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 Slade 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."