Model London

Last week I finally had the opportunity to explore somewhere featured in a Friday Fun from back in March. The ’10 Quirky London Places’ video inspired me to seek out a few places I hadn’t heard of before, including one that I knew I’d passed several times before, but hadn’t realised I could freely explore…

The first stop on their speedy tour around London is the Building Centre on Store Street – a street that runs between Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street. On the ground floor of this building is a truly amazing construction, a scale model of London, showing all proposed building projects – like the Olympics and CrossRail. Last week I was passing and grabbed the opportunity to take a peek. It was utterly breathtaking and totally mesmerising.

This is what you find inside:

Impressive, no? 

And, it’s obviously obligatory to try and find your home (and other personal landmarks) on the map. My old Bermondsey home was just off the map, but the King’s Cross residence was there – and I think this photo shows it, but it’s rather difficult to tell!

Blink & you’d miss it, but there’s a faint red circle where I think I live…

At this point I should probably warn friends that this delight is but a short walk from my abode/workplace, so I can take you to visit with great ease – it’ll be fun, promise! 

The best days of our lives?

Perhaps it’s because they’re such a sharp contrast to my own school days, but for some reason I’ve always been drawn to American high school movies. From the moment I first watched Grease (July 18th 1993), I was intrigued by this world so different to my own – the lack of uniforms, the presence of boys, the hordes of students, strange cliques, tall lockers – it was like another planet.

RIP Heath…

Many of my all-time favourite films fit into the genre, with several coming out in 1999 –  the year I left school forever. It was a particularly good year for the genre, producing three classics:
Cruel Intentions  – for years I argued with a friend about this being a good film, he always insistent that Dangerous Liaisons was vastly superior. Having finally seen it, I agree that the latter is an excellent film, but of a different genre and therefore doesn’t need to be superior.
10 Things I Hate About You – an utter classic and featuring the scene for which Heath Ledger will always be remembered in my mind. Plus, it sparked an ambition to play drums on the top of a very tall building overlooking the ocean. To quote a Twitter friend for whom it’s also a favourite: “one day a man will commission a brass band for me too…” – my hopes exactly!
Election – A much darker example of the genre, containing possibly the best performance by Reese Witherspoon until Walk the Line came along. Her character is mean and manipulative, masked by a goody-goody exterior, and drives her Civics teacher (Matthew Broderick) into a mid-life crisis.

The 1980s obviously brought us John Hughes’ classics – if you’ve only seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off then watching the rest of his work is essential. The Breakfast Club is possibly THE high school movie of the decade and has inspired so many take-offs and re-interpretations (Dawson’s Creek and ER both have episodes inspired by it and I vaguely recall a Family Guy involving a flannel shirted Judd Nelson); Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles are grittier and more realistic than the somewhat fantastical Bueller and help you understand why Molly Ringwald was so highly regarded at the time. An honourable 80’s mention should also go to Heathers, truly the darkest of all high school movies and possibly Winona Ryder’s finest moment – any film that manages to combine croquet with multiple teenage deaths ranks highly in my book!

Others that would be up there include:
Mean Girls
Bring it On (possibly the best cheerleading film ever).
Clueless
Say Anything (can’t believe I only saw this for the first time last year).

Scream & Scream 2

Anyway, there was a point to this listing – last week I found a new film to add to the list. Easy A was an early addition to my LoveFilm rental list thanks to an enthusiastic review by Mark Kermode. A Dr K approval on a high school movie meant that I had high expectations that I hoped to be realised – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s clever, it’s a bit offbeat, it has potential to be ‘worthy’ yet doesn’t overdo it, it has Lisa Kudrow in the cast and has some dorky Christians – fabulous. Olive suddenly finds herself portrayed as the school slut after rumour gets round about how she spent her weekend – they think she slept with a college guy when in fact she was home alone being the nerd that she is. It spirals out of control and leads to some interesting ethical situations that are dealt with in an unusually non-schmaltzy American way.

The main reason why Easy A got me reminiscing about my favourite genre is because it deliberately references several of the classics. For example:

“Whatever happened to chivalry? Does it only exist in 80’s movies? I want John Cusack holding a boombox outside my window. I wanna ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. I want Jake from Sixteen Candles waiting outside the church for me. I want Judd Nelson thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me. Just once I want my life to be like an 80’s movie, preferably one with a really awesome musical number for no apparent reason. But no, no, John Hughes did not direct my life.” [I concur]

The sharp intelligent wit reminded me of Juno, but I enjoyed the film a whole lot more. Similarly serious issues, yet handled in a very different way. [This is a controversial opinion, but I’m really not a fan of Juno. Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched it for the first time in an edited form on a Royal Brunei Airways flight, but I’ve now watched it four times and still haven’t been converted. Love the soundtrack though.]

High school movies remind us of the best of times and the worst of times. We remember why we don’t really ever want to be a teenager again and that people were always lying when they said our time at school would be ‘the best days of your life’; and ultimately, we convince ourselves that we’d probably have had a much more interesting time of it had we grown up State-side – we wouldn’t, none of it is real.

630 Minutes

630 minutes is the amount of time – within 24 hours – that I spent watching stuff on LoveFilm between Saturday night (when I signed up) and when I went to bed (late) on Sunday night. That’s ten and a half hours and a lot of telly by anyone’s standards.

I’d finally caved and joined LoveFilm after finding a Groupon offer that got me 3 months membership for £6. I figured that as I could probably buy two mediocre films from Asda for that price, it would be in my interest to join and watch some decent stuff instead. Plus, a friend who’s belonged for ages kept mentioning things he’d found online that had been great viewing. That sealed the deal – films and TV shows that I don’t even have to wait for? Awesome.

So, I now have a list of decent (and semi-decent) movies that will be winging their way to me over the next few weeks – 500 Days of Summer should arrive today, then there’s Coco Before Chanel, An Education, Easy A, The Blind Side, The Social Network, Made in Dagenham, Up – basically most of the films that I should have watched in the last couple of years, but hadn’t quite got round to. Oh, and there’s also Saved, because who doesn’t want to watch a High School flick about crazy Christian teens converting and judging their classmates?? (He’s Just Not That Into You is also in the mix, which I may finally be emotionally stable enough to watch, possibly.)

But obviously, I had none of those in my first 24 hours of membership, so instead I gorged upon what I could find in their online player. Initially I was disappointed – few of the newer releases are there and others you have to pay for (in addition to your membership fee) but luckily I found one film that I’d have added to my rental list – Precious (otherwise known as ‘the movie in which Mariah Carey looks ugly’) which was as tough a watch as I’d been led to believe, but well worth it. Sunday morning began with Mean Girls (I know, how had I not seen this film??) which is hilarious on many, many levels. In fact, it made me realise that I should go back to my 30 Rock boxset soon, as Tina Fey (who wrote the movie’s script & co-stars) never fails to have me in stitches.

Finally, I landed on Driving Lessons – the Rupert Grinch & Julie Walters vehicle that wasn’t particularly loved by critics – the critics were wrong. If you’re a Christian, particularly of a more weird & wacky persuasion, its depiction of the church is fabulous – there’s liturgical dance, a hot curate and a torrid affair. (I say ‘torrid’, you don’t really see anything at all. Quite dull really.) Plus, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Ron Weasley, so Grinch is easily my favourite of the three Harry Potter darlings.

Three films in 24 hours isn’t too bad – heck, at one time in my life that was standard for a Friday night in the company of a film obsessed friend and several cans of Strongbow. (Gosh, I was classy in my youth.) That accounts for approximately 270 minutes – so what about the other 360? That would be retro TV serials and that, my friends, is a topic for another day.

[Basically because I’ve spent so much time over the last few days watching retro TV that this post has taken several days to write & is stupidly long – count your blessings that I’ve come to my senses at this point.]

Poker Face

A book on poker wouldn’t be my usual non-fiction holiday choice. (I take after my Dad – holiday reading always includes at least one non-fiction, usually biographical, number.) However, I have Twitter to thank for the inclusion of For Richer, For Poorer by Victoria Coren in my pre-holiday 3 for 2. 

I can’t really explain how I came to follow a poker playing journalist on Twitter, though it’s probably to do with an account of her encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury and her appearance on My Teenage Diary. I don’t know much about poker (well, didn’t, now I feel a lot more informed) and had only played once – during an England game and not fully compus mentus (and that’s putting it generously). But thanks to Twitter I’d become rather fascinated with the concept of a middle class north Londoner becoming such a success in a world that’s almost a total mystery to me. 
Thus, the first important thing to know about the book is that you don’t need any prior poker knowledge in order to enjoy it. There is a glossary, but it’s at the back, so I only discovered it when I’d finished reading the book. [Note to publishers: put this at the start in future editions, it would be a big help – some of us don’t flick to the back of books for fear of spoilers.] 
Every chapter ends with a hand from the European Poker Tour final in London – these bits have lots of poker terminology in them, but after a few chapters I’d got the hang of it and was addicted to finding out how each unfolded. (I knew the result of this tournament before reading the book and I expect others reading this do too, but I won’t spoil it.) In fact, by the end of the book I’d have felt myself so in Coren’s shoes that I would’ve taken anyone on at a game (though obviously not one using actual money – I’m still very Methodist in my views on gambling…). 
In between these hands is the story of how Coren fell in love with the game, from gatecrashing her older brother’s poker nights, to joining The Vic (no, not the pub in Eastenders, a casino on the Edgware Road) and taking part in the poker World Series in Las Vegas. Her involvement in poker began a few years before it took off in popularity, spawning televised games and celebrity tournaments, so the things she describes are rarely glamorous. In fact, the gambling element is never made to look like the ideal lifestyle (which warmed my ex-Methodist heart). Plus, she’s often a rare woman in a man’s world – though there are women only tournaments. (As an aside, at the World Series winners receive highly prized bracelets – yes, bracelets. Manly men win jewellery. Extraordinary.) The characters are fascinating too. Not so much the celeb tournaments, more the people on the poker circuit like the Hendon Mob, The Lizard and Devilfish, not to mention assorted crazy Texans.
But it’s not all poker – there’s enough about her own life and family to make it a rounded read. In fact, I’d first become aware of the book thanks to an extract printed in the Observer, which was less about poker and more about her father. Specifically, the feelings his brush with death caused and a sense that time with him was running out.
Most of all, I loved the reactions of others, provoked by the discovery that I was reading a book on poker – one friend exclaiming “Poker! But you’ve never even played the lottery!” [this is indeed true]. I liked the fact that to all intents and purposes I looked like a demure solo diner, yet then pulled out a book on poker to escape the loneliness of solo dining… 
Mentioning the book on Twitter resulted in a bit of poker/Coren banter including the following gems.
(i) Coren is also the co-author of a book about how she tried to make the best hardcore porn film ever (Once More, With Feeling). Now there’s a book that would give out totally the wrong impression of the reader… 
(ii) My sister provided a terrible poker-related joke: How do you make Lady GaGa angry? Pok(h)er face. How fabulous. Incidentally, while reading this book you will undoubtedly find yourself humming Poker Face – it’s something to do with all the references to Texas Hold ’em I think. 

Forster & O’Farrell

One thing that’s become something of a holiday tradition is stocking up on recreational reading via the ever-present 3 for 2 in Waterstones. Yes, I have issues with the ubiquitous chain and yes, I have issues with the mass price-cutting of books, but just occasionally I allow myself to ignore my values and acquire some cheap(er) brand new writing.

This time, I already knew what two of my three would be – and one was Maggie O’Farrell’s recently published in paperback The Hand That First Held Mine. I then I noticed a new (and unexpected) Margaret Forster novel, Isa & May, which completed my trio. O’Farrell and Forster are two authors who can pretty much do no wrong as far as I’m concerned [with the exception of the grudge I still bear against Forster for the Diary of an Ordinary Woman] and I barely glanced at the books’ blurbs, so confident was I that I’d enjoy them. They’re also rather similar, albeit belonging to two different generations, and these particular novels had so much in common that at times I forgot which author had written it.

I read The Hand That First Held Mine in two sittings and within 12 hours (there was a 9 mile walk in between the two sittings) – which is surely a sign of a compulsive read. With chapters set alternately in the early 1960’s and the modern day, featuring two different women, it already scored points with me as this is a style of writing I adore. Eventually the two stories inter-twine and the connection between them is possibly rather predictable, but the plot is gripping and its final twist proved to shock me.

Similarly, Isa & May contained a plot twist centred on family secrets and mistaken identity. The twists were harder to spot and in some ways not a lot happens in the book, but it’s an interesting mix of Forster skill at fiction writing and her fantastic ability to write biography. [I highly recommend her book on Daphne Du Maurier.] Isamay, the protagonist – named after her two grandmothers – is researching well known grandmothers throughout history for her MA. The theme of what genetics versus environment means to our development is key, but plenty of titbits about various famous grandmothers are included too – from Queen Victoria and Elizabeth Fry to Margaret Mead and Cecilia Asquith. Brilliant for a fiction loving History geek!

The point of this post isn’t just to review/recommend the two books I read last week, but also to highlight the great reading these two authors have produced. Forster’s been in print since the early 60’s, having an early success with Georgy Girl (successfully adapted into a stunning film starring Lynn Redgrave), while O’Farrell’s first book (After You’d Gone) came out in 2000. Both have written novels set in my old haunt of north London (O’Farrell’s debut is set in Crouch End, a neighbourhood Forster’s also used) and The Battle for Christabel (Forster) featured a scene on a road round the corner from my old house – these geographical quirks always help!

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is perhaps my favourite of O’Farrell’s books, despite it being rather disturbing and distressing. I vividly remember reading it while on holiday in New Zealand and being transported back to a time when life as a woman really could suck. [That’s not a particularly well-written sentence, but what I remember of the plot would simply be a massive spoiler!] Forster, having written for five decades, has a much longer back-catalogue, but like I said, I’ve not really been disappointed by any of what I’ve read. As with Isa & May, many of her novels draw upon her love of history, like the controversial Diary of an Ordinary Woman and the fabulous Lady’s Maid – which tells the story of a maid employed to serve Elizabeth Barrett Browning around the time of her elopement. There’s a reason why she is also a skilled biographer…

The only down side is that new books from the two of them don’t come out as often as I’d like!