Archive for the ‘Comment’ Category
Blue Peter is moving to the CBBC channel. It will no longer be on BBC1. Adults secretly still watching will have to tune in to a children’s channel. Well, we did it anyway for The Sarah Jane Adventures and will do so for Wizards vs Aliens, right?
Anyone who knew me as a child knows that one of my major special interests (a feature of autistic spectrum conditions) was Blue Peter. Everywhere we went, I would look in charity shops and car boot sales to increase my collection of Blue Peter Books (what they call their annuals) and associated memorabilia. I watched the programme obsessively, had a Blue Peter diary made by Letts and regularly wrote to Jim’ll Fix It to ask if I could be a presenter for the day. OK, being wobbly wouldn’t have helped me get through the famous audition process, which involves (or did) interviewing somebody while bouncing on a trampoline, but it was my dream for a long time. I even went to a CBBC open audition when I was 19. Not for BP, for the “broom cupboard”, but I was dreadful.
I didn’t have many friends when I was young. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I have Asperger Syndrome. I was lonely and miserable and having a difficult time at both home – my father was an abusive alcoholic – and at school, where I was bullied. I wrote letters to my favourite programme, Blue Peter. It didn’t hurt that it also had links to my other favourite, Doctor Who, and still does.The first Blue Peter badge I won was the Green badge, for writing about the environment. I was a keen environmentalist as a child, having the Blue Peter Green Book, and I collected large numbers of aluminium cans to be recycled for charity.
Then I won the Blue badge. I sent in pictures, stories, ideas for “makes”. I wrote near-constantly to the BP office. I was miserable. They responded. Not just with form letters, but with help and advice. They made me feel appreciated, like somebody was listening. They knew I collected memorabilia, so sent me signed photos of new presenters and pets, old promo cards for previous presenters, any booklets they had lying around. It was amazing.
I won the Silver badge because I ran a Blue Peter Bring & Buy Sale with my mum, and covered every surface with the stickers they sent. My sister won a badge herself, but mostly the family used mine to get the two of us and other children into visitor attractions for free. That element of the badge has always been open to abuse, especially once grown-up winners were able to sell their badges on Ebay, and these days children have a photocard to present as well as the badge. We went to the Yorvik Viking Centre what felt like a million times. Beamish. Loads of places. The BP office sent a booklet with all the places we could go, in the days before many museums had free entry.
When I was perhaps a bit too old to watch the programme, at 14, I won the Competition badge, which was then as it appears above and not the new orange design. I was a runner-up in a design competition. I had been away on a German exchange with school and had a rotten time, but came back to find the badge and our family’s first computer. The latter changed my life, the former was the last link to my childhood. I couldn’t win any more badges. In those days, there was no purple badge for reviewing the programme, and I had missed out on any of the special “birthday” badges for programme anniversaries. I stopped sending letters some time after that. I was too scared to take their advice of phoning ChildLine, but I knew they wouldn’t keep sending a teenager stickers and long letters. A few years later, my father threw much of my memorabilia into the fire, including two of the badges, and later still the remaining badges were stolen off a jacket at a gig. I still have the books.
What about the Gold badge? Well, it remains my goal… When I was regularly writing to the programme, the only people who appeared to get one were departing presenters, Olympic athletes and people who had done amazing things like save lives. I knew I hadn’t done anything as good as that, I wasn’t exceptional. I wasn’t a hero. But these days, Gary Barlow has one, David Tennant has one…maybe I CAN do enough to get one. It would mean more to me than any other honour. I don’t want to be an OBE or Dame; I don’t need a medal or any other award, whatever I do. I just want a Gold Blue Peter badge.
Thank you to the BP office from 1987-1995 for being so kind to a lonely, autistic kid. I will never forget you.
My campaign work as an Ambassador for the National Autistic Society has kept me very busy this year, and I was honoured this week to be invited to their 50th birthday celebration reception at 10 Downing Street, hosted by Samantha Cameron.
I crowdsourced a dress via Twitter, with my friend Meg coming to the rescue. My mum helped me buy some fabulous footwear. Richard, my hairdresser, sorted out my unruly mop. I got ready at my in-laws’ house and got the bus to Westminster.
I had to queue up with all the other guests – including Jane Asher, arriving in a swish car – and then show my invitation card and passport (for ID purposes). We then trotted down the street to more security, putting our bags and jackets through airport-style scanners. We weren’t allowed photos inside, but entering Number 10 felt very much like walking into the lobby of a posh, businesslike hotel, crossed with a stately home. Only with more policemen with guns everywhere. There is a wooden set of small cubby holes, each containing a white card imprinted with a black number. You remove the card and slide in your (switched-off) mobile phone or PDA. No electronic devices allowed in the house, so this is a cloakroom for smartphones – or so it appeared on the night. Then came the actual cloakroom, for those who had jackets/coats and larger bags.
We were then directed up the stairs to the reception rooms. I paused before entering the Terracotta Room. Everyone was trying to decipher Tracey Emin’s neon art piece above the door, which says in a scrawl “More Passion”. It’s quite a dark hallway, so it’s very visible.
I was cheered to note on entering the room that there was another non-alcoholic option than water or teeth-stripping orange juice – I was offered elderflower and pomegranate fizz, garnished with mint. Very convivial. I got the same regular top-ups as the wine drinkers, too.
I had a lovely evening, with gorgeous canapes and wonderful company. I was one of the blessed few able to meet Ms Cameron for a few moments, and passed on my mother’s good wishes. Daughter points won. Her speech was brief, but welcome, recognising as it did the work that the NAS do and the issues people on the spectrum face. Mark Lever, the chief exec of the society, also talked briefly. I must confess, I was perched on a very posh sofa at this point, as my feet are not used to the glamorous heels I was sporting. There were quite a few of us hobbling out and into flats at the end of the night.
I enjoyed meeting trustees, NAS staff, journalists and fellow-campaigners, including some fabulous Young Ambassadors. The only disappointment was that the loos were very dull, no exciting toiletries or decor. Could have been a basic hotel or pub. Spruce up your facilities, Dave.
On the way out, we were allowed to have our photos taken outside the famous front door. It was all a bit quick and blurry, as people needed to get out and we couldn’t shut the door for long. Here I am, looking a bit gormless in my frock.
When I was down in London for the National Autistic Society Undiscovered Workforce campaign launch, I was asked if I minded being interviewed for the Guardian about autism and employment by journalist and jazz singer, Lynne Wallis.
I agreed, and the results made the front page of the Work section in Saturday’s Guardian, with a whacking great picture of me by the lovely Christopher Thomond. All daffadowndillies.
Please write to your MP about the important issue of adults with autism and employment. This is an easy way to email them.
On Tuesday, I went to London. I am an Ambassador for the National Autistic Society, and their latest campaign, the Undiscovered Workforce, is about adults with autism and employment. I have Asperger Syndrome and do not have a job. Neither am I on benefits. I was invited to a reception at Parliament to launch the campaign.
The reception was held in Dining Room A at the House of Commons. I got there early, and was treated to a short tour by Anthony of the NAS, who used to work for an MP. I also got to see the Queen’s new Diamond Jubilee stained glass window, for which all the members of the Commons and Lords chipped in. Just like a birthday club at work. Apparently Her Maj did not bring buns in for everyone, but we spotted where the red carpet had been and chairs from her morning speech (school assembly, come on) were being cleared away.
When we got into the room, information packs, canapes and drinks were available, but I was more interested in the comfortable green leather chairs with House of Commons logo. Sadly, it would have proved impossible to stuff one in my handbag to take home. Soon, peers and MPs began to arrive, along with other people with autism, employers and more NAS staff. I met a lot of very interesting people and spoke about my experiences.
I met with my MP, Rachel Reeves, recently – details here – to discuss this very campaign, and she came to the reception. We had a little chat about furthering the campaign in Leeds and had some pictures taken, both officially and by her team.
With Rachel Reeves (photo courtesy of Rachel’s Twitter):
I was introduced to a Guardian journalist, and was interviewed briefly – apparently she will be back in touch – before being asked if I minded being filmed for BBC Breakfast. No guarantees that it would be used, etc. Four of us spent quite a long time outside the Commons, as nobody could film in Parliament, first being interviewed and then doing what I call a “Phil and Kirstie”. This is fake but purposeful walking down the street, to use as a kind of framing device.
Of course, having spent ages doing the Phil and Kirstie, that bit wasn’t used and nor was most of what we said. But despite the pressures of time on Budget Day, we still made it onto telly on Wednesday morning. I was asked if I wanted to do the live on the sofa bit, but I hadn’t got any more nice clothes with me or my hair stuff for the next day, so to be honest (and shallow) I turned it down for that reason. Fellow person with Asperger Syndrome and London dweller Katherine did a great job.
While we were out of the room, I missed being able to natter with plenty more MPs attending the reception, such as Louise Mensch. Damn. I also missed the speeches – the text of Lord Freud‘s speech can be found here.
On our return, I did get to meet NAS President Jane Asher, and thank her for the role that her book Quick Party Cakes played in my childhood, and for her performance in The Sarah Jane Adventures. We talked briefly about Lis Sladen, and a family anecdote surrounding a mix up between Janes Asher and Austen, and she was absolutely lovely.
Yesterday I went to the Hayward for the Joy In People exhibition by my favourite artist, Jeremy Deller. I had a whale of a time, and bumped into Jeremy as he was scurrying around checking everything was OK. We have met before, and it was great to chat again. Photography was forbidden in most areas, so I didn’t take many. The exhibition lives up to its joyous, humanist title. I did see the David Shrigley exhibition that was on at the same time, but that mostly left me cold. I’m not keen on his sculptures and the whole layout of the exhibition left me with unpleasant sensory triggers. Liked some of the pictures, though.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’ve been an Ambassador for the National Autistic Society since late last year. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in May 2011.
Next stop, a reception at Parliament. In my head, it’s going to be just like the ambassador’s receptions, which are of course noted in society. Monsieur! Wizh zhese Rocher you are really spoiling uszh! Lord Freud is in charge, and if he doesn’t get one of his minions to bring in a giant platter of outmoded chocolates I will be most disappointed.
Thanks to Fuel My Blog and Wish, I have a 6 month subscription to Curry Recipe Kits from The Spicery. My first box arrived just before Christmas, so we decided to cook it for our special New Year’s Eve meal (we never go out).
The box itself arrives in the post, rather like a smaller but more colourful Graze box (use code 3M826CQ if you’d like to try Graze for free, tasty snacks delivered to your door). It contains all the fresh spices – ground, whole, toasted etc – in sturdy and easy-to-open little packets for each stage of the meal. Also included are detailed recipe cards and clear instructions on additional ingredients required. The cards build into a sort of mini recipe book, using a nifty screw fitting to tie the cards and covers together. If you want to cook a recipe again, the website gives details for repeat quantities of the spices.
This month’s curry is the Syrian Christian curry, with side dishes of Kosambari (a salad) and Spicy Fruit Chutney. From the information about the recipes:
The Syrian Christian population in Kerala, Southern India are descended from the arrival of St Thomas the Apostle in AD52. These Christians later intermarried with various other traders and missionaries who’d also settled in the area and a vibrant community emerged with an equally exciting cuisine. The cooking used the local produce such as coconuts and limes, but combined it with flavours, ingredients and techniques from further afield. This simple curry is a perfect example of this style of cooking in that it’s a classic Keralan coconut milk curry with a tangy fresh Kosambari salad, but also echoes back to dishes from the Middle East and Europe with the addition of the sour vinegar and sweet dried fruit chutney.
I like getting a bit of background to the recipe, and cooking things new to me, so I appreciated this detail. No boring standard dishes here. It’s not something I would ever have thought to cook, despite enjoying coconut-based sauces in the past.
The shopping list for the chutney asked for figs or dates. ASDA had a jumbo pack of figs for just £2, and I prefer them, so in they went. It’s quite a sweet, hot chutney and I thought it complemented the meal well. I also intend to have a dollop with stilton and maybe with some grilled aubergine. The method was simple – soak the fruit in boiling water, add salt and the spices, whizz to a coarse puree. So we did that first.
Next I marinated the meat in spices and vinegar – the vinegar being key to the slightly sour taste of the final curry – and got on with the Kosambari. Unfortunately, shopping over the holiday season meant that despite visiting an array of supermarkets, we were unable to obtain white cabbage or a lime. Red cabbage (closest in texture, looks quite festive) and bottled lime juice (no lemons available either) had to suffice. The salad wasn’t entirely successful, perhaps due to the substitutions, it tasted a bit odd. However, a dollop of crème fraîche turned it into a very nice sort-of-coleslaw.
The curry itself was simple enough. Soften an onion, add whole spices, chuck in ginger and plenty of garlic, then the ground and toasted spices, then meat (we used chicken) followed by liquid. Easy peasy. Except the coconut milk we bought was rubbish, not at all thick and creamy even when shaken vigorously. So it required a little more cooking than stated and I chucked in a handful of dessicated coconut for good measure.
Crispy onion, toasted coconut and more whole spices meant that the basmati rice served with the curry was extremely tasty. The final meal was lovely. I really enjoyed the curry, rice and chutney, especially together, and the salad was OK in the end. It all looked great on the plate, too (if you ignore the fact that I didn’t go for poshing up the rice or wiping round the plate in Masterchef style, I was hungry). The recipe and spice quantities served 4. We made a full batch of everything bar the rice so we have another meal to look forward to later. Can’t beat leftovers.
I recommend the kits as a gift, based on this first experience. The ordering process via Wish is simple, as with most of the “experiences” offered on their site – you order from them, an attractive box is delivered with a shiny voucher and instructions and the recipient just has to activate the voucher online and then send a quick email to the very friendly folk at The Spicery with their voucher number and whether they want veggie or non-veggie recipes. The first kit is sent out ASAP. I’m looking forward to January’s box…
I’ll never get in any lifestyle mags, but check out how my Christmas tree is both classy (strict colour scheme for baubles and tinsel) and also mum-baiting (chock-full of Doctor Who and Star Wars figures).
The theme is continued throughout the room. The height of glamour.
Why not watch the slideshow and pretend you live among such rarefied surroundings?
Last night, thanks to The Culture Vulture, I headed to Menston for a curry “masterclass” and meal at the 1875 Anglo-Indian restaurant at Menston railway station. Yes, that is a deliberate Raj-era reference.
We split into two groups, as the kitchen is tiny, and after the first lot had a go, my set donned hairnets and a mixture of chef jackets and aprons and headed into the cockpit to meet Delhi-born chef Baljit Singh. We were treated to exciting glimpses of spice boxes, the tandoor and secret masala mixes, before engaging with demonstrations on making pakora, chapati and chicken tikka. I was also able to chat to the beautifully-dressed boss – Bradford entrepreneur Majinder Singh Sarai.
That’s where it got interesting for me. He has some plans for storytelling through food that, if done right, could be very exciting. I don’t know yet. The stories could just end up as titles or basic themes for a night of food, which would thrill me less. Majinder was very focused on his brand, and the historical period that inspired it. I’m just not sure I got any of that from the experience we had in the restaurant itself. Perhaps that was the artificial conditions of the large group and private “bloggers event”.
Due to dietary requirements, I didn’t try the beef masala, which split the diners between love and hate, or pork vindaloo, which was more universally admired and tended towards the original style of the dish over the uber-hot lads’ night out version. None of the curry sauces were too oily. I enjoyed the samosas and naan breads and the rice was pleasant. The Murg Tikka had a decent taste, if a little too much heat for me, but I wasn’t keen on the texture (the menu says chicken breast, my mouth says not). Out of the two vegetarian dishes sampled, several of us agreed that if the sauce of the cauliflower-based Thaji Masala Shabzi had replaced the hot but rather bland sauce given to the paneer dish, that would have been very tasty indeed.
The prices aren’t bad, although diners must order a minimum of two courses each, and the decor is pleasant. The restaurant is aimed at an older and more discerning clientele so there are no lager louts to put you off your meal. I enjoyed myself, because the company was excellent and the host made us feel welcome. The food was fine, though there are more enticing things on their menu than we were given to sample, especially the Christmas choices. I don’t know – I like the idea of a historical journey through India, even though I’m not sure how I feel about the colonial theme. But my experience didn’t tally with the talk, and I’m not sure how much of that was the circumstances and how much was a failure to do more than think about the “brand”. Maybe next year, if 1875 do something really special with the ideas that have potential…
(Photographs throughout via the lovely Mike Wallis)
So, here we are at the end of August. It hasn’t been much of a summer for me, all told, due to the amount of work I’ve had to do for OU and for my other projects. Here’s a chance to catch up on a few things.
The Open University are having to put their fees up, along with everyone else. Their page on it is here. The current student finance programme is also disappearing for new students, and being replaced with the same loan system used by brick universities. If this had been the case back in 2008 when I started my BSc, I wouldn’t have signed up. Couldn’t have. Having dropped out of two well-respected brick universities in my teens due to mental health and other issues, including my undiagnosed-at-the-time autism, I don’t think they’d have let me sign up for another loan. Getting full financial support meant I felt able to take the risk of starting a third attempt at a degree – even if they had let me borrow the fees, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing it based on my past. I’m now three years in, getting excellent marks and hoping to do a Masters if I can get the funding. I have one year left – starting in February, as my modules mostly run Feb-Oct. Wish me luck in my October exams…
Damien Hirst at Leeds Art Gallery… I was lucky enough to go to a preview of this exhibition while it was still being installed. I therefore avoided the crowds and the alarms. I loved it, though those of us present who did seemed to be a minority. Many had problems with Hirst the man, and the fame and money. Whereas I think those things are part of the work. I intend going back to the exhibition soon, when the school holidays end, and writing the more reflective piece I had in mind. It’s funny, when I was younger I was utterly fascinated by his Pharmacy restaurant in London, but could never afford to go even when I lived down there. Now a recreation of it is practically in my back yard. But you can’t eat or sit down or hang out there. It’s like a strange living museum. Reminded me in a way of the Pre-Fab at Eden Camp. More about this later, when I have time.
I am skint, so I rarely go to restaurants without a Clubcard token in hand, but I’ve eaten a couple of interesting meals lately…
Divino in Adel was a strange experience. Along with various other Leeds Guide competition winners, I was invited to try their new Italian tapas-style (or rather size) dishes. The welcome was non-existent, service poor, drinks overpriced (my pop also tasted terrible, off tap) and they hadn’t thought to ask whether or not anyone had any dietary requirements. So I (no red meat) and some others we spotted missed out on one course and were given a dodgy substitute for another. The food itself was a mixed bag. My companion enjoyed his parma ham and what he thought might be duck – at no point were we given a menu or descriptions or even names of the dishes – to start. I had nowt. Then came whitebait with deep fried strips of courgette/zucchini. Ingredients fine, oil not really hot enough, so somewhat greasy and under-seasoned. Homemade filled pasta with pumpkin, sage and chilli was OK if a bit thickly-rolled and uninspired, and topped with too-large and soggy crumbs of amaretti biscuit. I’ve seen Rick Stein do this before, but it was a lot less heavy-handed. My companion enjoyed his freshly-made lasagne. The veggie option was an elderly portion of the restaurant’s usual spinach and ricotta cannelloni, bizarrely topped with Cheddar cheese and bearing the hallmarks of being reheated in the microwave – floppy, far too hot, bechamel sauce coagulating strangely. The final dish was an okay but rather cheap-tasting portion of tiramisu. Nobody asked if we’d enjoyed our meal or said goodbye when we paid for drinks and left, so I don’t feel that bad about criticising a free meal.
I’ve also had the pleasure of visiting Fish&‘s new “beach hut” on Commercial Street in Leeds city centre. I have written about their food before, and last time I tried their fish & chips with a twist, I felt they showed promise but a few things needed tweaking. Now they get a solid 9-9.5 out of 10. Extremely fresh fish, batter not too thick, oil a good temperature and they’ve sorted out the chips. They would get a 10 if they let the chips get a little bit more colour, for aesthetic purposes. Taste-wise they’re great, just a little pale in real life. The hut’s in town from 11-6, Tuesday to Saturday. I had my portion following a tough tutorial session, and it sorted me right out.