Monday, 28 February 2011

Preparing For A Blitz On Ebay

We decided today to get around to doing something about all the stuff that we have accumulated at home that is no longer on display or that I bought with the intention of flogging on eBay but stuck in a cupboard instead. Exactly three months into retirement I suppose that it's time that I did more than go to the gym and read books (although to the surprise of the guests at the weekend's party I thoroughly enjoy doing just that). So Marion and I went through everything and split it into two. The small stuff that is relatively easy to post has been set aside for selling on Ebay. There are some really good items and I'll start on the photos later.

And then there's a second pile - a big box full and more - that I've decided to take to the local auctioneers. This box contains everything that is either too big (or fragile) to post or that I am not convinced is worth the effort and cost that eBay entails. I reckon that there is well over £500 worth of stuff in this (at what we paid) and I wonder how much less we'll get when the cheque arrives in due course.

While we were eating during Saturday night's Perfection party, my phone beeped and reminded me to complete my Mappiness record. Mappiness is an iPhone application in which users take part in a survey being carried out by the LSE which is recording levels of happiness. You record how happy, how relaxed and how awake you feel when the alert rings. You also record where you are, who you are with and what you are doing. They aren't getting too much useful info from me as my figures are almost universally the same. Our guests didn't think I was filling it in properly when I showed them the graphs which have a low of 86% happy and an average of 97% over the month that I have been doing it (the 86% was just after I backed the car into a concrete post) but I can honestly say that I am filling it in genuinely. The levels of how awake I am do fluctuate more (see note re concrete post) but the relaxed figures are, like the happiness ones, pretty consistent at an average of about 92%.

We were delighted when Sarah's partner Duncan emailed this scan of our first grandchild who is due to arrive in early July. We don't know if it's a boy or a girl but we can see that he or she is certainly growing quickly. Time has flown by and there is now only a little more than four months to go. It's so exciting for us.

Friday, 25 February 2011

All Systems Go For Our Perfection Dinner Tomorrow

I'm so glad that we are retired or tomorrow night's party to celebrate Josephine's Perfection (last episode of current series tonight BBC2 4.30pm) would have been impossible. We've had two people around for dinner plenty of times and we've had ten at the table before (although on that occasion we hired a chef). But this is the first time that we'll be cooking for that many ourselves and it's taken a hell of a lot of organising. Yesterday was spent shopping, today has been spent getting the house clean and tidy, the table set, selecting the best episodes of the show to watch  and printing some prize entries for our guests. Tomorrow we'll be cooking and preparing the food (apart from the dessert which we've ordered from a local patisserie). It's a good job that the diet is over as the lady on the cheese counter at Waitrose was a brilliant salesperson and, every time she suggested that we try a taste of a different one we ended up buying a piece.

And talking of diets, David, the owner of our local news agents the Bon Ton, asked me if I was getting better when I went to pay for the papers this morning. "Better?" I asked. "Yes" he says "I noticed your face looking thinner and thinner and thought you were ill". And to think that people go on diets to make themselves look better (not me I hasten to add).

One thing that we didn't take into account when choosing the date and time for our do was the day's sporting fixtures. With two passionate rugby fans and an Everton season ticket holder on the guest list, we've pretty well cocked up their day's sport for them with our 5pm start. It will have to be good now.

As the door closes on this series of Perfection another one opens and, next Friday, son Paul's creation A League Of Their Own returns to Sky1HD and Sky1 at 9.30pm. We won't be having a party to celebrate this one as we've already had a League party but we will be going down to Elstree on Wednesday for the filming of one of the episodes. It will probably be our last visit to a recording of A League Of Their Own as Paul is starting with the BBC in just over two weeks.

When we've finished watching Perfection tomorrow we might have time for some party tricks. I think I'll get everyone to have a try at this. Marion has just popped out for some distilled water.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

John Lewis (Almost) Redeem Themselves (Sort Of)

There's no argument that the curtains ordered from John Lewis almost five months ago and fitted yesterday are anything but beautiful. Their fitter, Peter, was everything you could want from a fitter ; punctual, polite, friendly and a very clean and tidy worker. In fact, he and the curtains were so good that we were almost prepared to forgive the John Lewis design department their lousy attitude during the long delays. Until, that is, Peter asked if we could spare him a minute. He pointed out that the custom made brass curtain pole was the wrong size. The bends were in the right place and at the right angle but the pole was about 15" short. As you might guess, custom made poles take about six weeks to be made and delivered and we were facing the prospect of another six weeks camped in the spare bedroom. We pointed out that we have a house full on Saturday night and need all the bedrooms and, after the long delays already experienced (see my blog "A Rare Case Of Poor Service From John Lewis") Peter was very understanding and arranged for another fitter to come with some spare lengths of brass which he managed to splice into the custom pole to make the curtains (and the room) usable until the replacement pole arrives. So great curtains John Lewis and a great fitter in Peter but we remain unimpressed with the design service. At the price we paid, I would have thought that a quick and apologetic phone call from someone in authority would be the least we might expect.

My car's being repaired after my moments of madness when I managed to collide with concrete so we had to miss a planned lunch in the country with some old friends today. I went instead to the local auction house to see if I could find any bargains. There were a couple of very nice lots that I was outbid on but I managed to buy a dinner service designed by Clarice Cliff for the Wilkinson factory in the 1930's at the very top of my limit. I'll post a photo here when I've been to collect it.

There was some time to kill in between lots so I had a quick stroll along Lord St which, with all the pavement cafes overflowing, was looking like a mini Champs Elysees in the early spring sunshine. It's the first day this year that anyone not wanting a quick fag would choose to sit outside and the town looked quite cosmopolitan.

Old people are not all sweetness and light as we discovered at Tesco today. The old woman above pushed in front of us at the check out and when we politely pointed out our presence to her she said "I'm with her" pointing to another old lady in front of her. The second woman pointedly ignored her and I doubt that she knew her from Adam. It was busy, there were long queues but being old is not an entitlement to jump them. We just shrugged her cheek off and moved to another aisle. Life's too short to get involved in a row in the supermarket.

We went to see True Grit last night. I loved it. It took me back to my childhood when westerns were the weekly staple. Fortunately I had been warned about Jeff Bridges' mumbling so I was extremely attentive when he was on screen. I would not be surprised if it pips The King's Speech at the Oscars this weekend. In the meantime, here's the trailer for a film due out in the autumn. It looks amazing.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Planning A Night Of Perfection

There's a big celebration planned for Saturday when eight friends are joining us for a party to celebrate daughter in law Josephine's success in devising and developing the hit BBC2 show Perfection. The show, hosted by Nick Knowles, is a great quiz which brings up fascinating statements that the contestants have to decide are true or false. I've learnt some very interesting facts since the show launched (eg it is true that Sam Cameron has a dolphin tattoo on her ankle). The evening will start at 5pm with champagne and canapes and when we have broken the ice we will watch one game from the show. We're then going to have a great dinner which has been planned to perfection by Marion and we will be watching more games between courses. We've got some good little prizes for anybody who completes a final round with a perfect score and we're hoping to get Josephine to make an appearance by Skype if she's not too shy.

Wines have been provided by the excellent Whalley Wine Shop. This wonderful off license is over twenty miles away from here but it's well worth the journey as it is highly unlikely that on describing each course to the assistants at Tesco we would get the perfect recommendations that you get from the trained sommeliers in Whalley. We've got an excellent Perrier Jouet champagne, a super Chateau Ste Michelle Pinot Gris for the starter and a hearty Brolio Barone Ricasoli Chianti to accompany the main course. We've nothing for the dessert as last time we all got together I ended up flat on my back and this time I need my wits about me for Perfection as I've deliberately not watched some episodes so that I can join in the fun although being a family member I'm barred from winning a prize (just like my thwarted appearance in Antiques Master).

My retirement reading spree continues and I'm flying through the novels. Yesterday I finished What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn. This was Catherine's debut novel and I loved her original style. The book rotates twenty years in the past with the present and centres around life at Green Oaks, a modern shopping mall. I loved the opening where ten year old Kate Meaney sets herself up as a detective carrying out surveillance at the shopping centre a little like the kids in the Secret Seven books (albeit more streetwise and savvy than Blyton's children). In fact I could see the character continuing the story into a full blown children's novel but before I got the chance we were taken to the future where life at the Mall is dark and bleak for security guard Kurt and store manager Lisa. Although ultimately tinged with poignancy, the book has a good deal of humour and is an excellent read. I particularly enjoyed the unusual vignettes in italics that ended a number of chapters. Running to a little over a page each, each was a self contained short story which, though parallel to the plot, developed the atmosphere of  Green Oaks in an unusual and highly effective way.

What to read next is the big question. I'm just starting a novel that my mum gave me which should fill the next few days but although our IKEA Billy bookcases are sagging under the weight of books piled two deep on some shelves I've not got many left unread. Any ideas? We could do with going to one of those book swaps we keep reading about on @meandmybigmouth's Twitter feed (see blog link to the right) but they are in Windsor and the cost of the fuel would somewhat outweigh the benefit.

I'll leave you today with French prankster Remi Gaillard. I've not heard of him before but it seems that he is France's very own Dom Jolly.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

And The Best British City To Live In?.... Manchester

I've just been reading about a report that's brought out annually by The Economist Intelligence Unit. It scores all the top cities in the world on five areas : healthcare, stability, culture, environment and education. The world's top city for the last five years has been Vancouver but the top UK city is Manchester. If you have read this blog recently you may have seen that I commented on Manchester's attractions under the title "There's More To Manchester Than Rain And Football" and my observations have proved consistent with the findings of the EIU. Manchester came 42nd whilst London came 53rd.

In reality there was little to choose between London and Manchester in the scores but I am commenting because Marion and I have plans to move to London in the near future. We are attracted to the culture and the recreational opportunities to fill our retirement but, living in a pleasant detached house here in the north, we are somewhat worried about where we will find ourselves living when we take the plunge. Having enjoyed the pleasures of a decent garden and plenty of space for over twenty years we may find it hard to live in a two bedroomed flat with no open space although the ability to use London's facilities on a daily basis should help to offset that. On the other hand, property prices in Manchester are similar to what they are here. Time for a rethink? Probably not, as London scored very highly in the culture and recreational categories and its score was only lowered by perceived crime levels and risk of terrorism. And that shouldn't worry me and Marion as, being from near Liverpool, we're dead hard - honest.

We were away last week so didn't make our regular Orange Wednesday cinema visit. Hopefully this week we will get to see True Grit which has been pretty well received. As it is half term here in Southport there's not a huge choice showing for adults this week with Gnomeo and Juliet, Tangled,Justin Bieber, Yogi Bear  and Paul taking up many of the screenings and, with Just Go With It and Big Mommas being as appealing as a fart in a lift, True Grit is all that's left.

I was involved in a brief discussion with a fellow blogger Rodney Willet (click here for his website) on Twitter this morning about the merits and otherwise of the iPhone. A year or two ago I wrote on my old blog about how I hated my new Samsung smart phone and that all I wanted was to be able to make phone calls and had no need for the multiple functions that it offered. And Rodney feels the same today. He is fed up with the many offers of an iPhone that have come his way and he feels that he doesn't need one thank you very much. I, on the other hand, am now a convert. The iPhone is so much more than a phone and is, in reality, a more powerful computer than many pcs that I have used in the not too distant past. This morning I had an hour in the gym. To lighten the dreariness of a forty minute stint on an exercise bike I listened to Mark Kermode's film podcast and at the same time played scrabble on the iPhone. I checked my email, worried about the plunge on the stock market (thankfully now recovered) and looked at the weather forecast. I also had my discussion on the merits of the phone with Rodney. And I have to say that I think that the iPhone is an outstanding aid to modern living. I don't make many phone calls but now I always have a camera with me plus the ability to check film times, find local restaurants, place a bet and much much more. I've been converted (but I am glad that I didn't have one while I was working - who wants work emails when you are out of the office?).

And of course there are these extra features too..

Monday, 21 February 2011

Small Business Advice Part Five - The Importance Of Credit Control

Many people who are new to business concentrate all their efforts on sales. After all, without any sales there is no business. But, in their unquenchable thirst for selling, many overlook the collection of the money that all those sales have created. If you are in a pub, a shop or any business that is paid immediately you can stop reading now as this blog is intended solely for those who offer credit to their customers.

In simple terms credit control is just good housekeeping. If you are owed say £20,000 and it is all due to be paid to you on 1st March that means that, all being well, your bank account will swell by £20,000 on that date and you will be able to pay your own bills. But what if it doesn't all arrive on time? If £10,000 is late, that's £10,000 less in your bank and I don't need to explain the effect that could have on your business. You are in business to sell stuff and not to provide overdraft facilities for your clients.

So how do you operate good credit control? Well, a good starting point is to make sure that you don't give credit to customers that can't demonstrate that they have the means to pay. You can check up on them by investing in a subscription to a good credit agency (we used to use Agencies like this will let you look up the basic details of the customer and have a look at their balance sheets and their suggested credit limit. Make sure that the customer completes and signs an account opening request agreeing to your terms and conditions (check the Internet for example trading terms and edit them to fit what suits you best). When you are happy, set them a realistic credit limit in line with the business you expect.

When you are establishing your terms and conditions try and fit in with the norm for your market. If you are being given thirty days by your suppliers it is reasonable to offer the same. If you offer much longer than you are given, you may well find yourself having to pay for several months worth of supplies before your receipts start to flow.

Once you have given your customers a limit and a number of days credit, the most important thing is to make sure that they stick to both. The best credit control departments will contact their customers a week before the end of a month when sums are about to fall due and check that their books agree and ask when payment will be made. I know that some companies shy away from this thinking that it might appear that they are being too pushy but it prevents any of the "oh we haven't got that invoice can you email a copy?" which can arise after the debt is due. I strongly recommend that you do this check as you will be surprised how many accounts departments will claim missing invoices. If you find it onerous, concentrate on the biggest sums owed to you as these will have far more benefit than chasing lots of small customers (see my blog on the 80/20 rule).

If payments don't arrive on time, start to chase straight away. Every day you ignore a debt will put further pressure on your own finances. Initially make a phone call. Make sure that you get through to the person responsible for paying. Ask them politely when they will be paying and, if this is satisfactory, make a note in your records together with the name of the person you spoke to and put a note in your diary to check that they keep to their word. If they don't do as they said you must phone immediately and ask them why.

If their response to either your first or second call is not satisfactory you must suspend their credit and allow them no further goods. I know that you will be in conflict with your sales team but if a customer can't pay on  time and fails to provide a good reason there is no point in selling more to them until you are satisfied that they are able to pay. If your customer fails to respond to a second phone call you should issue a formal demand for payment giving them seven days in which to pay and stating what your next action will be if they fail to do so. I would recommend that the threat should be legal action through the small claims court ( but only make the threat if you are prepared to carry it out. By acting swiftly in stopping credit and taking customers to court you may alienate some customers but when you subsequently receive notice that they have gone into administration or liquidation you will, hopefully, be one of their few suppliers to have escaped unscathed.

A couple of further tips.

1 If a customer claims that a payment is in the post, look out for the envelope and see if it was posted when they claimed it was.

2 Customers often stall by asking for copy invoices. You can preempt this by taking the action suggested above and phoning before the due date but again, if you don't have time, make sure that you phone those who have previously asked for copies as it tends to be habitual.

3 Be polite but firm, if customers become aggressive the odds are that they are unable to pay, after all if they were able to do so there would be no need for them to shout.Remember that you are only asking for what is due to you. 

4 If you do have to write an account off as bad think how many sales you would have to make to get that money back and remember that good credit control is the best way to prevent bad debts.

5 If a customer builds up a record of late payment investigate the reasons. If necessary ask their boss if there is a problem. Don't ignore it just because they buy a lot. There may be a legitimate explanation but you need to know what it is.

6 Don't be bullied by big corporations. They often make slow payment a matter of policy and, because they are big, they expect you to bow to them. Treat them just as you would any other customer.

7 When rumours reach you about customers in financial difficulty, ignore them at your peril. Don't spread them any further but contact your customer and tell them what you have heard. Sadly the old saying about no smoke without fire often turns out to be true.

8 Always follow up your phone calls. Keep good notes on what has been agreed and always do what you say you will do. Don't be fobbed off by weak excuses. 

9 If a customer asks for time to pay, be reasonable and agree to a fair repayment schedule but make sure that the customer sticks to it - you could ask for cheques up front and promise not to pay them in until the agreed time.

10 Finally, always be suspicious of sudden large bursts of buying from previously small accounts - especially if you know that they normally favour one of your competitors. It may be perfectly innocent and reflect your superior products or an extra effort from your sales force but it may also mean that credit has been refused elsewhere so just be on guard.

I hope that this simple few paragraphs have emphasised the importance of keeping on top of what you are owed and has given you a few hints on how to carry out credit control efficiently.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Ten Minutes Of Glory

If you've read this blog recently you will know that I went for an audition for the BBC's Antiques Master show on Monday. I wasn't convinced that I had done brilliantly but on Friday evening I was delighted when Dylan, one of the BBC's producers, phoned me to say that I had been chosen to appear on the show and that I would be specialising on my favourite Japanese Satsuma ceramics. Filming is due to take place in the third week of March at the beautiful Townley Hall in Burnley where I spent a week last May as a stand in contestant hoping that a missed train or a motorway jam would give me my five minutes of fame. The nearest I got was a breast feeding mum who thought that her baby wouldn't last through the filming without a feed.

Our son Paul works in television and I explained to Dylan that, since my audition on Monday, Paul had been successful in being offered a job at the BBC and I wanted to flag this up to ensure that there would be no conflict or problems. "When does he start?" asked Dylan. "14th March" I said. "Let me get back to you" says Dylan. Ten minutes later Dylan is back on the phone and my moment of glory is over. As a family member of a BBC employee I can't take part. Talk about rotten timing! Never mind. I'm absolutely thrilled for Paul that he will be developing shows for the BBC - his career is far more important than my bit of fun - but with him at the Beeb and his wife Josephine at ITV my chances of any appearances are now pretty limited. Are there any antiques shows on Four or Five?

We're just back from St Andrews where we were visiting our daughter Sarah and her partner Duncan. As you can see, Sarah's pregnancy is going well and she is blooming. We can't wait to be grandparents and hope that we will be back in Scotland again a few more times before the happy event.

And when we do go back we will certainly return to the wonderful Old Course Hotel. Located, as the name suggests, right on the famous Old Course that is the home of golf, the hotel has mastered the art of customer service to a tee. Every member of the Old Course staff treats the guests in a friendly manner which makes the hotel stand out as you are made to feel at home from the moment that the concierge opens your car door on arrival to the minute you leave. This welcoming attitude is reflected in great little extra touches like these complimentary glasses of champagne and canapes that arrived at our room one evening. We've stayed at some grand places in our lives and found them intimidating and snooty - atmospheres that are often linked to golfing and golf clubs - but, even though this five star hotel caters for VIP guests, it is neither snooty nor intimidating and I strongly recommend it. 

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A Day In St Andrews, Hector's Journeys & Hoddle's Knee Shin Toe Joke

Marion’s having a relaxing day with Sarah in the Spa here at The Old Course Hotel in St Andrews today so I’ve been left to my own devices. I had almost an hour in the gym trying to strengthen my right leg to get rid of my limp, which I can’t seem to shake off despite the new hip.

Then I read another of the Hector’s Journeys books by Francois Lelord. This one, Hector And the Secrets Of Love sees psychiatrist Hector travclling to the Far East ostensibly in search of the inventor of a love potion that really works. Like his Search For Happiness, the book is written in a simple and very quirky style that seems childlike on the surface but is actually quite deep when you scratch below it. I enjoyed reading it. The novel has more of a story to it than “Happiness” but that story is very much a skeleton to on which to hang Hector’s views on love and attraction – a point that is emphasised in the wonderful epilogue that leaves the reader plenty to think about. If you haven’t tried Lelord’s books, do give them a go. I’d love to hear what you think.

After a long walk around St Andrews in which I visited the Castle and Cathedral for the first time and managed to climb to the top of the tower ,I treated myself to half of bitter in the Jigger Inn pub which adjoins the hotel. I sampled the delights of the Daily Express and found that it is as right wing and reactionary as ever although even I ( a bleeding heart liberal) sympathised with the paper’s rant about the bloke who ended up losing £13k after his employee took him to court for marching him to the police station with a placard reading “THIEF”. Having been the victim of one particularly nasty case of theft by an employee who cost my company thousands of pounds and was only given community service, I know that you sometimes wonder which side the law is on. I’m not sure that I approve of the public humiliation but it would have been nice if someone in authority had seen the employer’s point of view and decided that, whilst he stepped out of line, there was no case to answer. Theft is nasty however it happens but when the thief is someone in a position of trust it is a kick in the guts that is difficult to explain and I am sure that the employer’s trauma was at least equal to that of the thief.

I saw that Glenn Hoddle has been criticised for joking that a player was like the Chinese footballer Knee Shin Toe. Now, in fear of sounding like that ten minutes with the Daily Express has rubbed off on me, I can’t see a problem in this joke. Knee Shin Toe does sound a little like an Oriental name such as Ho Chi Min for example so what has Hoddle done wrong to get the PC brigade seeking an apology? When I was a kid we had a couple of cloakroom attendant jokes. There was the Indian, Mahatma Coat and the Scot Angus McCoatup. Yes I know both are cringe worthy but they aren’t racist and Hoddle’s comments fall into exactly the same category. This is an example where the critics have overstepped the mark and when they criticise something as mild as this they provide ammunition for their opponents for the future at times when they have a completely valid case.  

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

What A Difference A Day Makes

Last night we stayed at a motel on the M6 on our way up to visit our daughter Sarah in St Andrews. It’s a bit of a trek for one day so, now that we have plenty of free time, it made sense to stagger the journey. The economy accommodation was adequate and clean but there was no hint of luxury. Mind you, what can you expect for £39?

It’s a good job that it was cheap as I somehow managed to reverse the car into a concrete pillar in an act of incompetence that’s going to leave me with either a big bill for a new bumper or an end to the twenty years’ no claims discount. These stupid old drivers should be kept off the road! No excuses at all. The car even has a reversing camera that I failed to look at. Hangs head in shame.

At least we had something to take our minds off my stupidity when we arrived at The Old Course Hotel to a very warm welcome, a fabulous room and these fresh strawberries with chocolate – lovely.

On the way up yesterday we had a great lunch at the Yanwath Gate Inn. This is one of those “just off the motorway” pubs that you can find in guidebooks and, whilst it is indeed just a few minutes from the motorway, it feels like the heart of the country. Only a couple of miles outside Penrith, the Inn, with its roaring log fire and very friendly welcome, served a high standard of food and, with the rain lashing down outside, we could have comfortably installed ourselves by the fire for the afternoon. Instead we headed into Penritth to see if we could find the tearoom from Withnail & I. We were on a wild goose chase as the Penrith Tea Room scenes in the film were actually filmed somewhere in the home counties. Nonetheless Penrith is a very busy market town with plenty of shops to browse around and, but for the rain, we would have spent more time.

But it would have been good had the tearooms existed and we could have ordered the finest wines available to humanity.

Monday, 14 February 2011

An Audition At The BBC And The Brilliant Danish Drama The Killing

Just back from my audition in Manchester for the BBC show Antiques' Master. I said yesterday that I wouldn't take Guan Yin with me as my sample antique but I felt strangely compelled to take her as I went to pick up the chosen coffee pot - she seemed to be sending me vibes that said "pick me". I managed to find an old rucksack of Paul's that she just fitted into and, wrapped in a towel and some bubble wrap, she was pretty safe strapped into the passenger seat. The rucksack was very heavy and ,although the Buddhist deity is a large piece, as I approached the BBC I thought that something else must also be in the rucksack. I stopped and found a heavy mallet and a load of sharp metal tent pegs from the last time it was used at the Leeds' festival way back when Paul was a lad. I'm glad that I did stop and take them back to the car as I am not sure what impression they would have created at the BBC security.

The audition went reasonably well. I met Dylan, the young producer who had been involved in the show last year, together with his new colleague and I had to answer a written antique test followed by a challenge similar to the ones in the show. I thought that I did OK but my responses were hardly perfect and I think I was more Antiques Apprentice than Antiques Master. Oh well, well see what happens. Dylan's auditioning loads more potential contestants so I won't hear for a while. I shouldn't have any problems in meeting the filming dates if I am successful but I won't be counting on it.

We're heading up towards St Andrews tomorrow. We're breaking the journey up and staying at a Travel Lodge on the M6 tomorrow which is convenient but not exactly luxury. But the stay at the Travel Lodge will help us to arrive at the wonderful Old Course hotel (which is exactly luxury) early and, hopefully, refreshed. We don't play golf and we don't have any interest in golf but there's really only one place to stay in St Andrews. We've stayed at many of the other hotels since our daughter Sarah moved up to Scotland over ten years ago but the service and comfort of our last stay at the Old Course was so outstanding that it's unlikely we'll choose any other in future - can't wait.

I said that we weren't going to get sucked into Sky Atlantic with it's fantastic array of American Drama series and we've stuck to that but then we've gone and got ourselves hooked on BBC4's imported Danish detective show The Killing which runs to no less than twenty episodes. Fortunately the BBC are showing two episodes consecutively every Saturday night so that's a ten week rather than a twenty week commitment but that's still a hell of a chunk of time. If you haven't seen it yet, you are really missing an excellent piece of TV drama. I know I'm not alone in liking this as I've seen nothing but praise online and in the press.

Here's a taster and don't worry, there are subtitles on the BBC's version.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

I'm off to Manchester tomorrow to audition for the next series of Antiques Master. I've been asked to bring an antique with me and I've been looking around the house to find something suitable. Believe it or not, this is my favourite antique. Marion likens it to something you might win at a tacky bingo stall at the fairground but she nonetheless indulges me by letting her stand serenely in the dining room. At over two feet tall, she is a big chunk of pottery. Made in Japan about a hundred or so years ago, she is Guan Yin (sometimes known as Kannon or Kwannon),the Buddhist goddess of compassion, and I love her.

I love her mostly for her serenity which has a strangely relaxing influence on me but I also love the intricacy of the decoration on her costume which is quite beautifully done. The only problem is that carting her to Manchester might be a bit of a chore although my other favourites are not exactly tiny.

There's this slightly risque art nouveau statue Papillon, a winged female, by the Bretby pottery but she's a bit delicate and has too many protrusions to risk the journey.

Or there's this fabulous (ok I said beauty is in the eye of the beholder), cat painted with huge cabbage roses by the famous Wemyss artist Joe Nekola but the people doing the audition might think that this is not quite antique enough and then there's this sensuous Italian bronze diver but she weighs a ton.

So I think I will take this coffee pot. It's over 230 years old and was made locally in Liverpool so I should be able to spout on about it sufficiently for the purpose of the audition which is intended to check if I can be enthusiastic about antiques and I don't think that anybody who knows me would doubt that.

We're off to see our pregnant daughter Sarah in a few days so Marion has been up in the attic rooting through the boxes of the kids' books to find all the ones suitable for the very young. Some of them are thirty years old now - not quite antique but almost vintage. There are hundreds of books up there and as we went through them the memories flooded back - Grandfather Gregory wheels his wheelbarrow whilst the Very Hungry Caterpillar is still very hungry and Little Tiger and Little Bear's Panama still smells of bananas - wonderful.

Whatever happens at the audition tomorrow I hope that it doesn't go like this - tragic for a passionate collector.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Fact Stranger Than Fiction

I've been reading a lot lately and have been enjoying it immensely. We're off to visit our daughter in St Andrews for a couple of days this week and I will be taking several books to read in the comfort of the fabulous Old Course Hotel. Every so often an author slips something into a plot that makes the reader think "Hang on a minute. Would that really happen? Could that really happen?". So what would you say if the plot of my next novel hinged on the protagonist finding a singed and blackened (but still legible) letter addressed to his wife in the hearth? A letter that had been thrown onto a blazing fire six weeks earlier? "Hmmm" I can hear "pull the other one".

And yet that is exactly what confronted me this morning as I did my weekly clean of the lounge. There, on the hearth, was this letter addressed to Marion. (I didn't read it of course). She had a few letters over Christmas and, after reading them,she added them to one of the many roaring fires that were necessary in the cold spell. This one must have caught a draught and shot up the chimney where it lodged only to float back down again last night,many weeks later, almost complete. It's only a letter from her friend in the children's section of the local bookshop but, in my fiction, it could be a vital clue to a crime or maybe a revelation of a terrible secret. If any authors are reading this, you can use it if you like After all, when anyone reads it in your novel they will think "Hang on a minute. Would that really happen? Could that really happen?"

After the emotional turmoil of "Never Let Me Go" last week, this week I am reading something altogether lighter. Being a bit of a softy, the strap line on the cover sold this book to me when I was browsing through a bookshop recently. It's a very easy read full of village greens, golf clubs and Middle England. But there's much more to it than that as the Major of the title's love interest is a Pakistani shopkeeper which, as you can imagine, hardly goes down a storm with the snooty locals. I haven't quite finished it yet but am enjoying it very much.

The culture filled days of our retirement are never ending. We've made loads of cinema, restaurant  and gallery visits in the few weeks since we stopped working and since I recovered from the hip replacement although we've been to only two live performances so far. This should change as, this week, we've booked to see Lenny Henry at the Lowry in April and Dolly Parton in Liverpool in August. We're on the Echo Arena mailing list and I thought that Marion was joking when she said that she would like to see Dolly as she's never been a big Country fan and hated Paul's Shania Twain albums when he was a kid but she was deadly serious and I've booked a pair. Should be an interesting night.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Eeyore, Piglet And Pooh - Our Very Own Elgin Marbles

A tweet from the excellent Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) this morning linked to a blog about Christopher Robin's original toys. You can read the excellent "Scouting New York" blog  here. I found to my horror that the original toys that inspired AA Milne to create his wonderful stories can be found in the main branch of the New York Public Library. My reaction was probably akin to those of an Athenian on first discovering that the Elgin Marbles are stuck in a museum in London - "This can't be right".

A most important part of our heritage has been uprooted and stands forlornly in a distant land.

When our kids were young, we lived close to the Sussex border in Kent and would sometimes travel to the Ashdown Forest and emulate Christopher Robin and Winnie The Pooh with a game of Pooh Sticks on the famous little bridge over the tiny stream. There is a sort of quintessential Englishness about the area, the books and the characters themselves that makes the vintage toys' sojourn in a bullet proof glass case in a New York Library just plain wrong. If you've seen what Disney did to Winnie The Pooh in giving him an American accent and bright yellow body you would know that we need to repatriate them to their rightful place in rural Sussex quickly before they come to any harm and further loss of identity.

Unfortunately our claim on the toys is not as strong as the Greeks' claim for their marbles as, far from being looted from their rightful place, it seems that they were given by none other than Milne himself to his New York  publisher in gratitude for his support and were subsequently donated to the library. However, now that they are back in the public domain, it is time that a movement was started to bring them home. We need someone very English and very forceful to lead such a movement and I suggest Joanna Lumley, who, after her resounding success with the Gurkahs, fits the bill perfectly. So Joanna, how about it? Lets get the toys back home.

If you used to read my Instanta blog you might recall that I spent an enjoyable week at Townley Hall Burnley last year as a stand in contestant for the BBC's Antiques Master show. I didn't get to compete as all of the contestants turned up safe and sound and I was not required. I got to know quite a bit about the show and decided that it was probably a good thing that I missed out as the winners certainly knew their stuff and I am just a keen amateur. So when I saw the BBC advertising for contestants for a new series I decided not to apply. And then I got a phone call asking if I would be interested and, being one of those people who doesn't like to say no to people, one thing led to another and somehow on Monday I'm off for an audition in Manchester. It was nice of them to remember me.

And a very big positive is perhaps another opportunity to meet the lovely Sandi Toksvig

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Manchester's Not All Rain And Football

We've been to Manchester scores of times so it shouldn't strike us by surprise that there's more to it than the rain and football that one always associates with the city. Just look at the magnificent ceiling of The Royal Exchange Theatre which lets the light stream in and ,being above the stage,creates amazing echoes to the most powerfully delivered lines. We've been many times but it never ceases to impress.

And the theatre in the round lent itself perfectly to the playground jungle of Mogadishu where a simple cage created both a school perimeter and a human zoo for the school's wild pupils.

The city Art Gallery was opposite our hotel so we paid it a visit for the first time. We thought that the hour that we had spare would be adequate but could not have been more wrong as we were only able to take in a couple of the galleries within this deceptively large building. Being a lover of ceramics, the display of Pilkington Royal Lancastrian pottery was essential viewing for me. I'm not sure how long this exhibition is on for but they have got together some of the best pieces from that pottery that you will ever see and accompanied them with some fascinating history of the Manchester factory (which I had always assumed to be Lancaster based). There's a good mix of local history too and some wonderful paintings with plenty of Pre Raphaelites and other Victorian artists. I particularly liked the works of Ford Madox Brown (especially the social commentary of the painting below) and I would have loved to be at the unveiling of this enormous portrayal of Ulysses being lured by the sirens by William Etty which takes up almost an entire wall of the gallery. It provoked a massive response in 1839 when an artwork combining the corpses of sailors who followed the siren calls and the voluptuous sirens themselves was enough to provoke apoplexy in some who viewed it.

It's a pity that our visit was so short but we'll be back in April as we've booked to see Lenny Henry in his  new show after reading some good reviews. He's on at the Lowry so we've booked into the Lowry Hotel and on the day after the show we'll visit the Imperial War Museum nearby and then go into the city centre again. 

There's an excellent cinema in the Trafford Centre. It was hard for us to get used to the giant screen at The Odeon after our regular outings to FACT and Vue. We enjoyed our Orange Wednesday trip to The Fighter. It has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Film category but if there's one sure fire bet this year, you will certainly win if you lay it (although with current odds of 120-1 it would involve an outlay of £1200 to win a tenner). That's not meant as a criticism - it's a good film - it's just not THAT good. Christian Bale has been getting all the accolades with his nomination as best supporting actor but Mark Wahlberg's beautifully understated performance stole the show for me and I am not the first to feel that Bale was "acting" as Dicky whereas Wahlberg "was" his brother Micky. I am sure that the real Micky Ward, who appeared in the closing credits, was extremely flattered to be portrayed by the handsome Wahlberg but, if the brothers' seven sisters and mother are anything like the coven portrayed on film, I imagine that the director and his crew will be keeping some distance from them as the sisters came across as a ghastly bunch of idiots and their mother a bullying harridan. The fight scenes were mercifully short and, as boxing films go, this is good and well worth seeing.

I mentioned that I like good ads the other day. I didn't like the Halifax ads but, now they've added some better music, I'm having a rethink.