Last Christmas.

TV Happy Boxing Day. Christmas Day passed off, as it so often does, like some fever dream, a more acutely lucid experience this year thanks to Sefton Park being hit with all the weathers the meteorological elves in the sky could throw at us, having a discussion over dinner about when Jesus was actually born and realising that calendars stop making sense if there wasn’t a year zero (or some such), Simon McCoy’s bearfriend and the Queen referencing Game of Thrones in her speech to the nation (if she’d done this whilst sat in the iron throne, Buzzfeed’s servers would have been down for the rest of the day). In the evening we watched Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy with its portentous party flashbacks is surprisingly Christmassy.

Fittingly in the middle of all that there was Doctor Who’s Last Christmas, which is what it is, just as these Christmas specials usually are. Let’s get the main business out of the way first. It’s fine. It’s not the best of all the specials which is still The Feast of Steven (because of Peter Purves’s accent), not the best of these modern specials, which is still The Christmas Invasion and not the best of Moffat’s which is probably A Christmas Carol and not the worst (The Next Doctor hasn’t aged well, has it?). It’s also certainly one of the better television episodes of the year though given how low the bar has drifted on that, this might not seem like much of a complement. But it is.

As Charlie Jane Anders notices in her excellent review, effectively what Moffat’s doing here is taking the accusation that all he ever seems to do is recycle old story types by recycling old story types  In general terms, Alien, The Thing and Inception (of all things) are here as are Amy’s Choice, The God Complex and Journey To The Centre if the TARDIS with the writer making sure that we know that he knows that he knows and that we know by actually referencing the films within the episode and Shona’s list at the end. In the classic series, it’d be the equivalent of the Doctor actually noting the Android of Tara’s literary antecedent or indeed the whole of The Mind Robber.

Cue a YouTube fan montage to the tune of Jane Wiedlin’s Inside A Dream, the chorus for which is “And lose myself inside a dream / Opening up a secret door / I lose myself inside a dream / And find a world worth living for” which isn’t just the plot of this episode but pretty much a mission statement for every companion in the programme and probably us fans. Incidentally, this was the best of Wiedlin’s solo work, even better than Rush Hour which arguably didn’t really actualise until Joy Rider’s McBusted sounding pre-McBusted teen rock run out. Wiedlin’s album Fur was one of the cornerstones of my teen vinyl collection, purchased alongside all the Debbie Gibson picture discs from Penny Lane Records when it was in Mathew Street.

But this really is the work of someone who’s entirely aware of the criticisms made against him. Oh how he must have giggled as he also misses out the time loop or paradox, even though it’s appeared in all his previous specials in some form or other. With the entire episode apart from the coda happening inside a dream, there isn’t room for one even if you assume that all of the different participants have been drawn together from different time zones. Perhaps Listen’s gotten it out of his system. Let’s hope so, unless it’s used in a particularly interesting new way. My one hope now that we know Clara’s back for another year (yippee!) is that it’s about a straightforward search for Gallifrey or some such.

All of which means that in this case it’s the Twelfth Doctor’s lack of human understanding and alieness, the two things which were brought to the fore in the previous series, which hinder rather than help him. If he’d seen all of these things, or at least remembered seeing them because I’ve always assumed the amnesiac Eighth Doctor in the century he spent waiting for Fitz in the Earth arc was a big movie buff, he would have twigged what was going on much earlier, as I think Moffat expected his audience to. It’s the sort of proverbial bomb under the table as winking narrative device which the writer’s been very good at across the years.

Capaldi’s clearly having a ball playing these shades and between the writing and his performance, a few things have clearly been tweaked in terms of allowing the audience to like him some more and to allow him to be enjoy being the Doctor, both the actor and his incarnation. When he utilises emotional cruelty it’s as a weapon rather than as something he just apparently does and importantly is remorseful about it afterwards not least when he discovers that what he thought to be the truth was a lie. Though to be fair I’d forgotten he didn’t know Danny Pink was dead which added a whole other complexion to my first viewing of the facehugger avoiding scene. I even thought the Doctor might have been visiting Clara in the wrong order.

As the sleigh ride scene shows (the teeth, oh the teeth), there probably is something admirable in having a generally stoic Doctor who will eventually crack and let his hair down when given the right encouragement. It’s very Spock, if you’ll pardon the expression, makes those moments when Capaldi’s face beams all the more special (cf, the giddy dance, oh the giddy dance in Flatline). It’s not all perfect. His general rudeness to people he’s just met isn’t attractive. “PE” was back with a vengeance too (though that could be rationalised as him gauging the nature of this dream construct version of Danny and how he’ll be interacting with him). But if we’re now in the post The Twin Dilemma world, that’s fine.

On the basis of Last Christmas I’m also willing to shift Clara to being my fourth favourite companion of all time behind Polly, Martha and Charley Pollard (who I can now play alongside Eighth in the Legacy game thanks to the Big Finish Humble Bundle) (phew). Those tears in the teaser, those teaser tears. Those dream tears would clearly have had even greater weight if the apparent original (and frankly awful) companion conclusion had stayed in place, her seeing that interior for the first time in decades, but even after six months and an assumption that she’d never see her again, you can understand why, having had time to think, she’d be flabbergasted.

The Danny Pink business is still problematic and I’m not sure that we needed yet another farewell scene for the both of them, but it was beautifully played by the three actors and there is a poignancy that not only would this fictional paradise be her last Christmas with her boyfriend, it would be her only one, them having met and him dying between festive seasons. But the notion of the last Christmas is something which has been playing on my mind for the past few years. It’s why, even with me at the age of forty, our family still fills the bottom of the tree with presents, why I still treat Christmas the way I did when I was ten years old and I’m going to stop this paragraph here because I don’t want to cry like I did during the episode.

With all of that good will out of the way, let’s deal with the rest of it. I didn’t really like Nick Frost’s Santa or the elves and I don’t think they worked within the context of what they were supposed to mean within the dream construct. Would these people really envisage this version, the one doing an impression of Simon Pegg doing an impression of Toby Young? I think the jokes were fine and I enjoyed the verbal jousting with the Doctor and the thematic undercurrent of their spiritual similarities. But I would have much preferred a figure closer to the Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, born of comfort rather than cynicism, especially since we’re in the realm of children’s belief systems.

Speaking of which, and because I am forty but without children, I would like to know how kids reacted to the notion that Santa only exists in dreams, of being told flat out that he’s a fantasy. Granted such things are also available to kids with internet access and the Wikipedia entry, and the Satsuma at the end, perhaps a visual reference to the closing spinning top shot in Inception is supposed to imply otherwise, but I do wonder how many parents had to find a rationalisation of their own at the end of that. Though parents are very good at this. I found it entirely reasonable after visiting the Santas at both Lewis’s and Blacklers department stores in Liverpool on the same day that they were his ambassadors or helpers and the real one was busy up north making presents.

Now, here’s a question. Are we ok with the revelation that the three women scientists, the fact of there being three women scientists one of the great pleasures of the story up until that point, were only dreaming they were scientists and that two them at least Ashley and Shona (we don’t know the previous employment status of the grandmother, Fiona), respectively worked as an account manager for a Perfume company and as the other says "I work in a shop. I thought I was a scientist. That's rubbish."? Why not just keep them as scientists when they wake up or have them be themselves in the dream rather than shaming them for the jobs they otherwise have?

Am I wrong to take umbrage at this with its nested portion of umbrage reserved for the gender stereotyping inherent in the choice of jobs? Why Perfume exactly, assuming Perfume isn’t a software company? Again I’d be interested to hear feedback. It was suggested to me on the Twitters afterwards I may have overreacted to this and potentially I have and it’s true I have become quite sensitive to this sort of thing recently for various reasons. What of Albert? Was he still a Professor in the real world? His name is very professortorial. Perhaps he’s essentially David Brent in real life. Anyway, please feel free to leave your comments beneath the doubly-doos or the sub-Reddit (if I had one).

But apart from that, Last Christmas is fine. Any episode which has Faye Marsay apparently defending herself from alien attack by dancing to the music of Wizzard and a joke about Santa’s sleigh holding all the presents because it’s dimensionally transcendental can’t be all bad. The various obvious tweaks do correct some of my own cynicism about the future of the show, though my planned plunge into McGann catch up over the next eighth months should help too. Having finally “done” Santa, (Time) lord knows where Moffat will go with the special next year. It’s going to be the nativity, isn’t it?

Now, take it away Jane Wiedlin …

Sontag, Swift, Shakespeare, Milton, Laing...

That Day Here are all my non-food Christmas presents. If you'd told me even last year I'd be asking for and getting the Taylor Swift album for Christmas ... well ... I wouldn't also believe I would have also bought her previous, Red, in the Amazon sale later that day ...

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Lis Murray.

Spoiler Alert: You’re rooting for the villain

All these years, we’ve had heroes. Think Christopher Reeve in Superman, or think Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill in Working Girl or any number of other ‘new classics’. The films of our youth and years past, restored our faith in human kind, and had heroes that were the type of people that we looked up to and wanted to be.

These heroes were everywhere. Slightly flawed enough that we believed in their inherent perfection, in their strong desire to what is good and right, and with a moral compass steadily pointing north. The idealism of Hollywood films made us believe that ‘happily ever after’ was actually a thing, and that we would ride off into the sunset and instantly know that happiness was there and would always be, and that perfection was just at the tip of our fingertips if we’re good enough.

But now we’ve grown up, and Hollywood with us, and discovered that life isn’t actually like that. Life isn’t crammed into 2-2.5 hours with sweeping music and witty dialogue. Sex never happens in front of a roaring fire, with fireworks exploding outside in a timely manner. The bad guy doesn’t always see the error of his ways and repent. And our own real life character arc isn’t an arc at all, but a waveform of ups and downs.

Oh, and we don’t have our own soundtrack. Bummer.

What this shift in our own discovery of ‘real life’ has brought to us, is the realism of films where the hero isn’t always 100% good. He or she is more than just flawed, they are philanderers, murderers, conmen, and worse. But the audience has been duped. We’re rooting for these people. In any film of the 80s, this person would be the bad guy, but here we are cheering for this person to do their worst.

A great example, that most will agree with, is House of Cards, where we simply cannot believe what is happening OMG, and yet find ourselves waiting anxiously to see what Francis Underwood will do or what he won’t do, to get what he wants. His wife is even worse. In fact, there’s not a typical ‘hero’ in the entire thing. Everyone has a secret, or a weakness or something that makes them slightly more than flawed. But why ‘more than’? Why not just flawed? Because they know it’s wrong, and they do it anyway. It’s premeditation. They are aware of their own selfishness, but being aware doesn’t mean that they care. It’s sociopathic to an unknown degree.

Recently, I’ve been aware of this type of new genre; the uber-flawed hero. Think back to The Departed, there’s not a flawless character in the entire thing. Arguably, some are trying to do right, but they do so much wrong trying to get there, that they’re nowhere near squeaky clean.

I listed The Departed because it breaks just about every norm for a ‘typical’ gangster movie, but if we look at even more recent examples, you’ll see what I mean. American Hustle was basically made up of villains as heroes, trying to escape from the clutches of the big, bad, lawman.

Wait a minute, I thought the lawman is supposed to be the good guy? I thought all that play-acting of ‘cops and robbers’ when we were kids was supposed to teach us about morality, and put us on the right side of the ‘good vs evil’ struggle. What is this now that we’re rooting for the typical bad guys and rooting against the typical good guys?

A heap of films and tv shows have been gliding toward us which is turning this ‘good vs evil’ perfectionism on its end. But why? What has changed in our society that this is what we as an audience are demanding?

If in doubt, blame the internet. Society has never been closer than we are right now and we’re feeding each other the news rather than waiting to be fed whatever the media chooses to show us. The truth comes out though sometimes it’s exaggerated and grotesquely near unrecognisable, but we have the ability to find these things out ourselves. We know about our politicians, we know about our leaders, we have the ability to find out about every injustice in the world. The time of blindly trusting those who make the laws we follow has come to an end.

Rather than traipse down the road of politics, let me just veer off into the overgrown verge of ‘awakening’. We, as audience members, having had the curtain whipped back sharply and revealed that our leaders are not the Great and Wonderful Oz, have realised that omigosh, no one is perfect, this guy is just like me! And there is where the attachment begins.

In realising that the ‘Hollywood ending’ isn’t real and, let’s face it, is never going to happen in real life, we are nursing this desire to relate to a hero who is imperfect. No longer are we wanting someone we can look up to, or to strive to achieve goodness and perfection. We know what we’re like, and we want someone like us.

Not that any of us are committing murder, blackmail or any other complicated schemes to get into the White House. But Frank Underwood’s ‘White House’ is my ‘Head of the Department’, so, go get ‘em, Frank, let me live vicariously and shamelessly through your amoral selfishness.

You can follow Lis on Twitter @missamerica_.

Christmas Links #24

Christmas on campus: what are international students up to this year?
"A flight from London to Malaysia can cost over a grand – one reason why Tai Jei See, 21, an international student at the University of Southampton, will be spending her first Christmas in the UK this year. “I feel sad and get more homesick during festive seasons – especially during Christmas,” she says. “But it’s easier to cope when I have friends to spend the holidays with and a lot of work to keep me occupied.” She plans to cook dinner with them and go to church."

How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA:
"Earlier this year, John Waters — whose last movie, A Dirty Shame, was released a full decade ago — finally got the offer he’d been waiting for all this time. According to his hitchhiking chronicle Carsick, his very first driver was “Harris,” “an art school type” with a sideline in weed dealing who called himself a fan. They talked for a bit about movies before Harris asked the (five) million-dollar question: “How come you aren’t making a movie?”" [via]

Robot orchestra perform Doctor Who theme:
"Fifteen robotic musicians from across Europe join forces to perform the Doctor Who theme."

The Double Negative Awards 2014:
"We may not have a glitzy ceremony, but we do have an esteemed panel of judges. All year, our critics have been travelling the length and breadth of Britain, witnessing the best contemporary (and classic) culture on offer. Editor Laura Robertson asked them to name their winners of 2014: who will make the cut?"

Welcome to The Software Library: MS-DOS:
"MS-DOS (/ˌɛmɛsˈdɒs/ em-es-doss; short for Microsoft Disk Operating System) is an operating system for x86-based personal computers mostly developed by Microsoft. It was the most commonly used member of the DOS family of operating systems, and was the main operating system for IBM PC compatible personal computers during the 1980s to the mid-1990s, when it was gradually superseded by operating systems offering a graphical user interface (GUI), in various generations of the Microsoft Windows operating system."

Xmas or Bust: The Untold Story of 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation':
"From freak snowstorms to the comedic cyclone that is Chevy Chase, the cast and creators reveal the secrets behind this beloved holiday-movies classic..."

Christmas 2014 around the world:
"People take photos of a giant illuminated Santa Claus in Marseille, southern France."

White Christmas in Hawaii? Snow falls on Big Island peaks, Blizzard Warning issued:
"4:00 p.m. update: The National Weather Service forecast office in Honolulu has upgraded the Blizzard Watch for the Big Island mountain peaks to a Blizzard Warning – with the potential for up to a foot of wind-driven snow at altitudes above 11,500 feet."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Pete Carr.

The Christmas card

Every year I forget to send a Christmas card to my mate in Canada. Why? Well I don't see him on a day today basis so it's easy to forget to add him to my Xmas card list. But more importantly is the fact that I don't have a Christmas card list.

Do I disagree with them? No. I simply find them a conundrum in 21st century times.

I haven't written a letter to someone in years. Like an actual letter with a pen. I don't do that. I email. I tweet. I have no reason to write someone. Which is a real shame because the Christmas card should be that one time of the year when I get out a good pen and craft a warming letter to someone across the globe who would like to hear how my year has been. But yeah, Facebook removed the need for that.

So what is a modern card? A year ago I specifically set out to make my own. I made a landscape photograph and printed the cards on decent paper. I didn't like the idea of generic Clinton cards with Happy Xmas in. Unfortunately I've been too busy this year to do the same so out came the Clinton cards. I'm sorry if you got one. I wish it could have been more personal.

Now what I could have done is dug into my snowy photo archives and made a webpage with a digital card on. It would still be hand crafted, unique and personal but not a real tangible card. As humans we do love a tangible card. Sending a jpg just seems cheap or impersonal despite all the time and effort put into it.

I'm stuck. I wish my Xmas card was a finely crafted catchup letter or a beautifully designed Xmas website. Modern society is stuck between these two times. So I send "Happy Xmas" or forget to send and ultimately feel like I'm socially irresponsible for not putting more thought into my card.

What's the one thing you should know? Maybe it’s that I overthink things. Maybe it’s that the Christmas card is the poster child in the war of analogue vs digital. My parents would send a card. If I had kids I would imagine they would send a link to Tumblr.

Happy Xmas and a Merry New Year.

You can follow Pete on Twitter @petecarr.  You can view his photography portfolio here and here is his blog.

Christmas Links #23

Small Data: What are the chances of snow at Christmas?
"Are you still dreaming of a white Christmas, asks Anthony Reuben. If so, you probably don't want to know this nugget from Mark Wilson, a meteorologist at the Met Office: "There's a higher chance of getting snow over Easter in the UK than there is at Christmas."+

Art of the Title: Scrooge (1970):
"A gentle clang of church bells and a minimalist film projector rendered in dots and lines — the sturdy ident for Cinema Center Films — welcomes viewers into the impassioned and often dark musical Scrooge."

Alternative Christmas message to be given by Ebola survivor Will Pooley:
"The British Ebola survivor Will Pooley will deliver the alternative Christmas message on Channel 4, calling for a global solution to the epidemic, which has so far cost more than 7,000 lives."

Each New Boot a Miracle:
"This week, we got the emulation of MS-DOS programs (mostly) working on the Internet Archive."

19 Vintage Sexist Christmas Ads That Hilariously Failed
"I’m pretty sure this is not a way to “please a lady.”"

Writing a Holiday Film:
"Holiday weeks and weekends are some of the busiest at the box office. People love to gather with their families and head out for some entertainment. More often than not, holiday weekends are peppered with tie-in releases. When writing a script, you want the time and place to matter. For holiday scripts, the season and day function almost like a character in the film – and can be utilized to explain zany actions, set pieces, and time locks for the plot."

In Slovakia, Christmas Dinner Starts In The Bathtub:
"For centuries, families throughout much of central Europe have relied on one simple main course for Christmas Eve dinner: the common carp. But getting from river (or carp farm) to table is not so simple. As the tradition goes, the Christmas carp must first swim in the family bathtub for at least a day or two before being killed, cleaned and prepared."

A Window Onto Evolving Traditions in Paris:
"Each November to January, Mr. Dehix, an elfin 64-year-old, reigns as both impresario and chief troubleshooter of this realm, rising before dawn to inspect every display for broken strings, burned-out bulbs or a derailed train set. Known affectionately as the Geppetto of the Grands Magasins, Mr. Dehix has been Paris’s go-to man for holiday windows for more than four decades."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Alison Gow.

Life  Christmas Day will mark my first full year of living, if not totally off the grid, at least several degrees west of it, so when Stuart asked if I’d like to contribute a piece for his blog, I figured it was an opportunity to reflect on 12 months of lifestyle readjustment.

I grew up in in Wales, in the countryside, with fields, woods and the beach. But work took me away and for 20 years I’ve never lived more than 10 minute’s walk from an all-night convenience store or 24 hour supermarket. Coming home to a warm house was a given; if I was thirsty I turned on a tap. Skype was a way of life, I had internet in my home and my pocket, and downloading apps took seconds.

Then, In Summer 2013 my husband and I found ourselves in possession of a lovely but somewhat neglected house on a Welsh hillside, several miles drive from a village of any substance (ie with a Spar-sized food shop).

Several things we knew from the vendor:

  • The house was off-mains; water was gravity-fed via underground pipes from a fast-flowing stream. There was a filtration system but no (we later discovered) UV filter which would make it safe for drinking.
  • The house had a wood-fired central heating system, fuelled by its’ several acres of woodland, plus the woodshed was stacked for the coming winter.
  • There was wifi and BT was ebullient about the coverage, but there was no mobile signal (3 solved by sending us a free Home Signal box).

None of these things seemed insurmountable at the time of purchase, compared to the amount of work required to make the house liveable. They have, however, come to occupy most of our waking discussions.

We had several months worth of knocking down, ripping out and rebuilding - working on the house weeknights and weekends, and living in a modern rented bungalow.

Then we moved in (the work wasn’t finished but we had Had Enough) and reality kicked us in the pants.

Wood fired central heating means sweat, splinters and backbreaking work - all year. Right now we’re felling, chopping, carting and splitting logs for winter 2015/16.

There’s no handy switch to start the heating - you fetch the logs, light the fire, wait (about an hour) for the boiler to warm and keep your coat on until it does. The house will finally be warm several hoursafter you first coax flames to life, but in the meantime you hover over it like an over-anxious parent and if you turn your back for more than an hour the fire dies and you have to start over.

Last New Year’s Eve, at around 10.30pm, we were up to our knees in the raging torrent formerly known as a stream, investigating why the house had no water.

It was pitch black, sleeting, and freezing cold. Just days earlier a woman in the next valley had drowned doing exactly what we were doing, and we beat an eventual retreat without solving the problem.

New Year’s Day saw us giving a colonic irrigation to our silt-clogged underground water pipes, in the sleet. It only took an hour in daylight, but checking the stream feed is now an obsession. So is warning visitors not to drink the tap water. Some of them even listen to us.

Having land isn’t a lark - it’s a responsibility. The property includes some ancient woodland and it’s important to care for that properly, because it will be here long after we’re gone.

We’re responsible for making sure our fences are strong enough that neighbouring farmers’ livestock don’t break out of theirs and into ours, that we control (ie pull up by hand) invasive weeds such as Himalayan Balsam, and thistles, and that our trees don’t drop branches to block the no-through lane we live on. Some days, between pulling weeds, moving lengths of tree trunks and chainsawing logs, I feel like a contestant in The Biggest Loser.

And wifi? Ah, lol. Some days it reaches the dizzy heights of 0.02MB; some there’s not enough strength to return a speed test reading, let alone Skype. Updating an app can literally take all night.

All this makes me question BT’s original airy promises but BT is, alas, the only show in town; rural living tends to mean less choice of provider. After months of struggling we received a grant from the Welsh Government for satellite broadband, because of our location and lack of connectivity. Work on that side project continues.

Other adjustments: Living up a hill means you get Proper Weather; we spent a week in February without electricity, courtesy of gales, and when a tree comes down across the road, you get the chainsaw out - if we waited for the authorities, we’d be permanently stuck.

We have no pretentions to a Good Life-style homestead and that’s good because it’s practically impossible; feral sheep are adept at breaking in to strip the gardens, and the foxes, mink and owls would smack their chops at the idea of poultry.

So, is it a nightmare? No, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. We know all our neighbours, and everyone pitches in when there are problems. I’ve driven an injured sheepdog to the vet because my low-slung sportscar could squeeze under a felled tree when the farmer’s Land Rover couldn’t, and our postman, who discovered I was a Welsh-learner, tells other locals “siarad Cymraeg gyda Alison, ond siarad yn araf”*.

I can now operate a chainsaw, run a log splitter, string sheepwire Like A Boss, and reverse at speed along narrow lanes because Stupid Tourists Can’t Back Up.

Despite the steep learning curve, I miss very little about city life. The night skies are unbelievable, we have a family of badgers that comes up to the house for their evening peanuts and we know our neighbours for the first time in years. The compromises of living somewhere pretty remote are sometimes testing, but they are worth it.

And if I need cafe culture, there’s are a few pretentious coffee shops only, ooh, 30 minutes drive away.

*”Speak Welsh with Alison but speak slowly”

You can follow Alison on Twitter @alisongow.

Christmas Links #22.

Santa's real workshop: the town in China that makes the world's Christmas decorations:
"There’s red on the ceiling and red on the floor, red dripping from the window sills and red globules splattered across the walls. It looks like the artist Anish Kapoor has been let loose with his wax cannon again. But this, in fact, is what the making of Christmas looks like; this is the very heart of the real Santa’s workshop – thousands of miles from the North Pole, in the Chinese city of Yiwu."

What’s A Spanish Christmas In London Like?
"A hugely articulate and enthusiastic expert on Spanish regional cuisine, Jerusalen Gunning is a food consultant to the Boqueria restaurant group. She comes from San Sebastian, and now lives in Hampstead."

Woman transforms her office cubicle into an amazing Christmas cabin:
"Westfield works in the sales department for the W Minneapolis Hotel. With the help of her husband, Alex, she spent 18 hours creating the mini-cabin masterpiece for an office contest, according to WCCO."

A baked pancake perfect for Christmas morning:
"I'm having company stay over during Christmas weekend and that means a lot of meals to make. The only meal that sometimes can be a problem for me is breakfast. Having toast, cereal and bagels every day seems boring, but my usual company breakfast of waffles has me standing over the hot waffle iron for a long time, making waffles for everyone."

A Pictorial History of Santa Claus:
"Contrary to what many believe, Santa Claus as we know him today – sleigh riding, gift-giving, rotund and white bearded with his distinctive red suit trimmed with white fur – was not the creation of the Coca Cola Company. Although their Christmas advertising campaigns of the 1930s and 40s were key to popularising the image, Santa can be seen in his modern form decades before Coca Cola’s illustrator Haddon Sundblom got to work."

Soundtracking 'Serial': The Musicians Behind the Podcast:
"Soundcheck host John Schaefer talks with two musicians who created Serial's soundtrack. Nick Thorburn is the songwriter behind the bands Islands and The Unicorns; he was tapped to write Serial's catchy theme song. Mark Henry Phillips has a long relationship with public radio, and has provided scores for This American Life and other podcasts. Both musicians talk about the pitfalls of providing emotional cues through music; the need to create distinctive themes for the story's narrative cycles; and how to find and score the most important moments with minimal production time."

12 faces of Montreal Christmas: Bell ringer:
"It’s a sound familiar to almost every Montrealer at Christmastime. The ringing of a bell, clear and beautiful in the brisk winter air, as a volunteer stands and smiles at passersby, asking for whatever change they can spare."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Gary Bainbridge.

Life I grew up near Penny Lane. I lived around there between the ages of three and 23, and then I got married and moved away.

That marriage broke down at the end of last year. It has been extremely difficult for all concerned, and that's all I'm going to say about it.

After a short stay with my brother and his wife and their menagerie of pets I moved into lodgings off Penny Lane in January. It was a good spot for some practical reasons, but also because I wanted somewhere familiar, a cocoon to which I could retreat and rebuild myself.

About a week after I moved in, my live-in landlord joined me in the kitchen, clutching a piece of paper. The previous evening he had been at his regular quiz night, and the paper contained the questions from this session. “Did you know any of these?” he asked me, and he rattled through them. I answered roughly 20 out of 28 correctly, including, crucially, a couple his team had answered incorrectly.

Apparently I'd passed his super-secret audition, and he invited me to go along to the next quiz night, at Peter Kavanagh's pub on the outskirts of Liverpool city centre. I joined a team comprising most weeks a playwright, a swimming accountant, a motorcycling IT consultant, an expat American scientist with a limitless supply of geeky T-shirts, and her husband, a one-legged, home-brewing, Burnley-supporting, repository of general knowledge.

And our team won. I kept going back every Thursday. We didn't win every week, but we did more often than not.

It changed my life. Outside work - the only part of my life which hadn't altered - I was rootless. Now I had a rhythm to my week, a pub where the barmaid knew my order, and the first friends I'd met in years outside Twitter.

When I moved out of my Penny Lane cocoon and into my flat, living alone for the first time in my life, I stayed in touch with my new friends, still going to the quiz as often as I could.

Because what I know now is you have to put in the effort to maintain friendships. I'd coasted before then, letting friends slip out of my life. And that left me alone when my world imploded. I learnt my lesson.

I grew up near Penny Lane.

Christmas Links #21:
Letter From America with Alistair Cooke.

Television in America (1951):
"How a new daily diet of television in America is changing people's lives, as reported by Alistair Cooke."

Christmas (1967):
"Senator Jacob Javits' parking fine, Mayor Lindsay and the water commissioner, and a President Truman Christmas story."

Christmas in Vermont (1976):
"Enjoying the fruits of his family's labours at a traditional New England Christmas gathering."

White Christmas in Vermont (1979)
"Christmas holiday in Vermont, the state which knows how to cope with snow."

Winter in Vermont (1981):
"Learning to live with winter temperatures way below zero in Vermont."

Cholesterol-free Christmas, anyone? (1984)
"Keep cutting your cholesterol, say the experts - just as the Christmas eating binge beckons."

Christmas, and Alistair Cooke meets a computer (1993):
"A 1940s style flight to Vermont brings Alistair Cooke to his family and a computer which has swallowed several libraries, a few archives and already knows all about him."

The constitution and religious festivals in America (1993):
"The difficulty of celebrating a religious festival in America without behaving unconstitutionally, A Christmas Carol, Washington style and the Park Lane Christmas trees."

New Year's Resolutions (1994):
"Alistair Cooke looks at the changing fashions in New Year's resolutions, and the success of Alcoholics Anonymous."

Christmas (1995):
"A Christmas spent in Vermont, the joy of experiencing absolute silence and the progress of the federal government shutdown are discussed by Alistair Cooke."

The snow of 1996, 1947 and 1888 (1996):
"The New York blizzard of 1996, the great snowfall of 1947 and the "paralysing anxiety" during the blizzard of 1888, as chronicled by Alistair Cooke."

A history of Father Christmas (1996):
"Santa Claus or Father Christmas? The origin of the Patron saint of Christmas is explored. Plus, the surprising popularity of a Tickle Me Elmo toy has caused prices to skyrocket."

A New York Christmas story (1997):
"The story of Zebby Adams, the real Santa Claus, and how his joyride got him into trouble – and his Christmas spirit got him out of it"

Park Avenue's colourful Christmas (1999):
"Whilst looking on the tasteful fairy lights of Park Avenue's festival decorations, Alistair Cooke reflects on how, not so long ago, Christmas had a reputation of debauchery."

The Messiah at Christmas (2001):
"In the wake of 9/11, Alistair Cooke remembers introducing Bernstein to Handel's Messiah and admires the generosity of Tiger Woods."3

Christmas Reflections (2002):
"Alistair Cooke contemplates the meaning of Christmas as it is celebrated now, and remembers the Christmases' of three famous men."

Birth of a Christmas Fairy Tale (2003):
"Alistair Cooke recalls the circumstances that led to the creation of Charles Dickens' most famous story."

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."