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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmas, New Year, and the Lovely Bit in Between

Every year, a distressing number of people trot out the line that whilst Christmas is all well and good, and New Year's Eve is a shiny sparkling vision of loveliness, the bit in between these two shimmering beacons is dull and boring. They are wrong. The week between Christmas and New Year is actually the best week of all, for the following incontrovertible reasons:

1. Residual festiveness, without the actual hard work of continual jollity. The Christmas lights are still up, there is still a chance of hearing Fairytale of New York on the radio, and yet all the relatives have gone home and you don't actually have to get dressed if you don't want to.

2. New stuff to play with. I know that some people get rubbish presents for Christmas, and I am sorry for this. But my friends and family know me pretty well, and always give me a splendid mix of the ridiculously glamorous and items that any grandma (and me) would be glad to receive. Thus I have been out today bedecked in gaudy finery, and yet am writing this with a lovely new blanket over my knees. Perfect. The cat agrees.

3. Shopping in the sales to buy more stuff. I am not one of those crazy people you see every year on the news, queueing up in sub-zero temperatures at four in the morning in the hope of snagging a bargain, but equally I do embrace the concept of buying more stuff for less money. True, the leftover Christmas gifts do look a little forlorn on their ravished shelves, but I care little for this as I skip off triumphantly in my new £15 Oasis dress.

4. Bars and restaurants falling over themselves to lure you in. I am something of a restaurant tart (yes, yes, I know - I do hide it well), willing to have my head turned by any offer that looks worth my while. And at this time of year, my email account is overflowing with choice deals that aim to break my resolve and get me to part with my cash (yes, how little they know me.) Take today's deal, for example, a voucher for All Bar One - the best chain bar none *smirks at own wit* - that entitled us to have a bottle of (decent) wine, a plate of astonishingly good calamari, a dish of meatballs and a whole baked camembert for fifteen quid. Although, a word of warning - if you do break off in the middle of a day's shopping to consume a whole bottle of wine, you are liable to become emotional in TopShop and then fall asleep on the train home with your mouth open in an unattractive manner.

5. No work. Apologies for this one if you are one of the millions who actually DO have to work between Christmas and New Year. I, however, do not, and as a jammy teacher I naturally expect my two weeks off as my just entitlement. The difference is that this is the one time of year when my husband is off work at the same time as me, meaning that there is someone there in the mornings to bring me a cup of tea in bed. Oh, and spend lots of quality time with, etc etc.

6. Turkey leftovers. I love turkey. In fact, I love everything about Christmas dinner, but particularly the turkey, and I positively welcome the leftovers that it inevitably brings. What do you mean, you're bored with it? You have it ONCE A YEAR! Now, go and rustle me up a nice turkey sandwich with extra mayonnaise this instant.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Mighty James at Manchester MEN 2010

As has been exhaustively documented on this increasingly self-indulgent blog, I am somewhat partial to going out. The things I like doing, however, exist within pretty narrow parameters, generally falling into one of two spheres of activity: I enjoy putting on good shoes and going to friends' houses to drink wine and eat food, and I also enjoy putting on good shoes and going to bars and restaurants to drink wine and eat food. I am also far more of a going-out-in-summer person than a going-out-in-winter person, much more likely in the colder months to simply turn the heating on and seek out a warmer pair of pyjamas than throw myself into the arctic conditions outside.

Thus last night heralded exciting times, for James were on at the MEN, and I was going. A kindly friend pointed out via the very public medium of Facebook that she and I last went to see James when we were 17, approximately one million years ago, and I can't pretend I wasn't a little trepidatious at the thought of being thrown into a seething moshpit full of rampantly thrashing young folk. Surely a quiet night in with the Strictly final would be more sensible?

Of course, I needn't have worried. Not only are all of James' fans safely into their thirties and forties, but chief ticket-procurer extraordinaire Julia had come up trumps - seats in the front row, just at the side of the stage, a far cry from my aforementioned last visit to see James, where I seem to recall one of us (not me) ended up with a broken foot. Instead, we sat serenely in our special-lady seats, and watched as the MEN - unbelievably considering the "snow chaos" claimed by the media - filled itself up to bursting point with brave Mancunians clearly not held back by a little precipitation.

So, onto the support acts. The first of these, Frazer King, were mighty entertaining on stage but even better off stage, as we had the pleasure of lead singer Nathan's company throughout the rest of the gig. He had perhaps partaken of one or two shandies over the course of the evening, to the point where his mum, sat behind us, was forced to keep hissing "Nathan! Leave those ladies alone!"

Meanwhile, the next support act was on: Pigeon Detectives, one of those bands who helpfully produce lots of quite good songs that all sound the same, so if you are familiar with a couple of them you can pretty much sing along to the whole set. And then, it was time. One might uncharitably remark that Tim Booth is looking increasingly like Ming the Merciless, but this matters not: any man who can complete a two hour set, replete with his own particular brand of crazy dad-dancing, whilst dressed in coat and beanie hat, is one to be admired.

In fact, James were brilliant in every way. Even the new songs, traditionally a chance to nip to the bar and be relieved of £4 for a pint of lager in a plastic pot, sounded good, although it was of course the old favourites which brought the crowd to life. The encore was the best I have ever seen, featuring four songs - including the mighty Laid - and a cast of thousands, as actual muggles were invited up on stage to dance along (we weren't quite quick or pushy enough); we also enjoyed Sit Down, a much safer proposition when seated comfortably on a plush seat rather than gingerly eyeing the sticky dancefloor at Manchester Academy and wondering if it would be advisable to allow your bottom to make contact with it.

Flushed and triumphant, we were brought down to earth quite quickly by the disappointing reality of the after-show party - lots of sweaty people crammed in a marquee, queueing ten deep at the world's smallest bar; surely the band wouldn't be seen dead here, so we elected to drink up and leave. That's when we noticed the man in the beanie hat standing, ooh, six inches to our left; our conversation dried up as we - two grown women old enough to know better - stood and gazed, open-mouthed, at King Booth. The fact he moved away to the other side of the giant tent soon after is probably not unrelated to this.

A perfect night was capped off with a wander around the snowy streets of Manchester as we waited for the Husband Taxi Firm to arrive, admiring the pretty lights and fighting the desire to make snow angels. A little worrying perhaps that we both remarked on the lack of cold, before getting in the car to find the temperature reading minus five; hurrah for the insulating properties of the beer jacket.

So thank you Julia, for the tickets; thank you, drunken Nathan, for entertaining us; and thank you James, for being all conquering. Oh, and Tim, I was meant to ask you to switch on the West Didsbury Christmas lights next year but was too frightened - if you fancy it, please give Didsbury Life a would get me out of a lot of trouble, thanks.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Xmas WestFest 2010 - Snow on the Way

As I write this, the country is once again going snow-crazy and once again - so far - Manchester has not been invited to play along. Obviously, the sensible part of me, the part that wears cardigans and chooses a car based on comfort rather than speed, knows that this is a very good thing, as snow brings chaos, causing accidents and delays and making pussy cats' feet cold and small birds hungry.

And yet. The other, sadly more dominant part of me - the part that drinks too much wine and buys too much sparkly nail varnish - is stamping its feet and shaking its fists and shouting "snow, god damn you" to a largely indifferent sky. For tonight, I want snow. It is Christmas in just one week, and more to the point, this weekend is Xmas WestFest, the festive sister to September's annual celebration of all that is good amongst the independent businesses on Burton Road in West Didsbury.

Quite frankly, I wish to wear my cute woolly Top Shop scarf and some kind of fetching hat, and stomp through the snow, pausing only to exchange pleasantries with friends and sample mince pies and mulled wine from beaming shopkeepers, many of whom will hopefully have pieces of decorative holly attached to their persons. As ever, check out the omniscient Didsbury Life ( for latest news on the Festival; Helen is confident that there will be snow, and as she knows simply EVERYTHING, I'm off to find my wellies.

A Warming Winter's Tale, Starring Some Misplaced Ribs and a Greedy-Faced Girl

Here's a lovely festive tale to warm your cockles and bring joy to your heart. Last night, I was weary. A tough day at college spent trying to impart meaningful knowledge to classes whose only desire was to play quizzes and eat sweets had left me drained, and an obliging husband was dispatched to D & F Kitchen in East Didsbury to fetch takeaway. Being a school night, we were modest in our desires, and ordered only a main course and rice each (moderation is my actual middle name) so as not to be greedy.

So, we eagerly unpacked our goodies, spreading out our meagre picnic across the living room floor. And that was when we saw it. Nestled in the bottom of the carrier bag was an extra box. A big one. Not asked for, and - gasp - not paid for. With trembling hands, I lifted the lid, fully expecting Lady Luck to fart in my face and present me with a box of steamed mung beans or similar. But no - what we actually got were the biggest, stickiest, most fally-off-the-bone ribs I have ever had in my life, glistening seductively in their unctiously artery-clogging barbecue sauce, and far, far nicer than anything we had chosen from the menu.

Well, obviously we were choked with guilt; honestly, I could hardly force every single last one down. We salute you, D & F Kitchen, and we promise we will pay you for our illicit goods next time we come in - oh, as well as the massive portion of ribs we'll be ordering at the time...

Monday, 13 December 2010

Happy Belated Birthday Things To Do in Manchester....

By and large, birthdays are a fine tradition. People have to buy you stuff, for one thing, and there is often cake, and champagne, and badges that say "It's My Birthday!" which allow you to flaunt your special status for one magical day only.

And yet, as time goes on, a problem begins to rear its ugly head. Birthdays are all well and good when you're 18, or 22, or even - gasp - 25. There comes a point, however, when one wishes to celebrate, and take advantage of birthday perks, without actually having to accept the addition of another year on top of your already quite frightening total. If you work in a college, where all the gamine young students are positively OBSESSED with how old their teachers are, the situation is even worse (I tell them I'm 45; or 55; or sometimes even 95 - worryingly, there is always at least one student who believes me.)

Thus I have decided to start living vicariously through my blog, which turned three years old yesterday. You can tell I am old, and stupid, and befuddled, because I actually thought the anniversary was today, and am therefore posting a day late for my own celebration. Still, never too late - gifts, wine, dinner invitations, birthday cake etc. will be most gratefully accepted, and I promise to pass every last donation on to the blog (after a small cut, you understand, only fair for my trouble.)

And don't even THINK about saying it's too close to Christmas and that you'll simply give TTDIM a joint birthday/Christmas present; although, actually, if you're offering....

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Best Fish and Chips in Manchester - Pyjamas Optional

Last night my husband went out on his work Christmas do, leaving me completely unsupervised for an entire evening. With the world being my oyster, I clearly took the opportunity for a wild night of debauchery: I had a bath, put my pyjamas on, and watched three episodes of Downton Abbey (only one left to watch - does the deliciously arch and amusingly debased Lady Mary marry cousin Matthew? Will the girl who used to be in Corrie finally get to kiss the man with the dodgy leg?)

So anyway, I clearly required some form of sustenance to get me through my night of excess, and found the wherewithal in the freezer to rustle up some fish and chips. And very nice it was too. Yet I couldn't help sadly reflecting that if I were not so lazy, and not clad in Paddington Bear pyjamas, I could have had proper fish and chips from a chip shop. Here are the places I wish I could have called upon, my current favourite chippies in Manchester:

5. Harry Ramsdens. They do takeout, so I am allowed to include it here (and anyway, it's my blog - take your mutterings elsewhere). When I first moved to Manchester, back in the late 1920s, this is the place my parents used to take me whenever they were visiting their errant daughter in her new hometown. The one that we used to go to, in Salford, has gone now, but my memories live on: having a pint of beer with my dad in the bar before lunch; the long-since-binned ex-boyfriend who completed the Harry Ramsdens challenge (seemingly to consume a piece of fish the size of a sideboard without throwing it back up, or actually suffering a stomach rupture) and was photographed afterwards, holding up his certificate and looking slightly queasy.

4. Didsbury Fish Bar. This has been on School Lane for as long as anyone can remember, a particularly cruel location for me, as I have to walk past it whenever I go into or out of Didsbury. And it always smells great. Luckily, if you consume fish and chips whilst walking briskly home, you may get indigestion but you actually won't imbibe a single calorie - FACT. (I think.)

3. Frankie's Fish Bar. A relative newcomer, this glamorous little eatery in West Didsbury is actually the favourite of both my husband and my cat, who have been known to share a fish supper from there when I have abandoned them for the night (but again, MY blog, so back-off cat-face). They do both take-out and eat-in, but as one of the two customers is a cat, my husband has never been allowed the eat-in option for obvious reasons.

2. The Battered Cod. A shock second place for this long-time favourite, with local branches in Fallowfield and Withington. These are cunning locations, as anyone who has been a student in Manchester will have spent three years of their life alternating between fish & chips from the Battered Cod and a chicken kebab from Abdul's (a varied diet is SO important), and will never quite be able to wean themselves off it - me being a case in point.

1. Fosters Fish and Chips. With branches in Alderley Edge and Didsbury, Fosters have brazenly snatched the top spot based largely on the following evidence:
- the fish and chips are great and come in portion sizes that would fell a hungry bear
- their website uses heading such as "Our Plaices" and "For the Halibut"; no further justification needed for this point surely
- and perhaps most importantly, Kath has confirmed - I have it in black and white on Twitter - that she will give me a discount if I turn up in my pyjamas. No mention as of yet whether there are free mushy peas available for those sporting furry slippers and wildly unkempt hair, but here's hoping....

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Stroke of Luck at Felicini's, Didsbury

Anyone who knows me in actual real-life land rather than pretend virtual-world land will know that I've had a pretty significant run of bad luck recently. This has ranged from the seriously life-changing, to the just-plain-annoying sort; setting off early for work to catch up on a backlog only to get caught in traffic, for example, and then returning home to find that yet another parcel has been brought to my door only to be whisked back to the depot by the evil postman, who I'm pretty sure actually waits around the corner for me to go out before knocking on.

Today was looking like a case in point; having decided that we would go for an early tea after work, I spent the day dreaming of the moules frites at Felicini's in Didsbury (no doubt they have an Italian name for it rather than a French, sorry), and my husband whiled away his time thinking of the Diavolo pizza he would order before 6pm for the knock-down bargain price of just £5.95. And then I got stuck in more stinky, lousy traffic. And then a horrible man flicked us the Vs when we were parking in Didsbury. Pah.

Luckily, Felicini's couldn't have been more welcoming. As the lovely waitress showed us to one of the best tables, right in the window, I muttered in my very most sulky and childish voice about having missed the pizza offer; "oh no," she said, "we've extended that until 7pm." Following my cart-wheeling husband to table, another stroke of luck awaited: a bargaintastic set lunch offer, two courses for £8.95, and also bizarrely available until 7pm. The mussels normally cost £10.95. For eight hundred and ninety five of your English pence, I got my moules AND was forced to manage a portion of stuffed vine leaves for minus two pounds. "Oh," adds the waitress, who clearly has our card marked by now, "it's Happy Hour as well - can I get you a half carafe of wine for eight quid?" *leaves space for reader to imagine own response - you have two guesses, and the first doesn't count*

So, we consumed a portion of anchovies, some stuffed vine leaves, a pizza, mussels served in a cream and shallot sauce with fries and garlic aioli, and a generous carafe of wine for a few pence over £25 quid; amezzing. The icing on the cake? Another, equally charming waitress gave us not one but FIFTEEN money-off vouchers, seemingly just because her and I share the same favourite dish. Hoorah. Add to that the fact that it's a heady 7 degrees outside, meaning that I won't have to be up at 2.15 am (approx) to defrost my car, and it's been a pretty good day.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sad Farewell to In All Her Finery and its Cava and Cakes

Regular readers of this blog will know that on many occasions in the past I have extolled the virtues of a charming independent boutique on School Lane in Didsbury. For the last three years, the beautiful Fiona has solved my every gift dilemma with her handmade jewellery and impeccably chosen trinkets and baubles; even better, on selected Thursdays she has run "Cava and Cake" nights, generously plying her customers with fizz and cupcakes while they browse (she's clearly not stupid - I always buy far, far nore after a glass of cava, and suspect I'm not alone in this).

So it is with some sorrow that I report that next Thursday 9th December will be the final Cava and Cakes outing, as In All Her Finery will cease to run its shop premises from next year. And whilst Fiona will continue to sell her gorgeous goodies from her website and at craft fairs, School Lane will definitely miss her stylish presence. So pop along on Thursday to send her off in style; I'll be the one knocking back the cava and frantically trying to get ALL my Christmas shopping done.

- In All Her Finery is (for now) at 56 School Lane, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6RT, tel. 0161 445 5225;

Friday, 3 December 2010

Ode on an Airy Fairy Christmas Tree Cake

'Tis that festive time of year,
When all the world doth make good cheer.
United in their peace and love,
To honour Him from up above,
When children try to stay awake...
And I indulge in too much cake.

But who can blame me for my greed?
I am but weak, so I must feed
On chocolate, nuts and biscuits too,
Turkey, sprouts, potatoes new.
But now a new thing comes along,
And I must pen this hasty song.

I saw it on a Facebook page,
Posted by a lady, sage
In bakery, that precious art,
The way to win my festive heart.
This Christmas, if you do love me,
Buy me a cake by an Airy Fairy.

Not just any cake, mind you,
For only one design will do...
The stunning, gorgeous, lovely
Cake that's like a Christmas tree.
See it now this very day

And yes I know that doesn't scan
But honestly, just don't split hairs man.
Go and get your credit card
And make my day: it isn't hard.
Just tell Laura whence you were sent
And have a magical Advent.