Review 2014:
One Thing:
Francis Irving.

Science  The slightly Doctor Who sounding Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) is a telescope high up in the mountains of Chile.

It has the clearest night skies in the world.

They look like this.

Last month it took the best photograph of the year.

The fact that is hasn't been on the front page of even one newspaper could only be explained by turning to fictional conspiracies.

Imagine the birth of a brand new solar system.

It looks like this:

You can see the baby yellow star in the centre (its light takes 450 years to get to us).

The star was made from a great cloud of dust called a nebula, whose remnants have been swirled around the star into a red flat disk.

The remarkable thing about the photo is that you can see planets.

The planets slowly formed where the dust happened to be extra thick. They sucked more dust to them using gravity, and then began to orbit around the star.

The planets have swept up matter in their orbits, forming the black rings you can see around the sun.

(It was taken using a new seemingly magical trick, where several telescopes spread out are exactly synchronised together, and then the light they receive processed as if it had hit one giant telescope the size of their distance apart)

If you waited a while, you'd see the planets gather up all the remaining dust, leaving a solar system much like ours. Just a star, planets and a few scattered asteroids.

This is how our friendly sun and our blue planet were made, a few billion years ago.

The one thing that hardly anyone knows is that we can see it. Happening now, to a Sun-like star called HL Tau, in the constellation Taurus.

Want more? There's a press release with more about the ALMA picture. And on my blog, six other surprising recent things about space.

You can follow Francis on Twitter @frabcus.

The Films I've Watched This Year #48

Film What already? Well, yes, with the #garaiwatch run on, here I am again just five days later.  Feels a bit strange still posting these during the other project which is going on, not least because whatever everyone else is writing is consistently more interesting, literate and well, alive, than whatever's in these containers.  I'm still debating whether I should produce one myself, though there's an inevitability to not just the fact that I probably should but also the topic which in and of itself feels like a cop-out.  Also watched this week so far: the final episode of The Newsroom in which Sorkin very much realised that no ending would be entirely satisfactory so fell back on a tried and tested formula, three episodes of The Box of Delights which for all its magic still leads me to say "Please ... thank you" at the screen ever five minutes due to the lack of manners on display and SHIELD which meanders onward revealing odd moments of brilliance intermixed with horrifyingly prosaic exposition which clearly exists because it's on US network television and assumes a vast proportion of its audience is stupid, even though its the same theoretical audience which watched House in their droves.  Still no announcement from Channel 4 on whether they have the rights to Agent Carter.  Marvel UK's twitter people don't know either.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Edge of Tomorrow

Liverpool Echo and Mirror columnist Gary Bainbridge is about where I am with Love Actually when it comes to Elf and his blog based evisceration led to his first television appearance.  Having finally seen the thing, for all its reputation, it's impossible not to agree with him.  It's not horrible, not in the same way as most of Will Ferrell's films are, a talent with whom I have a serious sense of humour bypass at the best of times (his best film is still Melinda and Melinda) (yes, it is) but most of the jokes were done better and more logically earlier in The Jerk in relation to his adoption and later by Enchanted when considering his naivety of spirit within the city (with a touch of Big and so 13 Going on 30 for good measure).  As with many of Farrell's films, few of the gags are unexpected, most of them go on far too long as do the scenes and although it's easy to dismiss the thing as probably being best viewed at eight years old, as Gary notices there's plenty of content which is age inappropriate.  On the upside, James Caan is clearly having a ball playing a version of his Mickey Blue Eyes character and an amazingly blonde Zooey's a pleasure as ever, even if there's barely anything for her to do and her character makes very little sense.  Sigh.

None of which was really helped by having watched The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies with its rather more majestic revisionist take on elves.  On one of the earlier blu-rays there's a documentary about how Tolkien and now Jackson have redefined what an elf is.  Not at Christmas in department stores, which is odd when you consider when all of these Lord of the Rings related films have been released.  Having had a glance back through this blog's archives, there's a lack of consistency to reviewing the films.  Fellowship of the Ring has no commentary.  The Two Towers has a weird rebuttle to critics and a prescient paragraph about ensemble films which prefigures my dissertation, Return of the King has a giddy paragraph, An Unexpected Journey is mentioned in my 2012 film choice, Smaug's first appearance is in issue 29 of this series and I covered the extended versions of both films a few weeks ago.  I saw The Two Towers at the Filmworks in Manchester when it was still owned by UCI, Return of the King at FACT Screen One, An Unexpected Journey in FACT Screen Two, Smaug on Netflix in my bedroom and Battle back at FACT Screen One in pretty much the same seat.  For the life of me I can't remember where I saw Fellowship.  Perhaps The Filmworks?  An Odeon?  Nope, no idea.

Either way, here we are almost at the other end of the franchise and if you're asking for a short answer on the third film in the series of six, it's a disappointment.  But, and it's important to say this, I was disappointed with both of the earlier films in their theatrical versions but then found the extended versions far superior.  In each case, and I appreciate some of you will find this statement ludicrous, the problem with the theatrical versions of these films is that they're too short.  Without the credits, Battle is only about two hours and ten minutes which makes it the leanest of the films and in places this leaness is at the expense of coherence.  There are moments when it's possible to lose track of exactly where characters are in relation to one another within the landscape.  At one point I had assumed Thranduil to be somewhere other than where he cropped up and there are other characters, built up heavily in the earlier films who just drop out and it's easy to assume that they're in the extended version waiting to shine.  Perhaps that's part of the problem - there are story elements which only properly exist in the extended versions and having recently watched those my brain was waiting for their resolution in a version of the story in which they were never included.

In other words the theatrical version of Battle feels like an advert for the extended version and we won't properly get to see the film until next November when its released more fully for the home.  Which isn't to say this version doesn't have its high points.  Not wanting to even attempt to improve on the battles of the previous films, Jackson instead profitably embraces the aesthetic of table top war games and so the digital equivalents with massive blocks of identical elves and dwarves and orcs doing battle with aerial shots which also resemble the historical simulations from some Dan Snow documentaries.  Thorin descent into madness is also well achieved, shooting him with the chambers of gold using many of the same shot choices of Smaug.  Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel is again one of the highlights, and the resolution of that storyline is perfectly judged if considered within the context of the whole series.  There are few moments which have the jaw dropping, gut wrenching, tear inducing majesty of the Olifants in Return of the King and such, but with ten years of other filmmaking between and Game of Thrones our expectations have increased somewhat in relation to what we expect to be possible using modern special effects techniques.

In the duff column there's Ryan Gage's Alfrid who Jackson is clearly very enamoured with and thinks is hilarious and so has given plenty more to do despite him being a sigh inducing one-note pantomime antagonist of the kind that used to weigh down Disney films in their fallow years.  This is doubly annoying because the moments when this made up character is doing rubbish things are at the expense of more action between the dwarfs many of whom are reduced to standing around and reacting in a way which would surely have been their position throughout the story if Jackson had just made one film from the book as some people who know nothing about how films are made have suggested.  Again it's entirely possible this will be resolved in the extended version.  My other gripe is just how horrible the film looks on the big screen.  Whether due to me watching it in a 2D version, or as a byproduct of having to convert the material from 48fps to 24fps effectively replacing every other frame with a copy of the one before it, large sections look not unlike an upscaled dvd on a massive flatscreen, or the equivalent.  I'm sure I saw anti-aliasing and edge enhancement in the places.  During a close-up in one key scene an actor's skin has all the detail of an impressionist painting.

Well, so, yes, it's fine.  Brilliant in places, but it'll probably only really make sense when watched as episode three in a six part series which as Jackson himself notes in the BD commentaries was his aim.  Even after the extended version of this release next year, I still don't think it'll be the last we see of the series and don't mean that we'll see The Silmarillion some time soon.  While I don't think he's a tinkerer on the Lucas scale of doing things, I'll be very surprised if we don't see another version of all six films at some point in the future with even more material filmed and previously discarded edited back in or even pick-ups created secretly during The Hobbit shoot to be added into the later films.  He says he won't, but given how much work has gone into dovetailing The Hobbit into Lord of the Rings, there must be part of him that wants to replace Ian Holm with Martin Freeman in the key Bilbo flashback.  It's for these reasons I still haven't upgraded my original dvds.  Having already bought about nine different versions of Star Wars across the years I've well learnt my lesson.

Christmas Links #20

39 Dishes from the First Christmas Menu, Published in 1660:
"If the thought of planning Christmas dinner makes you nervous, be glad you weren’t born in the Renaissance. The earliest known published Christmas menu includes pork, beef, goose, lark, pheasant, venison, oysters, swan, woodcock, and “a kid with a pudding in his belly,” to name just a few."

Crappy Winter Wonderland Forced To Close After Just One Day:
"When families go out looking for a place that evokes that old time Christmas feeling, chances are they’re looking for something far better than the so-called Magical Winterland in Harrogate, UK, the attraction that was so bad it was forced to close after just one day."

Taste Test Thursday: Cheese Logs Balls:
"The cheese log is as vintage as lava lamps and bouffants. The dish, which was once a party staple, is making a comeback with a little help from Pinterest and trendy DIY cookbooks. I stopped by multiple grocery stores in pursuit of log-shaped cheese, rolled in toasted nuts. Unfortunately, I only came across one log. The rest were spherical. Surely the shape doesn’t affect the taste, right?"

A Christmas Carol: A Radio Drama:
"WNYC and The Greene Space presents its beloved holiday tradition — a radio drama inspired by Charles Dickens' classic tale featuring your favorite public radio personalities" [podcast download link]

The price of Christmas past: £599 for a VHS recorder:
"Hilary Osborne takes a look through the 1982 Boots Christmas catalogue to compare the prices of blenders, buggies and BRUT."

Darlene Love’s Last ‘Letterman’ Christmas:
"Darlene Love on Thursday before a rehearsal. She will sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the “Late Show With David Letterman” for the last time."

Royal Mail backtracks on lost Christmas cards Orkney service plan:
"Royal Mail has backtracked on plans to withdraw from a popular festive lost Christmas cards service provided in Orkney for 25 years. The annual appeal on BBC Radio Orkney helped local postal workers deliver hundreds of cards with incomplete or no addresses. The cards were read out by a member of Royal Mail staff, with listeners suggesting the intended recipient."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Lis Ferla.

Life  I'd hesitate to write off 2014 as some kind of annus horribilus: like most years, it has had its share of ups and downs. Among the good: last week the first of my close friends had a baby, and he is perfect. I put my name down for a house which, all being well, we'll be moving into in the first few months of next year. I saw Beyoncé, Neutral Milk Hotel and Weakerthans frontman John K Samson live for the first time. I volunteered at the 20th Commonwealth Games, and voted for my country's independence (the less said about the morning after, the better). I discovered eyebrow threading. My husband got another book deal, and I made enough money writing about the music I love (something which I've never allowed myself to view as a career choice) to pay a substantial amount of tax for the first time. With the exception of a few colds, a particularly serious bout of anxiety/depression and a tendency to fall over in public while completely sober at the age of 32, I was relatively healthy.

As you get older, you think you learn to accept the inevitability of death, but (HA! you thought this was a #humblebrag) it turns out you never learn to accept tragedy. And most of the deaths that have affected those closest to me this year have been tragedies. My best friend's stepdad; my husband's uncle's partner. The younger brother of another of my closest friends, over thanksgiving weekend; and, this weekend just gone, one of my mother's best friends from college.

Cameron didn't die, although it's not breaking any confidences (he has admitted as much on his blog) to say that there have been times that he wished that he had. It's barely been three months since I got the call: his girlfriend, my incredible sister, telling me that there had been an accident. He had been driving to work on a Friday morning when he came off the road, between Montrose and Stonehaven in the north-East of Scotland, and went into a house. He had 37 broken bones and severe spinal cord damage, and would be paralysed from the chest down.

Last weekend, my sister put on a surprise birthday party she had organised for Cameron in the Scottish National Spinal Injuries Unit here in Glasgow, where he's been since the day after the accident. And it was pretty much perfect. Friends came from as far afield as Aberdeen and Stranraer - some of whom hadn't seen Cameron since it happened - and we ordered in pizza and wore Christmas jumpers. I went through his Facebook music likes and made a playlist, and then sneaked on Kelly Clarkson's Christmas single and "Birthday" by Katy Perry so my sister wouldn't get bored. I say "pretty much" perfect because nobody plans to spend his 32nd birthday in a back-brace getting used to an NHS-issue wheelchair, but as the new normal goes it was a really good day.

I would guess that, from reading the above, you're now expecting my "one thing" to be some heartfelt message of peace and joy, about being thankful for what you have and making the most of every day (Cam has, after all, raised about £5,000 now for Spinal Injuries Scotland following a joke about "going sober for October" in an alcohol-free hospital ward). But the truth is it's still too raw, and it doesn't make any of us terrible people if we can't perpetually conform to the "good cripple" narrative or allow ourselves some time to seethe with bitterness about how unfair it all is. Instead, I'd like to give you something practical I learned at a recent "family information day" hosted by the Spinal Injuries Unit:

The human body is, as Fiona Apple put it, an extraordinary machine, and it has ways of communicating to those with spinal cord injuries when something is wrong and needs attention: a blocked catheter, for example, or a burn or severe sore. Autonomic hyperreflexia is a potentially life-threatening reaction to this sort of crisis: symptoms can include high blood pressure at the point above the spinal cord injury, pounding headaches, profuse sweating and flushing. If it occurs, it is a medical emergency and must immediately be treated. And it's something I had never heard of until about four weeks ago.

Despite how terrifying the condition sounds, I find a strange comfort in the fact that the nervous system is still looking after you even when it's no longer functioning - of course, it helps that all being well it's something I'll never have to suffer from. Perhaps that is a way of being grateful for what you have.

You can follow Lis on Twitter @lastyearsgirl_.  This is her blog.

Christmas Links #19

Turkey ice cream anyone? Fochabers shop creates Christmas delight:
"The award-winning Fochabers Ice Cream Shop has produced a turkey and cranberry flavoured ice cream, and already it has passed the taste test with customers saying it is no turkey, but a Christmas hit."

A Christmas government website wish:
"I have a really simple Christmas wish: Please can the government stop "improving" its websites."

Why You Are Wrong To Like The Film ‘Elf’:
"It has the rigid journey of a sat nav and the emotional heft of a Steven Moffat Doctor Who episode."

Is Love Actually the Ultimate Holiday Rom-Com or a Depressing Hot Mess?
"Thompson's talents are wasted in this story, which, someone needs to explain to me why it's is in a supposedly feel-good movie about how love is all around. Karen ends up in tears and only barely keeps it together to keep the marriage going. Oh, and Harry? After a few guilt pangs, he still has a loving wife and family. Where is the justice? Where is his penance? I need this guy to pay!"

Coffee, Mesmerism, and Morning Routines:
"This episode is about glorious morning coffee. Or more specifically, about our time-tested morning routines. Everybody has their morning routine that they rely on and cling to dearly. The simple acts of brewing coffee, showering, and whatever else you do, makes that first act of climbing out of bed easier. The comfort and familiarity of those repeated actions give us a sense of ownership, and cause us to self identify with these simple set of actions. So what is it about these routines that make them so important to us? Watch the episode and find out!"

A Holy Land Christmas Porridge Honors A Damsel In Distress:
"The winter holidays are a time of abundance, but for Christians in the Middle East, the official start of the Christmas season is marked by a decidedly rustic dish: porridge."

The 13 Worst Christmas Trees In Britain:
"Everyone’s rocking around the (rubbish) Christmas tree. "

Lucasfilm's Star Wars Holiday Card Is Simply Adorable:
"Every year, we look forward to the Star Wars-themed holiday greeting from LucasFilm."

The Curious Copyright Case of "It's a Wonderful Life."
"It’s A Wonderful Life has become a holiday tradition bolstered by near constant plays on television as the film fell into the public domain in 1975. But in the 90s, a studio would regain control over the film and put copyright to the test."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Una McCormack.

Reading (out loud) like a writer

It was our Christmas Reading Party last night. (Reading as in books, not Reading as in gateway to Didcot.) Students taking our Master’s degree in creative writing meet up for a couple of hours at the end of semester to drink wine, chat, and read their work out to each other. We the tutors – with our last classes more or less over and the marking not yet quite on the horizon – get to kick back and listen. Last night was, as ever, a very enjoyable occasion with some great pieces by some very talented people. There was prose and poetry; humour and horror; fishing, reindeer, and cowboys. They are a smashing bunch and I have loved teaching them this semester.

The idea that I would have to read my work out loud never really occurred to me when I started this writing business. I did read my work out loud – but to myself, as I was writing. I’m muttering along as I write this post, to make sure that the rhythm and the flow is how I want it. I’m doing it quietly because I’m in a café and I don’t want people to think I’m odd. Also, I’m eavesdropping on the conversation happening opposite me.

But then I accidentally got published, and people who had done me the courtesy of putting my words into print asked me to go and do public events so that my books would sell and they would perhaps be in a position to pay me to write another one. It seemed rude to say ‘no’, so I said ‘yes’. I’ve done a few readings now, and I know it’s something that makes people very anxious. I quite enjoy it now (although I am something of a show-off), so here are my suggestions to make this less stressful for you, should a reading be on the cards.

Have a party piece. I almost always do the same scene from my Doctor Who novel, The Way through the Woods. It’s short, amusing, and I get to do Matt Smith’s voice, which usually gets a laugh. I’m comfortable and confident reading it, which means that people listening feel comfortable and confident that they’ll enjoy it.

Practice. Read through many times beforehand, out loud. Know the rhythm and the flow, where you need to take breath. Mark up the piece, if that helps. Red-pen the breathing points (there should be a comma or a full stop there already). Put the words that should be stressed in bold. Other people may make this look easy – but they’re not improvising. They’ve rehearsed.

Forget yourself. You’re not there as your usual introverted self, who prefers on the whole to be at home alone in jim-jams and bedsocks. You’re there as someone else – the communicator of this piece. Don’t put your gentle and sensitive self out there. Let her stay at home in her jim-jams.

Believe in what you’re reading. Easier said than done, I know. But if you’re telling the world that your work is forgettable and unimportant, they’ll take their cue from you. So do your work some justice. Cut it some slack. For the whole time that you are reading, you should love your work, and communicate that love.

I’m pleased to note that my students last night seemed to have done all of this. I said they were a smashing bunch.

You can follow Una on Twitter @unamccormack. Her Blake's 7 play, Ministry of Peace is just out from Big Finish and her Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel, The Missing, is out at the very end of December.

Christmas Links #18

The worst Christmas films to watch on Netflix:
"Full disclosure: this started out as 'The best Christmas films on Netflix', but then I realised Home Alone and Groundhog Day are pretty much the only good ones, neither of which are on it."

When Talking Is Replaced By Texting, All Love Is Lost:
"I can go for days without talking on the phone."

Best of Star Wars Music Christmas Lights Show 2014 - Featured on Great Christmas Light Fight!
"Here's my tribute to my favorite songs on Star Wars!"

How many times has The Great Escape actually been on TV at Christmas?
"It’s a common joke made that the BBC always shows the classic movie The Great Escape at Christmas..."

Review – Into the Woods, the film:
"But since this cinematic entertainment is based on the Stephen Sondheim stage musical that Phil has seen about half a dozen times in various forms, including the original Broadway and London productions he just wanted to show off. He saw a preview of Into the Woods a week ago and frustratingly has been sitting on a most uncomfortable embargo ever since."

A pupil at Mission Grove Primary School was surprised by MP Stella Creasy this morning after she won her Christmas card competition:
"Stella Creasy MP surprised the winner of her annual Christmas card competition at school today."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Sarah Wilson.

The Law  Streetwise Law is a community based educational project that I set up in June 2014. It involves conducting workshops in schools and youth clubs teaching young people about various aspects of criminal law, such as stop and search, advice on communicating with the police, the powers of the police and the rights of the individual, joint enterprise and the implications of obtaining a criminal record.

I decided I wanted to become a lawyer after watching a Nelson Mandela documentary in 2003. I learned that Mandela had studied law in order to teach the township people their rights. That seemed to me to be an excellent reason for being a lawyer so that’s what I set out to do.

By the time I had qualified as a lawyer, some years later, and was busy representing multiple clients in court every day, I had almost forgotten the reason I decided to study law in the first place. But one day, when representing a number of clients in the youth court, the plan came back to me.

The youth court can be a depressing place. For most young people, the drudgery of waiting for hours to be seen in court, not improved by daytime TV blaring in the background, is a punishment itself. I always thought, what a waste; they should be somewhere else, doing something better than this. As a criminal defence lawyer although the job is fundamental in protecting the rights of an accused against the power of the state, when dealing with young offenders I often questioned whether there was not something more that could be done to prevent young people entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

It struck me that these young people, who were, due to a variety of reasons, susceptible to being drawn into interactions with the police and criminal activity, would benefit from having some criminal law education. Perhaps if they knew the law relating to some of the criminal offences, the risks and consequences of certain activities, what powers the police have, and what rights they have as individuals, this could help them make better decisions. It could prevent interactions with the police escalating, and for some of them, it might prevent them ending up in court at all. This is when the idea for Streetwise Law was born.

This summer, I contacted a number of youth organisations and started conducting workshops. In relation to stop and search I inform the young people that they don’t have to tell the police their name or other personal details if they are stopped and searched. On the contrary, the officer is obliged to tell you their name and the station where they are from. Although an officer does have the power to stop and search anyone, this power can only be exercised if they have a good reason to suspect that the person something has on them they shouldn’t. Wearing a hoodie for example, is not a good reason, nor is knowing that the person has been arrested before, or has previous convictions. The officer must tell the person they are stopping the grounds for searching them, what power they are using and that they are detaining them in order to search them. If they do not comply with these rules, it could be an unlawful search.

I also teach the young people that if they are in a group and some members of that group become involved in criminal activity, like robbery or fighting, they could also be implicated in those offences, under the ‘joint enterprise’ principle; a principle that disproportionately affects young males, who tend more than any other group, to hang around in large, disorderly groups. Simply being at the scene of a crime, without any active participation, is not enough to render someone guilty of that crime, but it could certainly be enough lead to an arrest and even being charged.

It’s also important to inform young people about the implications of having a criminal record. There is also a common misconception among young people that once you turn 18 your criminal record is wiped clean or that any convictions you get as a youth will not come up on a criminal record check. While it is true that ‘spent’ convictions should not come up on a standard criminal record check, an enhanced criminal record check, required by increasingly more employers, will lead to disclosure of all convictions, spent or otherwise, for ever.

All the schools and youth clubs I have contacted so far have been very keen to engage with the project and consider it very important for the young people to be informed about these issues. I am currently running the project alone but hope to expand the project in the future to include more people and more subject areas. I also hope to make some short films for the project with the assistance of the young people. Overall, the young people seem to benefit from learning the law and having the opportunity to speak to a lawyer about the profession and the criminal justice system, and I get to do what I set out to do – teach people their rights.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter @coolvibes77. Streetwise Law is @Streetwiselaw1.

Christmas Links #17

The story of O Come All Ye Faithful:
"Howard Goodall investigates the history of the Christmas carol and meets Professor Bennett Zon to find out more in this clip from The Truth About Christmas Carols, originally broadcast on Christmas Day 2008."

Marvel At 75: Still Slinging Webs And Guarding Galaxies:
"To compete against DC Comics' new Superman character, what was then called Timely Publications began selling 10-cent magazines with the illustrated adventures of its own champs: Captain America (a superhuman soldier), the Human Torch (a test-tube created android created who would catch fire around oxygen), and the Sub-Mariner (an undersea prince who hated humans)."

Japan's Beloved Christmas Cake Isn't About Christmas At All:
"Only about 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian. But you might not realize that if you visited a major metropolitan area during Christmas time. Just like in America, you'll find heads topped with red Santa hats everywhere and elaborate seasonal displays: train sets, mountain scenes and snow-covered trees. Often, these are set inside of bakeries hawking one of the highlights of the holiday season in Japan: Christmas cake."

A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres:
"Carried away by the splendors of the moment, I did not initially realize that something was very wrong. I had noticed the floor-to-ceiling scrim-covered scaffolding near the crossing of the nave and transepts, but had assumed it was routine maintenance. But my more attentive wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter—who as a Columbia doctoral candidate took courses on Romanesque sculpture with the legendary Meyer Schapiro and Gothic architecture with the great medievalist Robert Branner—immediately noticed that large areas of the sanctuary’s deep gray limestone surface had been painted."

Yes, Virginia, Mariah Carey Can Sing:
"Rumors of Mariah Carey's demise have been greatly exaggerated, she proved last night during the first of six sold-out, Christmas-themed concerts at New York's Beacon Theater. For much of the show, she was in as good of a voice as you could expect from a diva who's in her 25th year of wailing for the public's consumption."

Christmas crafts at National Museums Liverpool:
"Travel back in time and find out what Christmas time was like during the First World War. The Museum of Liverpool is holding a Wartime Christmas event to go with the exhibition First World War: reflecting on Liverpool's Home Front. Visitors can join us for talks, handle objects from our collections and craft activities."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Liz Lockhart.

From Write-Off to Writer: How 2014 Changed My Life

Life  Several years ago, when I was a penniless student (as opposed to a penniless graduate with a mountain of student debt), I took part in an English Lit class led by none other than Germaine Greer. Memories work in mysterious ways – I’m afraid I can’t for the life of me recall now what the class was about, but what I do remember vividly is an off-the-cuff remark Greer made. She argued that the adjective “life-changing” has completely lost its power because it’s so overused in popular culture.

She certainly has a point. The media harps on about “life-changing” events that are anything but. Similarly, advertisers are quick to promise us that everything from toasters to anti-aging creams are “revolutionary” products that we can’t do without. And perhaps you, like me, reach for the mute button when reality TV show contestants bang on about their “dreams” and “journeys”. We’ve heard it all before. It’s clichéd.

But then again, a cliché wouldn’t be a cliché if it wasn’t sometimes true. I’ve come to the conclusion that this year, more than any other, has in fact changed my life. Heck, why not take a couple of clichéd phrases, throw in the adverb we all love to hate and say, “At the end of the day, 2014 has literally been life-changing”? In 12 months I’ve turned my world upside down (another phrase we hear too often) to become a writer.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write for a living. We didn’t have a computer when I was a kid, just a temperamental electronic typewriter (Let’s just say that Dad’s never wholeheartedly embraced technology. He only agreed to buy a colour telly about twenty years after everyone else, when I was three and Mum was complaining that I’d never learn about the different colours the Play School presenters kept talking about if everything on the screen looked greyish. Even then Dad couldn’t be persuaded to buy a TV with that new-fangled invention, the remote control.) I used to type scripts for EastEnders (as a hobby – I was neither a child prodigy nor on the soap’s payroll, sadly). My Gran and I would do kitchen table read-throughs of each script (I’d play Angie, she’d play Pat). I took it all a bit too seriously, even asking Gran to time the scenes so that we’d know whether I’d written enough for an episode.

A few years later (in the days when people still sent letters instead of squeezing everything into 140 characters), I wrote to an EastEnders scriptwriter, Christopher Reason. He kindly sent me a very helpful, thoughtful reply full of good advice. He also gently pointed out that twelve was too young to launch a scriptwriting career, no matter how keen I was… Hopes of writing a Hollywood blockbuster would have to wait.

Funnily enough, all the big ideas I had back then didn’t take into account the need to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table. By the time I was all grown-up, I found I didn’t have much spare time for creative writing anymore. I took a series of office jobs to pay the bills and, after a few years, became pretty depressed. At the back of my mind was a niggling worry that I’d ended up on the wrong track somehow and was in danger of letting my ambitions be written-off. I started to lose hope that I’d ever be able to make a career out of scriptwriting.

That was my frame of mind in January this year. I desperately wanted to make a go of scriptwriting, but didn’t know where to start. How could I balance a demanding full-time job with learning about the art of creating a decent script? I didn’t have the time, money or energy to take a scriptwriting MA, so surely the life of a writer was not open to me.

Little did I know that 2014’s life-changing superpowers would soon kick-in.

When my family suggested that I look for a part-time scriptwriting course, I was adamant that there would be nothing suitable out there. I consulted Google in an effort to prove to them that no such thing existed.

Me: Look, these search results prove it: there are NO scriptwriting courses that don’t involve studying full-time and racking up humungous fees!

Mum: Well, what about that one there?

I squinted at the screen.

Mum: Evening classes, designed to fit around the demands of your day job. That’s what it says.

My jaw dropped.

To cut a long story short (which is kind of what scriptwriting is about), I’d soon signed up to City Academy’s scriptwriting evening classes for beginners. And what fantabulous (yes, I thought I’d made it up too, but it’s actually a proper word) classes they turned out to be. In short, they made it clear that you don’t need to lock yourself away in a garret and wait for your muse in order to write for a living.

To ease everyone’s nerves during the first class, the tutor asked us to scribble down the most toe-curlingly awful dialogue we could think of. Stilted pleasantries, meandering conversations and heated debates about cheese sandwiches were the order of the day. When we read those scenes aloud to each other, though, something funny happened – literally. What we’d initially thought of as awful made us all laugh. Not award-winning comedy material, of course, but not completely without merit either.

The golden rule, the tutor pointed out, is that there’s no such thing as “bad” writing – just don’t expect perfection first time round. This gave everyone in the class a real sense of creative freedom – something that I’d previously assumed could only be gained from several months spent backpacking far, far away in order to “find yourself”.

That’s not to say that the classes were plain-sailing. I often worked late in my office and so would usually miss the first part of each class, and it was difficult to concentrate or keep my eyes open after a day of admin and meetings. What’s more, it wasn’t love at first sight between me and this proper, grown-up scriptwriting malarkey, with all its rules and strict format. If your dialogue isn’t positioned in exactly the right spot on the page, for example, your script won’t be taken seriously by the industry. I had (and still have) doubts about whether I’ve got what it takes to write a compelling script – the process of creating convincing plots, characters and dialogue is undoubtedly lengthy and challenging.

But by the third or fourth class, something in my head clicked into place. I started to understand what makes scriptwriting addictive and satisfying for many professional writers.

The Eureka moment came when we were each asked to read aloud some short scenes we’d written and the tutor suggested minor adjustments to them. I discovered that something as small as changing a word or adding a full stop can alter the whole meaning of a scene, giving your script greater depth and clarity. Writing a script is rather like writing a poem, in that respect – economical use of language is essential. You have to keep pushing yourself to say more with less and always show, never tell.

By the middle of my second scriptwriting course (more evening classes, held at Sadler’s Wells, no less), I knew that not only was scriptwriting a passion, I was starting to think of it seriously as a career option. Was I brave enough to take the plunge and try to make a living as Writer of Scripts and Random Stuff (ooh, elegant job title)?

By my 29th birthday in April, I’d made up my mind. I was going to take a risk and go for it: I resigned from my office job. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, and it was with regret that I said goodbye to a lively, warm-hearted group of colleagues – not to mention a regular income. There were other drawbacks too: over the next few months, I had to give up my flat, the ability to meet up with some of my closest friends regularly, and the pleasure of living close to all of the art and culture that London has to offer. By the end of the summer, I’d cleared my desk, packed my bags and disappeared off to the middle of nowhere (where the air is cleaner and the rent cheaper!).

I also changed my name, choosing to call myself Liz Lockhart, having decided that alliteration is where it’s at if I want a memorable pen name. I now share my Gran’s name – as a tribute to the person who helped me to take my first steps in scriptwriting.

Looking ahead to 2015 and (shock, horror!) the start of my thirties, I know two things for sure:

1. I will start lying shamelessly about my age;

2. I will try my hardest to produce good scripts for good people, even if I don’t end up with a shelf full of awards or my own production company.

If you’re reading this article on New Year’s Day 2015, worrying that what you want most in life will forever be out of your reach, don’t give up hope. What’s happened to me this year shows that you don’t have to write-off your ambitions – you just need to be brave enough to step out of your comfort zone in order to fulfil them.

You can follow Liz on Twitter @LizLockhart1985.

Soup Safari #12:
Chorizo, Apple and Leek at Cafe Tabac.

Lunch. £4.00. 126 Bold Street, Merseyside, Liverpool, Liverpool, Merseyside L1 4JA. Phone:0151 709 9502.

Christmas Links #16

How I made: Raymond Briggs on Father Christmas:
"I’ve always enjoyed taking something that’s fantasy – like a bogeyman or Father Christmas – and imagining it as wholly real. Take Father Christmas. What do we know about him? Well, he’s got a white beard, so he must be quite old. He’s rather fat, so he probably likes his food. He’s got a red face and a red nose, so he probably likes his drink. And he’s been doing this dreadful job for donkey’s years: going out all night long, in all weathers. He’s sick to the back teeth of it: who wouldn’t be? So it follows, naturally, that he’s going to be grumpy."

Cats vs. Christmas Trees:
"A compilation of cats destroying Christmas trees."

Gia Giudice's Girl Group Releases the 'Friday' of Christmas Songs:
"Everything feels so riiiiiggght! It's the seeeason of joooyyyy!"

Christmas with Chinese characteristics:
"Cities across China blink with fairy lights, fancy hotels flaunt trees and tinsel, and glossy magazine covers display festive recipes and table settings. “Joy up!” reads a sign (in English) on three illuminated trees by a shopping mall in Beijing. The Chinese are doing just that."

Prose Poetry 2.0: A Video Essay about Video Essays:
"As part of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Groningen"

Jilted girlfriend given a Christmas to remember:
"Until a few days ago, 23-year-old Zascha Friis from High Wycombe was facing a very lonely Christmas. The Danish nanny and part-time student had just broken up with her boyfriend and couldn't afford the £350 flight home to Denmark to spend it with her family."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Kevin Anderson.

Life I have friends whose identity is tied up in the fact that they live on the bleeding edge of technology. They always have the latest gadget. Their lives are one continuous upgrade cycle.

While I have plenty of very modern technology lying around the house, my relationship with technology is quite different than these upgrade addicts. I savour the challenge of getting the most out of tech well past its due by date. I keep technology long after most people relegate it to the back of their cable cupboard or flog them on eBay, and because I end up using this kit for years, I develop a relationship with my most beloved bits of tech. Besides, sufficiently old tech develops a kind of personality, certain quirks or, let’s be honest, faults that feed the human compulsion to anthropomorphise.

In August, I opened a personal time capsule full of things I hadn't seen it in nearly a decade, since I moved from the US to the UK. Scattered amongst the books, CDs, bookcases and my bicycle were aged and obsolete tech bits and bobs, including one of my most beloved antiques - a vintage Mac SE/30, and I very much hoped that it had survived its long period of hibernation.

In 2005, I moved to London on what I thought would be a year long attachment from my job as the Washington correspondent for what was then called BBC News Online. I put all of my worldly belongings - not much to be honest - in a five by ten foot storage locker in suburban Maryland. That was more than nine years ago, and it was only this August that I finally liberated everything I had stored there.

In it, I found an old TV monitor, a six-head Toshiba VCR, an Onkyo turntable and my Mac SE/30. The TV monitor is in the garage waiting to be recycled. Neither the turntable nor the VCR work, but I didn't even wait until I got to my new home to see if the Mac was still with us. On a stopover at my parents, I took it out from the moving van. After nearly a decade in storage, it fired up without a hitch. It did take a little more effort to keep it working reliably, but now it's back in fine fettle.

The story of my Mac begins in the student computer labs at the University of Illinois. I first got onto the internet on a Mac SE/30 and wrote many of my college papers on it. But I never owned one. They sold for thousands of dollars then, and while the stars in media make hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars, and that was well beyond the budget of a journeyman journalist.

Six or seven years later, I had moved to Washington DC to work for the BBC. For some reason, someone left an orphaned Mac on my back porch, a Mac SE. It started up, but flashed the missing disk drive sign. After a little research online, I found that that the recommended repair for the Sony hard drive in it was to remove it from the computer, hold it about three or four feet off the ground and drop it. I am not kidding. The logic of this repair was that the drive would seize up, something called stiction, and the drop was just enough force to free up the drive mechanism. It was good advice, and once I put the drive back in the Mac, it started up much to my surprise although it didn’t generate a lot of faith in its longevity.

I gave that computer – with a new hard drive – to a friend, but then I wanted one of my own, and for my 30th birthday, I found a Mac SE/30 on eBay not for thousands of dollars but for about $30, not including shipping. This one came in a lovely carrying bag. It was a luggable and had been used by someone who worked for an insurance company who schlepped it from client to client. It's hard to believe that this is what passed for a portable computer back in the day. It weighs something like 8.8 kg.

You might wonder why I have such affection for a computer that has hopelessly out-of-date versions of modern software – Photoshop, Word and even WordPerfect. For one, I love writing on it. The keyboard is one of the old mechanical types that gives off a solid thunk when you hit the keys. The old word processing apps - Microsoft Word 5 for the Mac and WordPerfect 3.5 - are a joy to use. They do just about everything you'd want without a lot of the useless features that have crept in over the years.

More than that, I love writing on my Mac because there are far fewer distractions. I don't have message, email or Twitter notifications popping up to break my flow as I do on my MacBook Pro, and the nine-inch black and white screen draws me in. There isn’t enough screen real estate or enough computing power to have six or seven apps open that I can obsessively tab through. It is online, but opening a modern web page is glacial so there isn’t much temptation to nip off and check my email or do some online Christmas shopping.

But it’s more than that. From the first time I used one more than two decades ago up until now, I find something incredibly intimate about this little computer. From the moment the old smiling Mac icon pops up on the screen, it really does feel like a personal computer. Long before Siri was on the scene, Steve Jobs and his team could trick you into feeling that technology had a personality bordering on humanity.

That is a real achievement. Most technology is utilitarian. They are tools we use, but even amongst all of my devices, I never developed the kind of relationship I have with this old Mac, and it has been great to rekindle my friendship with this tiny, luggable, huggable computer.

You can follow Kevin in Twitter @kevglobal.

The Films I've Watched This Year #47

Film Attachments isn't available other than through about ten episodes released on VHS over a decade ago. I never did track down Midsummer Dream or the short film Running for River. But apart from that #garaiwatch is done, completed, finish and until Suffragette is released, as I sit down to watch a film or some television it will be with the disappointment of knowing that Romola does not feature somewhere.  I'm hoping to go and see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies tomorrow.  I'm almost expecting her wander through playing an Elf.  Was it worth it?  It's fair to say that without her participation I may not have made time for Words of the Blitz in which she quotes, like the other participants directly to camera, from the diaries of a survivor Joan Wyndham, whose vivid descriptions of trying to maintain some semblance of a normal existence amid the bombs, really underscored for me just how important life is and why you should make the most of it.  Or the fascinating Russia's Lost Princesses (a rare voice over).  So yes, if only for those, yes it has been worth it.

Blitz was broadcast in 2010, right between Emma, which was covered last time and The Crimson Petal and the White, the 2011 BBC adaptation of Michael Faber's 2002 which isn't easy to love.  Garai is a Victorian prostitute who takes advantage of the attentions of an industrialist, a gloriously serpentine Chris O'Dowd, in order to shift herself from the squalor of the Dickensian undercity.  However extraordinary the performances, and Romola's pretty much a cameleon here in a role entirely unlike anything she'd done until that point, and how, I felt a tension in the adaptor not quite being sure whose story is being told or how to structure it.  Glancing at a synopsis of the book just now, I can see that it's more about the parallel stories of the two women in O'Dowd's character's life, the other being his frail wife.  Perhaps it might have benefited from giving just one of them the majority of the agency.  On the upside, it means Romola can add to theoretically non-canonical Doctors, Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who night sketch) and REG (Shalka) to her tally.

Of course, The Hour adds a whole bonafide, unarguable Doctor in her soon to be predecessor in the role Peter Capaldi.  One of the great tragedies of The Hour, other than the BBC's unwillingness to have everyone back for a couple more so they could resolve some of the storylines, is that it didn't manage to properly find an audience.  Like Party Animals and the like before it, this was British television attempting to offer something other than the same old tired genres, succeeding brilliantly but not finding enough viewers interested in watching this kind of drama to justify its existence.  At which point the very viewers who failed to watch it then complain about seeing the same old tired genres.  The second series isn't quite as good as the first to be fair, not managing to deal with shifting from what's a perfectly structured personal storyline in the first series to a moral crusade in the second.  None of which stops me from hoping Abi Morgan takes over as Doctor Who show runner in the future, not that she'd probably want to bother with it.

Garai's final, up to date credit on the imdb is for last year's drama contribution to the BBC's Cold War season Legacy in which she's  a spy who ultimately has little to do with the main plot other than provide the protagonist with some unrequited romantic interest and drive him around for a bit.  As I said last year, it's "like an episode of Spooks in which Harry's entered a coma and woken up in 1974 ala Life on Mars", not entirely unwatchable but mostly a reminder of when television used to broadcast this sort of play every week before deciding that if they were going to build all the sets they might as well get six episodes out of them, that working until the viewers lost interest anyway (see above).  On reflection, there's nothing about this which couldn't interestingly be turned into a series as well if the BBC had a mind to.  Which they don't lately (again see above).  Beyond this, Suffragette is in post-production as is Dominion, a $5m b/w, shot in Canada and Garai's been in New York on stage in Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink.

Which isn't where I stopped.  For the last couple of nights I went right back to the beginning of her screen career.  In the 2001 ITV drama, Perfect, Romola's adopted daughter goes in search of her mother only to find that she's Michelle Collins, a serial bigamist (yes, indeed).  Adapted from her own novel by Susan Oudot, it's about as early 00s as an ITV drama can be with contemporary musical cues borrowed from Cold Feet, Cathy Tyson as Collins's best friend and Barbara Flynn as Romola's adoptive mother.  It's quite a shock to see Romola wearing what would have been contemporary clothes for the time, black faux-goth t-shirts and denim skirts.  With the exception of Inside I'm Dancing, she wouldn't be seen in contemporary clothing on screen for most of the rest of her career.  Perhaps of most interest is how the tabloid journalists are portrayed in the scenes after the secret is out, prying and prowling, the drama suggesting this to be the norm, even though in reality they're simply turning ordinary people's lives into entertainment to fill the gaps between adverts.

Then I ended this escapade where she began in The Last of the Blonde Bombshells as the young Dame Judi Dench in flashbacks which reflect on her time in a jazz band during World War II, performing in just the sort of clubs Joan Wyndham refers to in the extracts Romola reads in Words of the Blitz.  Written by Alan Plater, directed by Gilles MacKinnon, the production design is from Michael Pickwoad, who currently fills that role on Doctor Who including the current TARDIS set.  It's a really charming old fashioned story about getting the band back together, with Ian Holm as the love interest and Leslie Caron, Olympia Dukakis, Cleo Laine, Billie Whitelaw, Joan Sims and June Whitfield as the "girls".  In other words if Romola was going to have an eye catching start to her screen career it would be this and although there's no sign that she even met any of the older cast members, she does at least get to keep her own voice.  Grant Ibbs who plays Ian Holm's younger self is ADRed over by the older actor.

Having You
Babysitting (short)
Whitelands (short)

Garai's current penultimate screen credit, Having You sees her in the familiar spot of the fiance of the protagonist in this case Andrew Buchanan's Jack, who discovers after eight years that his drunken one night stand with Anna Friel begat a son, which is complicated because it was a year after he'd begun his current relationship.  Directed by otherwise actor Sam Hoare (who played Douglas Camfield in An Adventure in Space and Time) (pretty much everything Romola's been in it seems has some Who connection it seems) (I'm going to be checking this now aren't I?) who also lensed the Garai starring short Babysitting (poor dog) its the sort of thing which would probably have been an itv drama in the early 00s with its tonally awkward lurches between middle class lounge comedy and harsh mellodrama, notably in the form of Phil Davis as the disappointed father who feels like he's wandered in from a 90s Mike Leigh film.  Not unenjoyable but feels dated, especially its gender politics for reasons too spoilery to explain and in a way Whitelands manages to avoid.

Christmas Links #15

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: the thriving culture of pub Christmas carols:
"The carols in Lodge Moor are unaccompanied; everybody knows that. They might use an organ in Dungworth, a few miles away across the Rivelin valley. Other pubs a little further afield might have occasional brass or even string accompaniment. But here, in a handful of villages across a tiny stretch of countryside west of Sheffield, the festive carolling, fuelled by pints of ale, is to the sound of the human voice alone."

The first-ever oral history of Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album:
"I went in search of answers and spoke at length with Star Wars’ Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), co-producer/engineer Tony Bongiovi and composer Maury Yeston. Each man told me the same thing: I was the first person to interview them about this record in 34 years. From the mad disco money that made it all possible to George Lucas almost pulling the plug, CBC Music proudly presents the first-ever oral history of Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album."

Top 10 BMJ Christmas Papers:
"Every Christmas, the British Medical Journal publishes humorous scientific papers to bring some holiday cheer to their readers. So allow me to show you what science looks like with its hair down. Here are my top ten joke scientific articles from the BMJ."

Australians Offer To Travel To Work With People In Religious Attire Using #IllRideWithYou Hashtag:
"The terrible events in Sydney, where Martin Place was locked down after an armed man took hostages, have sparked a heartwarming reaction on social media."

"Christmas in Dublin during The Emergency - 28/12/1981"
"One woman's story of life at Christmas time during the Emergency in Dublin." From the RTE archive.

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Annette Arrigucci.

Life The one thing everyone else should know about: Don’t worry so much.

And I know there is no shortage of things to worry about in the age of anxiety. 24-7 access to work email, text messages and an endless stream of tweets and Facebook posts form a slithering reptile of information that threatens to strangle me like a boa constrictor.

And this year I got engaged, which in theory should be joyous, but instead my inner worry demon has come out to play, with questions, such as: What if no one really *wants* to come to the wedding? How can a photographer possibly cost $3,000? Will I look fat in my dress? Why do roses have to cost double on Valentine’s Day? Pile onto that an impending cross-country move with my future husband and you can see why I’m a nervous wreck.

But at year’s end I have come to realize (again) that worrying is utterly useless. There is no use spending valuable mental energy worrying about things you have no real control over. And trying to live up to what you think other people expect is a losing game. Plan, yes, worry, no. The wedding is, in all likelihood, going to turn out OK. I know a few details will probably go wrong, but it will be a happy day because I and my fiancé make it so, no matter what my relatives, caterer, florist, cake baker, DJ or anyone else does. The same can be said for so much else in life – it’s time to live in the moment and enjoy it and deal with problems as they come, not stay up nights pondering nightmare scenarios that will probably never happen.

Anyway, here are the top 10 things that help me calm down when life has turned into an anxiety-filled mess:

  • Spend time with people. Face-to-face, not on Facebook. Most of the time I realize others have problems that are much greater than my own.
  • Write down at least three things I’m grateful for.
  • Read a book. Something about books encourages getting lost in them and forgetting yourself.
  • Find a charity to donate to. Here’s a worthy one:
  • Turn off the technology, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Cut off the text messages and stop checking email.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep makes everything seem worse the next day.
  • Cook something easy to make but healthy and delicious.
  • Pray and acknowledge your powerlessness to control things.
  • Go outside and look at something beautiful – a tree, a sunset, a mountain or a full moon. Do NOT post a picture on Instagram.
  • Take 10 deep breaths. Yes, 10. One is not enough.
Annette can be followed on Twitter @elpasoanne.

Christmas Links #14

Hanukkah History: Those Chocolate Coins Were Once Real Tips:
"Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, starts on Tuesday night. But the flickering candles won't be the only things shining on the table. Many families celebrate with gelt, chocolate coins covered in gold and silver foil. But while this treat is beloved, it's not all that delicious."

Football gets in the festive spirit – in pictures!
"With just twelve days till Christmas there’s plenty of cheer around the grounds"

Parents angered by 'awful' Frozen party in Kilgetty:
"Parents said the room was too small, the advertised buffet consisted of crisps and a mini chocolate bar and the present from Santa was a 5p lolly."

You've been wrapping presents wrong this whole time:
"put down the scissors and let this employee at Takashimaya department store in Japan show you how it’s done, in just 12 seconds"

Christmas on the Bayou is Mardi Gras on water:
"Bayou Bernard and Gulfport Lake became a veritable winter water land Saturday night as a bevy beautifully decorated boats lined up for the annual Christmas on the Bayou parade."

Christmas Visitors (British Museum)
"Sheet of reproductions of drawings, 'La Pastorelle' in the centre with two men dancing in a ballroom, surrounded by eight other vignettes with individual titles"

11 DIY ornaments inspired by memes of 2014:
"The best part of the holiday season is enjoying a crafty afternoon decorating your Christmas tree with some homemade ornaments. But as much as you love stylish decor straight out of a Better Homes & Gardens spread, perhaps you're looking for some more niche DIY ideas to make your loved ones smile this year."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Karina Westermann.

Life I live in the UK, but I was born in Denmark. This makes me an immigrant – an EU immigrant, to be precise. I settled permanently in the UK because I fell in love with a Scotsman. Luckily, I also fell in love with Scotland and this is my home now. My Bella Caledonia. Nine years ago Dave & I were talking about wanting to live together and we had to decide where that should be. We decided the UK would be the best option because Denmark has huge problems with racism and xenophobia. Did we want to live somewhere where Dave’s accent would always set him apart and he’d never really be considered welcome? No. Did we want to live somewhere where his name and lack of Danish language skills would affect his job opportunities severely? No. I’ve now lived in Glasgow for eight years and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I was worried about racism before I moved across, but it has been manageable so far. I’ve had a few drunks shouting things about foreigners, but that’s easy to shrug off. The drunks also recant as soon as I point out I’m a foreigner: Eh, I didnae mean you, hen!

In recent years the UK has seen the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric. From British Jobs For British People slogans to blaming foreigners for a National Health System struggling to cope with budget cuts. Britain even has its own anti-immigration party now which enjoys disproportional media coverage. I have a strong feeling of deja-vu as sentiments I recognise from Denmark have spread to the UK. Encouraged by certain corners of UK media, it has become more and more acceptable to say things that are overtly racist. Being one of those pesky EU immigrants blamed for everything from how sandwiches are made to pot holes in the roads, it is rather worrying.

Recently I was travelling from Glasgow to Edinburgh when I found myself next to a nice fifty-something lady with lovely hair, sensible shoes, a jolly yellow rain jacket and a posh accent. Without any prompting she began to inform everyone around us that Polish drivers were to blame for British road accidents, that Europeans had a different driving culture (“if you can call it culture“), that she once went to Germany and was shocked by how drivers did not stop for her when she crossed the street, and how foreigners coming to Britain needed to sit a driving exam before being allowed to drive on good British roads filled with decent Britons (although when challenged, she allowed that tourists may have a fortnightly exemption if they pledged to be law-abiding). This was the start of an hour-long monologue directed at different people around her. EU immigrants were welfare benefit cheats, killing people on the streets, stealing jobs from honest Britons, invading Britain under the cover of EU laws, intent on destroying Britain &c. The solution was clear, according to the nice lady. All foreigners should be thrown out of Britain! “What we need is a revolution!”

At first I was tempted to interject. I wanted to challenge her on what she was saying but I didn’t. Instead I started shaking. She noticed – oh, she noticed – as did a nice gentleman across from me who started talking to me about the sock I was knitting. Eventually I began laughing every time she said something particularly outrageous. It was a choice between laughter and tears – and I did not want to show her any tears. My laughter shut her up, finally, and she spent the rest of the journey reading a certain right-wing newspaper.

I have made so many speeches in my head since that experience. I have worked out all the things I should have said: “I am one of those EU immigrants you fear so much. Look at me. I hold two university degrees. I’ve never claimed any benefits. I run my own business. In my own country, people are saying all those things about my Scottish partner. What do you want us to do?”. I know nothing I could have said would have changed her mind, but I wish I could have tried. I have had racial abuse hurled at me before – including in my native Denmark! - but it has always been by people I could dismiss as either drunk or incredibly stupid. It is less easy to dismiss a a nice 50-something lady with a posh accent. It is scary because she is the type of woman who is recognisably, reassuringly an upstanding member of society. Her sort goes on BBC's Question Time or writes long letters to her newspaper. She legitimises scary sentiments.

I have decided the best way forward is to write about my experiences as an EU-immigrant. All those scare stories in the media work best if EU immigrants are portrayed as a faceless mass. Well, here I am. Hello.

You can follow Karie on Twitter @kariebookish.  Her blog is Fourth Edition.

Christmas Links #13

Christmas Decorations in Google Search:
"Just like last year and many years before, Google shows some special decorations when searching for [Christmas], [Hanukkah], [Kwanzaa], [Festivus]. Christmas decorations are animated."

Big Pottermore Reveal Has Actually Been Known in the Fandom for Years:
"JK Rowling released her first story of the Harry Potter 12 Days of Christmas series via Pottermore today and, according to MTV, she's revealing some "serious Severus Snape secrets." Too bad that the "secret" is something that's been a widely accepted fact in the Harry Potter fandom for years now."

My Sister-In-Law’s Lonely Christmas Cards:
"All of my wife’s four siblings are married except one. Bridget, the unmarried one, got cut out of her mom and dad’s Christmas card picture five years ago. Her parents found it awkward to have just one remaining child in her mid-20s still in the picture, so they kicked her out. Bewildered, lonely, and unsure what to do with herself in this big world, she began sending out her own Christmas cards."

Sick of saccharine Christmas films? Here are 18 that won’t make you puke glitter!
"What do you do when you’re being evicted on Christmas Eve? Go on a drug-fuelled odyssey of intersecting stories and Timothy Oliphant. Which NOBODY will remember was set at Christmas."

How to have an office Christmas party for one:
"Working for yourself is one way to take some power into your own hands. But with that power comes a great responsibility: providing your own Christmas entertainment. Self-employed people like me can claim £150 as an office party expense (it’s an exemption, not an allowance, ie not free money, but every little helps), but then what? Here’s how to create that party feeling without stepping into an office."

Could ‘Arthur Christmas’ Become a Classic?
"Arthur Christmas is one of those movies that, if it passed you by on its release, you may forget its existence. Though it was well-received critically and loved by audiences, it is a mighty task for a new Christmas movie to become a ‘classic’ in our homes if we haven’t grown up with it. Depending on your age, you probably even have your own preference of A Christmas Carol – whether it involves Muppets or a computerised Jim Carrey. Is there room for another seasonal movie on your festive favourites list?"

Walking on beautiful clean ice in Slovakian Mountains:
"Me and my friend walking on frozen mountain lake in High Tatras Mountains in Slovakia."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Tim Worthington.

Music If you haven't been following the 'Saint Etienne Presents...' series of compilations, then you really have been missing out on something special. Put together by Bob, Pete and Sarah from their massive collective collection of forgotten popular beat waxings, with assistance from their longtime associate and genre-inventing crate-digger extraordinaire Martin Green, each one aims to evoke a specific time and place, from Central Park to a Lyons Corner House, using nothing but the sort of little-remembered pop discs you might have expected to hear in the designated venue. What's more, they're mostly drawn from pop's formative years, pulling in hits that have been hiding in plain sight since the late fifties and waving a jazzy two fingers at the tedious insistence by the mainstream rock press that everything started with Love Me Do.

This time, they've turned their attention to Christmas, which will hardly surprise anyone familiar with Saint Etienne's back catalogue; after all, they've released a Christmas EP every year since 1993 (kicking off, of course, with the glorious I Was Born On Christmas Day), and even released a full album of Christmas Songs. But being Saint Etienne, and indeed being their 'Presents...' series, this isn't just any old 'Christmas'. It's Christmas in London in the long-lost days of black and white TV, when festive shop window displays were a dazzling new thing, home entertainment barely existed, and people were as likely to pile into the local carol service as they were the office party. This of course involves rifling through the surprisingly large volume of Yuletide-themed chart contenders in the days before we came to associate the Festive season even with Glam Rock Santa-hattage and Phil Spector emulation, let alone X Factor winners and, erm, Rage Against The Machine. So there's some familiar names, some not so familiar names, and some rescued from well-worn nigh-on-sixty-year-old discs in the absence of master tapes, which occasionally makes listening on headphones a bit haphazard but let's face it, who cares when this stuff actually is on CD, in many cases for the first time ever?

Songs For A London Winter, it turns out, are a mixture of rinky-dink singalongs, politely furious instrumentals, skiffled-up carolling, cheapo cash-in supermarket own brand covers, and the odd bit of Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth thrown in for good measure. Johnny Keating turns in a ramble through We Three Kings in the style of his more familiar Z Cars theme, John Barry rattles through a Shadows-aping rewrite of When The Saints Go Marching In that bizarrely threatens to turn into incidental music from Mr. Benn at one point, and brother-and-sister singing child sensations Elaine and Derek - 'Derek' of course growing up to become Charlie in Casualty - try their hardest not to sound like they're trying to sound like Anthony Newley while listing the sights and sounds of advent. Meanwhile, Zack Laurence, who would go on to become both Mr Bloe (as in Groovin' With) and the theme composer for Treasure Hunt and Interceptor, engages in a bit of piano tinkling in honour of the humble snowman. There's even what sounds like it could be an early electronic instrument on the aptly-titled Sounds Like Winter by Dusty Springfield's backing band The Echoes.

Where the the real surprises lie, though, are with the songs and artists that you sort of half-knew at the back of your mind. Even aside from Billy Fury's original of My Christmas Prayer, as later of course covered by Saint Etienne, you'll find The Beverley Sisters getting a touch funky on Little Donkey, and Ted Heath doing quite nicely on Swinging Shepherd Blues, even if his definition of 'Swinging' might pose some problems under laboratory conditions, while the piano-rattling of Russ Conway - so often the target of 'naff' jokes, sometimes even in person, in latterday comedy shows - turns out to be very pleasantly produced and arranged, Lionel Bart being Lionel Bart - oh what a surprise, he's asking for a 'kiss' - is never not welcome, and Adam Faith's Lonely Pup (In A Christmas Shop) isn't quite as annoying as you'd assumed it was on the very fringes of your consciousness. Alma Cogan can still keep that laugh-in-her-voice to herself, mind.

This is more than just a look at a prehistoric age of pop music, though - it's literally a glimpse of a lost world. This is the sound of the sort of Christmas you see in ancient Pathe News films, where massive crowds turned up to watch trees being unveiled on the high street, where queues for department store Santas snaked around the block and the youngsters only left with a cheap plastic doll where the hair came off when you washed it, and indeed where The Beatles put together their very first Christmas Fan Club records, and, believe it or not, even appeared in panto. See, it didn't quite all change with Love Me Do.

You can follow Tim on Twitter @outonbluesix. He's the author of Higher Than The Sun, the story of four albums released by Creation Records late in 1991, available at Hulu here.

Christmas Links #12

10 of the strangest: Messiahs
"As Christmas approaches, let’s focus on Handel’s famous oratorio and some of the weirder approaches to the Hallelujah Chorus. If you like your Handel with added psychedelic trance, LED lights and electric guitars, you’re in the right place"

Jewish angels and Roman gods: The ancient mythological origins of Christmas:
"Many Americans have heard that December 25 was a birthday of Roman gods long before it was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also know that our delightful mélange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Roman and Druid traditions – or, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue. But where does the Christmas story itself come from: Jesus in the manger, the angels and wise men?"

Here’s why thoughtful Christmas gifts are the WORST gifts:
"In the coming weeks, millions of people will buy gifts for loved ones. Which is great—except that tons of those people will make the same glaring mistake, and buy the wrong gift. Roughly 10 percent of gifts are returned each year—and the percentage of unwanted gifts is surely higher given that nice people may not want to return presents."

Christmas parties: a survival guide:
"Parties – how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. There’s the dressing up for them. There’s the getting to them. There’s the being at them. The getting back from them. The meeting of strangers. Or people you know. There’s the not being at home. There are an awful lot of things."

Review 2014:
One Thing:

Coming of Age.

Life Go to the mall, the grocery store, or just stand on a busy street corner and look around at the people swirling about you. Are you younger than most of them? Perhaps you fit comfortably in the middle? Or do you notice that it is only the ones who look as if they might be collecting a pension that appear older?

2014 is the year I started to feel old. This came as a bit of shock, because as much as I flatter myself that I am a self-aware and a discerning observer of life around me, I swallowed more than a few glasses of youth culture kool-aid over the years.

Combine the decades-long bombardment of media messages exhorting us all to buy this cream, eat this super-food, join this gym program and follow these Six Steps to A Better You with the underlying premise that with enough money and effort you can reverse time, and you get a seriously messed-up culture.

Age is just a number.

You are only as old as you feel.

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.

Only the sentence by Robert Frost is correct.

I and just about everyone else of my generation grew up in expectation. Life was ahead. It was going to happen. Out there. When. When we finished school. When we moved into our own apartment. When we got that job. When we met the right someone. And it was all going to be champagne wishes and caviar dreams minus the braying Robin Leach soundtrack.

Our whole lives have been aspirational. Nations’ economies depend on it.

My parents’ generation grew up in the still lingering shadows of the Depression and World War II rations. They strove to contribute to rebuilding a better world. They still wanted the house and the car and the summer vacations. But they talked about being comfortable. They could see how their lives were easier and more secure than their parents’ and that was success.

My generation grew up with the message that it was all waiting for us Out There and television showed us just how much Out There existed in the world. Greedy doesn't begin to describe the rapacious insatiable appetite for the good life we all came to expect as our due.

We had a road map too. Hard work, good looks, and a winning personality and the world would fall at our feet.

Hard work was a matter of will. Good looks used to be a roll of genetic dice but by the end of the Seventies you could buy a new face for not much more than the cost of a car.

The winning personality depended on what collection of self-help aphorisms was hogging the best-seller list. It started with I’m OK-You’re OK which propelled us down the path to magical thinking and all its other delusional siblings. It was quickly followed by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which promised to teach us how to win at life while at the same time reducing it to a series of lists. Lists are great. Lists are manageable. Lists have no time for ambiguous, or intangible, nuanced messiness of living. Lists reduce everything into easy bite-sized Happy Meals. (The internet loves lists—but that’s another issue.) We kept chasing after the mirage of more, because to settle for less is to fail.

And so we continued living life as possibility. It can all happen. Still. Until the day it can’t. We wake up and suddenly, with even the most basic grasp of mathematics we know there is more behind us than in front of us and what lies ahead looks grim no matter how fat the wallet.

It happens in small increments, mistakes, accidents. The first bumps are the sort of hip check that takes you away from childhood dreams of professional sport or celebrity. You shrug it off as silliness and set you sights on a new passion. The thing is time is against us. We all know this and I have yet to meet anyone who accepts it on a personal level.

Live each day as if it were your last.

That’s crazy talk.

If I did that, right now I’d be on a beach in Hawaii (it’s December and I hate the cold) with a plane ticket to Europe in my purse and nothing in the bank.

We are all going to die. It’s the when and how that eludes us.

I have been told I can expect to live longer than previous generations did. I am not guaranteed that the quality of those days will be any better. Already, if I make a list of all the people I have known, the list of the quick is smaller than that of the dead. I am at the age where I understand why my grandparents spent so much time discussing the past—it’s where they did their best living.

What nobody told me about aging is that the outward signs are nothing compared to the interior collapse and decay and that it begins long before the end. Bones, muscles, sinews, synapses, hormones—it all starts to break down; if I was a car I’d be trading myself in.

This is where, if this were a magazine piece, I’d be expected to impart a piece of warm hopeful wisdom. The wonderful thing I’ve learned this year.


I’m still in the middle of this. More people have left my life than entered it this year, so I can tell you to cultivate young friends. I’m not being flippant.

Most of my friends used to be older than me, because they were more interesting. They had seen and done things, while my peers were as clueless about life as I was. Most of them are gone. I am cultivating younger friends because now they are the more interesting.

I can also tell you that anyone who says that they have no regrets in life is either trying to sell you something, or is too stupid to know better. I regret plenty of things, and most of them are things I didn't do. What I regret is of no use to anyone but me, with perhaps one exception- I regret any time I had a chance to be kind and didn't take it. Except with politicians. And bankers. And bureaucrats. Oh hell.

You can follow @asta on Twitter here. Kitchen Bits is her Tumblr.