screams to the audience to get involved, over an industrial block wall of sound gave them a distinctly harder edge. This was no power pop, but a real thrash through their tried and tested tunes, which was appealing in its raw, un-sanitised state. The levels were getting to my youngest by now, and we had to take a breather before the pinnacle of professional pop came to the stage to deliver the most perfect slice of choreographed show-womanship that only Madonna can.

Her slick, polished delivery came as complete contrast to the fore-runners. Don't get me wrong - Madonna can do festivals - from the audience berating expletives to the guitar hero pose of 'Ray of Light', she rocked the rockers and funked the funkers at full remix version length with 'Hung Up' and La Isla Bonita. All of this was accompanied by precision choreography, the look of which had been honed so that it looked like she had set up home there on the stage, it was that rehearsed.

It was time to vanish into the night; to leave the dream-world of music shot through with lessons in carbon frugality, some of which will stick. Al Gore - job done.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Dan 'te Inferno

This must have been a first for the UK at least: a gig where the only smoke in the auditorium was of the artificial kind. They were slightly wider in girth and greyer in the locks: and that was just the audience. The symbiosis between Fagen and Becker was clear from the start as they strutted on stage, cocooned by the ten piece 2007 orchestra, which was driving a rhythm tighter than Gordon Brown's wallet. The cauldron of the National Indoor Arena, filled with funk-obsessed forty-somethings, were there for the infrequently touring Steely Dan.

The evening hadn't started well, after all, a dash up the A34 and M40 to Birmingham attempted after work on a wet Thursday is a real misnomer. We crawled along for mile after mile and arrived in the second city well after the support act had taken the stage. Still after parking and some cracking directions from some friendly locals, which took us on a short walk up the extremely picturesque canal side, punctuated by skinny locks and industrial heritage architecture, we arrived at the venue.

Now a feature of all public events, clouds of nicotine greeted us, as the smokers wheezed outside during the break before the main event. At least we had made it, and could let the old timers deliver up a slice of musical legend. The devotees, of which I must admit I cannot really count myself a member, were there in abundance, packing the blacked out space to the rafters.

The sound was tight - real tight - and funkier than I had remembered. After all the last time I had seen these boys was way back in 1996 in Wembley Arena. Then was the first time that they had visited these shores for many a year, and they played a lot of their favourites. But this time they eschewed such musical convention and went on a tour of their own, through their extensive back catalogue.

It also struck me that despite their obvious love of stardom and performing, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were also democratic, allowing their highly talented band the space to show off their own abilities. This even extended at one point to allow what would normally be called backing singers to take over vocal duties on the track 'Dirty Work' off their very first album. I was really impressed and we left after two hours of classy fusion music, which sounded as fresh today as it had when it left the pens of those viagra propelled jazz-funk superstars.

All in all a great warm up for the next big event: Live Earth!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Hare Downgraded

As I twittered recently, I read with dismay that The Hare at Lambourn Woodlands, a one Michelin star restaurant in the Rod K Restaurant Network, had changed hands. It seems that the power behind the astonishingly good value but taste sensation menu, head chef Tristan Mason, has also left. I expect that the establishment will be downgraded at the next Michelin guide update, which is a real shame for food here in West Berks.

The Hare wasn't expensive for the quality that it delivered but it seems that price may have been a factor in its demise, since the new owners are proud of their "new cheaper menu", as reported in the Newbury Weekly News.

There is a ray of sunshine in the unseasonal gloom however, in that the Red House at Marsh Benham is open again after a three year closure, and promising us "modern British cooking". Here's hoping that it can go some way to filling the gap in my network. Report will be posted as soon as I sample their wares.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Food Escalator

After years of foraging in the one Michelin star and below restaurant forest, we took a fork(!) in the road which led to the plateau of the two star. It had to be done: there was no avoiding it. It shone like a beacon wresting us away from our usual habitat.

This is a route to a place where, according to head chef John Campbell, 'it is not just the food but the full dining experience that matters...'. That destination is the Vineyard at Stockcross, conveniently situated in the West Berks Jungle, a short distance from Newbury and its infamous bypass.

So, what is the experience like? It starts early, with attentive service that begins as soon as you draw up in your car whereupon the valet opens the doors and leads you through the reception to the comfortable sofas of the bar. You are handed the simple two-fold menu and the War and Peace-like wine list - no make that a wine book, to peruse over drinks and appetisers.

Your first decision is to choose between the tasting menu, where ten sample signature dishes arrive in a procession of culinary prowess, or the standard menu where you must pick from an array of six starters, six mains and six desserts. It all makes perfect sense - it's just enough choice to cope with at that time of the evening. The sommelier helps with wine selections that perfectly match the food we have ordered. This is invaluable given the size of the list and the paucity of our budget - this review isn't paid for after all.

The dining room is a large double height space, simply decorated. There is nothing to distract from the food, save for the impressive 'fire and water' sculpture in the courtyard beyond the window, into which the rain is now falling.

The pre-starter arrives unannounced, but when we sample it, the flavour of the asparagus and the truffle cream cold soup have been fortified for maximum effectiveness on the palate and we are beginning to realise the quality of the cooking is going to be high.

I have ordered the terrine of suckling pig with its own black pudding, and this arrives - a work of modern art on a plate - all beautifully layered and accompanied by a quince puree, pear jam and a simple slice of toast. The zesty fruit offsets the richness of the terrine and it is clear many chef hours have been put into creating this dazzling dish. My wife has fallen for the scallops - a perennial favourite of hers - and are perfectly cooked, but served with a modern twist - lemon curd, beetroot and shallots are the flavour-enhancers of choice. This also comes with a mystery ingredient: the 'chicken biscuit': a small sliver of stretched and oven-crisped chicken skin. I told you this is a modern treatment.

I have seen halibut combined with oxtail on television shows like 'Great British Menu', but to taste it is to realise what a heavenly concoction it really is. Halibut is a meaty fish anyway, but when it is placed on a bed of oxtail that has been cooked to the point where it almost melts away, this lifts the flavour of the fish in an extraordinary fashion. In turn the sheer sumptuousness of the oxtail is moderated by the halibut: they exist in harmony as if they were made for each other. Meanwhile across the table, a John Dory served with crab, coriander and tomato, is being consumed. My wife describes this as 'a complex dish, but certainly one of the best she had ever tasted'.

My dessert is possibly the most complex assembly I have ever seen on a plate. After the simplicity of the main course, this is a striking contrast. The main component with the fullest flavour is the cassis ice cream positioned in a quenelle at each end of the rectangular plate and in between is a horizontal piped line of lemon cream which is adorned with the pain d'epice (french gingerbread) and the chocolate oil. I also think that there are individual grains of tapioca liberally strewn along the length of it too.

There is a lot going on, but the overall effect is very pleasing on the taste buds. The effort expended in the kitchen really shows in the depth of flavour in all the dishes and the expertise in creating superlative combinations is what you are paying for. You pay handsomely as you would expect - eating food at this level of professionalism is not cheap, but for a special occasion it is a treat for everyone who enjoys fine dining.

My wife doesn't think that her dessert quite lives up to the promise of the earlier courses. She has chosen the 'Hazelnut, Chocolate, Moscatel' which turns out, in a basic sense, to be a piece of cake with fondant on top. Although equally complex in construction, it seems to lack the wow factor which is present in the taste sensation of the cassis.

Coffee and exquisite truffles are taken in the lounge and this allows a last lingering reflection over the whole evening. We have taken the food escalator to the second Michelin floor, will we ever want to descend? Or is the only way up - to the rarefied atmosphere of Gordon Ramsey or The Fat Duck? Only our wallets will decide.

Friday, May 25, 2007

BA's Waste Bag

It isn't often that somebody deliberately labels an object to show how useless it really is, but BA are really on the money with their aptly described 'Waste Bag'.

I recently took the relatively short flight to Nice with "Britain's favourite airline" and was savouring the delicious sandwich fare that passed for the economy class catering on the flight. As is usual the whole package was enclosed in plastic with a natty piece of cardboard to make the meagre rations look more impressive.

The round of two different types of sandwich was further encased in cellophane, just in case the outer wrapper didn't keep the bread fresh enough. Also present was a small plastic-covered chocolate bar (I presume you don't eat the plastic) and the container for the milk to pour in your hot beverage (plastic again). I cannot quite remember if the paper serviette had its own wrapper, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

Anyway, so far so much plastic; I then discovered another neatly folded plastic bag which bore the curious inscription: "Waste Bag". This too had its own little wrapper to stop it unravelling by itself and looking messy. Its function was to hold all of the other useless packaging that I had been given and any other rubbish that I managed to generate whilst eating the contents.

This was an environmental nightmare, for all of these bags (and they didn't say they were made from bio-degradable material) were collected by the cabin staff at the end of the service and deposited in yet another plastic bag lining the refuse collection trolley.

So BA have managed to score an environmental own goal as they had managed to provide me with a huge quantity of rubbish which was then double wrapped to ensure that it probably never breaks down in its destination land-fill site. In years to come, archaeologists will be able to analyse samples of airline fare in the middle noughties.

It was ironic therefore that when I returned home there were many stories in the media about government efforts to get us all to recycle more. BA - it sounds like they mean you as well.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Always Be Composting

Why the title? Well, since falling in love with Twitter, I have a few new destinations to visit, web-wise and one of these, one of my Twitter followers, has posted about his favourite funny videos on YouTube. I watched one this morning, a guy and his children re-enacting the 'always be closing' scene from the David Mamet play, Glengarry Glen Ross. This has to be seen to be believed - especially the part where the guy's kid wops him on the nose before handing him the phone.

Anyway, that's only partly the reason. Things are never that simple in real life are they? We are trying to out-green ourselves here at Rod K mansions and although we have composted garden and kitchen waste for several years, we recently saw something on TV where this green guru recommended returning 'anything which had recently been alive' to the ground from whence it came. I wonder if this includes the Labour Party, judging by their recent electoral performances? I digress.

So, in a bid to reduce our frequent trips to the local council re-cycling centre, we have decided to add shredded cardboard to our stale veg mix. The big question is though: 'Is it OK to compost the printed variety', rather than your bog, no pun intended, standard loo rolls etc. I tried the latest technology of posting the question on Twitter but gained not one reply. Perhaps I didn't make it clear it was addressed to the entire community rather than my friends. Well it still stands. Anyone out there have any views on the subject? I'd love to know. We don't want toxic dyes from the print leaching out into the soil or the water supply do we, but how real is the risk?

Answers on a re-cycled post card, or leave a comment.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Who stole the kitchen?

You would have thought that not having a kitchen would be a perfect excuse to eat out every night in members of that exclusive club, the Rod K Restaurant Network, but that's a lesson in bankruptcy that I wanted to avoid. When the only choices for family sustenance were to find decent take-aways (now there's a non-sequitor), or to eat in local pubs, I had hoped that we would have struck lucky more often than not.

The old kitchen, despite being a mere ten years old, was beginning to show its age and the fact that it was probably the last thing on the builder's budget when he put the house together in the first place. We trawled many of the kitchen outfits, and our plans were scaled back as the costs of our chosen lavish designs approached those of the Bank of England bullion reserves.

It was interesting that these places used wildly different techniques to squeeze all of their shiny cupboards, worktops and appliances in to our slightly strange shaped kitchen space. B and Q, who have had some quite awful press reports about the state of their installation service which ultimately put us off, went for the 3D graphics and multiple viewpoints afforded by their software based approach. This was all suitably whizzy and changes could be filtered through the thought, design, acceptance and printed parts list cycle in the time it takes Bill Gates to ship a few hundred more copies of Windows.

The other point which sank it from their point of view, was that they wanted all of the money up front, which doesn't exactly motivate them to make good job of installing it, not to mention tying up all those funds for several weeks.

Optiplan however, used the rather more last century pencil and paper design process, but Marcia, the designer, ultimately understood our needs more fully and persevered through our many changes of mind, layout and general lack of firm decision making. So technology not quite as cracked up as it makes out eh?

We finally went ahead with them and after a classy piece of work by Paul, one of their recommended installers, we are now the proud owners of a sophisticated grown-up looking space with 'A' rated appliances in which to prepare 'five star' rated food, or so we would hope.

Don't come round just yet though, it isn't finished. The only downside of going for granite as a worktop material is that there is a ten day turnaround for manufacture from the production of hardboard templates. This hampers (no pun intended) our cooking efforts as we have no desire for yesterday's bolgnese sauce to end up forever entombed in granite behind those sleek cupboards. Just imagine the whiff! On second thoughts don't, just don't.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Moving to an electronic beat

It seems my whole life has been dominated by electronic music. I was in love with the synthesizer from an early age and the sounds made by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Rick Wakeman etc., were my favourite bands during my formative teenage years.

In the late seventies, the punk era exploded on the scene and swept my friends and me away on a tidal wave of saliva and adrenalin induced sub-three minute songs. Being a Peel devotee however, and here was a man who was untroubled by musical labelling, my safety pin years were expanded by reggae, pub rockers, obscure folk guitarists, jazz funkers and a plethora of styles. There was one missing ingredient though: the death of the concept album, outlawed by the punk police, caused synth lead music to take a back seat in the road trip of life.

There must have been electronic music in the eighties(Tears for Fears anyone?), but it passed me by, and the early nineties weren't much better with classical piano making inroads: I had got married after all and the influence of a significant other has to make a difference to your life in more ways than one. Children entered my world in the middle nineties - there I told you married life would change me - and their demands meant that music, apart from the beats of the nursery, slipped further into the background.

The pattern continued until a series of events propelled me back to where I had started. The first was when the Chemical Brothers 'Hey Boy, Hey Girl' came on the radio and the children were grooving along in the back of the car and the simplicity and repetition anchored on a receptor deep inside my brain, locked away, dormant, for many years. This was followed by The Launch by DJ Jean, a superb crescendo-building electronic-fest, which hooked me in further, and was finally cemented by a few years of preparing a delicious evening meal to the sounds of Judge Jules' Saturday evening dance show on Radio 1.

I was now completely sold on dance music: the sheer energy and euphoria created by those greater than heart-rate beats per minute which quicken your pulse and intoxicate your cerebral cortex. The latest phase of my musical development has been to discover that electronic music comes in a whole range of tempos, and that there is a tune out there that will match any mood.

Lately I have been listening to slower material like Jochen Trappe's 'Glitch', 'Leftorium' by Anil Chawla/Dale Anderson and Chris Lake/Sebastien Leger's 'Aqualight'. All these pieces can generate a beautiful calm which descends from your grey matter to your toes, relaxing everything in between. My musical education continues with new styles and new cadences: filling my Ipod with a range of material to wake up to, or to go to sleep by.

And in the words of Pete Tong, "we continue"...

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Night at the Races

Given the current penchant for recycling, it is surprising that no one thought of it sooner. Some capitalistic minded individuals have come up with way of reusing something way beyond its sell by date: the humble horse race. Yes, at a Race Night, you can place your bets on a steeplechase that has already been run. It sounds like a sure fire winner doesn't it, except that when you lay down that hard earned cash, no one knows which DVD will get stashed in the slot and consequently which equine will come out on top.

It's the latest money spinning idea for your favourite good cause, and last Friday, we were there in aid of the school PTA. 'Mr T' was in town, with his smooth DJ patter and box of yesteryears nags outings. Basically any race with eight horses will do. The identities on the video are suitably anonymised and simply replaced with their numbers, to allow for maximum flexibility and re-usability. The commentary has been re-voiced to use their numerical classifications and helpful banners are super-imposed to show race order and the eventual winner.

All you as the casual punter have to do is to make your selection from the race card with its innuendo-laden sobriquets and make your way to the Tote table, where you purchase the requisite number of one pound tickets for your chosen steed. When all have taken their fill at the table of betting plenty, Mr T selects a disc, puts it in the player, and they are off and running on the big screen.

Five minutes of screaming by the assembled baying crowd later and you have lost your money, or at least that's what happened to me. My selections, using the blunt pin of good fortune in the race card of destiny, rose, shone briefly, if I was lucky, before fading away to end the race a few lengths shy of the winner. At least it was all in a good cause: fifty percent of the pot went to the PTA, and it was a highly entertaining way of spending an evening in the company of like minded individuals, or 'other parents' as we like to call them.

Just call me 'lucky' eh?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Technorati and Wioneers

What's a Wioneer then? I have just coined the term to describe a Web Pioneer: someone who is making waves on the web today and really doing something new. Perhaps you have your own picks for Wioneer of 2006 - it really is a bit early to be choosing them for 2007.

My votes are for Tantek Celik of Technorati, the blog and other tagged item aggregator, whose wioneering work includes inventing microformats, a way of showing the meaning of all that text in your web page, such as dates of events, contact information and tags themselves. This is the beginning of the third wave of web ideas: search engines will be able to distinguish people, places, happenings and products rather than a sea of words that they don't understand.

Tantek gets the vote for Global Wioneer of 2006 and my local choice would be Gill Durrant, current Mayor of Newbury for her solo project to document her entire mayoral year in blog form. Surely this must be a first, and shows the sheer amount of voluntary hard work and dedication put in by the holder of that office. In previous years all we had to go on was the news that made it into the local rag, but now we have every function, every opening, every good community deed. Well done.

Speaking of Technorati though, I'm now a member, so lets see what that brings. Perhaps a few other West Berks Bloggers would like to join me in my overall blog tag. We'll see what happens.

See my Technorati Profile.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Boxing Clever

It must be a sign of the times that all manner of goods can now be delivered to your door following some furtive ferretting about at a website or three, but surely the most rewarding must be opening your front door once a week to find a box of organic produce sitting on your doorstep.

I know that organic food is now officially a lifestyle choice, according to a quote by Environment Secretary David Miliband, but is a choice that an increasing number of people are beginning to take. That box of vegetables positively communes you with nature, as you extract the contents, which you feel have been plucked from the ground, merely shaken free of excess soil and placed lovingly in the cardboard receptacle.

This is food that hasn't been mucked around with before it reaches you. It is raw produce in a raw state, not some pristine, blemish free, washed, screened, sanitised vegetable that graces the supermarket shelves. That's not to mention the variety. Before we started receiving the weekly dose of goodness, I wouldn't have recognised a Swiss Chard or a Jerusalem Artichoke if my life were to depend on it. Of course, there is the weekly 'and what's this?" question, as another knobbly item pops out of the container, followed by a swift perusal of the contents list, but helpfully there are quite often recipe ideas included, and we usually end up with some tasty dish as a result.

So Mr Miliband, even if you are correct in your assertion that organic produce is no better than the factory farmed varieties, then at least I feel ten times healthier as a result of a more varied diet, with more green leafed anti-oxidising recipe ingredients than you could shake a tractor at. This new diet has taken some trial and error though. At first we opted for produce delivered by the milkman, which appealed to me as being the greenest way to receive your greens, but the variety just wasn't there. Week after week we would open the box to find that it was deathly similar to the week before, and there are only so many dishes you can make with a chard before you get 'green fatigue'. The second supplier was Riverford Organics, although this didn't seem very good value - admittedly we only tried one delivery.

Finally we opted for Able and Cole, which scores very highly on the quality and variety front, and seems to be the best value. We get the 'Family Organic Box' which serves our complete greengrocery needs for the week, as it contains both fruits and vegetables. The healthier diet has expanded along two axes. In fact, almost our entire Christmas menu last year was supplied by them, and consequently our waistlines have expanded along the same lines.

New for 2007 in the Rod K household, is the arrival of another ice-packed, insulated container full of organic meat, from the nearby Sheepdrove Farm. This carnivores behemoth will probably keep us in butchery products for a month. We have taken the plunge to see if we can enlarge our repertoire of culinary ideas and to see if we can cut out visits to the supermarket except for non-fresh items. It is early days so watch this space. All we need now is to find fish and eggs - not for the same meal - although there's always kedgeree - and we will be laughing.

It does help that the smaller members of the family have been raised not to be as fussy as I am ashamed to say I was when I was a child. They are reasonably up for trying new dishes and ingredients. The incentive tends to be that 'nothing' is the alternative, so that usually does the trick.

As I said at the beginning - it may be a lifestyle choice, but that's the lifestyle for me.