Hello from the 17.34 service from Glasgow Central to London Euston. It’s a long journey, but I’m taking advantage of my seat with an odd little work table (room for a laptop, but slotted in snugly behind the luggage rack) to try and clear out my extensive backlog of September blogging material.
From our long list of possible anniversary dates, Randi and I have two to choose from this month. Early on in September we celebrated the anniversary of our very first date by going to Babur, while 24th September marked one whole year since we dragged everyone up to Hereford for our big, beautifully sunny (second) wedding day.
The weather was similarly sunny when we journeyed up to Josh and Anna’s one Saturday for a back garden brunch, followed by a lot of playtime in the paddling pool and (most importantly) a chance to teach Cora to chant “Naughty Aunty Randi!” whenever she did anything objectionable and/or I needed to deflect blame from the consequences of my own actions. So, to summarise for anyone who has (presumably jokingly?) asked how married life is going… it’s going great 😀
As my mum will soon be moving out of London, we hung around North West London for the rest of that weekend to spend time with her, help a little with the clearout and do some panicking at the lack of spare storage space in our own flat to house the things I now needed to bring back from my childhood bedroom. On Sunday we were joined by Tash, Cormac, Katie and James for a ‘farewell to the house’ Sunday lunch, with chicken pie and mash to honour one of the staple weekend lunches of our childhoods.
To be clear, I wasn’t joking when I said that this weekend had thrown me into a furniture-related panic. Fortunately, Randi and I had already been planning to do something to turn our joint office into a real guest bedroom, so this gave us the impetus we needed to start ordering more furniture. As a result the following weekend, while Randi was safely away in Edinburgh, turned into a madly productive spree of furniture assembly… most of which was done relatively correctly, even though there was a moment around 1am when I was trying to manoeuvre a giant bookcase into place and wondered if I would get crushed in the process. Sam, who has been staying with us off-and-on this month, graciously became the first guest to try sleeping in the guest bedroom and check whether the bed would collapse overnight or not. It did not. Hurray!
This month I also visited my Grandma, started watching State of Chaos with Randi (a recap of the last seven years of disaster and disarray in British politics, in which the relatively recent past feels like a lifetime ago), bade a very sad farewell to Jill at work and enjoyed a wonderful dinner with my mum, Randi and Melissa at a delicious Malaysian restaurant in Queen’s Park which is apparently run by a former QPCS student.
Last week, Randi’s parents also arrived in London. Sadly they picked the worst possible moment to attempt the 10 minute walk from Forest Hill station to our house, and so were welcomed back to the city with a hailstorm, but once they dried they were cheerful once more. On Friday night the three of us met up with Andrew and Bonnie for some excellent tapas, while on Sunday we met up with the rest of the family for an afternoon of tea and cakes hosted by Alix and Adam.
We’ve reached Penrith and I’m close to wrapping up the London section of this post, but first I also need to summarise the rather eclectic collection of shows I’ve seen in the last month:
- Guys & Dolls at the Bridge theatre. This was a last-minute invite from mum to see a new production of the classic Broadway musical, of which I knew literally nothing about a vivid memory of that scene in The Simpsons about a song which (spoiler alert) “isn’t even in the show!”. Anyway, the Bridge Theatre version featured an immersive central stage in which all of the audiencegoers with standing tickets stood and mingled with the cast in a replica New York. I loved this, albeit I loved this from the comfort of our front-row seated tickets which I would not have wanted to sacrifice to contribute to the immersive effect in any way. The musical itself was an entertaining curiosity. Clearly it’s from a very different time and place, with joyously unbelievable characters and a strange ending which seems to skip a couple of crucial scenes in the interests of time… but a good night out nonetheless. Even if they didn’t sing that song from The Simpsons.
- Unbelievable, a new magic show created by Derren Brown for which – in order to buy tickets – you must tick multiple boxes to reaffirm your understanding and agreement that Derren Brown himself does not actually appear onstage in the show. We get it! Who does appear is a troupe of actor-musician-magicians with a series of tricks and illusions. Some are definitely more successful than others but the overall evening is quirky and fun, with lots of audience participation, a Prohibition-era musical routine and a go-for-the-heart ending. I saw this with Tash and Cormac (after some great pizza sharing at Pizza Pilgrims) as a London farewell before they go travelling, and it was a really lovely night – even if we were all slightly paranoid that our every move was being monitored by the theatre for pseudo mind-control routines.
- Finally, we saw Red Pitch at the Bush with Randi’s parents after lunching at Shepherd’s Bush Market. This is the story of three teenage boys whose friendship has been forged on their local football pitch in South London, and is remarkable for the fact that the actors are also kicking the ball basically nonstop throughout the entire 90 minute performance. It’s also super naturalistic – probably too naturalistic, in fact, for my personal preference as, just like in real life, you only get hints about wider themes and character arcs. On the other hand, after the play I described it as “the boy version of Sleepova” (the first thing we ever saw at the Bush) and, just like that show, the acting is perfect.
OK, onto Scotland where I joined Randi and her parents this weekend for a day in Edinburgh and my long-awaited first visit to Glasgow. Originally I was supposed to get the train up on Friday evening, but thanks to my stubborn determination to see a work thing through I made an impulsive last-minute switch to (gulp) a nine hour overnight coach to Edinburgh, leaving at midnight from Victoria Coach Station.
The journey was… fine, I guess? It’s true that I barely slept, arriving the next morning in Edinburgh looking like a zombie, barely coherent and in desperate need of a nap. But on the other hand, it was kinda reassuring to know that I’m not so old to have lost the ability to do this yet.
It was also well worth the sacrifice because we all had a great weekend together. Saturday in Edinburgh was a more relaxed rest/walk/recover/eat/sleep kinda day, but having come all this way I did want to experience a decent chunk of Glasgow before my train home on Sunday, and I wasn’t disappointed. We arrived out of the station into George Square on the day of the city’s half-marathon, which immediately gave everything a buzzy, lively air. From there, Randi had wisely booked us on a walking tour so we could quickly cover some ground, and our guide did a great job in orientating us with some of the basic history and culture of a place which prior to now I’ve known basically nothing about.
Of course, one thing I did know about Glasgow is that it’s one of the three cities in the UK with a subway. So, naturally we had to make a point of riding it. The Glasgow Subway consists of a single circular loop around the inner city, which Glaswegians will try to tell you is “two lines” (one in each direction) even though, obviously, any subway line in the world can be ridden in either direction and by this logic London has 22 lines on the Underground. Nit-picking aside, the subway is delightful. It’s actually the most Tube-like thing I’ve ever ridden (other than the Tube, of course) with small, tube-shaped carriages shuttling along. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of it!
We got off near Kelvingrove Park and walked around the park and the area by the University of Glasgow, admiring the beautiful views on this surprisingly sunny day (given it’s now October) and retrospectively approving of where Katie used to live before she left Glasgow. We also took Katie’s recommendation to share a box of doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts before heading back into the city centre and going our separate ways. While it was only a brief visit, I was very impressed by Glasgow overall and would definitely be up for a return trip. But, for now, I will sign off with (*checks timetable*) a dispiriting 100 minutes left to go on this train. Next week, I will try and get more sleep…
Every few months I read the same basic article about the ‘rebirth’, ‘rediscovery’ or ‘renaissance’ of the sleeper train, but I’ve never ‘forgotten’ about them in the first place! I’d take every trip by overnight railway if money, time and tracks allowed.
No surprise, then, that Randi got us tickets for the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William for my birthday. We met after work by one of Euston’s unglamarous platforms, stashed our bags in our Club Twin room and headed staight for the Club Car (as you do) for a sumptuous dinner, drinks and dessert while the outside world faded into darkness. I’m not 100% sure if I’ve ever eaten haggis before – this blog doesn’t say – but that evening really kicked off a haggis streak over the next week or so. It was all excellent, as was the Highland Breakast the next morning, by which time the scenery outside had transformed into breathtaking Highlands beauty. Surely plenty more people would ‘rediscover’ sleeper trains if there were more of them.
Our train pulled into Fort William at 10am, after which we checked into our Airbnb and took a walk along the Cow Hill circuit trail, which offers great views from the summit and then a walk through the woods on the way back.
That night we were joined by Katie and James, who drove up from Edinburgh to hang out for the weekend. James had already staked out Steall Falls as a place he really wanted to revisit, so on Saturday afternoon – after Katie, James and Randi ran parkrun in the morning – we set out on this popular hike to the promised waterfall.
The most unusual part of the Steall Falls trail is the option of crossing the river on a wire bridge at the end. This isn’t necessary to complete the walk – it’s a there-and-back, so you can always turn around here – but it is the only way to get close to the waterfall itself. In my case, I took full advantage of the sibling dynamic: clearly, once Katie had decided to cross it, I wasn’t going to miss out and had to follow her. (Everyone we saw seemed to have a different method for moving their feet, but nobody fell in.)
Once we got to the other side, Katie and I enjoyed the close-up views and swapped notes on how badly we expected to be hurt if we’d fallen off the wire. Then thoughts turned to getting back. After my initial suggestion (cross the slippery rocks over the fast-flowing water) was rejected, I was proud of myself for spotting a useful tree further downstream which could serve as a useful river-crossing device. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that this was merely stream #1 and there was in fact another river to get back to, at which point ‘just taking my shoes off and wading back barefoot’ became the chosen strategy. Cold, but effective.
Tash had recommended the Highland Cinema as a good lunch spot in Fort William, and while eating here Randi and I had decided to buy tickets to see Oppenheimer on Saturday night after Katie and James returned home to Edinburgh. I hadn’t actually been all that enthused by the trailer, but Christopher Nolan’s name is a draw and I did really enjoy the film itself. In some ways it has a surprising focus: it’s not really about Oppenheimer’s leadership of the US’s atomic bomb programme, or their use against Japan, and is centered more on his later struggles with the US government and the political manoeuvrings of the Atomic Energy Commission chair, Lewis Strauss. Stauss is the villain of the film and, like all good villians, he makes some good points. But the audience’s sympathy lies, I think, with Oppenheimer – and that’s a strange place for the “father of the atomic bomb” to end up.
Instead of heading staight back to London, Randi and I both worked the next week from Edinburgh, where we were also joined by Kira on her first visit to Scotland. (Shout-out to the lovely American couple from Cleveland on the train back from Fort William after taking a week to walk the West Highland Way. I’m pretty sure they had intended to play a nice game of cards together, but never got the chance as we just kept talking to them.) Other than working, the three of us mostly spent the week walking, drinking and watching many episodes of Scotland’s Home of the Year on BBC Scotland, a show in which one of the three judges pays brief lip sevice to recognising “environmentally friendly” homes during the intro but then always awards the highest marks to the largest, most energy-intensive houses in the middle of nowhere.
Then, on Saturday, we got to Fringe!
- Enquiry Concerning Hereafter – a loving tribute to the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith, set in Smith’s old house and with very intimate staging. Objectively, I didn’t think it was the greatest drama in the world because the problem with “you’re brilliant because of this” and “no, you’re brilliant because of that” is an obvious absence of dramatic tension, a problem not fully ameliorated by adding Charon (y’know, the guy who ferries souls to the underworld) to the mix. Subjectively, stuff all that because I obviously loved it. It’s a play about my two favourite philsophers talking about their philosophy! If you are already a fan of something, there’s nothing wrong with fanservice. And the best part was Adam Smith’s interrogation of Charon on the monopolisitc practices of his boat service.
- Shamilton – you know what this is, because we saw it last year, but for the record: an improvised Hamilton-esque hip-hop musical about a public figure nominated by the audience at the start of the show. This time we got the (slightly sanitised) life of Kanye West, with a healthy dose of Taylor Swift rivalry. It was fantastic, as usual, and inspired us to book a showing of Improv Shakespeare for our upcoming Chicago trip.
- What The Veck? Songs in the Key of Strife! – to almost exactly replicate our pattern from last year, the five of us (Katie, James, Kira, Randi and I) decided that we should squeeze in one more show, chosen semi-randomly from the Fringe app just a few minutes before it was due to start. This turned out to be the low-key but delightful Tom Veck singing silly songs and handing out naff raffle prizes (the naffle) from which our group won repeatedly.
Back in London, Kira had persuaded me and Randi to see The Pillowman with her on Friday night. My expectations were very uncertain not because I thought it would be bad, but because with my history of going blind triggered by certain types of content I might only get to enjoy the first few minutes of this “gruesome”, “macabre” play about torture and mutiliation. I prepared myself by booking a seat at the end of the row with the perfect escape route, and we had dinner together first at Toyko Diner (where my mum took us before seeing Patriots) so that, y’know, we’d still have had a nice evening.
Anyway, I needn’t have worried because I really, really loved this play, and the dark comedy style was – for me – hilarious rather than panic inducing. This production is a revival of the 2003 original, which starred David Tennant as a short-story writer with the silly name (Katurian Katurian) who is interrogated by two agents of the unnamed totalitarian state in which they live when his terrible tales seem to have been the spur for real-life copycat incidents. In the revival, Lily Allen plays a gender-swapped Katurian, while Steve Pemberton and Paul Kaye play the good-cop/bad-cop policemen Tupolski and Ariel.
Obviously I would love to pop back to 2003 to see Tennant’s performance, but having read some negative reviews about Allen I have to say that I thought she was great. Yes, Steve Pemberton is amazing and steals the show with some of Tupolski’s lines, but the whole cast was excellent and I’m very grateful to Kira for including us in her London theatre spree. Randi and I have spent a long time talking about this play since!
It’s been a busy few weeks! A few weeks ago I attended Booking.com’s annual partner conference in Amsterdam, held on a grander and flashier scale than last year and – most excitingly – included an appearance from 2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst at their big party on Wednesday night. I think I actually missed Eurovision that year, so I’m glad I finally got to see her perform, although it was her cover of the instantly recognisable Everyway That I Can (Turkey, 2003) which was the biggest crowd-pleaser of all.
Amsterdam itself was as lovely as ever, even in drizzly March. Public service announcement: the trains accept contactless card payment now, so the “standing confused beside the ticket machine” phase of your trip is now a thing of the past. Hurray!
After getting back home on Thursday night, Randi and I finally made it to Tash and Cormac’s new flat for a wonderful ‘London Supper Club’ Friday night with my mum and Cormac’s dad Brendan. Alongside a true feast of Indian cooking we enjoyed a riotous night of poetry, songs and one interpretative tin whistle performance (you’re welcome) which really buoyed us up into a cheerful mood for the whole weekend. It also inspired me and Randi to read The Importance of Being Earnest aloud together one evening a few weeks later. Who needs Netflix, really?
Talking of readings – a few days later, at the stone setting service in memory of my great uncle Leonard, many of our family dug deep into our email archives to perform some of Leonard’s famous emails from years gone by. For most people this would probably be pretty dull, but Leonard’s emails were certainly flights of storytelling… even if the story he was telling was normally a tale of trial and tribulation. Thanks to my friend Simon for inspiring us with his Charles Dance-esque interpretation of Leonard’s writing a few years back.
For some professional entertainment, Randi and I also saw Sleepova that Saturday at the Bush Theatre, a play about the enduring power of teenage friendship as four girls go through life’s ups and downs during their GCSE years. Everything about this play just worked for us: serious themes, but always funny, warm-spirited and life-affirming at the same time. I’d never been to the Bush Theatre before but it’s as close to perfect a venue you can get, with strong vibes of the Tricycle in its glory days. All four characters felt real and relatable, albeit with some subtly different attitudes to the generation I remember (because I’m old now) but always played with warmth and humanity which kept you rooting for them all. You really know a play is working when one of the characters tells her parents something that she shouldn’t, and the audience all instinctively sighs together with frustration. Highly recommended. (I mean, the run is over now, but in theory at least: highly recommended.)
Even more culture: a week earlier Randi and I had a very rare movie night in and watched Everything Everywhere All At Once, the Oscar-winning universe-hopping surrealist sci-fi comedy centered on a Chinese American immigrant family and their quest to save the multiverse and/or save their laundromat from an IRS tax audit. Unlike Sleepova, you’ve probably seen this already and don’t need me to describe it to you. But it’s very good, and a real delight to see a film so brimming with creativity and imagination. Also, I should note that we finally finished Our Friends in the North after I (falsely) promised to Randi that the final episode must be more uplifting than those couple leading up to it. It was a promise made with the best of intentions, but sadly proved inaccurate.
Recently, while having brunch with Josh, Anna and Cora, we learnt that Josh and Anna were planning a romantic couple’s getaway together to Thorpe Park. Unfortunately I didn’t mask my excitement at the idea, nor the fact that I still had a day of annual leave to burn before the end of March, and that’s how I ended up inviting myself along to Josh and Anna’s rollercoastery day out. Of course, it was totally worth it, especially as it included a sleepover of our own the night before so I got to spend even more time with Cora (who now talks all the time!).
The next morning the three of us set out for a day of rides and ride analysis, of which my main conclusions are (a) Saw is probably Thorpe Park’s best all-round rollercoaster now, but (b) I’m really glad I went off to ride Stealth again because – although Josh and Anna aren’t fans – it’s up there as one of my favourite rides of all time. It’s been years since I was last at Thorpe Park and investment (along with visitor numbers) has fallen away since I was a teenager, but they are now finally working on a new rollercoaster so I guess we’ll just have to go back again once it opens…
Finally, in exciting and still slightly surreal news, I’m very happy that my friend and colleague Kira has just successfully made the move to the UK. By a weird twist of fate she’s spending her first few weeks in Willesden Green, so on Friday night we celebrated her arrival at the excellent Beer + Burger. But by Sunday the wheels were already in motion for Randi’s South East London sales pitch, and together with our colleague Patricia we enjoyed a great shakshuka and challah brunch at ours before playing some energetic rounds of Cobra Paw and a good game of Citadels. Then, since we’re all still excited by the novelty of it being light and sunny outside, we walked over to Crystal Palace together for ice creams and dinosaurs. More South East London at its best! And all part of Randi’s plan.
Randi and I already had plans to to visit Bristol this Easter weekend, since – although I’ve heard many good things about the city – my only actual experience of it was a brief (and very odd) day trip for work back in my Groupon UK days, and that was to an offensively ugly office building which I hoped wasn’t representative of the whole place. Happily, once we knew Kira would be in the country by then, we managed to persuade her to join us and so the three of us took the train up on Friday and stayed in an Airbnb loft in the fancy Clifton area. (Yes, as in the Clifton Suspension Bridge – which is indeed very cool to look at and walk over.)
I really, really liked Bristol from what I saw. Because it’s so hilly and green, and because so many of the buildings are built from Georgian stone (and on roads which refuse to form straight lines but instead criss-crossing crescents at different levels) there’s just a lot to look at and admire as you walk around, without mentioning the colourful houses, beautiful artwork and harbour area. We basically did a lot of walking – including through the expansive Leigh Woods – interspersed with a lot of eating, from authentic Cuban food to a proper pub roast on Easter Sunday itself, plus a very healthy number of Easter eggs. We also enjoyed Victoria Park and the M Shed museum, rewatched Free Solo together and played a couple of big-money games of Dominion Prosperity.
When humanity really comes together to solve a problem, don’t bet against us. For decades, we’ve struggled against the idea that the only way to attend a 1977 ABBA concert in-person was either (a) to be alive in 1977, or (b) to travel back to 1977 using a time machine. Option A is, of course, deeply exclusionary to anyone born after 1977. Option B, on the other hand, is fraught with risk. What if your time machine breaks down and you become stuck in the late 70s? What if you accidentally kill your grandfather? What if you’re so focused on trying to keep your grandfather alive that you fail to live in the moment and don’t properly enjoy the moment?
Fortunately, technology has solved this highly specific problem with ABBA Voyage, a ‘virtual concert residency’ held in a purpose-built stadium next to Pudding Mill Lane DLR. (I can’t stress how incongruous this station is. There seems so little reason for it to exist other than ABBA Voyage that the merchandise store is built into the entrance.) After Randi’s parents bought themselves tickets to the show ahead of their upcoming London visit, we might have made our envy a little too obvious because they then generously gifted us a pair of our own – thank you! – which is how Randi and I ended up rocking up to experience this marvel for ourselves.
I loved it on three levels:
- Because who wouldn’t enjoy an ABBA concert?
- Because some people in the audience are more exuberant and/or wearing fancy dress, and from our seats we had a perfect view for people watching. Special love to the four friends sitting in front of us in matching outfits.
- Because the technology is very impressive. There’s a lot of well choreographed light and video, and while the enlarged versions of the ABBA avatars (‘ABBAtars’) on the giant screens just look like a decent video game, the actual-size ‘holograms’ themselves are utterly indistinguishable on stage from the real thing. By the end I was starting to fall into wild conspiracy theories that they were actually animatronic or projections onto real people or some other ruse.
Pedants’ corner: no, they aren’t actually holograms; it’s an updated version of the Victorian Pepper’s ghost theatre trick from 1862 involving laser projections, mirrors and mylar. Weirdly, when I got home and started hunting through YouTube for a satisfying explanation of how this works, most people seemed more interested in explaining “how do you recreate 1977 ABBA with computers in the first place?” rather than “how do you take your recreation and make it look real on a stage?”. If you’re wondering, the way you recreate 1977 ABBA is by making 2021 ABBA wear motion capture suits and dance for five weeks. But that bit seemed obvious.
Back in 2023, Randi and I also received a mysterious box from Toggolyn which turned out to contain – amongst other things – EL: The Chicago Transit Adventure board game. Thank you two, too! We also journeyed up the Bakerloo line for brunch with my mum and then Austin’s 2nd birthday party, which was lots of fun. Last weekend, though, we escaped London entirely for a trip to Oswestry…
At least, that was the plan, until we woke up on Friday to discover that the taxi companies of Oswestry had pulled their cars off the road thanks to all the snow and ice. Not to be defeated, we decided to take the train as far as Wolverhampton and stay overnight in (another) emergency Premier Inn before making the final connection to Gobowen station the next morning and walking the final few miles to Oswestry once the temperatures had risen and the sun was out.
(Yes, it is stupid that Gobowen – population: 3270 – has a railway station while Oswestry – population: 17,105 – does not. Of course, as is usually the case, Oswestry did once have a station of its own but this was closed in 1966 as part of the “let’s be wrong about basically every aspect of town planning” trend which was in vogue at the time. Once I get my time machine up and running, I will attempt to address this once I make sure my grandfather is out of harm’s way.)
After checking in to our amazing B&B we met up with Lucy, whom – it was frightening to realise – I haven’t seen in person for nine whole years. But putting this scary thought aside, it was really lovely to catch-up while she led us on a beautifully snowy trek along the Shropshire Way. Later that evening, suitably warmed-up again, we all had dinner together in a cosy village pub (you know, the type with a fireplace) and argued about whether London really needed a purpose-built venue for virtual ABBA concerts. (I still vote yes.)
On the way home we passed on seeing any more of Wolverhampton (sorry, Wolverhampton) in favour of getting the tram to Birmingham and hanging out there for a few hours before our final train home. (If the closure of Oswestry’s railway station upset you earlier, take some comfort that the modern West Midlands Metro mostly runs over the old path of another closed line, so there’s always hope.) The past may be a foreign country, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit.
Like many others this month I’ve enjoyed playing with ChatGPT, burning vast computational resources in order to simulate an argument between my sisters over the last roast potato (pretty good), write poetry about the long-standing family in-joke The Curse of the Blue Farmer (very bad) and have weird self-referential arguments where it tried to lie about its own word count. Despite all this, I am still hopeful that this friendly chat bot could soon take over my job, so here’s a first step:
In terms of tone and style I’d say it’s basically there.
Content-wise, however, this human still has a bit to add, starting with the extraordinarily generous wedding present we received of an overnight stay (and seven-course dinner!) at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. A surprising number of people seem to be familiar with this luxury boutique hotel, and even I had heard of Raymond Blanc. Suffice to say, it’s not the sort of place that Randi or I would ever dream of eating or sleeping at, so having received this gift we decided to make the most of the weekend by travelling up to Oxford on Friday night and exploring a little more of the city first before our check-in to Le Manoir on Saturday afternoon.
I’ve been to Oxford a few times on short visits, but this time we roamed slightly further than the “picturesque streets” and “historical landmarks” (thanks, GPT3) of the city centre. In particular, we loved the picturesque winter vibes of University Parks, which were further enhanced by staying within the expansive grounds of St Hugh’s College, which Randi discovered offers its student accommodation as a relatively cheap bed for the night (at least during the holidays) and also throws in a hot breakfast in the dining hall the next morning. Would recommend.
Anyway – if you have infinite money, I’d also recommend Le Manoir because it was rather nice. The dinner itself was incredible, as you’d expect, but – just as importantly – our waiter made us both feel relaxed and was happy to chat about his experiences working there. My only regret was that by the end I was too full for the optional bonus cheese course. Fortunately we could opt for room service breakfast the next morning (plus the FT), which was carried in on an enormous tray and contained a number of bonus items which its bearer (correctly) judged would make “nice additions” to the meal. We agreed.
I do realise that you’re supposed to expect an ultra-luxury hotel to be nice but we still felt very grateful for everything we received there, including the warmth and friendliness of the staff. And I was also pleased that they weren’t so fancy to not stock a selection of nearby walks for us to pick from on Sunday morning, allowing us to walk off some of Raymond Blanc’s cooking by meandering along snowy country roads through various pretty villages before making our way back home again, ‘bon voyage’ bag in tow. (If this all feels a bit like an influencer post, I apologise. Standard disclaimer: we enjoyed a free stay at Le Manoir, but all thoughts, opinions and greedy bites of their complimentary lemon cake are my own.)
Back in the real world, December has been packed with fun stuff. While Randi was gallivanting in Edinburgh I went along to our neighbour’s primary school Christmas fair with Angela and her family, which was delightful (a) because I’d heard a lot about them already, and (b) because it’s hilarious how immediately recognisable any primary school hall is, from the climbing frame to the little red handheld beanbags.
I also spent a lovely morning in West Hampstead with Josh, Anna and Cora, attended a high-spirited work dinner (in which I learnt everything there is to know about Rutland) and chatted away merrily at the office Christmas party. Since my team is mostly outside the UK, we also enjoyed another virtual board game night to celebrate a productive and successful year (7 Wonders: Architects was particularly fun!) although, as usual, the only way to beat Kira is to choose a game like Ticket to Ride which she’s never played before… and even then, it was too close for comfort.
Meanwhile, Randi and I briefly hosted Esther on the first snowy night of December, who rather magnificently managed to arrive on the last train before they all stopped. One Sunday afternoon we also played at being proper grown-ups and went along to one of our neighbour’s Christmas gatherings for mulled wine, cheese and controversial cocktails. The couple who hosted have a good neighbourly track record, having successfully organised the installation of some bike storage along with the planting of some street trees earlier this year, and I’m really excited to see the latter grow next year.
But on top of all that, two huge pre-Christmas highlights of December were going to a couple of live shows! You’ve almost certainly heard of the first one, Six, in which the six wives of Henry VIII reclaim their narratives through an 80-minute musical/pop concert of catchy songs, historical revisionism and dirty jokes. I’ve wanted to see this for ages, ever since Spotify snuck one of the tracks into my Discover Weekly playlist, and it didn’t disappoint. The tone is fun and light-hearted – Hamilton this ain’t – but it really works, especially if you grew up in the British school system. And of course I’ve had the album on replay for the last week.
Even better, though, was A Sherlock Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve Eve. This is, as the name suggests, a mashup of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, which is a sentence so laser-targeted at me that I bought tickets as soon as I read it without reading anything else. Everything is woven together perfectly, with some lovely touches to knit the universes together (the boy Ebenezer Scrooge pays at the end of A Christmas Carol to fetch the turkey for Bob Cratchit turns out to be a young Watson) and excellent performances from the cast throughout.
With the Christmas spirit well and truly unleashed, everything was set for our family’s annual gathering at my mum’s. As usual, we played games (Shout Out, Balderdash & Sushi Go Party) and continued our new morning tradition of Secret Santa on the big day itself (many thanks to Cormac for my gifts this year!), followed by a stupendous lunch at Carolyn’s, a format-bending edition of the infamous Christmas Quiz and a closing party game of Empires which Tash introduced us all to. The next day, my mum was inspired to make tacos for a Boxing Day brunch – if this turns out to be a new tradition, I’m definitely not complaining – before we set off for Hampstead Heath.
If you’re a regular reader – and let’s be honest, I don’t think anyone is picking up at this point – you’ll know that this is usually the week that I churn out my annual reviews and roundup of the year’s books. Everything was all planned out for a mammoth blog-writing session yesterday, with Randi having safely departed in an early morning cab for a solo trip to New York and Chicago to see friends. And then, in a single gatecrashing text, came some very exciting news: Nolan and Rebecca had just flown into town that very morning, and did I fancy a pint? Hell yes.
A few hours later we were gathered around a pub table in Camden with their wonderful friends Celia and Parrus, swapping life updates and lots of laughter after a multi-year gap. It may have cost me my blog writing timetable (and therefore some spillover into 2023 – sorry!) but it was worth it for such an unexpected and delightful reunion. I hope that you’ve all had a chance to spend some time with people you love over the holidays, and I hope you’ve enjoyed “our December update” for 2022.