Thursday, January 31, 2008

An evening of Spanish Jewish ladino music in Belfast Synagogue

Los Desterrados logo and album cover

Back in October 2006, I was on a very interesting visit to the Belfast Synagogue up on the 49 Somerton Road. The post still gets a lot of hits.

The Synagogue is is hosting a cultural extravaganza on Sunday 9 March at 8pm - a concert of Spanish Jewish ladino music featuring the London-based sextet Los Desterrados who specialise in

“Moorish Rhythm, Spanish Passion and Jewish Soul”
Los  sextetDesterrados

Everyone welcome - so why not go along and buy a £5 ticket at the door? Doors open at 7pm. Contact ladinobelfast AT yahoo DOT com if you've any queries.

Ladino is the language and culture of the Jews of Spain. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain but took with them their distinctive language and traditions.

The London Metro freepaper reckons that Los Desterrados

“take the medieval music of the Sephardic [Spanish] Jews, with its strong Latin influences, and drag it effortlessly into the 21st century with lashings of Spanish folk and Balkan soul to deliver a series of rousing, melancholic songs that pulse with rhythm and feeling.”

The concert may even warrant digging out the drip-free candles and lighting the candelabrum!

Long-lists published for the 2008 Irish Blog Awards

Irish Blog Awards logo

As the annual Irish blogosphere period of introspection gathers pace, it now appears that Alan in Belfast is long-listed in the following four categories of the 2008 Irish Blog Awards.

But better than that, it’s really good to see a lot of familiar faces (and blogs I regularly read) in these and other categories.

  • The next steps are that the Round 1 judging will now begin with judges rating the blogs long-listed for each category on the quality of their writing, interaction and consistency.
  • The top scoring blogs will make it into the category short lists where they will undergo Round 2 judging, with the category winners announced on March 1 at the Award Ceremony in Dublin on March 1.
  • (Particularly successful blogs will only be short-listed in the two categories they rank highest in after Round 1 judging - though they can also appear in the Best Blog Post and Most Humorous Post categories.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - by John Boyne

The One Book Project is a local literacy drive being promoted by Northern Ireland libraries. They’re encouraging as people to read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and then talk or write about what they’ve read.

There’s a secondary objective:

  • to raise awareness of the role of libraries and reading in addressing controversial issues in a 'neutral' environment with the objective of increasing awareness of difference and promoting tolerance.

I’d noticed the One Book Project posters and leaflets in Ballyhackamore’s library one Saturday morning when I was in perusing the toddler section for bedtime stories. I joked the librarian at the desk that my three year old daughter would be lucky to leave the library without a copy under her arm! About five minutes later the librarian walked across and presented me with a copy saying that it wasn’t just for children.

It’s not a long book, and you could finish it in a couple of hours. Without wanting to sound like a Simon Mayo Book Panel, the book’s cover is unusually plain in that it has blue stripes (in nearly every English and international edition) and a simple message on the back:

“Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old-boy called Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to cross such a fence.”

So if you plan to read the book, stop reading now. I’m glad I approached it knowing nothing about the story. It allowed the book to paint its picture on a blank cranial canvas, rather than one with the story already partly sketched out.

Basically, we follow a boy called Bruno. He’s living a happy life in Berlin, before his Father’s job means the family have to move to another place, and a new house. Aged nine, Bruno is understandably naïve in his outlook, and doesn’t have the benefit of historical hindsight (that some readers) will enjoy to piece together the situation over the fence beside his new home.

The relationships between the characters are beautifully developed throughout the book. Father is a military man who gives and obeys orders and expects loyalty to his causes and beliefs. Mother is much more liberal and free-thinking. She comments early on, before they even left Berlin:

“We don’t have the luxury of thinking ... Some people make all the decisions for us.”

Bruno also engages with the household servants: Maria and Pavel (who patches up Bruno’s knee when he falls off a swing, but can’t take the credit for it). Each is living on a knife-edge, insecure in their position in the house and/or society.

But Shmuel is the real eye-opener in the novel’s cast. Sharing a birthday with Bruno, he offers an insight into an altogether different parallel universe over on the other side of the fence. The contrast of conditions and expectations is great - as is the boys’ friendship.

I found the book’s reliance on puns (in this case pronunciation of English words rather than German ones) unexpected – given that the characters in real life would have been speaking German. It’s a device that worked really well, but still jarred with me right the way through the book. Though coming to the book cold without already knowing the plot or locations, this playing with words successfully helped to blur the story’s direction for the first few chapters, leaving me to figure out the cryptic phrases:

“we should never have let the Fury come to dinner”
“we’re here at Out-With because someone said out with the people before us?”

Wonder what happens when the book’s translated into other languages?

The last couple of chapters bring the book to a startling and gut-wrenching conclusion. They’re the award winning chapters. The ones that take this from being a book aimed at young teens to a title that deserves a much wider read. Chapters that made me wonder about the fences I encounter in work, in church, in Northern Ireland society. Perhaps fences that I erect myself? Do I try to communicate with the Shmuels sitting on the other side? Or do I allow the parallel universes to continue to exist in ghettos I won’t approach?

So get down to your local library – assuming it hasn’t already been closed – and borrow a copy. Failing that, Amazon are flogging them for £4.84

Published in 2006, the novel has been adapted into a film, shot in Budapest during 2007, and scheduled to hit UK cinema screens in June 2008 (though it’ll be released in Spain from 29 February).

Monday, January 28, 2008

Challenger ... 22 years ago

Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 22 years ago on 28 January 1986, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Back in July I blogged about my childhood fascination with space, with a little Osbourne book of Space that was packed full of facts and figures about the early Sputnik and Apollo space flights, trips down to Armagh Planetarium, watching the first Space Shuttle Columbia take off (second attempt) ... and the memories of the day when Challenger blew up a minute into its flight.

The iconic image of the Challenger disaster - 28 January 1986

The awfulness for the astronauts’ families who would have watched the death of their loved ones on live TV. Perhaps the best known member of the crew was Christa McAuliffe, a mother of two, and was to be the first teacher in space. Before the launch she spoke about her hopes for the mission:

“I cannot join the space program and restart my life as an astronaut, but this opportunity to connect my abilities as an educator with my interests in history and space is a unique opportunity to fulfil my early fantasies.

One of the things I hope to bring back into the classroom is to make that connection with the students that they too are part of history, the space programme belongs to them and to try to bring them up with the space age.”

Another teacher, Barbara Morgan trained alongside McAuliffe as her mission backup. Having returned to teaching a few months after the Challenger disaster. But she kept up her links with NASA, and was selected for astronaut training in 1988 and finally flew into space on mission STS-118 in August 2007.

Following the mission failure, President Reagan had to postpone that night’s State of the Union address. He commented:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

Cutting spare keys with a chisel?

It should have been straightforward. Nip down to the Mercedes showroom (which doubles up as Smart) on the Boucher Road, give them my car key and the vehicle code, drink a cup of their finest tea, and be handed back two keys.

Smart Roadster key

The original owner of my car had handed it back with only one key – not terribly useful for everyday use or emergencies. But Agnews had ordered in a spare key, and just needed to programme it.

So this morning after being sent from desk to desk, I settled down at a glass table in the waiting area to boot my laptop, enjoy a cup of their finest tea and type up some notes while I waited ... and waited ... as if they were programming the key with a chisel!

By the magic of technology it takes a mere 35 minutes to generate the code for a new key. I imagine the long time is somehow linked to a security trick to prevent too many programming attempts in a day.

But in the end they realised that they’d only ordered a key fob, and not the actual key barrel (the shiny bit that sticks into the ignition). So after two hours, no key. And surprisingly for a showroom that prides itself on being modern – no free wifi for customers to use while they wait.

But in order to order the right key, they need the tax book faxed to them as evidence of owning the car ... despite the fact that it was faxed through so they could order the ill-fated key-fob. But no record seems to have been kept.

So they need it faxed again before they can order the proper key, before it will arrive, before I can go back down and before they spend 35 minutes generating another code before they programme the spare key. In the meantime, I’ll have to enjoy more of their finest tea.

The good news was that they did manage to release the grimy CD holders from the middle of the dashboard console, freeing up valuable real estate for storing things in an otherwise tight-for-space car whose passenger foot well was rapidly filling up with clutter!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Doing the SMART thing?

SMART logo

Company car schemes are good and bad. At their best, they’re convenient and admin-light with car tax, MOT, servicing all someone else’s problem. The flip side is that they’re basically a big hole into which you drop money and have nothing to show for at the end of four years. Oh, and they give you the loan of a car to sweeten the four year payment plan! And standard commercial leases – often for much shorter period – are no better.

The little yellow Mini that has been a joy to drive – and pretty easy to find in airport car parks – celebrated its fourth birthday in early January and on Wednesday I left it back to the workshop so it can be auctioned off.

Now I’m no petrol head, and have no real interest in cars other than I like them to be reliable, hassle free, reasonably comfortable and get me from A to B with as little fuss drama as possible.

So maybe that’s why last Autumn I didn’t quite generate enough enthusiasm to get around to placing an order for a new car to be delivered in January, allowing for the 12-16 week lead time. That, and a moment of wondering whether being a one car family would be possible.

But in the end, I wimped out of the eco-friendly sacrificial ideal and looked at the reallocation list ... cars not yet four years old but left back by people leaving the company that are available for shorter periods until their auction date.

Two choices: a Honda estate or a SMART Roadster. Umm ... a practical family car that’s nearly as long as a bendi-bus – though is still expensive even with the reallocation discount – or a two-seater that’s even more impractical than the Mini Cooper which used to be advertised as the car that can accommodate a strategically folded cow in its boot!

Smart Roadster ... not mine, but pretty like it

Slight snag that the Roadster is a soft top and had been sitting outside unloved and exposed to the November/December elements for about six weeks, resulting in mouldy seats and a general dampness. Dried out and cleaned, it didn’t look too bad when I swapped keys on Wednesday afternoon, though I have had to cook the owner’s manual on the bedroom radiator to dry out the soggy pages.

My first reaction on getting down (very much down) into the Roadster was that someone must have stolen the clutch pedal! It’s advertised as a semi-manual/semi-automatic – which translates to it being an automatic with a handbrake. Not being schooled in driving an automatic, I’ve now retained by left foot to sit still and enjoy the ride, instead of jabbing on the brake pedal. And I’ve learnt to be patient at roundabouts – as you inevitably brake coming up to the give way, the car will start to change down gear, just at the moment you put your foot down to power away ... except the car’s still in-between gears!

Ten minutes into my ownership, there was an awful moment going up the M2 sliproad at Mallusk where the car refused to go any faster than 20mph despite my foot being right down to the floor. Arghh ... I’d knocked on the speed limiter (how was I to know there was one) when I’d turned on the wipers.

And having driven up from Belfast on Friday morning, I arrived at Magee College in Derry to discover my bum was wet. If you sit long enough, the damp still inside the drivers seat rises up and meets your trousers ... might need to keep the seat heaters on for a week or two.

But after the 150 mile round trip to the north west, we’re now on friendly terms. The car stereo is fine in a car park or at low speeds, but the small speakers are drowned out byt he roar of the engine which is just behind the front seats. It has all the attractiveness and styling of a De Lorian – and probably much of the same build quality. (Leaking soft top is a feature, part of its charm rather than a problem that gets fixed.

Our child seat miraculously fits the passenger seat – and meets the safety constraints of being snug, secure and far enough away from the airbags – and I’m growing used to its “smart” automatic headlights and “smart” wipers that come on when the car decides they’re needed. And most of all, I’ve learnt to keep the seat heater on! Though I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to putting my laptop bag in under the bonnet ... where most cars have their engine!

Better start thinking about what I do in August when this car goes back ...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Meet BILLY the bookcase(s)

Assembled bookcases - BILLY by Ikea

After a fleeting trip over to Windsor last weekend, it was back home to hard labour.

Time to build seven Ikea BILLY bookcases (and the one-shelf extensions that are screwed on top). The easy part! Followed by lugging boxes and boxes of books into the tiny back corridor that’s now been turned into a literary jungle and putting them onto the shelves.

I’d certainly recommend the BILLY range of bookcases. Very fast to put together, even in the enclosed space I had to work in: 80cm wide bookshelves in a 110cm corridor. Nothing needed other than a Philips screwdriver, a hammer and a pencil.

The finish is reasonably good and you get enough bits in the bag to screw it all together – unlike some previous experiences with MFI and a wardrobe missing a vital bolt that meant it had to stay half built on the landing floor for a week while they dispatched a lorry with a screw in it.

Only problem is that I can now see the full extent of the “book problem” we face, with lots of old friends waiting to be re-read, and far too many undiscovered treasures queuing up to be enjoyed and pondered. Might need to take a few years off work to make a dent on my reading list. But it did bring out the librarian in me.

I spent a really enjoyable week one summer doing work experience in Lisburn Library (before they moved out of Railway Street to plush new premises) ordering the fiction hardbacks alphabetically every morning – it’s amazing how quickly they get messed up by browsers and borrowers.

Must be great to work in a cathedral of books. Now to take advantage of what’s gathering dust on our shelves.

A piece of quality parking at Belfast City Airport

Why limit yourself to one space when you could use up two ... and enjoy straddling the middle line!

If only they'd paid double too.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Your ideas wanted on where's happening in Belfast ...

Belfast Wheel

Since social networking and blogging is all about sharing, collaboration and wisdom of crowds, let’s put it to the test. (Nothing like setting yourself up for failure!)

An email arrived recently in my inbox from a French journalist who planning to come across to film in Belfast ...

French journalist living in Paris, I plan to come to Belfast to shoot a 5 minutes TV report about the city.

In my preparation I am looking for the "places to be" in Belfast, which does not mean the touristy places but the places where young people go out, fashion places, or specific tendancy in the city, anything that would be new and typically "belfastian".

Thanks by advance for your help,


So what would fellow Belfastians recommend? Where’s trendy and happening?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Windsor - St George's Chapel - Evensong

It’d been just over twenty years since I was last in Windsor. My happy memories include walking down the river bank into town, over the bridge to Eton, up the hill towards the town centre and the castle. The (railway?) museum, the infrequent trains into London. Going into Slough (come friendly bombs and drop on ... The Office!) to catch a faster train to the capital. The carved totem pole in Windsor Great Park. The elaborate dolls house display inside Windsor Castle. And choral evensong in the adjoining St George’s Chapel.

And it was to St George’s Chapel we decanted on Saturday evening for a slice of high church. Last time I’d been there it was summertime, so the chapel was bright, with the sun coming in through the stained glass windows.

Waiting to go into evensong at St George's chapel at Windsor Chapel

But on Saturday, it was dark by teatime, and the main illumination came from the little lights on the choir stalls. Ushered in to take our places, the choir processed it, and evensong began. It’s only when you get to your seat and look back into the central aisle you realise that you walked over the grave of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII, not to mention Charles I.

It’s participation light. All stand. Listen. All remain standing. A long impenetrable Psalm is sung – or was it a long Psalm sung impenetrably? All sit. Etc. All kneel.

Prayer for The Queen. Fair enough. It is the monarch’s chapel ... set aside from the Church of England in its own world.

Prayer for the Order of the Garter. It is their chapel. One of the seats was out of bounds, with a wreath above it: Sir Edmund Hillary who died less than a fortnight ago was a member of the order.

A prayer for soldiers serving in Iraq.

And then the jaw-dropping moment as they added a prayer for the BBC Trust, the media, those with influence in society. Wonder how often your local church prays for the media? Come to think of it, how often do they remember those serving in the line of fire?

ORder of service from Evensong at St George's Chapel

Then ... All stand. And finally, we get to say the benediction and sing. Yes, actual congregational singing! Though O Jesus, I have promised did contrast wildly with Magnificat and Ninc dimittis! Finally, some participation. Some chance to get past listening to singing and chanting (the Amens were the best) to take part.

Update: Turns out that Choral Evensong is being broadcast on Radio 3, on Wednesdays (live) at 4pm, and repeated on Sunday afternoons (also at 4pm). Due to come from St George's Chapel on Palm Sunday - 16 March.

PSBs, plurality, Andrew Marr ... in Windsor

It was a busy weekend and hasn’t slowed up since.

There was the small matter of seven bookcases to assemble and fill while the rest of the family scooted across to Gloucester for a long weekend. Except I was off to Windsor from Friday lunchtime to Sunday too. Ummm. Relaxing weekend ahead.

Windsor’s a lovely venue for a conference. Close enough to Heathrow, steeped in history, but surrounded by countryside. The Thames was pretty full.

River Thames - high water - Windsor

The Audience Councils that represent licence fee payers in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England were getting together for their annual weekend conference to discuss the ongoing impartiality review of network (ie, national) news and factual output, the future of Public Service Broadcasting (plurality, changing audiences, and the impact of digital technology) as well as thinking about the BBC’s role in citizenship and the effectiveness of the Audience Councils within the BBC Trust’s framework.

The lighter moments included Andrew Marr calling in towards the end of dinner to share a little of his thinking about the current media climate. He contrasted his days of being a newspaper hack and editor (of The Independent which thankfully relaunched its website this week) with the rigour and impartiality tests applied to network news coverage. With good humour and a lot of honesty throughout, he also took our questions ... no matter how bizarre.

Interesting to hear his intentional approach to allowing politicians to talk a bit about their successes (and those of their government departments) before nailing them on specific issues. If democracy is to be valued and appreciated, then it can’t all be about negativity, knocking people down, and criticising failure. That and his candid assessment on how well party leaders interview!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hula Hoops (Richard Knerr) and Bowls (Ceriann Davies)

Two stories caught my eye in today's in-flight reading.

Richard Knerr died on Monday 14th in Arcadia, California, aged 82. It's unlikely you'll have previously heard of his name, but you will be familiar with some of the products his company introduced to the world.

According to today's Independent, Wham-O was a garage-based start-up in Pasadena.

"In 1957, Knerr and [university buddy Arthur 'Spud'] Melin bought the rights to a plastic flying disc that had been developed by a former air force pilot named Fred Morrison after he watched students at Yale university throw pie tins to one another. Thus was born the 'Pluto Platter', soon to be renamed the Frisbee."

They sold 100 million over the next 30 years. And after "an Australian business acquaintance brought a rattan hoop to Los Angeles and showed them how to whirl the device around their hips" they introduced the Hula Hoop to the mass market.

The Wham-O DIY fall-out shelter (retailing for $119) was a lot less successful!

Richard Knerr who successfully produced and marketed the Hula Hoop

I usually avoid the sports section of newspapers - but one story escaped ...

Bowler Ceriann Davies

Twenty nine year old Ceriann Davies was today due to step onto the bowling rink again at the World Indoor Championships. She made history last Saturday when she "became the first woman to win a match at an event that has been almost solely male territory since its inception 29 years ago" (The championships are as old as Davies!)

Having reached the last 16, she's due to play the current world champion Alex Marshall - who's never played a woman before! Her advice to him was to "just get your head down and play a normal game".

Amidst the fuss over her success, Davies reflects "I suppose it is one for the girls ... but I'd rather be talked about for the quality of the bowls". She added, "the qualifiers are open to every man, woman and beast to play ... I'm the beast."

(I'll update the post with the results of the match and a link to the articles when I'm properly online later in the weekend.)

Update: She lost on a tie-break. You can read a blow-by-blow account over in Saturday's Independent. Some quotes from the press conference afterwards.

"That was the most enjoyable game I've ever played, and I lost," said Davies. "I don't think I could have played any better. I didn't do anything wrong. But I've learned so much. I hope that for future years I've done enough so that people will think, rather than being that token chick in the tournament, I was a player to be reckoned with."

"Jesus, what a match," said Marshall, wiping his perspiring brow. "She was absolutely brilliant. She wasn't just getting one shot in, she was getting three up. I was expecting a hard game against her, but she was absolutely awesome. I didn't have a clue what length to play. Every time I changed it I was losing it. It's probably the toughest game I've ever played."

"I like him even more now," Davies said. "I wish he was an arsehole, but he's not. It's just a pity I couldn't live up to the hype. Sorry."

She did manage to win the world mixed title on Sunday with her bowls partner David Gourlay, and is progressing though the rounds of the Ladies World Bowls Championship too.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Miracles happen – G-YMMM landed

Being a frequent air traveller, I’m conscious that I’ll suffer more delays and circle London for longer than a lot of other folk. At the back of my mind, simple statistics reminds me that high frequency means I’m more likely to experience technical problems on the ground and potentially in the air.

Technical difficulties on the ground are at least an annual occurrence. The scene of an engineer carrying a large screwdriver into the cockpit makes my heart sink every time. One Flybe flight from Belfast City to Birmingham a few years ago that always sticks in my mind. We taxied out to the runway, thrust the engines, and then instead of tearing down the runway and taking off ... we tootled back into the terminal with the captain explaining over the tannoy that the plane wouldn’t “be going anywhere today”.

Last year saw 83 take-offs, and more importantly, an equal number of 83 landings. The bit in the middle (between take off and landing) is the safest part of the journey.

But there’s a matter-of-factness about how I choose to approach the business of flying. If I’m not in an aisle seat, I always wonder whether the person blocking my exit is likely to make a swift exit and clear a path to the nearest door. Or ponder whether we’ll all trample each other in a bid to escape a burning plane.

robcheerio's Flickr photo of the crash-landed G-YMMM at Heathrow this afternoon

So there was a sense of relief – and practically delight - this afternoon that I read the news report (and suffered some of the continuous loop of reporting on News 24) that explained the plane had landed and stopped without going on fire, and that everyone had evacuated the plane with only minor injuries. A miracle.

And in the days ahead - as there will inevitably be delay on tomorrow’s flight across to Heathrow – I’ll try to remember that the disruption is only temporary, and that the 250 tonne G-YMMM Boeing 777 plane that’s blocking one end of Heathrow’s southern runway (and may prove difficult to move) is a monument to a miracle.

(c) Seth Jaworski's incredible image of the plane at the centre of today’s emergency coming into land at Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport on Christmas Eve

Click over to Seth Jaworski snap at if you want to see an incredible photo of the plane at the centre of today’s emergency coming into land at Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport on Christmas Eve.

(Thanks to robcheerio/Flickr for the main photo up above.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Glenn Patterson, Malachi O'Doherty with June Caldwell in the middle - lunchtime @ The Black Box

It was back over to The Black Box for another Out to Lunch event at lunchtime. This time, locals authors and broadcasters Glenn Patterson and Malachi O'Doherty in conversation with June Caldwell about their writing and musings on the local context (ie, "The Troubles").

Glenn Patterson, June Caldwell, Malachi O'Doherty in conversation at Out to Lunch

While the food was excellent, the overall event was slightly disappointing (though enjoyable). Both authors read from their recent works - the third party and The Telling Year: Belfast 1972 - and then answered a few questions from June, and even fewer from the floor.

I think my disappointment centred around the lack of conversation. There was plenty of on-stage dialogue, but it felt very bitty and loosely connected. I wasn't entirely convinced that Glenn and Malachi were big fans of each other's work. They didn't spark off each other as much as a two or three person panel might have hoped.

Rescue unexpectedly came by way of a German reporter who had been sitting at the front recording the introductory parts for a German radio documentary on NI. When she took off her headphones and set down her mic, she asked a question that actually started a bit of a discussion. And having listened to Malachi, June and Glenn, she came back at them. At last ... let the conversation begin!

There was some interesting ideas bounced around about the place of art in healing society. In the midst of talk about Truth Commissions (the play Truth in Translation passed through the Lyric during the Belfast Festival) and enquiries, how long a gap will we need before properly starting to publicly reflect on our past - Germany's beginning to erect monuments to mark wartime events.

Would Malachi's suggestion of cementing three thousand pairs of shoes into the pavement around the City Hall sufficiently mark the conflict? And would we ever try to follow the Spanish model - they've recently passed a law to force every province in the country to remove remaining monuments to Franco, erasing him from the landscape.

And then there's whether we should have more drama about the past thirty plus years on television? Give My Head Peace's departure from our screens is a sign of trying to move the drama forward to look at other issues. But there's relatively little quality drama being written about the 70s or 80s. And little being written about post-conflict sectarianism - it hasn't gone away you know.

But it does make me want to read Malachi's book.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Not all smells of roses In the Night Garden

In the Night Garden

Travelling across to London for the first time in ages, I reverted to my old behaviour of forgetting to sleep on the flight and devouring the free newspapers from the lounge instead.

But it wasn’t until I reached a copy of Metro on the Central Line tube that I stumbled across the story about a Tombliboo. Here’s a selection of pun-ridden headlines from today's papers (some online) covering the story:

  • (Metro) TV teddy outfit ‘put me at risk’
  • (Scottish Daily Record) Kids’ Show Suit Left Me Tombli-Bruised
  • (Birmingham Post) Sacked Tombliboo tells of torment in the Night Garden
  • ( - satirical spoof) An Industrial Tribunal In the Night Garden
  • ( Faulty suit ‘put Iggle Piggle actor in danger' now changed to Iggle Piggle co-star ‘fired over suit complaint’ - which is a little more accurate since the actor didn’t play Iggle Piggle
  • (This is London) The Nightmare Garden
  • and finally ...
  • (Black Enterprise) Going, Going, Gone - My Desperate Bid to Find Iggle
  • (The Sun) Gay hell of telly Tombliboo
Ooo, Unn and Eee - Tombliboos from In the Night Garden, BBC CBeebies

It’s a story - that will interest and possibly disturb AiB reader and ItNG-aficionado Miffy - about a Birmingham employment tribunal following the dismissal of Isaac Blake from his job in July 2006 as the actor inside one of the Tombliboo suits (he played Ooo, the brown and pink one) working for Ragdoll production company who make toddler favourite In the Night Garden.

Isaac Blake - Ooo the Tumbliboo from In The Night garden

The Birmingham Post reports that yesterday the actor explained to the tribunal that “he was dismissed from his job after complaining about a faulty Animatronic suit which left him injured”.

The suits contain a camera that provides the actor trapped inside some visibility of the flowers they’re about to trip over in the Night Garden. Blake told the tribunal that he fell off a chair and hurt himself after being told to jump around when the camera cut out inside his faulty suit. Claims were also made that he suffered pelvic injuries after wearing the Tombliboo suit for a protracted period.

Other aspects of yesterday’s tribunal evidence reported in the Sun and Metro include allegations that he “was called a ‘bitch’ and ‘faggot’” by a colleague and then told to “shut up and get on with it” when he made a formal complaint.

Update - Tuesday 8pm - The hearing continued with the Guardian reporting evidence given on the second day by Ragdoll staff alleging that he made remarks about "the totty on set".

The hearing continues ... but it's revealing a whole new side to the normally tranquil Night Garden (except those moments when the Pinky Ponk gets stuck in a tree).

Update - Thursday - Blake lost his case for unfair dismissal today - four of the five claims were lost, but one was upheld. According to the Guardian, Blake was awarded £2000 "after the tribunal ruled that he had suffered harassment when he was twice called a 'faggot' by colleagues". So there won't be an excess of Pinky Ponk juice being drunk tonight.

Toby Hadoke - Moths Ate My Dr Who Scarf

Lunchtime is that moment of oasis sandwiched between a morning of work and the afternoon. A time that so easily gets squeezed out with last minute calls and “urgent” meetings.

On a good day the weather will support the six minute walk into the city centre to grab a bite to eat. And while pleasant to escape the grindstone and grab some time with friendly colleagues, it’s not often that it could be described as outright fun.

(Though there was the time about nine years when we went up to the Dublin Road cinema and caught the lunchtime screening of The Little Mermaid, but I don’t often talk about that!)

So last Friday we wandered down towards Stan’s Cathedral and stopped off at The Black Box to catch Toby Hadoke and Moths Ate My Dr Who Scarf as part of the 2008 Out To Lunch festival.

Lunch plus comedy, all for a fiver.

For sixty minutes, Toby relived his life, growing up as a fan of Doctor Who. The ease with which he was ridiculed at school(s), the trouble attracting a girlfriend.

And more importantly, emphasising the real world value that an unhealthy interest in Doctor Who can have - enriching minds though development of an interest in ecology, other cultures, travel, a sense of humour and a bit of science.

Once you look beyond the costumes and the sets (that only wobbled briefly in two out of 700+ episodes), there’s much to admire. Same can’t be said for Coronation Street (which Toby appeared in as the vicar marrying Curly and Wotsername), nor for sci-fi pretenders like Star Trek or Star Wars.

2008 Out to Lunch festival logo

PS: The Out To Lunch festival continues this week.

PPS: You can catch Phil O’Kane’s photography exhibition in the The Black Box cafe, and say hello to him if he’s in snapping the lunchtime acts.

PPPS: Tomorrow lunchtime's discussion between Glenn Patterson (author of the third party and Lapsed Protestant) and Malachi O'Doherty looks interesting, as does the free Third Man / Third Party Mashup reading/screening in the evening.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Currys – put another coin in the meter?

Belfast city-centre Currys closed for trading on Monday 14 January

Donegall Arcade was without power today, causing the shutters of Currys (used to be Dixons) to remain down, and its alarm ringing.

Notice stuck to the closed shutters of Currys

The Forestside store must have been well-staffed by the time the city centre workers trekked out from BT1 to BT8 to check in for work.

HMV were affected too.

Reminiscent of Carphone Warehouse’s IT problems that prevented trading in late October.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

two rooms ... second chance (and there’ll be more)

Outdoor signage for two rooms restaurant in Belfast - from

So despite what I said back before Christmas, we did go back to two rooms.

Having googled for online reaction to his not-that-long-open restaurant (doors opened in September) Peter McGeough had emailed to say he was sorry to hear about the poor experience and wanted to put things right with a meal on the house. So with the offer of such a bribe, and a mix of guilt and grace in my heart, we went back.

This time not a big party on one of the busiest nights of the year, but just the two of us on a bitterly cold Friday night in January.

Starters arrived fairly quickly – salmon and bruschetta – beautifully presented* and good flavour to match.

The duck and sautéed potatoes were really tasty, and over on the other side of the table, the sea bass and fennel disappeared off the plate too. The portions were well sized – unlike other Belfast restaurants where the amount of food is inversely proportionate to the size of the bill. Clean plates all round.

Desserts of sticky toffee pudding with whiskey ice cream and cookies and ice cream ended a great meal. If we hadn’t enjoyed the meal so much, maybe I’d have paused to take a few snaps :)

* Now obviously we did get a wee shade more attention than other tables ... they were trying really hard not to trip up!

Rhian Grundy and her pianist took over from the background music and sang live, warming the restaurant’s atmosphere and earning a round of applause after most numbers. Rhian’s rich vocals can be heard in two rooms on Thursday and Friday nights.

Overall, it was a great experience second time around – with a lot better food and service than our Christmas do. So good that I reckon we’ll be back. Humble pie mightn’t have been on the menu, but I certainly ate it.

So three cheers for Peter McGeough trusting his brand and having the sense to get in touch, and three cheers for two rooms. If you’ve experiences – good or bad – tell the restaurant before you leave ... and feel free to leave a comment below too!

Monday, a time for beginnings (old and new)

Two things starting up on Monday. One new, and one being brought back.

Mark Austin, Julie Etchingham and Trevor McDonald, hosts of ITV's News at Ten

The resurrection is of The News at Ten, with comeback kid Trevor McDonald hosting the ITN News at When every most weekday nights. Monday to Thursday it’ll be at ten, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday a moveable feast. Julie Etchingham and Mark Austin complete the regular presenting team.

News at Ten with it's London-themed set

They’re reviving the Big Ben imagery for the titles and backdrop … perhaps a reminder if one was needed of the London-centric nature of national news!

Update Tue 15 - Overnight viewing figures for the slot between 10pm and 10.25pm last night (which excludes the regional news) shows the news on BBC One with an audience of 4.9m versus ITV1's News at Ten with 4.1m.

In another surprise move, the put-the-kettle-on-for-supper ad-break has been removed from the middle of the News at Ten (one of the most lucrative ad spots) allowing the news to run uninterupted, only pausing for a break before the regional news.

Aer Lingus logo

And finally ... While Aer Lingus started flying out of Belfast International Airport back in December, they finally start up the three-times-a-day route to London Heathrow on Monday 14 January.

  • Belfast International departures at 07:40 (landing 09:15), 12:50 (14:15), 17:25 (18:50).
  • London Heathrow departures at 10:10 (landing at 11:30), 15:10 (16:30), 19:45 (21:10)

Not the best take-off slots in the world! But it might help bmi to pull their socks up – I’ve already noticed that bmi have dropped nearly £30 off their premium economy return “route deal” ticket offered to high volume enterprises through their travel management companies.

The Sunday Business Post this morning ran a story noting that only just over a third of seats are currently sold for the first month of Aer Lingus flights to Heathrow ... something that is likely to improve closer to departure dates given how late most of us leave it to book flights!

Irish Blog Awards ... nominations close on Fri 18, date/venue and a call for judges

Irish Blog Awards logo

Three more quick points about the 2008 Irish Blog Awards.

Nominations close at 9pm on Friday 18 January ... so if you want to nominate this blog or (more importantly) any other, get your suggestions logged in time.

Damien has announced the date and location for this year’s awards. Back to the Alexander Hotel in Dublin on Saturday 1 March, starting at 7.30pm.

Finally, since there’s no public “popularity contest” vote this year, there will be a lot of extra judging required in the two rounds. So Damien’s looking for volunteers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Fairy Tales - Echo Beach / Moving Wallpaper - Shameless - Grand Designs - Torchwood - Primeval

Quick TV round-up for those who care!

(c) 2007 BBC - still from Rapunzel - Fairy Stories

Last night saw the airing of the first of four Fairy Tales on BBC One, with Rapunzel finally letting her hair down at the tennis. The anthology of tales with a contemporary retelling were all shot in Northern Ireland by Hat Trick. The Daily Telegraph were uncharacteristically upbeat in their review:

“Cross dressing, cod lesbianism and idiocy on the international tennis circuit probably wouldn’t be most people’s idea of the perfect background for a modern reappraisal of a classic fairy tale. But unlikely as it may seem, BBC1’s reworking of Rapunzel as a slapstick comedy, in which a failing East European tennis pro is persuaded to bluff his way into a UK ladies’ tournament in a desperate bid to win some cash, was an unexpected hoot.”

Also started last night was ITV’s new soap Echo Beach (Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon based in sun-kissed Cornwall) immediately preceded by the behind-the-scenes show Moving Wallpaper which takes a fictional look at the production process and stars Ben Miller as the series’ producer. Didn’t catch it live last night, but it’s got mixed reviews in this morning’s press.

The twelve episodes of Echo Beach and its associated mockumentary are made by Kudos, who rarely (if ever?) pick up commissions from ITV and are better known for their BBC and Channel 4 fare: Life on Mars, Hustle, Spooks, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, Pleasureland.

Update - having caught up with the first week's run, I'd comment that Moving Wallpaper was reasonable viewing - and it made Echo Beach bearable (standalone it would have been pretty naff). Worth taping and giving it a chance for at least the next couple of episodes in it's 12 week run. Suspect it'll be a terrific success - but won't be recommissioned. Update - Second episode of MW was worth it purely for the Casualty joke - tripping on the mint imperials and landing headfirst on a fork stuck in blutack!

The latest series of Shameless snuck on Channel 4 on New Year’s Day and continues on Tuesday nights at 10pm. If like me you missed the first few episodes of the sixteen-part series, they’re available for free on C4’s catch-up service 4oD.

Kevin McCloud - presenter of Channel 4's Grand Designs

Kevin McCloud is dusting off his hard hat and optimism in the face of doom to present another series of Grand Designs starting at 9pm next Wednesday (16th) with a house that is being built 60% underground to meet planning restrictions. The half hour Grand Designs Trade Secrets sister series over on more4 immediately afterwards is often worth a watch to find even wackier examples of crazy architecture.

Update - Given that the couple's architect wasn't retained during the build, his/her design must have been very detailed and well thought out for the build to have completed so successfully. Felt nearly too straight-forward and drama light for the first in the new series? Property shows = watching other people make mistakes at their cost. Interesting that C4 didn't seem to trail the more4 Trade Secrets show as part of the closing credits - preferring to promote Jamie Oliver.

And making the assumption that the audience for property shows doesn’t significantly overlap with those who will tune in for sci-fi, BBC Two have scheduled the new series of Torchwood in the same Wednesday 9pm slot (repeated on BBC Three at 11pm). Available in high def on the BBC HD satellite channel. The promised family friendly repeat looks to be at 7pm the following Wednesday evening, immediately followed by the Torchwood Declassified behind-the-scenes spinoff.

(c) BBC 2007 - Torchwood Series 2 cast

Update - Thank goodness for iPlayer having Torchwood available to stream (and download) immediately after the show finished on BBC Two. Great opening, with the real life comment that Cardiff residents make about the show's filming - "Bloody Torchwood!" worked into the script. A show that didn't take itself too seriously, but had pace, tension and enough confusion to get the viewer through to the end (where they neatly summarised the background to Torchwood for anyone unfamiliar). And good to see that Gwen's life hasn't become any less complicated!

And if Russell T Davies doesn’t provide enough beasts and monsters, the second series of Primeval starting on ITV at 7pm on Saturday night (12th) will surely quench your thirst for dinosaurs and other animals that had to be CGIed as they were too dangerous to be taken out of their cages.

If you care that you can’t remember what happened at the end of the first series of Primeval, ITV are helpfully showing the last episode at 1.45pm on Saturday - just in time to put young kids off their lunch - sandwiched in-between a Coronation Street Omnibus and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Guess which scheduler wants to win this Saturday’s ratings war!

Update: Primeval failed to achieve the balance between levity and taking itself seriously. The fact that massive creatures could come through a time anomaly and eat up human civilisation isn't really that terrifying ... or funny. So unlike Doctor Who with its doom-laden yet jokey plots, it didnt really engage me. Besides, weren't dinosaurs boring by the second Jurassic Park film?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Nowhere to stay? Try your local Ikea!

Picture the scene.

You have to move out of your apartment ... fumigation ... best not ask. You live in New York City, and all your friends live in similar studio apartments. No spare beds ... and the hotels are too expensive. What’ll you do.

I know, pop down to your local Ikea with two suitcases and move into one of their spacious show bedrooms for the week!

Mark Malkoff arriving at his New York Ikea for a short stay

Now it helps that he’s a comedian and filmmaker called Mark Malkoff ... and even better when Julie Mott, the deputy store manager of your local Ikea, phones up and offers you bed and the chance to play laser tag with the security guards when the store is closed at night.

Malkoff is perhaps best known for visiting all the Starbucks stores in Manhattan in a single day as part of his 2007 film 171 Starbucks.

A camera crew are following him: some of the footage is being uploaded to his website.

The couch is comfortable - pity about the price tag

An article on CNN’s website explains that Malkoff has found some snags living in a show house (which will put any AiB readers off volunteering to inhabit the mock home in the Belfast Ideal Home Exhibition later in the year):

The sinks don't work, and neither does the toilet, refrigerator, flat-screen television or the washer and dryer.

“Is anything real in this place?” he asked.

And according to ITN, Mark should feel right at home amongst Ikea furniture:

“... he’s familiar with the Billy bookcases and Malm chest of drawers as his flat back home is made up of 80 per cent Ikea products ...”

But the common sense in the family definitely lies with “his wife of 2½ years, Christine, [who] isn’t as thrilled with his new digs and has instead opted to stay with relatives in upstate New York.”

He arrived on Monday 7th, and will be staying in the New York store until they close up on Saturday 12th.

Mark Malkoff settling down in bed ... in his local New York Ikea store

And if I ever need any work done to the house, it’ll be straight around to Paul Reid at Holywood Exchange to see if he has a spare room. (Not that he responded to any “comments to the manager” on the store’s opening blog.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Goldfish for hire at Travelodge ... sounds fishy!

clipping from page 52 of Business Travel World, June 2007 edition about Travelodge's goldfish hire trial

Late Spring 2007, Travelodge started a trial goldfish hire service in a two of its hotels in Leeds and Birmingham, citing research it sponsored that suggested

"63% of the nation is sleep deprived due to stress and 58% claimed watching goldfish could be the answer".

So jittery customers were allowed to request a fish therapy room at check-in for no extra cost, and then proceed to watch the goldfish for a de-stressing 15 minutes before shutting their eyelids for the night.

Clearing out some old trade magazines, I stumbled across this on the back page of teh June 2007 Business Travel World - not quite sure how I got on that mailing list, but it's full of wierd and wonderful ideas about travel.

Not sure how the trial went - maybe someone from Travelodge's PR team would like to leave a comment! But it's a novel idea from the budget hotel chain that doesn't provide shampoo or hair-dryers in its rooms, and could barely ever keep a lift working in its London Liverpool Street branch.

Travelodge goldfish hire therapy trial

Monday, January 07, 2008

Best books of 2007

Seven days into January, and I hope I’m allowed another look back at last year.

I didn’t get to read as many books as I wanted last year. No. Let me rephrase that. I started to read plenty of books, but I didn’t get to finish enough of them last year. The pile on my bedside table increased in height, as did the overspill on the floor – neatly blocking access to the bottom drawer. (Thank goodness I don’t need to get in to find a tie too often these days!)

But of the books I did get all the way through last year, a few stood out. (The links will take you to fuller reviews.)

Sara Miles Take This Bread definitely deserves top billing, with its “challenge [to] the religiosity of many Christian denominations, and the formula that congregations follow” along with her experience as a chef that intertwines “food and bodies” as she looks at the ideas of the sacrament of communion alongside running a food pantry (all on the same altar table). Well worth a read, even if it is uncomfortable in places and you don’t agree with all her theology - there’s no harm in being forced to defend or revise your beliefs!

Jim and Casper Go To Church

Jim & Casper Go To Church comes a close second, recounting the experiences of Jim Henderson and his volunteer atheist Matt Casper as they visited twelve US churches and then discussed how it felt to come to these congregations as an outsider. The dialogue is fascinating, and Casper’s exasperation with all the talking about having faith but little evidence of actually doing anything with it is a challenge to Northern Ireland churches too. We’re on our second copy of this little red book – the first one stayed on in Switzerland after our holiday! – and no doubt it’ll be leant to more people in coming months. (Even made into the MediaWatch column in the back of the Presbyterian Herald – and no letters of complaint yet!)

Hallam Foe by Peter Jinks

Non-fiction aside, a trio of novels finish my 2007 recommendations. (Not that all these books were published in 2007 ... it’s just the year I read them!)

Hallam Foe was perhaps even better than the film, just missing the clock tower. A young mixed up (and voyeuristic) lad who grows up a lot when he runs away to Edinburgh, abandoning his wicked (?) step mum, but still tumbles headlong into scrapes and scraps. Hallam has complicated personality and it makes for a very satisfying read.

Anthony Blair, Captain of School by an Old Boy by John Morrison takes Tony Anthony Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Murdoch, Archer, Hoon and a cast of other oddly familiar characters who live in and around a boarding school run by headmaster Dr Bush. As I summarised in the full post “It’s a fun satire, with a real story and well-developed characters, along with a sense of darkness and futility that clouds over Blair and his actions as the story progresses”.

Cover of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Lastly, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger counts as the best science fiction read last year, despite it being kept well out of the sci-fi section of all major bookstores. A story of a Clare who grows up knowing a man called Henry who has trouble staying in the same time and keeps disappearing ... backwards or forwards in time where she often meets him again. It was an unexpectedly fascinating (love) story with lots of waiting and a smattering of mortality, as well as a cracking good read.

Update - And I should have mentioned Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday which was a delightful read as the car twisted and turned on the mountain roads surrounding Valence this summer.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Delicatessen DVD cover

In post-holocaust France, hungry people turn to each other for food. The local butcher (played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus) is handing out human joints in exchange for corn and wheat. He also regularly advertises for a lodger/handyman to supplement his supply of fresh meat. Vegetarians form an underground resistance movement ... living underground in the sewers.

The plot of French film Delicatessen!


Delicatessen - up for the chop?

But the butcher’s daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) falls in love with the latest lodger – a clown (Dominique Pinon) whose gorilla was kidnapped and eaten. She can no longer go along with her father’s actions and seeks help from the resistance to rescue her beloved.

I love one of IMDB’s trivia factoids:

Jean-Pierre Jeunet got the idea for a cannibal butcher when living in an apartment above a butcher's shop. Each morning at 7am he would hear the metallic clash of knives and a voice shout, "Chop chop!" His girlfriend said he was carving up the neighbours, and it would be their turn next week.
Delicatessen - underground rebels

It’s surreal, funny, and very inventive. From Jean-Pierre Jeunet who went on to direct Amélie. A worthy precursor of The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves). From the opening dustbin scene to the flooding baptismal finale and the closing rooftop concert - a classic French film from 1991. But still fresh today.

Recommended - and down from £19.99 to £3.98 on Amazon UK at time of posting! (Just forgive the lack of sync when they play the cello and the saw.)