Sunday, 30 October 2011

Laura Marling plays Birmingham Cathedral

Under a grey October sky we joined a queue stretching the length of Birmingham Cathedral and across the churchyard green.

Everyone in the line had snapped up tickets for the last day of Laura Marling’s For Whom the Bell Tolls tour (you had to be quick because they sold out in a trice) and the sense of excitement was palpable.

The tour has seen the singer play a series of gigs at cathedrals up and down the country. Whoever came up with the idea should be applauded because if the Birmingham concert was anything to go by, England’s cavernous cathedrals offer the perfect acoustics for Marling’s amazing voice and storytelling lyrics.

She played two Birmingham events, one at lunchtime and a second in the evening. We had seats near the back but it didn’t matter because Marling, a slight blonde figure playing acoustic guitar, commanded the entire place from start to finish. From the moment she arrived at the front and quietly said “I’m Laura,” we sat spellbound. There were no gimmicks, no accompanying musicians and barely any chat. Apart from a couple of anecdotes about her former days touring in a five-piece band stuffed (drum-kit and all) into a Ford KA, she kept everything simple – and just sang her heart out.

With three albums and the 2011 Brit award for best female solo artist to her name, it’s hard to believe that Marling is only 21. Just hearing her play some of my favourites, Night Terror, Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) and Sophia, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Every number she played was her own apart from a haunting cover of Jackson C Frank’s Blues Run the Game, which, she recalled, she used to listen to on a mix-tape driving home from concerts in the early days because she couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel.

I didn’t realise at the time but Marling never plays encores. It could be that the hundreds in the audience didn’t know either, or maybe they just couldn’t bear to accept it. As the final chords of Marling’s guitar faded away, the claps, cheers and foot-stamping sounded loud enough to raise the cathedral roof from its rafters. But with a quick shy smile and the lights catching the top of her blonde head, she was gone.

PS: Today’s Mail on Sunday reports that Pippa Middleton is close to signing a book deal on how to be the perfect party hostess. The Duchess of Cambridge’s sister already writes a blog on children’s parties for her parents’ mail-order business, Party Pieces, and apparently the book will have a tone similar to the blog. In a recent blog entry, says the MoS, Pippa advised: “The key to creating a wonderful party lies not in spending vast amounts but in planning – from choice of venue, entertainer and party theme to the selection of food, decorations and the birthday cake.” Talk about stating the blooming obvious. I’m sorry, Pippa, but you’re going to have to do a lot better than that...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the dreaded dog debate to the glittering Cosmo Blog Awards

A Saturday round-up of the week at House With No Name

House With No Name Book Review: William Fiennes’s The Music Room
House With No Name Film Review: The Help
House With No Name Glamour: The party to celebrate the 2011 Cosmo Blog Awards
House With No Name Goes to the Dogs: The dreaded dog debate rears its fluffy head
House With No Name Lifestyle: Country or City? The best place to live

Friday, 28 October 2011

FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW - The Music Room by William Fiennes

I’m one of the judges for the first novel category of the Costa Book Awards this year - so I'm up to my eyes in books at the moment. For that reason, I’ve decided to steer clear of novels for this week’s Friday book recommendation and choose a non-fiction title instead.

The Music Room was published in paperback last year but I only read it a few weeks ago. I was completely bowled over by it, so bowled over in fact, that I chose it for my book club to read. The eight of us have got very different tastes and it’s not often that we all love the same book – but this was one of those rare occasions. It got the thumbs-up all round.

Two things inspired me to buy The Music Room. The first was hearing a moving interview with author William Fiennes and the second was the fact that it’s set at Broughton Castle, the Oxfordshire family home where Fiennes and his siblings grew up. I used to live a few miles from Broughton and know it well. I’ve walked from Broughton Castle across the fields to North Newington scores of times and whether it’s the height of summer or the depths of winter, the beauty of the landscape never palls.

In one sense The Music Room is the story of Fiennes’s own journey to adulthood and in another it’s the story of an ancestral home dating back 700 years. There’s a moat, gatehouse tower, woods and parkland, (the castle has featured in loads of films, from The Madness of King George to Shakespeare in Love) and it’s clear that running the place is a major undertaking. While Fiennes’s childhood friends lived in “warm, compact and efficient” houses, his home was full of historical exhibits, rattling windows and a ghostly long gallery he was scared to loiter in alone.

But the heart of the book is Fiennes’s older brother Richard, a charismatic figure with a passion for Leeds United, puns and herons. Eleven years older than William and severely epileptic, Richard was a towering presence in everyone’s life and as his mother kept repeating to them all after his death at the age of 41, “we are rich in what we have lost. We are rich.”

Beautifully written, tender and heartfelt, The Music Room is a stunning read.

The Music Room by William Fiennes (Picador, £8.99)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The party to celebrate the Cosmo Blog Awards 2011

A pink cupcake, a gothic-looking ring, fake eyelashes, jelly beans and some blusher from the new beauty line by Nicola Roberts (aka the redhead in Girls Aloud).

It's been quite a while since my children used to bring home party bags, but I've forgotten how much fun they are - unless, of course, you're the hapless parent who has to organise them. I remember assembling healthy goody bags at my daughter's party one year, with miniature boxes of raisins, books and little jigsaws, and the guests were not impressed. But the treats listed above are just a few of the presents inside the glamorous goody bags we were given at the Cosmo Blog Awards celebration party.

I was thrilled to be shortlisted - and thank you so much to everyone who voted for House With No Name - but on the night the lifestyle award went to the talented Miss Thrifty.

The best thing about the evening though (apart from the bright pink Cosmopolitan cocktails), was the chance to meet some fantastic fellow bloggers. Kate Monro had two blogs shortlisted - BigGuySmallDog and The Virginity Project - while journalist Katie Byrne is the brains behind The Young Creatives, a blog that showcases the work of artists, writers, musicians and designers under 25. It was fantastic, too, to meet the lovely Marion Katrina from Rust and Gold Dust and the brilliant Olivia from The London Ladybird, whose blogs I subscribed to the moment I got home.

The bash, held at a club called 24 Kingly in London's West End, was glamorous, loud and lit in stylish pink. The only drawback was that I was easily the oldest blogger in town (even though I'm really not that old.) On the train home to Oxford, I texted my sister. "The party was great but I felt 103," I typed.

"I would have felt 153," she texted back.

PS: A list of all the winners can be seen here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The dreaded dog debate

Oh dear. The dreaded pet debate has raised its fluffy head again. My children’s young cousin is about to become the proud owner of a puppy and my usually laid-back teenagers are green with envy.

They claim they are deprived children because they’ve never owned a pet. Well, apart from a sickly goldfish in a polythene bag that my daughter won at a fair. It swam listlessly round its tank a few times, survived less than 24 hours and she never clamoured for another.

But dogs are different. Over the years they’ve come up with a host of arguments about having a puppy in the house. They’d call it Coco and promise faithfully they’d be in charge of feeding, washing and taking it for walks. My daughter’s stance isn’t at all convincing bearing in mind that we live in Oxford and she’s just moved into a student flat in Shoreditch, but still.

Deep down I know (and I reckon they do too) that there’s one person who’d end up on 24/7 dog duty - and that would be me. Several friends whose children faithfully promised to take sole charge of the family dog report the novelty wore off within weeks and then they were lumbered for life. Katie, a Lancashire pal who’s admittedly grown fond of her children’s Labrador, reckons the dog’s far more trouble than a baby. So far the puppy has chewed gaping holes in the sofa and Katie’s Nicole Farhi jacket, howls if she’s ever left on her own and as for training – hmmm, let’s just say there’s quite some way to go.

I still feel mean for not agreeing to my teenagers’ dearest wish though. And I wobbled a few years back when I discovered my son sadly herding a gang of snails (all named, of course) into a little enclosure outside the back door.

“I’m never going to have a pet so I’ve decided that these will have to do instead,” he said morosely.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The film of The Help is an out and out winner

My favourite books are the ones that make me laugh, make me cry and make me think.

I reckon the same rule can be applied to films – which is why The Help, the new film based on Kathryn Stockett’s tale of life in the American Deep South during the 1960s, is an out and out winner.

Stockett’s book, which chronicles the story of a group of black maids who look after the children of white southern families in Mississippi, spent 103 weeks on the bestseller list in the US and in three years has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.

Film director Tate Taylor, Stockett’s best friend at school, spotted its potential and bought the film rights before the book was even published.

The Help is told from the viewpoints of three women. Two of them are maids, Aibileen, a wise and stoical black woman in her 50s who’s brought up 17 children of white women, and her feisty friend Minny, who extracts hilarious revenge on her racist employer. The third is Skeeter, a wealthy young white girl who desperately wants to be a writer. The trio form an unlikely friendship when Aibileen and Minnie agree to help Skeeter write a controversial book about the maids and their lives – a book that shakes the insular community they live in to the core.

It’s a controversial subject, and while some critics have slated the film for “sugar-coating” the civil rights struggle, it’s got heart and it mostly works. Viola Davis, as Aibileen, and newcomer Octavia Spencer, as Minny, have both been mentioned as likely Oscar contenders, as has Emma Stone as the sparky Skeeter. I managed not to cry till the scene where Aibileen is forced to say goodbye to a little girl she has looked after since she was a baby, exhorting her as always to remember she is “smart,” she is “kind” and she is “intelligent.” Then I couldn't stop.

Despite its flaws, The Help manages to be deeply moving, poignant and funny at the same time. Yes, it simplifies a violent era of modern history, but it’s a powerful, beautifully shot movie - and definitely worth seeing.

The Help, certificate 12A, opens on October 26.

PS: The preview I attended was organised by ShowFilmFirst - so thanks to them.
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