Into the Woods

The Other Emily spends an entertaining evening at the theatre with this classic Sondheim musical.

As you were all heading out into your bank holiday weekends, I ventured Into the Woods to a dark world of grimly comic Fairy tales.Who else could turn childhood favourites into (even) darker versions of the stories other than Stephen Sondheim? Woven into a modern mash up of wolves, beanstalks, bakers, and princesses, this production is a reprisal of the sell-out show in 2014, and sits easily in the round at the Cockpit Theatre. The forest floor is a generous carpet of wood-chipping, and the eerie woods of Sondheim’s imagination a set of ladders ascending into the sky, and dangling down from the beams of the theatre. I took my place with a bird’s eye view (and out of the way of any possible audience participation) and waited for the Narrator (Jordan Michael Todd) to begin the tale.Director Tim McArthur promises the audience a 21st Century twist with his adaptation, and we certainly get that. Jack and his Maw are Glaswegian Neds; the Baker and his wife are Health & Safety conscious with their hair nets and crocs; Cinderella’s Step Mother and her sisters are straight out of TOWIE; and an Irish Witch & Rapunzel battle over a Mother’s right to control her daughter’s life. Our protagonists are a parade of modern stereotypes, which proves a little gimmicky at times; the paedophilic wolf, portrayed as a wide boy; Jack’s drunk Mother lurching around with thong on display, an overwrought, coked-up Rapunzel rejected by her Chelsea Prince Charming etc.In our world of ‘more’, the characters all wish for something else to fill the void. In a nutshell, the Baker wants a child, but the Baker has been cursed by his friendly next-door neighbour, the Witch. She sends him off into the woods to fetch four magic ingredients to break the curse; a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold – see where they all fit in now? Cue the music.And in this production, we are treated, on the whole, to some fine performances. Aaron Clingham, the musical director, steers the discordant score through the woods with a few tonal mishaps from his singers. I was rather taken by the awkward Jack, played by Jamie O’Donnell, clambering to the top of the ladder-cum-beanstalk, plaintively singing ‘Giants in the Sky’. The stand out performance comes from the Witch, Michele Moran, who ably settles into the role of the haggard old crone whose love for Rapunzel is borderline claustrophobic. She steers much of the narrative, finally breaking the curse of the poor old Baker, to the delight of all.End of Act One, and it all looks smooth sailing – the Baker’s curse has been lifted! Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny are safely back side by side! Jack has his favourite cow and Cinders and Rapunzel their handsome princes. But wait – there’s still Act Two to go, and from the opening number ‘So Happy’ we know it’s not going to be a bunch of laughs. Sondheim’s trademark satirical voice reminds us that we just can’t stay content for long, there’s always something else we want.It’s a clunkier second act – which is partly down to the Book, and by the end of the rampage (oh, did I neglect to mention Jack’s Giantess comes down and tramples most of the ensemble?) I feel like I’ve had a fairly large dose of Medieval Morality - face your responsibilities, own up to your choices, don’t become an overbearing parent. The cast unravel a tad, spending much of the act staring up at the imaginary Giant, and the choreography of the Finale is slightly gauche. The intimate set, which worked so atmospherically in the first act, loses its magic, and when the haze from the woods rises, it left me with the harsh reality of black box theatre…I think it will take a few more magic beans for me to become a hard and fast Sondheim fan, though there will be many in the audience. As for the production at the Cockpit, the actors still have to find their footing on the wood-chipped floor and sort out a few rookie mic issues, but, with that aside, it is an entertaining watch.

INTO THE WOODS runs at the Cockpit Theatre until the 24th June.

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Everything I Avo Wanted

Emily discovers something incredibly exciting at the end of her garden...

They say money doesn't grow on trees - and I used to believe them. That was until I discovered the millennial equivalent of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow ...

An avocado tree in my West London garden. Yes, you heard me, an actual avocado tree.

My bedroom looks onto the garden and occasionally I would see these green, pear shaped objects rocketing to the ground. At first I ignored them, assuming they were some weird urban fruit (I'm not from London). Then I took a closer look and assumed some extravagant Gatsby living above us was showing off his financial prowess by tossing these princely fruits at the proletariat. And then I completely forgot about it.

Since Tim Gurner's 'wise' observation that if all of us youths just stopped gorging on avocado toast for brunch, then we would be able to buy a house (FYI that is roughly 24,499 portions) my relationship with avocados has been particularly tense. Not to mention their extortionate retail price - and the roulette you play with ripeness (nothing worse than a disappointing avocado - I hear ya!)However, after venturing out last week, as the weather teased us with the promise of Spring,  I saw my mottled green friends lying listlessly on the paving stones once again, and this time I was determined to complete my avo-quest. The temptation of an avocado mine, glory and riches was too much to ignore.

I broached the subject with my housemates, who didn't seem particularly bothered by my exciting revelation, and seemed slightly concerned for my mental well being. Classic avo-haters. Undeterred by their unbelieving - I decided to turn to the experts.

Enter: Sarah Bray - expert horticulturalist, plant enthusiast and my mother. Your family have to at least to pretend to be interested in your mad capers - so I knew I would get some help here.

I ventured into the garden, found a suspected avo - cut it in half and sent my family Whatsapp group a pic. (I'm convinced if Poirot was real and in his 20s today - he would have done the same thing).

rhs2

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Needless to say the avocado was extremely hard and having had no confirmation that it actually was an avocado - I wasn't willing to sacrifice my poor stomach ...

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She was very keen for me to eat one - however I still wasn't convinced.

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A number of useful suggestions! Deciding that the plant fans were more likely to be on Twitter than Instagram - I took to the latter platform and got in touch with the Royal Horticultural Society:

RHS

RHS

And low and behold! They replied, CONFIRMING that is was in fact an avocado. Miracles do happen!

RHSa

RHSa

So there you have it. I have an avocado tree in my garden. If anyone has suggestions regarding how to ripen the fruit in the harsh, polluted London climate - please let me know. In the meantime I will be sitting in my garden getting smashed on avocado.

But the good news is now I can stop spending all my money on avocado toast and save up for a house instead.

avo and out,

Emily x

Valentines Date Night Recipe with Lucy Pea

Lucy Pea shares a delicious, quick and easy recipe, perfect for Valentines Day.

Valentine’s Day – always a controversial day with a bit of a Marmite vibe. Some people love it, some hate it. None the less, it’s a good excuse to get in the kitchen and cook something special for your loved one, housemate, best mate etc. So, here’s a really tasty, quick and easy recipe that everyone will love.So, who am I and why am I here - I’m Lucy, and I’m a self-confessed food lover. I’m literally obsessed. I’d spend every waking moment thinking about, talking about, cooking or eating food if I could. I officially work in advertising, but feeding people is what I SHOULD be doing.Follow me @LucyPea_Cooks and I’ll feed you virtually. DM me with a tempting enough proposal, and I’ll happily actually feed you.This Asian influenced marinated salmon dish is so easy, it’s my go-to when I want to recommend a stress-free recipe to friends. I’ve paired it with a colourful slaw salad, which is well worth the little bit of chopping required. You can easily put this together after work.The slaw champions seasonal ingredients that are readily available in the colder months of February, and the salmon is so easy you’ll (hopefully!) return to this again and again for a post-work feed!Top off your Valentine’s evening with my ready in no time pudding, satsuma segments dipped in chocolate and sprinkled in sea salt.

Asian influenced marinated salmon, with a colourful slaw salad

For the Salmon:

1 stick lemongrass, finely chopped (I cheat and use lemongrass paste)

½ thumb of ginger, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

3 tbsp soy sauce

1 bunch coriander

2 salmon fillets

1 tbsp runny honey

1 chilli, finely chopped

1 lime, zest a quarter

For the Slaw:

2 spring onions, finely chopped

1 cabbage, grated

2 carrots, grated

½ pepper, finely sliced

¼ cucumber, peeled into ribbons

4 radishes, finely sliced

Method:

1.Mix the lemongrass, ginger, and garlic with the soy sauce and lime zest. Rub all over the salmon fillets.  Leave to marinate for an hour if you can, or 4 hours + if you’re really prepared.

2.Pre-heat your grill to 200C. Whilst the salmon is marinating, prep and chop all of the ingredients for the salad, mix all the vegetables together.

3.When you’re ready to cook the salmon, brush the ginger and garlic pieces to the side of the salmon (if they’re on the top, they’ll catch and burn on the grill). Brush the salmon with a little runny hunny and put under the grill.

4.Depending on how aggressive your grill is, after around five minutes your salmon should have a nice dark colour. If, like mine, your grill is a bit temperamental, keep half an eye on the salmon whilst it’s in there so it doesn’t blacken too much and start to burn. Once the salmon has browned on top, turn off the grill, close the door and leave the salmon in there for another five minutes.

5.Pour the marinade from the salmon into a bowl, add the juice of the lime and mix. Serve the salmon and salad, pour the marinade on top, and sprinkle over the chilli and chopped coriander.

If you’re particularly hungry, serve the main dish with cooked rice noodles or sweet potato mash.

If you really want a special evening, the best wine for this dish would be a dry Riesling or a Gewürztraminer, both which should hold their own against the richness of the salmon and the Asian flavours in the dish (I worked in wine before I worked in advertising. I like to pair food and wine…).

And for pudding...

If you want to make a simple pudding, why not make these chocolate-salted dipped satsumas too. They’re a tasty, winter-version of the chocolate dipped strawberry (save this for the summer when you can buy local, juicy-sweet strawberries). They are super simple and only take around half an hour to firm up in the fridge.

Salted chocolate dipped satsumas

250g dark chocolate

2 satsumas

Maldon sea salt

Method:

1.Peel the satsumas and take off the pith and separate out the segments.

2.Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie (aka in a heatproof bowl on top of a simmering saucepan of water).

3.Once the chocolate has melted, dip a half of each satsuma segment in the chocolate, put on a plate and lightly sprinkle with sea salt.

4.Pop in the fridge and bring them out when you’re ready to eat them! These will also keep for a day or two in the fridge so they’re perfect if you want to make them ahead.

LucyPea Cooks

Travelling in China

Palomi Kotecha shares her experiences travelling in China, along with her top tips if you are planning a visit. 

China doesn’t seem to be at the top of many people’s lists when it comes to booking a holiday. Despite having a fascinating imperial history, a cuisine that’s reached almost every corner of the world and a vast and varied landscape, it has a reputation for being quite difficult and inaccessible.I’ll be honest, China wasn’t the top of my list of travel destinations when I first went in 2015. In fact, it probably wasn’t even in my top 10. If I didn’t have a boyfriend who keeps inconveniently deciding to move out there (Beijing-2, Palomi-0) I probably wouldn’t have gone for a long time, and my initial reaction to having to travel out to visit him was more ‘needs must’ than gung ho.The image that I had, and that a lot of people seem to have of China, was ‘polluted, smelly, dirty, too many people’, and if you only spend time in Beijing or one of the other major cities, that’s probably fair. If you head out of the cities however, and you absolutely should, there are so many incredible places to visit; it’s an extraordinarily beautiful place, and really unlike anywhere I’ve been before. I won’t pretend to be an expert on a country that is immense to say the least, but here is a whistle-stop tour of the worst and best bits of my two trips.

Beijing

First things first – Beijing sucks. I know that’s a wildly generalising statement, but honestly I think the city is the pits and reconfirms the worst of people’s expectations of China. The best description for it is hostile. It is polluted, dirty and you’ll do a lot of hopping out of the way of flying cigarette butts and people spitting.

That being said, I found the best places to go in and around Beijing are the ones which have a lot of green open space, including the Temple of Heaven Park, The Lama Temple, the Summer Palace, Fragrant Hills Park and 798 Art District (no green, but out of the centre and quite cool, if you like modern art…which I don’t, but it’s an interesting contrast to the rest of the city).

The subway is the easiest, cheapest way to get around the city, and you’ll avoid the traffic, but it is a rabbit warren. If you use it then plot out your route before you leave the comfort of your hotel's wifi. I had to ask for directions once and the first two people I tried literally turned their backs on me, the third (well-meaning) gentleman sent me in completely the wrong direction. If you use cabs instead, then make sure you have your destination written down in Chinese characters.Although a lot of the travel guides will list hutongs as something to visit while in Beijing, you're better off buying a history of the hutongs and settling in one of the city's hipster coffee shops instead. Most of them have been either been bricked up by the government, or horribly commercialised, (several are now home to Starbucks and McDonalds), and walking around the ones that are still residential feels more like poverty tourism than anything else. The coffee shops make for excellent people watching, especially in the 798 Art District.If you’re pushed for time then give the Forbidden City a miss, it’s not that great (don’t @ me). Although it’s listed on just about every ‘top 10 of China’ list, take it from me you’ll be missing very little if you don’t go. It is enormous, the sheer scale of it is mind-boggling, but there are almost no exhibitions on Imperial history, and limited artwork; what little there is there you will be fighting 10-deep Chinese tourists to get to, and it is all housed behind dirty plexi-glass. The only one worth seeing is the Imperial collection of clocks which are exceptionally lovely. Think parts of Versailles transplanted into Beijing. The architecture is impressive, and if you absolutely can’t leave it off your list then whizz through it and walk up to Jingshan Park which sits behind it – up a few steps is a pretty lovely view of an unlovely city.One of the best things about China is, because it is just so enormous, the food from the different provinces varies as much as if they came from completely different countries. We mostly ate in and around the residential district where Garrett lives, but one of the highlights of my second trip was trying Yunnan food at In & Out Lijiang, where the staff are exceptionally surly but the food was to die for. Be more adventurous than me and try the rice and pineapple dish which is apparently a speciality of the province...There’s also Beijing’s famous ‘Ghost Street’, which is wall to wall of hot pot restaurants. Go for a walk after dinner, in almost any neighbourhood you’ll find exercises classes and ballroom dancing taking place under the massive underpasses, and you’ll be encouraged to join in! Mostly so that they can laugh at the silly foreigner, but it does look like fun.

The Great Wall

I wanted to do one of the "wild wall” hikes, but Garrett vetoed it as I’m quite slow…instead we went to Mutianyu which is just far enough away from Beijing that you can escape the smog of the city. As with most places in China, go early to miss the crowds. Also as in most places in China, be prepared to become the tourist attraction, as being a foreigner (particularly if you’re white) is still a big deal over there. I went to the loo before we climbed the wall, and came back to a gaggle of schoolgirls asking Garrett for photos. They’d waited till I’d gone away to ask, clearly being Indian isn’t exotic enough! “Your boyfriend is so handsome, like Jason Statham!” one of them helpfully explained.We walked a bit further than the official end of the Mutianyu section of the wall, and explored some of the ‘wild wall’. Vast swathes of it have been dismantled by local villages for building materials, so much of it is crumbling away. As it is less explored it’s far more remarkable, but also a lot more precarious as there’s nothing either side of you except a sheer drop.If you go to Mutianyu you can take a toboggan ride back down to the bottom instead of climbing down or taking the cable car, which was pretty fun. Just don’t fall off!

Chengdu

Being totally honest – we barely saw the city. The only reason for going there was because - PANDAS.  There are several panda sanctuaries in Sichuan province; we went to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and it was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. Pandas are basically ridiculous drunk toddlers and I could spend hours watching them. If you’re partial to a bit of celeb spotting, the Chengdu base is also home to the panda that was the model for Po from Kung Fu Panda.Again, you’ll have to do battle with reams of Chinese tourists and the fact that the pandas go to sleep after lunch for several hours (sensible animals), so skip breakfast at the hotel, go early and grab a good lunch afterwards. We went to what is supposedly the home of Mapo Dofu. I had a great lunch – Garrett ended up with chicken feet, so order wisely.

Jiuzhaigou

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This is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Jiuzhaigou is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a series of valleys and mountains and populated by nine Tibetan villages – they are pretty touristy as that’s the locals’ main source of income now, but still interesting to look around. The colour of the water is like nothing I’ve ever seen, and the pictures are not photoshopped, which is definitely what I’d thought before we went.It’s so beautiful that it’s a popular pastime for couples to travel there before their wedding, to have their wedding photos taken, and we saw couples in Yangshuo and in the 798 Art District doing the same thing. Pre-wedding photography is such a huge trend over there and so competitive that couples travel abroad to do it as well.Unfortunately the region was badly hit by an earthquake in summer 2017, but the government has committed a huge amount of money to restoring it and it should hopefully reopen again soon. As with all my recommendations – start early! Before the earthquake, as many as 40,000 Chinese tourists visited the park a day (although it’s so huge you’d hardly realise), so the earlier you start the more you’ll have the place to yourself. It seems to be one of China’s best kept secrets, as we only saw two other foreign tourists in the two days we were there.It’s either a 10 hour rickety bus journey, or an hour’s flight from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou; you’ll land at a tiny airport in the mountains, which is so rural that when we turned up two hours before our 8am flight back to Beijing it was still closed.

Guilin & Yangshuo

This was my winter 2017 trip over, and November actually turned out to be the perfect time to visit. The weather is usually c. 20-25 degrees, but it’s still considered off-season so the prices are quite low. We stayed in Guilin for one night, then took a 4 hour boat trip down the Li River to Yangshuo. The landscape is all karst mountains and rivers, and it feels a bit like you’ve wandered into a Tolkein novel, or Pandora. It is probably my favourite place in China so far. The scenery is so beautiful the government put it on the 20 yuan note, which is why almost everyone who goes there has a picture like this.We got pretty unlucky with the weather for most of the time we were there, so instead of all the hiking and cycling we planned to do, we took a leisurely bamboo raft down one of the tributaries of the Li River, which was a nice contrast to the large boat cruise from Guilin.We stayed at the Li River Resort which has a fab location overlooking the river and a brilliant restaurant. This is one of the few times I’d say definitely eat at the hotel, as the food was fabulous, and then go into the buzzy town for drinks on one of the many rooftop bars. A word of warning, there is karaoke everywhere and it is universally terrible.I also dragged a grumbling Garrett out of bed at 4am to climb Xianggong Hill to see the sunrise, but he agreed it was worth it (I think!)

Top tips:

Get your visa early – Chinese visa rules are weird and pedantic and change all the time. You’ll need several documents including a confirmation letter from your hotel and a return ticket, so make sure you leave enough time before your trip in case anything goes wrong.Be prepared to unplug. Chinese censorship is real and a pain in the arse, so unless you download a VPN you won’t be able to use a lot of things like Facebook/Instagram (!)/Twitter or Google. Also don’t make the mistake I did of trying to use Google Maps through a VPN because it is all wrong. Something I discovered trying to find the 798 Art District in Beijing and spent 45 minutes walking in the wrong direction towards the edge of the city…Express VPN is cheap and one of the best. I was out there at the same time as Trump and was hoping he’d manage to get himself arrested by illegally tweeting something outrageous. Alas.If you don’t speak any Mandarin– some kind of translation app is a must. Despite the emphasis on education, the standard of English spoken is far lower than you might expect, especially if you’re not in the major cities. Even if you do speak Mandarin, the likelihood is they'll be so surprised that you’re speaking in their language that they'll still get confused. (Happened to me with my pidgin Mandarin, but also to Garrett who is pretty fluent).Always order the aubergine. Even if you hate aubergine. Seriously.“I never imagined China would look like that” is what a lot of people said to me when I came back. Neither did I. It’s an incredibly beautiful, bonkers country, and although I wouldn’t choose to live there (and would quite like my boyfriend back), I can’t wait to go back, I’m already planning a third trip over (to Yunnan, because I can’t stop thinking about the food.)

Reading recommendations:

The Emperor Far Away, David Eimer

The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan

Words and photos by Palomi Kotecha @pkthakkarphotos

Serial Flake?

Emily explores a widespread epidemic, the symptoms, effects and a possible cure. 

Imagine this.

It’s some time in the late 1950s. Doris and Bertha have (over the LANDLINE) arranged to meet at a trendy Soho spot for after-work drinks on Thursday to gossip and generally chew the fat. But when Thursday comes, Doris can’t be arsed - because she got a little crazy on Wednesday with Cynthia in Accounts and is hungover and wants to go to bed. BUT she can’t just whack Bertha a Whatsapp to lie about having terrible period pains to get out of the drinks. If she doesn’t show, Bertha will be left hanging, all tarted up with nowhere to go. And she can’t just call or message her - because A. mobile phones don’t exist yet and B. Bertha is out at meetings all day and therefore couldn’t be contacted on the landline - even if she wanted to be. So guess what? Doris has to go, hangover and all because she has no other choice. So she shows up and the two of them actually have a really great time.

What a dreamy state of affairs? People make plans and actually stick to them.

However today sadly the concept of reliability is so alien I bet Charlie Brooker makes an episode of Black Mirror about it.

As usual technology is to blame. Out constant state of connectivity means that we can formulate and cancel plans in the blink of an eye. Nothing is set in stone (or even in pen) and this has lead to the acceptance of serial cancellations. Our digital lives have made everything more informal, more detached. Where once one would receive and RSVP to a party invitation on paper, now we compulsively click ‘attending’ on Facebook events, with no intention of actually going. We speculatively make plans with friends weeks in advance, with no thought as to how we will feel at the time: perhaps we will be tired, or busy at work? But because we know that we have the option of changing plans last minute - we don’t consider the future.

This is what has lead to the emergence of THE  SERIAL FLAKES.

Flaking is a dangerous game, if done infrequently it can be fine, but like most things if done in excess - it can have disastrous consequences. Chronic flakiness breeds resentment and even if unintended can come across as exceptionally rude. It assumes that the flaker takes you for granted, and doesn’t value your time or friendship. Our time is precious and when frittered away by an inconsiderate flaker can cause trouble.

CAVEAT

(I’ll admit that my own flakiness record isn’t exactly pristine. I’ve flaked many times on some of my nearest and dearest for a plethora of legitimate, such as norovirus, and non-legitimate, reasons aka I was tired and wanted to spend time alone watching Netflix. But I always try to manage the expectations of my friends and respect their time.)

From my perception of Flakers in the wild, I have discovered four prevalent types:

The Tired Flake

Our mentality is very much ‘work hard, play hard.’ This means that we are expected to give 100% to both our work life and our social life. So we plan, and we feel like if we don’t plan then we are somehow missing out. I have friends who I have tried to organise plans with and they don’t have any space in their diary for at least a month in advance?!  Extracurriculars are admirable and can be important for personal development - but that is just silly. But with our diaries choc-full of drinks, dinners, cinema trips, tennis lessons, volunteering, dates etc we eventually burn-out and that is when the ‘Tired Flaker’ comes into play. This is usually someone who has taken on too much and is so exhausted from their constant parade of engagements that they just need a break. They will be honest in their flakiness, they will give you fair warning, apologize profusely and rearrange (maybe more than once).

The Legitimate Flake

You can tell a legitimate flaker by the totally unexpected nature of the flake. Usually reliable in their organisation, they themselves will be just as surprised as you are by the flaking. It will rarely happen but when it does, be down to illness, work or a family commitment.

The Scatty Flake

You should never bother to make plans with the scatty flake. They rarely know if they are coming or going. They will probably have double booked you, turn up on the wrong day and if they do arrive, they will be late. They have no concept of time, or the importance of other peoples. If you do make plans with the scatty flake - make them at your own home so when they do cancel, it doesn’t matter.

The Distance Related Flake

Do you have friends who do their best to avoid travelling any distance out of their way? Who you always find yourself moving mountains to go an visit and yet there is no way they would ever return the favour? Those that fall into this category usually have a desperate phobia of leaving Zones 1&2. If you make plans with them outside their comfort zone(s) they will devise chronic lies to avoid travelling any distance. Best to meet them in Sloane Square.

The Lying Flake

This is the worst and most devious type of Flaker. They are the ones who will always wait until the last minute to flake. They text just a couple of minutes before you arrive for a drink to say they aren’t coming, or ruin a seating plan by cancelling at the last possible second before a dinner party. They will have a repertoire of excuses: ‘I had Zumba with my Granny’ or ‘I had to take my dog to the masseuse.’ You always know they are lying, either because they got a better offer, or they just can’t be bothered, but either way it is no way to behave. When making plans with The Liar - ensure it’s in groups of more than two, so they can’t totally ruin your plans.

Flaking is a vicious circle. In the worst possible way, I find myself feeling less and less bad about about flaking on my flaky friends. Which, I imagine leads them to flaking on me. And so round and round it goes, chipping away at friendships until there is nothing left except for a resentful mess.

Worse still is that flaking is now affecting bodies like the NHS - with missed appointments costing the health service nearly 1bn a year! It’s one thing to flake on drinks with Araminta at The Sloaney Pony on a Friday, but to flake on a GP that you have presumably booked an appointment with because you had some medical concerns - is in my (hypochondriacal) mind, totally obscene.

I was speaking to someone very wise about the flaking epidemic last week and he said that what we really need to do is:

Plan less and show up more.

And I am in total agreement.

Illustration Olivia Dueser

Words Emily Bray

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Living in Yangon, Myanmar

Jemima Neal shares her experiences living in Yangon, Myanmar.

Visitors to Myanmar will often just consider Yangon as a gateway into the country - it certainly isn’t known as a destination in it's own right. What some would regard as a frenetic, polluted, Asian metropolis, I feel incredibly lucky to have called home for the past 14 months.

Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar (Burma) and was the capital up until 2006, when the military government relocated the capital to the purpose-built city of Naypyitaw. Yangon’s skyline, the dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda, dilapidated colonial buildings and brand new high-rises, help to paint a picture of its dramatic history. Although, on first impressions it’s difficult to ignore the heavy traffic, packs of street dogs and often deeply inadequate infrastructure.

Two years after leaving university I was caught in the same conundrum as many of my friends. Bored in my job, guilty that I wasn’t enjoying my job, anxious about what I should do and desperate to do something more exciting. I’d always wanted to live abroad and having visited Myanmar with a friend two years before, the idea of living there seemed fascinating but highly implausible. I was working as an assistant at a fund management company and my job was starting to make me feel downhearted and claustrophobic. I wanted to work, live and experience a new city, rather than backpack. But finding a job in Yangon seemed like a difficult task. A friend had recently done a month’s TESOL course in order to move to Barcelona and she encouraged me to look into it. Inspired and in a moment of braveness, I left my job where I’d been for two years and signed up to a TESOL course.  Whilst on the course I secured a job teaching English at an international school in Yangon and was set to start the following month. Flights booked, visa approved, apartment sorted I was suddenly about to move to Myanmar! When I told friends and family, reactions varied from: ‘What an adventure!’ to ‘Why on Earth would you go there?!’

Although I thought I knew what to expect, navigating daily life in Yangon was considerably more challenging than I had imagined. It hadn’t occurred to me how complacent I’d become about the convenience and plethora of amenities we have in London. Just little things like buying dinner from the supermarket could turn into an hours drive through flooded streets in the heavy monsoon rains, arriving at the international supermarket and leaving with just a packet of crisps! Rent for foreigners is astronomical, so I lived in a fairly basic, old building in downtown Yangon, where power cuts and water shortages were pretty regular occurrences and cockroaches and rats were familiar sights. The intense heat and humidity combined with filthy streets could often be a sensory overload, leaving you feeling frustrated and defeated. Tales among expats and foreigners of extreme food poisoning, dengue fever and street dog attacks were in constant circulation...

However, despite the small frustrations I had the most special and exciting time in Yangon. I was so lucky to be working in the most amazing school where I felt so supported by the kindness of both the international and Myanmar staff. Teaching English to both the Myanmar staff and children at the Primary School was daunting at first but made me realize the appeal of teaching and how dynamic and sociable it is. I was totally enraptured by the colour, pace and chaos of the city. Life is very much on the streets and Buddhist festivals would take over swathes of the city with lights and music throughout the night. Myanmar certainly has a ‘golden triangle’ of tourist destinations but so much of the country remains barely touched by tourists. A lack of decent roads meant a weekend trip to the beach involved 14 hours of bus journeys, but it was always totally worth it. Yangon has a growing and buzzing ex-pat community with new bars and restaurants regularly opening. The pace of life and incredible kindness of the Myanmar people always made me feel incredibly relaxed and a stark contrast to the pressures and expectations everyone feels caught in living in London. I so relish my experience in Yangon and would encourage everyone to visit this most wonderful country!

One of my staff classes

One of my staff classes

Downtown Yangon skyline

Downtown Yangon skyline

Umbrella display in Yangon

Umbrella display in Yangon

Cows on the streets of Yangon

Cows on the streets of Yangon

Taunggyi Balloon Festival

Taunggyi Balloon Festival

The empty 10 lane highways of the Nay Pyi Taw

The empty 10 lane highways of the Nay Pyi Taw

Trekking to Inle Lake

Trekking to Inle Lake

Temples in Bagan

Temples in Bagan

Farming in Shan State

Farming in Shan State

Sunset in Shan State

Sunset in Shan State

Ngapali Beach

Ngapali Beach

Weekend away in Dawei

Weekend away in Dawei

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Christmas Story Time

Captain Atnas

by Peter Vaughan

From atop the lonely watchtower at the stern of the ship, Captain Atnas surveyed the festivities on deck. His huge, red hood was pulled down close, and the tarnished white fur of its lining was indistinguishable from the wiry locks that grew from his aged head. The captain was a giant, but padded by the crimson cloth of his greatcoat, it's brass buttons gleaming, and boosted one superfluous inch by the thick heels of his buckled boots, he made even his surroundings seem diminutive. The whole length of his cruiser appeared to come within the reach of his black mittens, as though, in leaning against the rail, he loomed over a low table on which a model of the ship had been built.

Above and all around Atnas, there was nothing but the darkness of the open seas; not a pin of moonlight pierced the fog, and the lights of the nearest nub of land were a thousand miles away. Below him, a thatched canopy of fairy lights and dried palm leaves roofed the walkways and clusters of chairs, and gave the chill air a tropical hint. Wasteful lamps swung over the waves from hollied hooks and tinselled rigging; their oil-flames sometimes spilled through the glass slides, and fell the long way to the water, where the icy ocean quickly extinguished them. Stars, surfaced by silver sequins, were tacked along the walls, and gold props, crackers, crowns, cards, candelabrums, baubles, and glittering snowflakes were variously strewn about the festive tables, themselves dressed with red satin and felt. Towards the prow of the ship, festooned with bows, patterned ribbons and delicate adornments, a towering Christmas tree rose high into the open air from a foundation of steel frames hidden behind a wrapping-paper façade. An angel shone at the lofty zenith.

Of Atnas’s passengers, a few dozen early birds or eager beavers had left the auditorium in the depths of the ship, and were excitedly perusing the spangled grotto that, by their giddiness and chatter, had surprised them like a magic trick. The remaining hundreds were still in their cinema seats, below, by now welling up, or manfully stifling their tears; It’s a Wonderful Life would finish any moment, and many elven servants had already assembled in the galley corridors and behind the decorations, buttoned up in burgundy waistcoats and forest bowties. Ready to mingle, grinning, on a servile loop of refreshment and reassurance, they balanced salvers of hot, mince pies, gathered in precarious piles; they held samovars of mulled wine, and ice-buckets for bottles of champagne, to be mixed with orange juice, to be free and flowing, to enliven and invigorate.

Like some general on a hilltop, a clear mile away from the opposing battalions that he can see in the fields but can no longer hear, Captain Atnas was alone with his senses, and had time to ruminate and perceive. And as it always is that when we notice silence, we actually observe its absence, he thought it peculiar that the waves were not thundering, as usual. But what had caused him to listen for that constant sound, which is incapable of ceasing, was the faintest ring of laughter that made it to his vantage, from the throat of a jubilant woman, somewhere amid the fairy lights. The general on his commanding point may similarly comprehend a bee’s humming wings as it passes in search of a flower, and suddenly decide to have his artillery adjust their aim, to account for a lessening of the wind, though he could not say when it had changed. So Atnas descended from his perch, to steer.

The bridge was typically quiet. On the desk near the wheel, the inlaid compass rolled over a few degrees, and then rolled back, as though breathing. Beside that, a sleepy house lay half buried in frost, within a plastic snow globe. A few buttons on the console were glowing, and on the sonar screen the vicissitudes of the seafloor were shown as green spikes. The ship had crossed a fault-line days ago, and now sailed over a rising, tectonic shelf, which pacified the swells.

A photograph of the late Mrs Atnas, not cumbersomely framed, but held between a glass front and a cork backing, looked up at the widower from its place as a paperweight. He acknowledged her gaze, and took out his matches, tobacco and pipe from the draw beneath her. As he smoked, he moved his sight across a map that, to most, would seem only to represent a featureless square of the watery world, but that was, to his experienced and now bespectacled eyes, as meaningful in detail as a palm to a fortune-teller. Having cindered the contents of his clay pipe, he eased the wheel a few notches clockwise, consulted the compass for twenty seconds, and clicked it back into place.

It’s a Wonderful Life had finished, and the cinema crowds were coming up the stairs, a tide of Santa hats, backless dresses, fox-fur scarves, white tuxedos and silk kerchiefs. They flooded onto the deck, coupled, with arms linked, coyly conversing or carelessly laughing. Music began to play. Atnas could watch it all from the windows of the bridge, but for sound he relied on the microphones of the foot-lit stage near the great tree, and the speakers that were installed all over the ship. Through the cheerful din, a jazzy number began that was as old and tired as the man who sang it.

‘I’m dreaming…’ he began, accompanied by the swinging pulse of a cymbal, and the tonal footsteps of a double bass, ‘of a white Christmas.’ Here a pianist twinkled in, with playful chords on the twee region of the keyboard. ‘Just like the ones I used to know.’

But Atnas dialled down the amplifier on which his speaker sat, reducing the croon to a mosquito’s buzz; he had heard it all before. The three instrumental musicians were young and gifted, but the vocalist was a veteran, the most seasoned of party performers. Onstage he could still charm, could tap-dance between verses, and wear his trilby, though its band was a mournful crape, with Sinatral inclination. Offstage he was a bilious drunk, a bitter flop who sometimes wound up weeping over the side of the ship, holding his hat so that it wouldn’t blow away, and so exposing, to not only the night, his friary baldness, his freckled scalp.

Atnas had seen it all before. Nothing was new to him, and nothing enticed him to partake of the merry celebrations. There had been a time when he could be convinced to go down and face the mistletoes, the blue flames of ignited brandy, the sitting on laps and the pulling of crackers, the balls of stuffing on cocktail sticks, the chocolate reindeer all wrapped in foil, the lame jumpers, the deep stockings and the awful jokes, but it had been many years ago. Mrs Atnas had been a wonderful persuader.

She was an undercurrent beneath his mind, and he floated upon his thoughts of her in the same way that his ship used updrafts from a fault-line to move easier across the sea. With a faint feeling of naivety, he tried to think about the Holy Spirit, but he did it indistinctly. It was one of those trivial things, the weather, which can become sublimated by circumstance, which brought him back to the moment. Whether he knew it first by the exhilarated gasps of the revellers below, or if a vague army of shadows had crossed his idle sight, he didn’t know, but he understood it to be snowing, outside.

'Peter Vaughan was born and raised in South London and began writing as a teenager. He is the winner of several short-fiction competitions and has quickly earned a strong reputation for contemplative and original writing that deals with subjects from the extraordinary to the existential’. You can read Peter’s short story Safia Sails here.

Illustrations Olivia Dueser

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A Christian Christmas in 21st Century Britain

Lawrence Smyth ruminates on the meaning of a Christian Christmas for Millennials in the 21st Century.

Christmas is probably the only time of year many of us will step inside a church. Carol services and Midnight Masses are usually jolly affairs, even atheists love belting out carols such as O Come all ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Away in a Manger! Although churches on 25th December are likely to be full (or at least more so than usual), and there will be much good cheer around, it can’t be ignored that Britain is increasingly becoming a post-Christian society with fewer and fewer people self-identifying as Christian. Where does this leave Christmas - Christ’s Mass (Cristes maesse in Old English)? What is it ultimately all about? In between the carols the priest normally gives a ten minute sermon in which he waffles on about how a Jewish fellow was born 2,000 years ago, and how this was a very significant and important event. The Scripture readings remind us of the Angel Gabriel, the Virgin Birth, the Three Shepherds and the Three Wisemen. Many in our cynical and postmodern age have little time for these charming details, and will likely doze off/joke around whilst waiting to sing the next carol. Can’t we sing songs and be merry in December without all the stuff about the baby Jesus? Isn’t Christmas just a Christian appropriation of a pagan winter festival anyway? Amidst the mince pies, the turkey, the presents, the Christmas pudding, does the religious aspect of this festival have any significance anymore? What does Christmas mean for the dwindling band of young Brits who self-identify as Christian? And what does it mean to be a Millennial Christian in irreligious Britain today?

Christmas - a Pagan Festival Appropriated by Christians?

The internet has enabled the spread of much useful and valuable information. However, it has also led to an increase in fake news, conspiracy theories, and propaganda dressed up as fact. It is impossible to log onto social media at Christmas or Easter without seeing ‘posts’ triumphantly asserting that the celebrations are actually pagan festivals which ‘evil’ Christians stole from ‘wise and tolerant’ pagans. Even the trusted Encyclopaedia Britannica alludes to this in its entry for Christmas. Many ancient civilisations held celebrations between 17th December and 1st January; the period of course coincides with the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the year’s shortest day and longest night occur. The Romans held the festival of Saturnalia on 17th December, a time of merrymaking and exchange of gifts. The Persians celebrated the mystery god Mithra's birthday on 25th December and the late Romans also celebrated the birthday of their sun god Sol on the same date. We obviously have some remarkable coincidences here, primarily connected with ancient agricultural and solar observances at mid-winter. So did Christians just jump on the bandwagon and decide to celebrate their ‘god’ at the same time as other gods?In fact the reason Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth on 25th December is more intriguing. The celebration of Christmas is closely linked with the date of 25th March, exactly nine months earlier. Christianity is obviously an offshoot of Judaism. In the old Jewish calendar the Passover festival was celebrated on 14 Nisan, which is the equivalent 25th March in the Roman calendar. According to the New Testament Jesus was crucified on this date. Consequently the early Christians believed he was conceived on 25th March as well, the traditional date of the feast of the Annunciation (it was apt that a great person’s life should begin and end on the same date). 25th December is exactly nine months after 25th March! It is strangely fitting that these dates collide. The Winter Solstice marks the point in the year after which ‘light triumphs over darkness,’ when the amount of daylight increases. The Gospel of St John describes Jesus as the “true Light, which lighteth every man that come into the world” and Jesus later tells listeners “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.” This may be all well and good, poetic even! But what’s the significance of this man’s birth, this man who described himself as the “light of the world”?

Christmas - The Incarnation and the Redemption

Modern Christianity in the West has become very bland, tepid and wishy-washy. Nowadays people think of Jesus only as a holy man who urged that we should be “nice.” They think Christianity is simply about following his teachings. Those not completely under the influence of Richard Dawkins / Christopher Hitchens (‘Ditchkins’) may even acknowledge that Jesus taught some noble things. Traditionally, however, Christians have not thought of Jesus as a mere holy man. After all, there have been many great holy men and prophets in history, such as Judaism’s Moses, Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha. If Jesus was no more than a holy man who taught some ethics, Christianity is a pointless, false and idolatrous religion. From the beginning the early Christians thought of Jesus as the key to all human history, as the God-man, who won victory over death and allowed Man to return to the Garden of Eden - from which Man has been exiled. To understand the importance of Christmas, one must understand the Judeo-Christian view of man’s spiritual history.The human story begins with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The name “Adam” simply means “man” in Hebrew. Adam and Eve are the mythical/symbolic ancestors of the entire human race. In Eden they disobey God’s command, eat the forbidden fruit and become self-conscious, ashamed and fearful. Their ignorant bliss is ended and resultantly Mankind is condemned to exile from God. Mankind now has to contend with pain, suffering, man-made evil, alienation and death. “God created the human being for incorruptibility and an image of his own eternity; but by the envy of the devil, death entered into the world.”However, God makes a covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people. This marks the beginning of God’s redemptive journey for mankind. God promises Abraham he will “establish my covenant between me and thee, and between thy seed after thee in their generations, by a perpetual covenant: to be a God to thee, and to thy seed after thee.” God later promises the Prophet Jeremiah “Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…After those days saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.”The birth of Jesus heralds the New Covenant. The Biblical Old Testament is about God’s Old Covenant with the Israelites. The New Testament is about the establishment of God’s New Covenant. This is for all the nations and to last until the end of the world. The Eternal God achieves this by sending his Eternal Son, born before all the ages and consubstantial (of the same substance and essence) with the Father, to ‘dwell among us,’ as a flesh-and-blood man. This is the miracle of the Incarnation. Jesus becomes the meeting place between God and man. It is through Jesus, the second ‘Adam’ that God’s true nature is revealed to us. Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature’ and ‘the brightness of [God’s] glory, and the express image of his person.’ Mankind fell because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Mankind rises again through the selfless example of Jesus. St Paul writes ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ “Adam’ is the old man, Christ is the new. Thanks to Jesus ‘as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.’ Through the miracle of Jesus’s Resurrection, death is defeated:‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death…Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?’Quite a story! It is because of the Incarnation’s believed significance nevertheless that Christmas has always been such a joyful time of year for Christians. It is the moment in history when the Eternal Living All-Powerful God became finite, corruptible man, dwelt among us, suffered with us, won victory over death and thereby ennobled us. ‘All things of [Jesus’s] divine power which appertain to life and godliness, are given us, through the knowledge of him who hath called us by his own proper glory and virtue. By whom he hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature: flying the corruption of that cupiscence which is in the world.’ Why did the Eternal Transcendent Living God become man? Only God can save corrupted, fallen man. Man does not have the power to save himself. Man is born, suffers and dies. However, the universe is God’s creation and the Book of Genesis tells us “God saw everything he made and, behold, it was very good.’ The New Testament tells us that ‘God is love’ and that at the end of time ‘all things shall be subdued unto God…so that God may be all in all.’ Thus, since God is love, is happy with his creation, and wants us to return to Him, how does He steer us onto the right path? At first in the Old Testament the steering is done through Divine commands and the Mosaic Law. However, via the Incarnation the steering is done through God sharing in our humanity and establishing personal relationship. Can we love an Eternal Spirit that only issues commands? An Eternal Spirit with whom we cannot form any personal relationship? A loving relationship can only be a reciprocal one; God arbitrarily commanding obedience cannot be the basis of a loving relationship. Therefore, it is through Jesus, God as man, - full of compassion, mercy and self-sacrifice for humanity - that ‘the Spirit and the bride [of God] say: Come. And he that heareth, let him say: Come. And he that thirsteth, let him come: and he that will, let him take the water of life, freely.’

Being a Millennial Christian Today

What does it mean to be a young British Christian today? Since the year 597, when Pope Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine of Canterbury to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons, being a Christian in Britain has been fairly unremarkable. Not so today. The media, who ultimately play a large role in dictating cultural altitudes, mostly subscribe to “progressive” ideology. This involves a constant struggle against “reactionary” forces and an unceasing fight for “victims,” real or imagined. Christianity is deemed a force of “reaction” and therefore is attacked. Christians are increasingly portrayed negatively in the media. The two favourite caricatures are of the naive, happy-clappy “I love you Jesus” odd-ball and the cold misogynistic hypocritical bigot who hates women, LGBT people, sex etc.Western Christians have not made a very positive case for their religion over the past 50 years either, which has contributed to the increasingly non- and anti-Christian attitudes that prevail today. They have presented Jesus as a sort of wise man hippy who helps people feel better when they’re feeling a little blue. What an uninspiring vision! It is no surprise that with such a modest vision people have abandoned Christianity in large numbers. If we’re looking for something to help us with stress or to find some kind of temporary inner peace, why not just go to Waterstones and buy a book by the latest Buddhist spiritual guru, or a book on mindfulness, or a self-help book on how to boost our self-esteem? Why bother with what some Jewish guy said in Israel two millennia ago?Despite the increasingly anti-Christian attitudes that abound today, and the lack of interest Millennials have in the religion, being a Christian in 2017 is no different from what it was in the year 117, or 517, or 1017, or 1517. “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable…our heart is restless until it rests in you,” thus wrote St Augustine at the beginning of his Confessions in 387. To be a Christian is to believe that Man is a “borderland creature.” On the one hand he is obviously a mammal who needs to eat, sleep and reproduce. He is of the earth and must play a part in human social life. However he is also a rational animal with a mind capable of sensing the “transcendent,” the “beyond.” When people say they are “spiritual not religious” what they mean is they are dimly aware of forces beyond the normal physical world, but can’t be bothered to investigate any further. For the Christian the sense of the “transcendent”, of the “beyond,” is the sense of God and His transcendent reality. For the Christian, true eternal happiness can only be found in God; the goal of life is the Beatific vision, when we shall see God ‘face to face.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: ‘Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, ‘the holy city’ of God, the ‘Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ She will not be wounded any longer by sin, stains, self-love, that destroy or wound the earthly community. The Beatific vision, in which God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace and mutual communion.’So what does one do to reach the Heavenly Jerusalem? Christians believe Jesus, the God-man, showed us the way. Being a Christian is not easy; from a worldly perspective Jesus’s life ended in failure and rejection. Christianity is not supposed to bring any material rewards in this life; ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’ There is no correlation between being ‘good’ and receiving ‘good fortune’, for ‘God maketh his sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.’  In any case life is only a ‘vapour which appeareth for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away.’ However, Christians are always called to do good and what is right, not for their own sake, but for others, in imitation of Jesus’s example. Consulting the earliest Christian writings is as good a way as any to show us the right path. As the anonymous 2nd Century Christian text The Epistle to Diognetus says: ‘How will you love him [Christ] who so loved you first? Why, in loving him you will be an imitator of his kindness. And do not marvel that a man can imitate God. By the will of God he can. True happiness consists not in exercise of power over one’s neighbours, nor in wishing to get the better of one’s weaker fellows, nor in riches, nor in using force on one’s inferiors. It is not in such things that a man can imitate God. No, such things are outside God’s magnificence. But any man who takes upon himself his neighbour’s load, who is willing to use his superiority to benefit one who is worse off, who supplies to the needy the possessions he has as a gift from God and thus becomes a god to his beneficiaries - such a man is an imitator of God. Then though actually on earth you will see that God has his commonwealth in heaven; then you will begin to speak the mysteries of God.’ Surely true and great words!

Merry Christmas!

Lawrence Smyth is a contributor to The Wanderer, a blog on diverse subjects with a religious focus.

And some further reading:

Mere Christianity by CS Lewis - a classical introduction to Christianity.

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Roast Christmas Porchetta by Charlotte Holland

Charlotte Holland shares her delicious Roast Christmas Porchetta recipe with us, her blog Food by Charlotte is full of enticing and inspiring recipes.I first tried a dish similar to this a few years ago when some family friends came to stay for Christmas. The centrepiece of our glorious Christmas lunch was not the traditional turkey but a beautifully stuffed joint of pork that had been slowly roasted for hours. To this day I still think about how good the pork tasted, so taking inspiration from the original recipe I came up with my own version. Using high welfare, slowly raised and well-sourced cuts of pork, really makes the difference. It is succulent, juicy and oh so flavorsome.  I used pork belly, which lends itself well to the rich and herby stuffing and also gives an epic crackling. I love nothing more than hosting supper parties and thought this roast pork would make an excellent focal point for a Christmas themed one. As it is Christmas, I had to serve along side my favourite vegetable, the mighty brussel sprout.

Charlotte xx

Roast Christmas Porchetta with Fondant New Potatoes, Roast Carrots and Brussel Sprouts

For 8-10 people (makes cracking leftovers if fewer)

For the Porchetta and Stuffing:

2kg high welfare pork belly (I used two 1kg pieces)

70g soft prunes

1 bramley apple, peeled and diced quite small

100g fresh white breadcrumbs

one red onion finely chopped

thumb nail size of fresh ginger, grated

1 clove of garlic

bunch each of parsley, thyme, sage and rosemary

1 tsp fennel seeds

two eggs

25g melted butter

100ml cloudy apple juice

For the Potatoes:

1kg bag of Charlotte potatoes

500ml vegetable stock

2-3 garlic cloves

For the Veg:

350-400g baby carrots

4 parsnips

maple syrup

feta

fresh oregano

For the Sprouts:

bag of brussels

pancetta

lemon

On the day before you plan to cook your pork, make the stuffing. Simply put the diced prunes, apple, breadcrumbs, onion, ginger, garlic, and fennel seeds in a bowl and combine with a good pinch of salt and pepper.

In a food processor add the herbs (pick the leaves off the thyme and rosemary) and blitz until fine. Add to the bowl with the other ingredients, the eggs and melted butter, and really combine until mixed well.

Open up your pork belly so it is flat and add a thin layer of the stuffing all over the flesh side and roll up tightly. I asked my butcher for elastic bands suitable for the oven, but you could also use cooking string. Be sure that the string is knotted properly; you don’t want it bursting open mid cooking.

Place the pork in the roasting tin skin side up and leave in the fridge over night. Leave uncovered to ensure the pork skin really dries out – essential to get good crackling.

Pre heat the oven to 130°C.

Smother the pork skin with olive oil and sea salt.

Pour the apple juice into the roasting tin and put the pork in the oven for at least 3 hours.

For the last 20 minutes of cooking, put the heat up to 200°C and let the crackling do it's thing.

Remove and leave to rest for approx. 30 mins.

Whilst the pork is cooking, add the potatoes, garlic and stock to a roasting tin and put in the oven until most of the liquid has been absorbed. The potatoes should brown nicely on top.

Whilst the pork is resting, add the carrots and parsnips to a roasting tin and toss with the maple syrup, salt and pepper. Roast for about 40 minutes until tender but starting to caramelise.

Once they are ready remove from oven and sprinkle with the feta and oregano.

Prep the brussels by halving and adding to a large frying pan. Sauté with some butter and water until they start to soften. Add the diced pancetta and let it crisp up.  Add a squeeze of lemon juice and season well.

To make the gravy, use the juices from the roasting tin and add a splash of white wine (or apple juice), water and a chicken stock pot. Let it simmer until it starts to reduce down.

By now the pork will have rested nicely and be ready to carve.

Words and photos by Charlotte Holland

Food by Charlotte

Christmas Ads - WHO EVEN CARES ANYMORE?

Emily Bray shares her musings on this years crop of Christmas Ads.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year and that means the festive floodgates have inevitably opened, unleashing a pyroclastic-flow of nauseating Christmas adverts. They come every year like an uncontrollable weepy, kitschy, festive flu that just won’t quit. Really John Lewis is to blame for this commercial pandemic - as the fervour kicked off circa 2011 with this #toocute spot. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to the ad scene pre 2010, but I’m pretty sure no one gave a monkeys about Christmas ads before.However, since this Merry D-Day of advertising each year brings the Battle of the Brands, in which big names pump an obscene amount of money into creating ‘feel good’ moments, to persuade you to buy your Granny a lamp or a phone contract or something else she really doesn’t want. Sorry if I sound like the Grinch - I really do like some of them, but I think the whole thing has got slightly out of hand. Losing sight of what Christmas is really about, the yearly stand off has lead to brands pumping cash into trying to outdo each other - rather than work that is really authentic.

Sainsburys

The biggest culprit is Sainsburys with their heinous black and white sing-a-long creation, complete with bouncing sprout (WTF?) The whole thing is atrocious - did no one tell them that user generated content is SO 2015? This ad is not only painful to watch, but exceptionally tacky and their chosen sing-a-long tune isn’t even catchy. It is a far cry from their elegant and profound First World War piece from a couple of years ago. Their change of agency has had a clear impact - and it is definitely not a good one.

Very

Next on my list is online retailer Very. Does anyone remember any work that Very has ever produced? No. Now don’t get me wrong, I respect that they have thrown their hat in the ring and tried to run with the big boys - but the result is a misplaced, if beautiful, mess. Their piece takes place in a CGI Winter Wonderland with a girl who wouldn’t look out of place in Frozen, desperate to gift those on her extensive list. Now, aside from the fact that this is clearly ripped off from John Lewis’ ‘The Long Wait’ (see above on JL’s 2011 spot) - it has nothing linking it back to the brand, no product and nothing to build on their brand identity. It is a bold piece of work - but feels like they are simply trying to keep up, rather than creating anything that is actually on brand, or speaks to their customers.

John Lewis

These guys are a victim of their own success. Having sat fat and happy at the top of the Christmas ad hierarchy for the last few years, it appears that they are slowly losing their sparkle. Nothing good can last forever and Moz seems much more forced than his predecessors - and he’s not even that cute. The soundtrack isn’t memorable, the story doesn’t tug on the heart strings (and probably not the purse strings), sadly it doesn't have the pizzazz of adverts past. It might be time for a change in direction.

Anyway - enough of my rant.

Here are some spots that you should actually take some time to have a peek at (if you can find time in between scoffing mince pies and downing mulled wine):

Age UK

Weepy - but not because it’s cute. Age UK draws attention to the forgotten at Christmas time, reminding us that everything is not merry for the thousands of elderly who are alone on Christmas. You probably won’t enjoy it - but it’s a powerful piece of work.

BBC

This stop motion beauty doesn’t try too hard. A young girl rehearses for a Christmas talent show, while her dad busy with work doesn’t pay any attention. Totally charming.

M&S

Aside from the fact that M&S are obviously jumping on the Paddington bandwagon as a means to their own ends - I can’t help but love it’s twist on Father Christmas. Anything with this little bear gets a thumbs up from me.

Debenhams

A modern day fairy tale - with Ewan McGregor. What’s not to like? It’s glossy and festive - a great job.

McDonald’s

Ok, I am totally biased - but McDonald’s have done a very clever thing here. Rather than focusing on their glorious menu, they have made their ad all about one girl’s quest to find carrots for Father Christmas’s reindeer - cementing the brand as a go-to for anything and everything over the festive period. Sweet without being saccharine, it places brand at the heart.So there you have it - now we can all get on and enjoy Christmas, without having it rammed down our throats.If you really want to see what a Christmas ad should look like, in my humble opinion, watch this flawless 90s spot from Yellow Pages,  no muss, no fuss - a simple idea, well executed with product front and centre and not an animal, CGI or otherwise, in sight.

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Rebecca Campbell, Artist

Sarah Capes spoke with artist Rebecca Campbell about her work.

Many moons ago, when I was an intern at Dulwich Picture Gallery, the exhibition Ragamala Paintings from India opened.  Since then, I have been fascinated not only by Indian art, but by the way in which it has inspired British artists and collectors since the 18th century. I even had plans to write a PhD on the subject, though that has taken something of a backseat in recent years.I was therefore very excited to meet Rebecca Campbell last week, a British artist whose style and subject matter is heavily influenced by her travels to India. Perusing the works on her website, I was immediately reminded of the Ragamalas. Her paintings possess a charmingly naive quality, focussing largely on animals, birds and plants in landscape settings. And yet, whilst there is this sense of naivety in their format and flatness, the detail in each specific element of her paintings is exquisite. A peacock's feathers, the leaves on a blossoming tree, or an elegantly placed butterfly; her works are characterised by an immensely pleasing harmony where everything seems to have its perfect place.Listening to Rebecca speak about India, it was clear how much of an impact the place has had on her. Having grown up in Ireland, where she was encouraged by her governess to explore the rural surroundings, make sketches and keep a diary of the things she saw, Rebecca’s interest in the natural world started at a young age. She studied History of Art at A-level and recalls particularly enjoying early Italian Renaissance and 17th century Dutch art. All of these early interests are certainly evident in her work. Though perhaps seemingly contradictory, the precision and sharpness of 17th Dutch painting is as present in Rebecca’s work as the primitive simplicity of religious depictions from early 15th century Italy. But it is the addition of her vivid colouring, the exotic landscapes and playful imagery taken from her time in India that makes Rebecca’s works so unique and captivating.Rebecca first travelled to India via Nepal, through to Varanasi and Calcutta, and then explored the south before travelling to New Delhi and Rajasthan. This was in her early twenties, after graduating from City and Guilds with First Class Honours in Illustrative Arts. Rebecca had felt that art school, though enjoyable, had given no indication of just how tough being an artist in London would initially be. She confessed to struggling to define her style at the beginning of her career, which meant that it was difficult for her to gain commissions at first. But she always felt inclined to a more painterly rather than illustrative approach.It was that first visit to India that truly defined Rebecca’s style. The people, the landscape, the architecture, and the array of colours – it is Rebecca’s memories of these things that fill her canvases. She begins by making endless sketches of an idea or a memory until she is ready to turn it into a full-scale painting. I think it is this painting from memory that gives her works an almost surreal quality; they amalgamate various real elements that the artist has experienced and seen, but not necessarily always collectively representing a true scene. Rather, an assortment of animals, birds, buildings and decorations united in a flat, frieze-like vision. Miniature painters in Mughal India would often also do this, particularly in landscapes and architectural paintings, combining real and imaginary elements to make one ideal vision.One of my favourite examples of this in Rebecca’s work is the Charm of Goldfinches. The main focus of the painting is a tree, curiously separated from the rest of the foliage within a fictional garden and enclosed by a decorative wall. There is so much space in the foreground, but somehow it does not feel empty. Looking closer, we can see three goldfinches sitting in the tree, with another flying towards them from the right. The best part of all is the little snail slithering across the foreground; though just one tiny detail, the painting somehow would not be the same without him. As I say, everything has its perfect place. The overall sense is one of a satisfying harmony within an idyllic, dreamlike garden. Another favourite of mine that also achieves this pleasing symmetry is Life at Lodi. The exotic animals, birds and plants are all perfectly situated before a Hindu temple in a surreal, Indian capriccio.Even when Rebecca’s paintings are not directly referencing India in their subject matter, their format often does. This is the case with the Charm of Goldfinches - nothing in the work really specifies a location, but the vibrant colours, the two-dimensional background and the curious addition of the snail in the foreground all recall the somewhat quirky visions of the Moghul painters. The perspective in works such as The Early Bird Catches the Worm is particularly reminiscent of Moghul Miniature paintings and Ragamalas; the curvilinear pathway surrounding the tree that has been pushed to the foreground, for instance, and the disproportionate sizing of the flowers in comparison to the tree, recall the compositional techniques in this type of Indian painting.The impact of that first visit to India for Rebecca cannot be understated and I was fascinated and heartened to hear and see how those influences continue to seep into so much of her work. In no way are her works attempting to recreate or emulate the art of the country, but they capture and offer us a taste of its essence. Their fundamental purpose seems to be to showcase beauty and simplicity in the everyday – to, as Rebecca told me herself, ‘celebrate life and colour and nature’.After her first trip to India, Rebecca had started to paint furniture and murals and was hand-painting items such as trays and waste paper bins for Saks Fifth Avenue. While this was a success, she recalls it being very time-consuming as she was often reluctant to employ help, preferring to work on her own. Rebecca also felt that although these designs were a useful way of showcasing her work and putting her name out there, she had a strong desire to make the painting itself the main focus of her work, not just as a decorative element. Since 2002, Rebecca has been exhibiting at Jonathan Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. It was Cooper who encouraged her to start focusing exclusively on painting in oils; an idea which she welcomed, continuing to work mostly in this medium since then. Rebecca does, however, accept commissions to work on large-scale murals and wall decorations for private clients. Examples of these can be seen on her website and Instagram page, and I highly recommend having a look. The sheer scale and attention to detail in these works is staggering; I was astonished when she told me she had completed one project like this in just three weeks.Rebecca’s most recent trip to India took her to New Delhi, after a couple asked her to make a portrait of their house and gardens there. She has also had similar commissions in France and the UK, producing stunning aerial views of various properties. These images in particular recall 17th century Dutch and English aerial paintings View of Llanerch Park, for instance. Rebecca’s works, however, incorporate the vibrant colouring and compositional devices of the Mughal painters, resulting in much more than a straightforward architectural likeness, but a lively, characterful portrait.Travel remains a hugely important part of Rebecca’s life and artistic practice. Based in South London, Rebecca maintains ties with India, particularly through her work for the charity Elephant Family.  In 2009, she was commissioned by the charity to paint a life-size model of a baby elephant for Elephant Parade, which was among over 200 others placed around London to raise awareness for the charity. The Wildlife Protection Society of India also commissioned another from her, situated in Green Park. They were subsequently sold at auction to raise money for the charities. She also participated in the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt in London, which raised a huge amount of money for Elephant Family. Rebecca painted a beautiful giant egg decorated with flowers and birds, which was situated in St James’s Park.I have always been of the opinion that when it comes to collecting art, you should buy what are drawn to and what you want to live with, not what you think you ought to buy. That is probably why I have a stack of prints piling up at home, all waiting patiently to be framed. For me, the enthrallment of Rebecca's work – that instinctive need to own and be surrounded by such beauty – was a very strong pull indeed. I started imagining every wall at home transformed into a pastoral haven or an exotic garden. Rebecca admitted to living and working in her own little bubble, opposing the lack of beauty in so much of today's art. She said her work makes people smile, which makes her feel lucky to be doing what she is doing.For me, her work is comforting and familiar, in a way that I find difficult to explain. Her work itself is happy, perhaps that is why. It was a pleasure to enter into the little bubble for a while, and to witness the visual manifestations of a mind so full of colourful memories. Rebecca kindly gave me some greeting cards of some of her paintings after our meeting, which, rather selfishly, I shan't be giving away, but which have made their way to the top of my 'to frame' pile.Rebecca’s next solo exhibition will be at Jonathan Cooper Gallery in September 2018.

Rebecca Campbell

Sarah Capes graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2011, where she completed her MA in the History of Art. She went on to The Courtauld to pursue a Masters in Curating that same year. Since then, she has worked in the London art world in various capacities, from museums and auction houses to conservation. For the last three years she has been working for a renowned Mayfair art dealer. Sarah was born in Vienna, grew up in New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the U.K. and now lives in Fulham.

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The Real Truth About Life In Your 20s

A perspective on life in yours 20s by yours truly (Olivia Dueser 💁🏼) - a single, white, unemployed female just trying to be distinctly average. 

This story is not a ‘woe is me moment’, nor a bleak rhapsody of pessimistic words. I just want to share what to expect when the unexpected happens – it’s ok to be in your 20s, unemployed and feeling unloved and average. Trust me when I say you are neither the first, nor the last to feel like this #staypositive.Society's expectations, Disney films and childhood literature do not prepare most of us for the harsh realities of life in your 20s. Nobody warns us that no matter how many frogs you kiss, Prince Charming is as likely to exist as you being killed by a vending machine (1 in 112 million). And ‘dream jobs’ are as likely to happen as you finding Prince Charming…Where is the Disney film where the girl doesn’t get her happily ever after? Where is the ‘Little Miss Unemployed' book? I am 26, single, unemployed, confused and going through my ‘quarter-life crisis’. I feel more lost and hopeless than ever. As I write this article late at night in my sexy silk pyjamas (scruffy may be more fitting), eating ‘Carte D’or Caramel’ ice cream from the tub and puffing away on my e-cig – and yes this is actually happening - I ask myself, ‘How on earth did I get here?’…Damian Barr, author of the book ‘Get it Together: A Guide to Surviving Your Quarter Life Crisis’ aptly describes your 20s as, “You’re expected to be having the time of your life but all is your do is stress about career prospects, scary debts and a rocky relationships.” Now just substitute “scary debts” for “spending money not saving ” and “a rocky relationship” for “perpetually single” and hey presto, you have the story of my life. Today I share with you two pivotal phases of my current existence: My Career (lack of) and love life (currently platonic loves rule my astrosphere).

Part 1

Unemployment is a Dangerous Occupation

From the company ‘going under’ to being ‘let go’; to quitting in a blaze of glory, to forever being an intern, or simply getting ‘fired’ – I have been there, done that, got the bloomin’ t-shirt. Unemployment is a convoluted state of reality…We have been brought up to pursue our passions, become the next thought-provoking leaders of the world, to fight for what we believe in and the world is our oyster. What they forget to tell you is that, that oyster is dodgy and not as open as it should be… It’s like we are doomed to fail from the start, because, what they do not prepare you at school for is failure. They do not tell you that it lurks at every corner or explain how you should cope when it attacks. To fail even once, does damage to ones psyche – years of therapy needed and perhaps could have been avoided, if maybe my school had spent less time on teaching me how to cook the ultimate roast or encouraging me to partake in important competitions such as inter-house ‘Harry Potter Quiz’ and more time on what to do when life isn’t going your way.Imagine day after day, week after week, month after month of one rejection after another – an ever reminder that you’re not useful, have no skills and can contribute nothing to society. Recently I have experienced a new rejection, one so dark that even the Dark Lord himself would be sent into a state of despair…ladies and gentlemen I present to you “not the right fit” for no reason rejection. They tell you that it isn’t because you’re not clever enough or sporty enough or young enough, no – somehow, even with a good degree from a good university, a financial qualification, fluent in two languages, sporty, creative, artistic, willing to work for free (no I am not bragging, merely highlighting my positive attributes in case any potential employers read this) you still “aren’t the right fit”…I feel like I’m Lindsay Lohan in ‘Mean Girls’ being told “you can’t sit with us” just for being yourself… #BeingYourselfIsntEnoughUnemployment also affects your relationships in ways you did not think possible. You are lead to a double-edged sword when interacting with your friends and family: if they don’t ask about how your job hunt is going, you think they don’t care and this makes you angry and anxious. On the other hand, if they do, that can lead to awkward conversations of why, how and that you might need to think of alternative paths – again you are angry and anxious – they cannot win, neither can you. You become massively oversensitive (not great for those, like me, who are already sensitive, dramatic hypochondriacs) and snap a lot more at your friends and family for no reason. You over think every little detail and situation in your life – situations which were not situations until you made it into a situation – even just writing that out makes me feel drained…you unintentionally make your life harder #Drama.Quick word of advice for the unemployed – try not to snap at your friends and family – this is when you need them more than ever and they are your lifeboat through this thorny journey…For all the cynicism I have been spouting in this article, I do have positive vibes and hopes for the future…Unemployment has inspired a period of self-reflection in me and I am learning a lot about who I am and that I’m capable of more than I think. And most of all it has taught me to use what makes you happiest as a starting point for your career search.

Olivia xoxo

To be continued..

Next week at the same time Olivia delves deeper into the dubiety of dating in your 20s.

 

Five British works of fiction that pass the Bechdel Test

Emily Bray does a British Bechdel investigation.

In a time when girl power is more important than ever and the sisters really need to stick together *cough* *cough* Mr Wein-scum. We thought it would be nice to take a pause and highlight some works of fiction that give girls a go. Sadly the majority of films and books feature male protagonists, with one dimensional females featuring as mere accessories. However,  the below list has been complied of British works of fiction that pass the Bechdel Test - in order to offer you a sprinkle of inspiration. Now, for those of you who don’t know what the Bechdel test is, let me enlighten you …The Bechdel Test is a very simple test that names the following three criteria:

  1. The work has to have at least two women in it - both of whom are named.

  2. The women have to talk to each other.

  3. The women have to talk to each other about something other than a man.

The Bechdel Test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, after it first appeared in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985.Sadly my search for British Bechdel passing works was quite a struggle, with our American cousins providing a lot more material (due mainly to the Hunger Games & Divergent trilogies). Regardless, here come some suggestions for your spoonful of lady goodness:

A Little Princess By Frances Hodgson Burnett  (Book, 1905)

I was surprised how many children’s books cropped up when researching this piece - but A Little Princess passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. Sara Crewe is reluctantly stuck in Miss Minchin’s Boarding School For Girls - giving this book the edge when it comes to Bechdel ratings - purely because it is a female dominated environment. However Sara herself is a kind and empathetic heroine - going out of her way to help other girls whilst coping with the loss of her father. Sara crosses class and race barriers, using fairy tales to deal with her personal demons and as a resolution to the struggles of others. Even in the most adverse circumstances - she remains headstrong and true to herself.

Bridget Jones’ Baby by Helen Fielding (Film, 2016)

This most recent rambling of our beloved Bridget makes an appearance on our list - despite it’s man-mad and increasingly silly protagonist. Yes all of her films and books revolve around her moaning about weight and men, but this one - believe it or not does pass the Bechdel test. It’s all down to Emma Thompson really (all hail Queen Emma) who shows up as an acerbic doctor. In the interactions of Bridget and said doctor - none of the conversations are about who may or may not be the father of Bridget’s unborn baby, but rather about pregnancy and procedures. Imagine that! A lady doctor giving cogent medical advice. Yes these snippets are only a small percentage of a film otherwise concerned with Bridget’s chiselled suitors - but it’s enough to pass.

The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe (Book,1950)

This is a Bechdel biggie - hold onto your hats! C.S Lewis provides us with heroines Lucy and Susan Pevensie, as well as the terrifying and omnipotent Queen Jadis. The Pevensie sisters are courageous and canny in equal measure, boldly taking on and defeating the forces of evil that they face. Lewis ensures that his females are well-rounded and in sharp focus - they have much bigger fish to fry that just boys. Published in 1950, it is surprisingly ahead of its time.

The Girl on The Train By Paula Hawkins - (Book, 2015)

Nice to have a bit of a noir on the list. The Girl on The Train makes a potentially surprising entry - as its whiny lead Rachel is quite frankly a boozed up mess. However despite the dark backdrop of murder and intrigue, there are some sensitive moments between the women in this novel. Notably between Rachel and her bossy roommate Cathy, who is touchingly concerned about her friends dipso-maniacal tendencies. It’s a thrill-ride, with moments of women having each other’s backs (rather than stabbing them) which is refreshing.

Matilda by Roald Dahl (Book, 1988)

Matilda is the redeeming female presence in this otherwise fem-negative book. She is bright, sparky and fiercely determined. She has long conversations with her teacher Miss Honey and some seriously bold confrontations with The Trunchbull. Her young mind is occupied with too many other things to bother about boys. But Dahl has a unique knack for denigrating some women, whilst lifting others. For although Matilda is a heroine of note, the book also has vapid Mrs Wormwood who explains that she chose ‘looks over books.’ There is also the timid Miss Honey who was too pathetic to ask the Trunchbull for a pay rise and therefore lives in self-inflicted poverty and the Trunchbull herself who is so masculine - she isn’t really a woman at all. However despite his best efforts, Roald Dahl’s Matilda makes our list because she is inquisitive and bold  - a role model worth having. She is also aimed at children which makes her narrative all the more important.

At this point, it would be pertinent, dear (lady) reader for you to take a moment to consider whether or not you and your day to day existence passes the Bechdel test …? And if you are a writer or a filmmaker - please make sure your next work does more than just give the gals a cursory nod.

Loving Vincent Film Review

Sarah Capes reviews the first ever 'painted film' Loving Vincent, at the National Gallery

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to attend the premier of Loving Vincent, at the National Gallery. Having gathered myself after a spate of celebrity sightings, I was excited to settle in to experience the first ever ‘painted film’ in history.  The film itself was preceded by a short video in which the director, Hugh Welchman, wandered through the National Gallery pointing out paintings that had inspired Van Gogh when he visited London in 1873. Knowing that we were sitting in the very building whose halls and galleries Vincent himself had perused and admired, about to watch this highly anticipated film inspired by his life and work, was quite thrilling.The film was a painstaking seven years in the making, having been planned initially as a seven-minute short. It was Welchman’s co-Director wife, Dorota Kobiela, who came up with the idea all those years ago. It took four years for the producers to develop a technique where artists could paint over the film stills, and two years for 120 artists to paint 65,000 images, in the style of Van Gogh, that make up the hour and a half long feature film. Every second on screen is made up of twelve different paintings. These astonishing statistics alone make this film a truly unique artistic venture in itself and watching it was certainly unlike anything I have experienced before. The images are never still but seem to constantly flicker; the vivid colours, thick wild lines and distorted perspective of Van Gogh are given movement in what is probably best described as a bizarre dreamscape. I felt the visual experience was akin to a week of skiing; the way in which after days of seeing only white, all you can dream about is snow. When I left the film, I just could not shake the images from my head.However, on reflection, I realised that the aesthetics of the film were completely intertwined with its haunting and incredibly moving narrative. Not only is it an innovative visual experience, but also it is a fresh and original investigation into the events surrounding the artist’s death; taking place a year following Vincent’s famous ‘suicide’, offering black and white flashbacks to scenes that took place during his life. It was agreed amongst fellow viewers and myself that these black and white segments not only helped distinguish time frames during the film, but also physically offered a rest for the eye after the flurries of colour and movement that were almost quite straining to watch at times.The film follows the fictional journey of Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth), son of Vincent’s friend the Postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Armand is tasked with the hand-delivery of a letter from Vincent to Theo (Vincent’s brother) in Paris, as it was returned to the Postmaster, undeliverable. Joseph is curious as to what has happened to Theo, and wants his son to find him in the hope that Theo will have answers to the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death. Although our first impression of Armand is that of a stroppy teenager with no interest other than drinking and fighting, he soon becomes wrapped up in the life and death of the enigmatic and mysterious artist, and envelops us in his unyielding desire to discover the truth.Throughout the film there are 94 reproductions of real Van Gogh paintings integrated into various scenes. Among my favourites is the Portrait of Père Tanguy (played by John Sessions) – the art dealer in Paris that Armand visits on his journey. Tanguy advises Armand to visit Auvers, where Van Gogh died. Armand encounters a variety of characters in Auvers, all based on portraits Van Gogh made of locals whilst he was living there. My favourite without doubt was the reproduction of Portrait of Dr Gachet. Jerome Flynn plays Dr Gachet in the film, and, for me, he stole the show. Gachet was a physician but also an aspiring artist whom Theo sent Van Gogh to stay with in Auvers in 1890, to recuperate after he was released from hospital following his notorious ear mutilation in Arles. It seems that the relationship between Vincent and Gachet was turbulent at times, and initially Armand’s encounters with the doctor are slightly unsettling, with Gachet appearing eccentric and rather sinister; we are told of his jealousy at Vincent’s artistic genius. However, as the film goes on, I found that my opinion of him changed completely, as the ‘true’ nature of his relationship with Vincent is revealed, ending in a poignant and unforgettably moving scene of Gachet at Vincent’s deathbed.After the screening there was a panel discussion with Welchman, two of the actors (Booth and Helen McCrory), one of the film’s producers, and an artist who painted for the film. Welchman recalled how his wife had entered into a period of soul-searching during a stressful time in her life, and found solace in Vincent’s letters, where she read the phrase that inspired the entire film: we cannot speak other than by our paintings. Kobiela wanted to honour Vincent’s statement by literally making his paintings speak, move, and come to life to tell his story. She and Welchman did not make the film just for the sake of being ground-breaking or new, but to offer us a view of the world as Vincent saw it.The majority of the acting took place in front of green screens, so that the painted backgrounds could be digitally integrated later on. McCrory, who plays Dr Gachet’s housekeeper, described the unusual experience of acting without a backdrop; not knowing exactly what the landscape or surroundings she would be placed into for each scene would look like until the film was finished. McCrory also mentioned that throughout the process of filming, not only did she learn a lot more about Van Gogh, but the process seemed to convince her that the artist was murdered, rather than having committed suicide. There are several clues in the film that suggest this might be the case, but I won’t divulge them here; you can see for yourself and make up your own mind.65,000 paintings do not remain post-production as the majority of the canvases were re-used and painted over to create the next frame. If you see the film, try and be sympathetic towards Armand’s gaudy yellow jacket; the artists who worked on his scenes stayed true to Vincent’s palette by using Prussian Blue for the lines and shading in the garment. But as Prussian Blue is too robust a pigment be painted over and successfully covered, the artists had to remove it and repaint it each time Armand moved for a new frame. A number of original canvases from the film are available to purchase through the Loving Vincent official website, though, thankfully, prints have also been made from these, which are easier on the wallet.The tragedy of Vincent’s sad life, the impact of his death on his brother, Theo, the stories retold by those who encountered the artist in his lifetime – all conveyed literally through the artist’s works – amount to an enduring melancholy that left me feeling genuine pity and sorrow for Vincent and many of those whose lives he entered. Yet not all is doom and gloom, as I felt glad that the stereotype of Van Gogh as the ‘mad’ artist was finally beginning to dispel, and his life and work was not romanticised but made raw. Was Vincent insane? I don’t think so. Lonely? Painfully so. Did he kill himself or was murdered? There may never be a unanimous agreement, but the investigative journey we are taken on with Armand is certainly worth the lingering sense of wonder and wistfulness offered by its culmination. The film has left me with a vivid memory of the characters and landscapes that Van Gogh knew, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.Sarah Capes graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2011, where she completed her MA in the History of Art. She went on to The Courtauld to pursue a Masters in Curating that same year. Since then, she has worked in the London art world in various capacities, from museums and auction houses to conservation. For the last three years she has been working for a renowned Mayfair art dealer. Sarah was born in Vienna, grew up in New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the U.K. and now lives in Fulham.

The Party

Emily Bray shares her thoughts on Sally Potter's hotly anticipated film The Party.

Sally Potter’s new film is a neat little comedy, sandwiched in health helpings of tragedy. Seven motley guests assemble at the house of Bill & Janet (Timothy Spall & Kristin Scott Thomas) to celebrate Janet’s new role as Shadow Minister of Health. Everything is going swimmingly until Janet’s husband Bill, makes a shocking announcement causing multiple spanners to be plunged into the works, causing the civilized celebration to descend into chaos. Spall has a fabulous turn as the gormless Bill, who spends the best part of the film glugging red wine and swaying to his jazz collection, as his wife Janet immaculately prepares for her guests. Scott Thomas is perfect as the pristine overachiever Janet, relishing in her newfound success. Set in just three rooms (and the garden) of a very nice house, the piece requires a strong ensemble performance - and the cast do not disappoint. All the characters present familiar stereotypes; there is an expecting lesbian couple, an academic, a philosopher, a sanctimonious politician and a wanker banker. Cillian Murphy seems to be acting in a slightly different film to the others (perhaps an early Guy Ritchie piece) as his amusing drug addled, disgruntled Tom freaks out the other guests with his increasingly mad behaviour. Individually they aren’t particularly interesting, but the interactions make for fascinating viewing. The expressive use of music is particularly notable. All chosen from Potter’s personal collection, it adds a fraught energy and helps to crack the stiff middle class facade of the diners. Similarly the prolific use of extreme close-ups helps us get into the action and frequently the grills of our protagonists – which has the effect of making the audience feel like a passive participant in the ill-fated party. Being shot in black adds nothing to the film and the 71 minutes running time means the action is over before it has really begun. Potter claims that the running time ensured that ‘all fat was cut out,’ however despite its dense dialogue and pseudo intellectual characters - it skirts around ‘serious’ topics such as the NHS and the artificial insemination - never actually getting to the meat of any subject broached. I couldn’t help but think that it would have worked better as a play, but it was a Party that I enjoyed attending - and would probably go again (if I was invited back).

Navigating Life (and Uber) In Egypt’s Capital

In our next ‘Brits Abroad’ post, roaming world citizen Flo Wollstonecraft, shares her reflections after a year of life in the Egyptian capital.When I announced to friends, family and colleagues, that I, late twenty-something year-old, lost at sea, single female was quitting gainful employment, leaving my comfortable life in a European capital city, packing my bags and heading off to Oum El Donia - reactions were mixed. They ranged from concerns of, “Is Egypt safe? Be careful!”; to bewilderment and incomprehension, “But… why?!” ; to mild envy at my grand plans to learn some Arabic, explore the region and seek out new adventures. Admittedly, Egypt’s capital city wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice to set up home…dirty, noisy, polluted and frenetic - not very inviting! Upon arrival you are greeted by a belching, bellowing, farting behemoth of a city. But dig beneath the layers of dust, cut through the fog of pollution, mute some of the noise and throw yourself head on into the chaos and you’re in for a treat.Egypt has suffered more than its fair share of upheaval and trauma over the centuries, no less in recent years. I’ll leave aside the political analysis and predictions for those far more qualified to speak on such matters; but in the hangover of the Arab Spring, as the population grapples with the realities of a failed revolution, amidst increasing state repression, it is clear that the road ahead for Egypt is by no means smooth. Yet amidst this turmoil and confusion, El Qahirah, literally “the victorious”, remains undefeatable - a city with a tenacious soul, an inextinguishable energy and a remarkable ability to excite, enthral, enchant and infuriate in equal measures.Cairo is a city of stark and disorienting contrasts, with very little offering for those seeking a safe, moderate, middle ground. Ancient vs. ultra modern, opulent wealth vs. extreme poverty, unbearable heat vs. punishing cold (don’t make the same mistake I did and be fooled into thinking it is hot and sunny all year round).Cairo has a pulse, albeit an erratic one that would baffle most cardiologists. It is capable of flitting from languid sluggishness - example: Friday early morning where the empty, dead streets resemble a scene from the zombie apocalypse; to supraventricular tachycardia – example: Friday mid-rush-hour traffic jam, when an altercation between drivers competing for road space can, at the drop of a hat, break out into an aggressive shouting match. Though if I've learned one thing living in Cairo, it is to accept the predictability of unpredictability and embrace it as part of the city's allure. Living here one is never dulled into stagnation and a seemingly banal everyday activity or encounter, can jolt you out of the hum drum "eat-sleep-work" loop modern-life has so many of us trapped in.Take the daily commute to work, which is rather like flipping a coin and waiting to see which way it will fall. Every morning I walk out of my apartment (located in a pleasant but nonetheless fairly chaotic neighbourhood of central Cairo) onto the nearest main street to hail a cab:

Heads - it is a calm, hassle-free, simple, transactional affair: the taxi is mechanically robust and traffic is bearable. The driver agrees to take me to my work location and with the meter running, I pay the appropriate fare upon arrival and hop out of the cab. Job done.Tails - the situation is rather different. We hit one of Cairo’s infamously bad traffic jams with a journey that ordinarily takes 10 minutes lasting 50. Or, I forget I have no change for the fare and spend several minutes arguing with the taxi driver in my rudimentary Arabic, as I insist on us finding change.

In both cases I arrive at work angry and exasperated. Alternatively, I land upon a taxi driver with Formula 1 aspirations, who takes me on a daredevil journey, crossing the bridges of the Nile at breakneck speed, dodging cars, other taxis, microbuses, bicycles, and the occasional horse and cart…an adrenaline-fuelled start to the day, rivalling any theme park rollercoaster…I could of course order an Uber - a service which has taken off rapidly in Egypt and become a lifeline for many in a city, where public transport is scant. However, this can be an equally unpredictable and frustrating ride. The concept of service provision and the customer/provider relationship is rather fluid. On numerous occasions I’ve waited patiently for my Uber, only for the driver to call and tell me to come find him at his location - this generally leads to heated conversations in my pidgin Arabic, “ana fee el GPS BEZOBT!” (“I am at the GPS, EXACTLY!”). On other occasions, as a result of a system failure with the drivers’ navigation system, I, geographically inept at the best of times, end up navigating my own way to my destination with the help of Google maps and creative guesswork. Don’t be fooled either into thinking modern cars result in better driving. Motoring styles of Uber drivers can be equally erratic, albeit with an illusory feeling of safety, in a more mechanically sound vehicle.That said, for every exasperating Uber driver, there have been some redeeming ones. My faith in Uber (and humanity) was restored late one evening, when absent-minded me returning home late one night from Cairo airport, hopped out of my Uber, only to realise an hour later that I had left an entire suitcase, of paternal ownership whilst he was visiting me and the city, in the boot of the car…after a couple of hours of various calls, this time testing the absolute limits of my rudimentary Arabic and resulting in a slight raise in my blood pressure at the thought of losing all of my father's worldly goods, the wonderful Uber driver, having crossed all of Cairo to return my case, arrived at my door. I showered him with “Alf shukran”,("a thousand thanks"), thrust a hefty tip in his hand and we parted ways, both uttering “Alhamdulillah”, (“thanks be to God”) - that standard but oh so useful phrase, which covers any situation of good fortune, regardless of how modest.For a keen ambulator of European cities, this unavoidable reliance on taxis and Ubers took some getting used to. Prior to moving to Cairo, I recall naively spending some time on Google maps to gauge distances and carve out my new territory, thinking to myself that I would be able to navigate the city on foot. Upon arrival my grand plans were quickly scrapped. Walking the streets of Cairo is not for the fainthearted – unpredictable, often non-existent pavements, constant traffic and honking of car horns, and for a Western woman the added challenges of at best constant stares, at worst heckling remarks. Sexual harassment is an unfortunate and often not acknowledged or understood reality of life in Cairo. My own way of dealing with it was to thicken my already relatively thick skin and bat off remarks with either humour or by adopting a resting surly face (friends tell me this is my natural expression…). But this technique has its limitations and the insidious effect means it can reach breaking point, resulting in occasional outbursts of anger - on a bad day I even shocked myself hurling some abuses at a passing persistent harasser. Attitudes are shifting, but change is incremental and this remains an unfortunate and unpleasant reality for women living in the city.Cairo is therefore no city for aimless flânerie and on occasion I nostalgically dream of my previous, rather self-indulgent life spent lazily strolling down wide, leafy European boulevards, stopping at terraces for glasses of wine, browsing in chichi boutiques and watching the world go by…But despite the city’s drawbacks and for all I lament no longer being able to enjoy a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc on a terrace, Cairo life is full of joys and pleasures: lazy, languid weekends spent by palm tree lined pools, exhilarating horse rides out at the pyramids and spontaneous boat parties on the Nile dancing until dawn; Incredible sunsets of an intensity I have never seen, that even one year on, still make me stop in my tracks to gaze at in wonder; Wistful, fleeting and priceless moments of solitude within the city, such as the sunset prayer time or wandering around the usually chaotic streets just before iftar, during Ramadan; Early morning, when the sun rises over the towering buildings, casting beautiful shadows on the otherwise monotony of dusty grey-brown; Boozy evenings in time warped hotels of Cairo’s downtown - an enigmatic, grubby yet glorious district, containing relics of a bygone era of Egypt’s belle époque; Evenings spent in rooftop bars overlooking the Nile, drinking Stella beers (the local version, not the Belgian variety), but in Cairo’s blazing summer heat, provided my beer is chilled, I’m not complaining). All of these pleasures make up for some of the city’s frustrations.As for my efforts to learn Arabic in Cairo, these have been as erratic and inconsistent as life in the city itself. After an initial burst of scholarly enthusiasm (I was lucky enough to spend three months in a full-time language study when I first moved here) my gusto for language study gradually petered out when I took on full-time employment. Learning any new language is tough but I also very early on realised that, with its distinction between the notoriously complex classical Arabic (fuhsa) and the vastly differing dialects across the Arab region, study of the Arabic language is a lifelong pursuit, requiring real commitment and perseverance. Not ideal then for an impatient, capricious individual like myself. Inherent stubbornness leads me to persevere nonetheless and my long-suffering tutor listens patiently to me each week as I bulldozer my way through ameya, the rich and playful Egyptian dialect. Unlike my experiences, once learning French, I’ve discovered that a little goes a long way with the warm, friendly, and supportive Egyptian people.Egyptian culture and society are rich and nuanced, with a notoriously complex and layered class system, which, even after a year, still continues to baffle and confuse me. One group I do know well though (namely because I form part of it) is the expat world of Cairo - a weird melting pot, infused with clandestinely imported foreign alcohol and pork products. Amongst them you will find: curious and/or adrenaline junkie journalists, humanitarian do-gooders wanting to save the country, earnest and enthusiastic diplomats at the beginning of their posting, jaded diplomats nearing (or wishing they were nearing) the end of theirs, the occasional Egyptologist (something of a unicorn), international teachers, cynical academics and some other lost souls and misfits (yours truly included), who find themselves washed up on the banks of the Nile. Yet despite being in a city of 25 million people, the probability of running into a fellow expat in an average day, whether physically or virtually (yes dating apps have made it to Cairo…) is near certainty, and remaining incognito is near impossible. Cairo, I quickly discovered, for better or for worse, is the smallest big city in the world.Cairo is a place of chaos and contradictions at every turn. But it is also a place of palpable energy, soul, and beauty, which can make appearances often at the strangest and most unexpected moments. All I can say is, fasten your seatbelt (if you can find one), brace yourself for the chaos, and you’re in for one hell of a ride!

Flo W xxx

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