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Many years ago, when I was in the sixth form at school, one of the other girls was studying for some sort of drama exam. I forget exactly what – my school certainly wasn’t relaxed enough to offer drama or theatre studies as an A-level, even if such a thing had existed back then. But as part of her exam I remember that she had to learn and stage a monologue from Gaslight, a classic play written in 1938, that appeared to be a melodramatic thriller about a woman being driven mad by her husband. I only ever saw the one extract, but it struck me as a play that I should keep an eye out for, as it looked quite interesting.

Fast forward thirty years or more, and I’ve finally had a chance to see the whole play. It was this week’s offering at Malvern Theatres, starring Kara Tointon as the put-upon housewife. Apparently, she’s quite famous and perhaps as a result the theatre was almost fully booked. I only managed to get a seat right towards the back of the circle for this afternoon’s matinee performance. I was right in my assessment – it was indeed a melodramatic, Victorian-style thriller. For the second week in a row, one of the key roles was of a violent, controlling psychopath. I wonder if Malvern Theatres is trying to send out some sort of message? The plot this week was about what these days would be classed as domestic abuse – not much physical violence admittedly, but emotional abuse, isolating the woman from her family, and slowly driving her out of her mind – or rather manipulating circumstances so that she feared she was going mad. 

The husband was a thoroughly unpleasant character, and the actor got roundly booed at the curtain call – which was a bit unfair, and he looked rather taken aback by that reception! The scene I remembered from school turned out to be right at the end, when the down-trodden wife snapped and finally showed some spirit. I’m pleased I’ve now seen the whole play to finally put that one scene in context. It did rather spoil some of the tension of the play for me though, as I knew that at some point the worm would turn and the husband would get his comeuppance.

Not Dead Enough

Panto season is finally over at the Malvern Theatre’s, and they’re back to showing things I might actually want to watch. This week’s performance was Not Dead Enough, a murder mystery adapted for the stage from a book by Peter James. This is apparently the third in a series of “Detective Roy Grace” novels to be turned into a play, and I remembered part way through that I’d seen the first one, A Perfect Murder, a couple of years ago. I had only been moderately impressed, and if I’d made the connection I might not have bothered going to this one. But as it was I bought myself a standby ticket for the Saturday matinee.

When Brian Bishop’s wife was killed, he was sixty miles away, asleep in bed. Or so he claimed. But a whole load of evidence indicated that he was lying. Could the detective work out the perpetrator and motive in time to prevent the thoroughly unpleasant, sadistic, pyschopathic serial killer from striking again? And could he even keep his mind on his job, when he’s being distracted by having an relationship with the glamorous pathologist whilst trying to track down his wife who’s been missing for years….

The play turned out to be a police procedural, with a rather strange split set. The back half of the stage was raised, and represented a pathology laboratory where a lot of the action took place. The front half was the police station, split up into a couple of offices and an interview room. It was rather cramped, and I’m not entirely convinced that it worked as a set. What really didn’t work though was the plot – the twist at the end was completely unbelievable. Even Agatha Christie wouldn’t have stretched her readers’ credulity in such a far-fetched fashion. I won’t give the plot away in case someone actually wants to read the book that it’s based on. But it certainly broke one of the ten cardinal rules of Detective Fiction.

Nevertheless, the theatre clearly had something of a hit on its hands. The auditorium was virtually full, and there were at least five coaches waiting outside at the end, from all over the West Midlands. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed the play – I thought the best bit was the ice cream I treated myself to in the interval. But I appeared to be in a minority. I certainly shan’t be buying the Roy Grace series of detecive novels any time soon!

Minor advantages of having grey hair….

I’ve been back on my travels again recently, visiting more university departments. Last week I had a meeting with one of the professors at Imperial College, London. The meeting was scheduled for 14:30, which meant I could get a very civilised mid-morning train down to London, and still be in plenty of time for my meeting. I turned up at Malvern train station in good time for my train, only to discover that it had been cancelled. A broken down train on the line over the Cotswolds was causing chaos, and the line was closed.

The very helpful man in the ticket office had a solution, which he’d obviously had to trot out multiple times already that morning. I should buy a ticket as normal, but it would be accepted for travel via Birmingham to Euston. The main-line train from Birmingham is a fast one, so even though I’d be leaving Malvern half an hour later, and changing trains at New Street, I would still get to London in time for my meeting. 

Unfortunately, the train to Birmingham was a tiny little commuter service with only three coaches. It had come from Hereford, where it was half-term, so it was absolutely crammed with families going to enjoy the delights of Birmingham. Plus everyone who had wanted to get the cancelled intercity to London was also having to catch that train. I resigned myself to standing for the next hour. I was really pleased though when one of the women travelling as part of a family group turfed her 10 year old son out of his seat and offered it to me – there are clearly some advantages to having grey hair! I remember the first time someone stood up for me on a bus, a few years back, I was absolutely horrified! But now I’ll gratefully accept any seats offered….

I managed to get to my meeting on time, but things were little better on the way home. I got to Paddington half an hour before the time of my train, to find that every single service on the display boards was either delayed or cancelled! This time it was due to a broken down freight train somewhere near Slough, that was affecting every service into and out of Paddington. The incoming service was so late arriving that the staff had no time to sort out any seat reservations, so it was a complete scrum and was standing room again as far as Oxford. I know the ropes by now, so had sprinted to the correct platform as soon as it was announced, so I managed to get a seat. I finally got home less than half an hour late, which was good in the circumstances, but it felt as if the journey was a bit jinxed by broken down trains in both directions. 

Great Western Railways really does seem good at adding extra stress to ones journey. The trains are so unreliable, I routinely now aim for the train before the latest possible, to give me slack to cope with disrupted journeys and missed connections. At least work was paying this time – it’s even worse when it’s my own time and money that’s being wasted!

The morning after…..

Every year it astonishes me, the morning after the excesses of the Pudding Club, just how much we all manage to put away at breakfast the next morning. We met up in the dining room at 09:00 and breakfasted extremely well on a full English, plus cereal, toast, fruit, yoghurt, and in the case of two of our party, freshly-cooked haddock. I suspect that I probably didn’t need the second piece of toast, but the jams and preserves were so tasty that it didn’t feel as gluttonous as it undoubtedly was!

We then waved one of our group off in a taxi to the nearest railway station so that she could get back home to Hampshire, whilst the rest of us girded our loins for yet more Retail Therapy, this time in the picturesque but very touristy Cotswold village of Broadway. There are lots of interesting independent little shops in Broadway, but due to Sunday trading laws most of them don’t open until 11:00. However, the gang have been doing this for so long now that once again they have the timing sorted. Our convoy of three cars converged in the main car-park in Broadway at 10:59am, in time to pay for the parking and hit the shops just as they opened.

We took a pause for breath around noon for a rejuvenating coffee, and in my case a toasted tea cake, though none of us could face even a light lunch. We really are loyal customers, or perhaps just creatures of habit – we visited the same coffee shop this year as we have every year I’ve been attending, and even sat at the same table!

Having been into every significant shop on both sides of the main street, plus examined thoroughly all of the smaller shops in the arcade on the way back to the car park, we finally conceded that we’d shopped enough and that it was time to go home. That was the event over for another year – and already we’re anticipating repeating it next year! It’s a huge amount of fun, even if I didn’t feel hungry for several days afterwards!

Pudding Club Gluttony

Of course, the Retail Therapy was only a side-show to the main event of the weekend, our annual trip to the Pudding Club. We made the short drive over the Cotswolds to the picturesque village of Mickleton, to the Three Ways House hotel. I always rate a hotel by whether it provides flannels, a box of tissues, and something to read in the bedrooms, and this one passes those tests with flying colours. The reading matter is Cotswold Life Magazine, a rather up-market, aspirational “lifestyle magazine”. I can’t say that I’m currently in the market for dinner at the Michelin 2* restaurant Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, but it was mildly interesting to read about its tips policy. 

After settling in and speed-reading the magazines, I met back up with the group in the bar for a pre-dinner drink and gossip. Surprisingly soon, it was time to change for dinner. I’ve learned the hard way that, when at the Pudding Club, it is absolutely essential not to wear anything at all tight or constricting around the waist. So trousers are out. I very seldom wear a dress, but there are times when one is appropriate, and a gluttonous all-you-can-eat-and-then-some event is one of those. I’ve got a brown woollen sweater dress which stretches in all directions, which was ideal under the circumstances.  But what to wear with it? I’ve discovered that tights are definitely a bad idea, and stockings are no better, due to the requirement for suspenders which are extremely uncomfortable around the waist by one’s third pudding of the evening! Last year I discovered the magic of hold-ups which fit the bill admirably. Unfortunately I laddered my one and only pair when at L’s wedding last autumn, but I was able to find another pair in Marks and Spencer in Stratford just before we headed off to Mickleton, so that was all right.

Once we were all in our (very stretchy) finery, we met up in one of our rooms for more drinks before dinner. One of the group had been given a huge bottle of gin as a present the previous day, so there was a choice of red wine, white wine, and gin – though we all felt very self-conscious smuggling bottles of booze and our tooth-mugs through the bar! Then it was time for all 63 of the Pudding Club guests to congregate for a complimentary glass of elderflower cordial (hence the desire to pre-load with something stronger!) for the Main Event. 

There was no starter, no bread rolls, and just a very light main course with a choice of mushroom risotto, haddock fish cake, or braised blade of beef. I had the beef and it was absolutely delicious. The red cabbage, swede and carrot accompaniment was also very good, as were the Dauphinois potatoes. That’s my favourite way of cooking potatoes, but I had to hold back since we’d all been warned not to have too many potatoes, as that would damage our ability to stuff ourselves senseless on puddings. 

Then came what we’d all been waiting for. The puddings were paraded in one by one, to the accompaniment of cheers and banging of spoons on the table. It’s a different selection of puddings each time. This year they were : 

  • Lemon roly-poly with lemon sauce and custard
  • Passionfruit roulade with extra cream
  • Sticky toffee and date pudding with toffee sauce and custard
  • Ginger syrup sponge with custard
  • Chocolate and orange pudding with chocolate sauce and custard
  • Bread and butter pudding with custard
  • Apple crumble and custard

There are also some strict rules that have to be followed:

  1. You can only go up to get a portion of pudding when your table is invited to by the maitre d’
  2. You can only have one pudding in your bowl at any time
  3. Therefore you have to finish your portion of pudding before you go for another. If you don’t clear you bowl, the entire table is barred from having any more until your bowl is clear!
  4. After six rounds, it’s a free-for-all, and anyone left standing can have more servings as and when they want
  5. At the end of the evening, you all vote for our favourite pudding. You can only vote for one pudding, but you can cast as many votes as you had portions of that pudding. So someone being really gluttonous and having multiple helpings of a pudding can really skew the result.

I’ve never seen the third rule put into practice before, but it was this time! One of the women on our table (who was not one of our party, I hasten to add – we all know better!) found the ginger syrup sponge too sweet and tried to leave it. She was spotted, and we were all told that none of us was going anywhere until it was eaten. Since this was only the second round and we all had lots of room left, there was a huge amount of peer-pressure on her and her friends to clear her plate. They did so amid much protesting, but rules are rules and they were clearly stated up front.

I managed the first four puddings. The lemon roly-poly was quite heavy, but very lemony, and I was glad I’d taken a good amount of custard to cut through the suet pudding. The passionfruit roulade was gorgeous – passionfruit mousse rolled up inside a thin meringue crust. I love passionfruit, so I thought that was going to be my favourite. That was until I had the sticky toffee and date pudding, which was just fractionally even yummier. The ginger syrup sponge was very gingery, but was overly sweet – not surprising, as out of each four-pint pudding bowl, one whole pint was golden syrup!

I then sat out a round, thinking I’d go back the following round for some chocolate orange pudding. However, one of the group had a serving of that while I was sitting it out, and the smell of Terry’s Chocolate Orange was overwhelming. It was so sweet and chocolaty that my stomach just rebelled, and threatened that I would Seriously Regret It if I tried to eat anything else at all. So that was that. Four puddings is respectable, and I don’t think I’ve ever managed more than that. At least two of my group managed seven rounds – respect! 

The votes were very close, with my two favourites, passionfruit roulade and sticky toffee & date, being the two front runners. In the end, passionfruit roulade one by just one vote – the critical vote being that of one of our group who loved it so much she had two helpings, and therefore cast two votes for it. 

It was a huge amount of fun. Good company, good food and such a massive overload of calories that it’s a very good job we only go once a year!

Annual Retail Therapy

The year has gone by so quickly that last weekend was time once again for my now-annual gluttonous girls’ weekend away at the Pudding Club with a group of friends who are all loosely associated with work. Val, who organises it, has been going for 17 years so has the schedule tightly tied down so that it all runs like clockwork.

I was picked up at 0915 on Saturday morning, and five of us in two cars met up in the usual car park in Stratford. Even though the two groups had set off separately, from different parts of Malvern, the timings by now are so precise that we arrived in the car park within two minutes of each other! We then went to the usual coffee shop for a sustaining cup of tea/ coffee/ hot chocolate and toast / croissants, before starting on the shops. We met another of our party there, who had travelled up from Hampshire. The remaining two would meet us for lunch at the usual restaurant, where – rather annoyingly – we weren’t on our usual table! Val said she’d have “words” with the restaurant staff for next year, as that was just not good enough!

It is part of the tradition to go round the sales in Stratford, which has a lot of interesting stores, both chains and small independent shops. The others in the group all seem to be much better at shopping as a leisure activity than I am, but I know the ropes now and had come prepared with a list of things that I really wanted to buy, but which are difficult to get in Malvern. Top of the list was a new cashmere jumper to wear to work. I’ve bought one every year that I’ve gone on the Pudding Club weekend, and right on cue just last week I put my elbow through the sleeve of the rather nice blue jumper that I bought a few years back. So I clearly needed a new one. The winter sales were still on, but coming to an end, so there was very little available in my size. There was plenty  of choice in extra-small, but I’ve not fitted into that size for several years! At this late in the season, you have to be prepared to put up with whatever selection of colours are left over and clearly weren’t selling well at full price. But I did managed to find a very acceptable jumper in my size, in a shade of blue very similar to the holey jumper. Even better, it was reduced from £130 to just £49, so I felt very pleased with myself. 

I then absolutely shocked myself by spending the same amount again on handcream! I hadn’t thought it was possible to spend nearly fifty quid on handcream, but this was very strong stuff and my hands are in an absolutely shocking state at the moment. It wasn’t all on one pot, I hasten to add, but on three different concoctions which together are promised to deal with the chapping, dry skin and general ill-effects of central heating and air conditioning at work. I’ll see what I think when I’ve used them for a few weeks. 

There’s a big M&S in Stratford, so I also managed to buy a range of essentials to replenish my underwear drawer, and a White Company store which has a range of rather comfy nightshirts. I’d had to throw away several nightshirts this year when they started fraying round the seams, so I was able to convince myself that was a necessary purchase. I was quite pleased though that Val had decided to bring forward our departure time from Stratford by half an hour compared to usual, as that meant I didn’t have the time to go around Lakeland and impulse-buy a whole load of cookware that I quite definitely do not need! 

So all in all it was a very successful outing to the shops – though it’s probably just as well that it’s only once a year!

As if on cue…..

I mentioned the Great Pottery Throw Down the other week. As if on cue, a transmission date has finally been scheduled. The series starts on Thursday on BBC2 at 8pm, and I shall be watching avidly. I imagine that Jon the Potter, plus lots of other pottery teachers up and down the country, must be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of all the extra hobbyist business the series will generate. 

Overcome by the fumes…..

For many, many years now, I’ve had regular back and shoulder massages. It started years ago, long before Christopher was ill, when I was having a stressful time at work and was getting a string of migraines. One of the women at work recommended Fiona, as a very competent masseuse. She’s got really strong thumbs to dig out the knots in my back, which really seems to make a difference, so I’ve been seeing her regularly ever since. To start with, I found that monthly treatments were enough to keep the tension headaches and migraines under some sort of control. Then, when Christopher was very ill and my stress levels were going through the roof, I increased the frequency to fortnightly. 

More recently, now that things are more settled again, I’ve moved to having a back, neck, shoulder and scalp massage every three weeks on average. More often than that, and I don’t really get much extra benefit. Leave a longer gap between massages, and my back and shoulders get full of knots and I’m pretty much guaranteed a run of splitting headaches. Due to the Christmas break, it’s been four weeks since I last had a treatment, and I was really regretting not having booked an appointment for last week. My shoulders were one solid knot, my scalp felt like it was wearing a swimming cap two sizes too small, and the headaches were back.

I finally had the massage this evening, and feel so much more relaxed as a result. My back, neck and shoulders all feel much more mobile, and I seem to have temples once again instead of knots. But there is a downside. I can’t say that I’m a believer in aromatherapy, or indeed any other “complementary” therapy. But there is no denying that the strongly-scented massage oil she uses has a very soporific effect. So much of it gets absorbed by my skin that even having a shower after the massage doesn’t negate the effect. I think it must be a combination of being so physically relaxed during the massage itself, plus the scent of the essential oils – lavender, camomile and sandalwood I think were in this evening’s concoction. Whatever it is, it certainly knocks me out. By 8:30pm I was yawning like mad, and by 9:30pm I was barely able to keep my eyes open! I’ll sleep very well indeed tonight….

Back at the Pottery – at last!

It’s been ages since I’ve been to Eastnor Pottery. I don’t quite know why that is – mostly I think I just got out of the habit of making sure I had a future session booked into my diary, and they were so busy last year that I couldn’t just book a slot at short notice. They were riding the wave of interest spawned by the Great Pottery Throwdown programme on BBC2 in autumn 2015, which led to them putting on 50 weekend workshops last year, and being pretty much full up for most of them. That’s a far cry from the 6-8 weekend workshops per year they typically held prior to the programme airing – such is the power of television!

My sister bought me a gift voucher for the pottery for Christmas, and that made me realise how much I’d missed it. I got back in touch with them, and was able to book a slot last Sunday. I spent the day throwing small lidded pots – my mother has commissioned a small pot to hold marmalade. It’s hard to get pots and lids to match in size, even when using calipers to give an indication, so I threw seven of each and will then pick the best-matched pair to finish next time I’m there. All the others will be recycled, so there will be no waste. 

I was talking to Jon the Potter about the Great Pottery Throwdown phenomenon. He reckons that much of the pent-up demand it caused has now just about worked through the system, though he’s still planning far more weekend workshops than he put on before the programme aired. He said that he could really do with another series being shown to stimulate another peak in demand. Apparently, one has indeed been filmed and is in the can. However, the production company has fallen out spectacularly with the BBC – it’s the same company that is behind the Great British Bakeoff, which has moved acrimoniously to Channel4. So there is no date set for screening the programme. That’s a shame – it was fun to watch, and it certainly prodded a lot of people to explore their latent interest in throwing. But from a selfish point of view, it does at least mean that I can get a short-notice access to a potter’s wheel when I feel the urge to throw something!

No User Serviceable Parts Inside

I’ve already had the first domestic disaster of the year. On New Year’s Day, my tumble dryer stopped working, with a soggy load of towels inside and another load in the washing machine. It looked to be electrically dead – no lights on the front panel at all. I tried changing the fuse in the plug, in a forlorn hope that might fix it, but it made no difference. It would happen in the middle of a long Bank Holiday weekend, with no possibility of getting it repaired or replaced as quickly as I should like.

I phoned the local Domestic Appliance Repair people on Tuesday and asked them to send someone round to look at it and try to fix it. The earliest they could make was Thursday afternoon, as there was a long queue of people whose appliances had broken over the holidays. A very pleasant chap came round and diagnosed that the main control PCB had failed. The machine is only a few years old, but of course the particular model is already obsolete. It may or may not be possible to get a replacement board, but it could take ages and I was warned it could cost nearly £200. That’s ridiculous! For only very slightly more than that, I could have a brand new tumble dryer delivered, fitted, and the old one taken away. 

I said I wanted a new tumble dryer asap, and what did they have in stock that they could deliver the next day? The chap phoned the store to check, and found that they were completely out – they had sold the last one in stock just minutes earlier. However, they were having a delivery Friday morning and did I want to reserve one of those? I checked that it wasn’t one of the brands that’s currently setting kitchens and houses on fire up and down the country, and it’s not. The price was reasonable, so I said yes, provided that it was delivered and fitted on Friday afternoon in time for me to spend the weekend catching up on the laundry.

They turned up as promised this afternoon to deliver the new tumble dryer, and told me that there was a massive run on them at the moment – mine was the sixth one that they had been called out to this week! The chap said it was almost as if the manufacturers had programmed them all to fail simultaneously! As they took the old one out from under the counter I noticed that it was rather dusty behind there – accumulated fluff from the tumble dryer no doubt. So I thought I’d take the offortunity to give it a quick once over with the vacuum cleaner, which was working fine on Sunday. It was dead as a dodo. It’s probably about ten years old, so I can’t complain too much, but it’s still very annoying and won’t be economical to repair. I’ll have to replace that too. 

They say that things happen in threes, so I’m waiting with baited breath to see which of my appliances fails next. It really annoys me that there’s such a throw-away culture these days and that it’s rarely easy or economical to repair broken household goods. It’s a right scam having to replace everything anew every few years……