No words. From an original idea by Cosmic Girlie
We are still catching our breath after this afternoon’s show – The Nutcracker on Ice – at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s an incredible mix of ice dancing, acrobatics, trapeze artists, magic tricks and even dancing with fire – and all to Tchaikovsky’s score performed by the London Concert Orchestra.
The children described the show as “beyond surprising” and “bedazzling” and I can’t disagree. I admit to having always rather preferred ice dance to ballet, so I was a ready convert. Serious ballet fans will no doubt disagree- but to me being able to dance, pirouette, twirl your partner round – lift them above your head with one hand – and do it on skates – has the edge. And the Imperial Ice Stars are a formidable team. Mostly from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland, the performers have won 250 competition medals between them. Many of them have been skating since they were three or four – and you can tell – they approach the ice as we would solid ground. The creative team behind them are all former members of the Russian national skating team and say some of the moves in the show have never been attempted before – not even in the last Winter Olympics – and some are so complex they don’t yet have a name!
During the Christmas Eve party scene in the first act so much was happening, it was hard to know which dancers to watch – although generally the show was stolen by Marie – played by 16 year old Mariia Vygalova and her nutcracker prince, Vladislav Lysol. The nutcracker doll, gymnast Alena Zmeu was equally talented – so rigid and wooden at the beginning I was not sure whether she was actually a doll – but she soon showed how incredibly supple she actually is.
The mouse king and queen went down a storm with the audience – as did all the dancers in Act Two with dances from China, Spain and Arabia – complete with spinning balls of fire – and trapezes.
If you are looking for a show that will entertain you and amaze you, and your parents, and your children – with a Wintery theme – this one would be hard to beat. Again I will let the children have the final say – nine year old Alexander’s words as we left the show : “I want to go skating!”
Nutcracker on Ice runs until January 2nd.
So.. the cake was there waiting to be iced with an almost perfectly smooth covering of marzipan. I knew from memory that what I needed was Royal Icing. Again mum’s icing was famed from one corner of the globe to another.. but I still didn’t have her recipe book. I silently thanked the powers above for the internet and checked out Delia/Good Housekeeping once more.
Everyone seemed to be of the opinion that for Royal Icing you need icing sugar and three egg whites and glycerine. Unfortunately glycerine is not something stocked by 24/7 corner shops or small convenient supermarkets and on Christmas Eve there was no time for a superstore trip. Fortunately my sister in law had three bottles from several different years so I decided that the cake would be iced on arrival.
She reminded me that the reason she like mum’s icing was its lemoniness – so I decided to just add lemon juice to the recipe – clever I know!
And so it was that after supper ( and putting kids to bed, and writing notes to Father Christmas, and leaving out the mince pie and glass of wine and hoping someone else would feed Santa’s reindeer as I couldn’t find the carrots) at about midnight – I began to ice the cake.
I separated the eggs – no sweat – not a grain of egg shell in sight; combined them with the sugar and glycerine and lemon; and got stirring . All looking good. Then I remembered another trick of mum’s. To stop the icing looking yellowy she would take a block of solid blue food colouring and grate a tiny amount into the icing. I searched my in laws baking cupboard. Not surprisingly no solid block of food colouring – but there was a bottle of blue liquid food colouring. I seized it in delight. That would do the trick – this was going to be the perfect icing mix: the consistency was right – mum would be proud of me. I put a tiny drop of dye into the mix.
It was much darker than I had expected – still once I stirred it in it would go back to white.
I started stirring – it was now a lighter blue, but still blue – sky blue in fact.
So I added more icing sugar and then more… and a bit more water and lemon and more sugar. And the blue got paler and paler.. but it was still distinctly blue.
I went up to the children in bed – “How would you feel if the Christmas cake was blue?”
My children pulled a horrified ” how is mummy going to let us down next” face.
I pulled a ” do not use the words: mummy fail” kind of face.
And then my niece said ” Cool – I love blue it’s my favourite colour!”
“Yes but not usually the colour of snow??”
“It will be cool,” she assured me.
I showed my husband.
“It’s a good job we have plenty of icing sugar”, he said “I would make some more. How do you make it?”
I explained about the egg whites and glycerine which he took to be more complicated than it was. So then he said:
“I’d leave it blue.”
And so I did.
Oh, and the 100 year old Christmas decorations ? They were also at my mum’s house – so I’m afraid we improvised with some figures from the Lego advent calendar! As a friend said – it’s good to follow family traditions- but it’s also good to create your own !!
Disclaimer: the cake is actually much bluer than it looks in this photo!
Making and decorating the Christmas cake has always been an important ritual in our family. The recipe was handed down from my Grandmother and handwritten in my mother’s college recipe book. In modern times my mother has always made the cake – to be shared with my in-laws and cousins as well as our own family. The cake was universally acknowledged as the best anyone had ever tasted. The cake itself darker and moister than any other. The marzipan softer and less sweet. The icing whiter and more lemony. The decorations – a pine tree, a tiny house and church, and a larger Santa, placed in the foreground to get the perspective right – were also handed down from my grandmother. My only task as a child ( and young adult!) would be to stir the cake mixture and make a wish; to scrape out leftover icing and make peppermint creams and to place the figures on the finished cake. A few years ago my children took on these roles and mum would wait til they came to stay to make and decorate the cake.
But this year was different. This year for the first time my mum was not here to make the cake. She died very suddenly in August. So the cake and pudding making would be left to her only daughter – Oh God- that meant me.
I had still done nothing about it – other than telling my sister-in-law that I would take on the tasks – when in early December one of my oldest friends arrived with a birthday present and accompanying note. She had made the cake to my mother’s recipe ( it had been handed sideways as well as down the generations!) and was giving it to me – the loveliest most unusual present which of course made me cry and not only because she had had no time for the icing or marzipan. I would need to do that myself.
So this week as the day approached I dug out some apricot jam from the back of the fridge for the glaze ( to glue the marzipan on) and bought the ground almonds and icing sugar and eggs. I had no-one to ask whether organic eggs were important as they would not be cooked – or how on earth to get the marzipan onto the cake. I watched a video on youtube, read Delia and the BBC and Good Housekeeping online, saw that involved gymnastics with a rolling pin and wished I’d picked up mum’s handwritten recipe book last time I was there.
In fact I made the marzipan fairly easily – but had no rolling pin – so left it in the fridge for another day. I had read it could be left for two days like this – in the event it was three – was that the cause of my later problems?
So… the rolling pin borrowed from my in-laws and minus one handle arrived and the marzipan was duly rolled. The cake was measured with string and checked against the width of marzipan ( Yes, you three other people out there who have never made a Christmas cake like I hadn’t – it is much more complicated and time consuming than you might imagine!)
So we rolled and rolled, and it got thinner and thinner – so it would cover not only the top but also the sides – all in one piece. I lifted the edge with a palette knife little by little – it had somehow stuck to the marble top – and the children pushed the huge rolling pin under as I lifted. Allegedly other people do this bit on their own! We got the rolling pin under… but the marzipan seemed too dry and too thin.
” I need to lift it! Quickly! Move! Help! lift! Put the video camera down NOW!” I said really calmly and not at all like someone shouting hysterically.
And we lifted and Alexander shoved the cake under sideways and Amelie tried to support the edges .. and we had it half way across the top when… Splat! One side broke off and fell clinging to the side of the cake and draping over the cakeboard and worktop.
” Mummy FAIL”, the children laughed in delight.
” Turn the camera off now… before I say something naughty,” I said sweetly – or maybe I didn’t – I haven’t watched the video back to check!
After I’d sobbed for 10 minutes, I gathered the pieces together that had not made it to their destination. I ripped and I patted and I used the apricot jam as glue and I patchworked it back together and somehow I covered the cake. And in the half light,( it was daylight when we started), if you stood a long way back and squinted, the cake looked fairly like one my mother might have made.
See the finished – rather unusual looking – cake in the next installment !!
It’s not something I’ve done before – gone to a Carol concert that is not in a church. In the run up to Christmas there are always the candlelit Advent and Christmas carol services at St John’s in Notting Hill, as well as the Christmas services at the children’s schools. There is the parents’ choir at our daughter’s new school ( Cue: “Oh mum, no -you are not going to sing in the parents’ choir. That. Is. SOO. EMBARRASSING!!!”) And if that’s not enough carol singing for any woman ( even a former “choirgirl” ) , of course there’s midnight mass on Christmas Eve. For me, as I’m sure for many people, it brings back memories of childhood and schooldays – and there is a slight sadness and poignancy as well as the unstoppable and infectious children’s excitement of the impending day itself.
I have seen Carol in concert halls advertised of course, but not taken much interest until last night when I attended one for the first time. I think I started pretty much at the top of the tree – with an amazing evening with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the choristers from St Albans Cathedral at the Royal Albert Hall. I have to say I was blown away. Admittedly we did have incredible seats in the stalls: right in the middle, with the stage dead ahead, but the acoustics are so perfect it is as if you are sitting in the middle of the sound itself. I will stop now before I’m quoted in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner but suffice to say – as my friend did – ” It really was something rather special” – an understatement as their two children were singing in the choir – I can only imagine the parental pride of your children being part of such an occasion.
The evening was hosted and conducted by the composer, John Rutter, against a backdrop of choristers and a very fine Christmas tree. The programme was a mix of traditional carols; more modern Christmas songs popularised by films of the day, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite from the Royal Philharmonic
and unusual carols like La Berceuse by Barbara Bell. La Berceuse won a carol competition which John Rutter judged back in 1975 when Barbara Bell was a student – and the composer tracked her down to attend last night’s concert and come on stage at the end of the performance. It’s a lovely piece and I hope now might become more widely heard.
The evening started with the entire concert hall standing to sing Good King Wenceslas – and a very impressive impromptu choir was formed – I’m guessing there were many experienced singers and musicians in the audience as well as on the stage. The audience got the chance to join in with quite a few carols during the evening.
In the remainder of the carols the pure voices of the young Cathedral choristers were set against the adult St Albans Bach choirs. And VOCES8 an octet – introduced strangely as eight soloists – performed a cappella versions of more well known Christmas songs. Even the best known carols though, were given a twist with arrangements by John Rutter which made the carols seem new, as well as being in other ways a very traditional Christmas concert. It struck me as being a mix between Last Night at the Proms and a carol service – with a pub quiz thrown in – yes there really was a quiz as part of the event- and a bit of comedy with the octet dressed as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
The only part of the concert I thought out of place was Lord of the Dance – despite the jolly tune the lyrics are fairly brutal and most obviously about the Crucifixion. John Rutter had put together a very interesting and evocative arrangement of this well known school hymn – but somehow this emphasised the nasty side of the song. If he could see his way to replacing Lord of the Dance with say In the Bleak Midwinter next year then I would be very happy!
We took our children ( 9 and 11) – but as the evening performance ended at about 10.15 there were not many other families there. There was a matinee as well , but that begins at 3pm. It might be an idea to make the matinee at 4.30, enabling local school children at least to attend with their parents – as it is in all other ways a perfect family event.
As I looked around the audience it also occurred to me that going to the Albert Hall may be a particularly good way to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season, with music people have been singing since childhood, for those who no longer feel spiritually comfortable in church – with the added benefit of course of the physically comfortable seats – which sadly few churches can boast. There’s clearly room for both types of celebration and I certainly won’t be missing the candlelit church services, because I have been to the Albert Hall. But it’s obvious I have been missing out, until now, on a very spectacular way to begin the Christmas festivities.
There was definitely a retro theme at this year’s unveiling of which toys will be the best sellers this Christmas. Every year we spend around £300 on toys for each of our children and buy them 30 to 40 toys for that money. But the biggest spend is at Christmas when we spend a billion pounds between us. Perhaps that’s why retro always works well – it helps if parents want the toys too!
Thunderbirds are not only “go go go”. It seems they are back back back.
One of the toys in the Top 12 dream toys for 2015 is a thunderbirds Interactive Tracy Island complete with 3 launch pads for the Thunderbirds rescue vehicles. As someone who collected the die cast models as a child I am delighted to see this revival – though these days the die casts are strictly for grown up collectors I’m told and the toys are some form of plastic. You can winch up the launch pads ready for launch, but I was disappointed to learn they don’t actually shoot into the air. Despite the prevalence of nerf guns and other toys that fire bullets around, apparently firing Thunderbird ships upwards could have Health and Safety ( and cost) implications. Still I asked the team to pass on my thoughts to the manufacturers and I am hopeful for next year! Other Thunderbird toys around were a Thunderbird two from Meccano, whose Meccano robot a Meccanoid is also in the top 12.
A mere £350, this “toy” is something else. First you have to build it of course showing your ( or your parents’) engineering skills but then you have a programmable remote controlled toy that spins round, dances, moves forwards and backwards, raises its arms and high-fives. It has voice recognition and you can use an ipad to control its movements – which I found a lot more intuitive than the more standard remote control. If £350 is beyond your pocket there is a smaller version Meccanoid G15 for £170.
Star Wars was all over the place – Is there a film coming out?! In the top 12 there’s a Jedi master lightsaber system, which of course has lights and music as well as two light daggers with various connectors that they say allow child to make more than 100 different combinations of lightsaber( £49.99).
There is a Star Wars playset on offer for just under £120 – a great stage for those who have a collection of mini star wars figures. The ship ( the battle action Millennium Falcon) has a blaster which does fire Nerf elite darts – hooray- as well as cannons that light up and sound effects. At the cheaper end of the scale, Hasbro also make 12 inch Star Wars “dolls”: Finn, Kylo Ren, Stormtroopers, Tie Pilot, Rey and Darth Vader.
There are large Star Wars figures they call room guards which are exactly what they say they are – room guards. You put them near the door of your room and they terrify your siblings by telling them to keep out! These seemed to me more fun than the battleship but the toy retailers association have not included these in the top 12 so presumably they do not believe they will be as popular. I’m out on a limb then but check these out….not in the shops yet but they will be available anytime soon.
And the Star Wars offering is far from complete – Lego would not be Lego if they didn’t give their fans the chance to build another spaceship – this time Kylo Ren’s command shuttle ( £100) . The shuttle also in the top 12 has opening storage bays, spring loaded shooters on the wings and detachable weapons racks. The wings also extend, It comes with six minifigures ( my favourite part of modern lego and why for me the Lego advent calendars which give you a minifigure a day are such a great idea for Lego fans).
Not a Star wars devotee myself – The Princess Leia hairstyle aside – I prefer the other Lego model which also makes it into the top 12 – the City Deep Sea Exploration Vessel. You seem to get more for your money here (£80), with a trawler with high tech diving equipment, a remote submarine, a scuba scooter, a shark cage, divers and sharks – and even a shipwreck for the divers to explore. This kit just has way more going on and more play potential to my mind. For Minecraft fans there is also a new Minecraft Fortress ( £70). We recently used our collection of lego planes , Harry Potter sets and everything we had, to build a mott and bailey castle for Amelie’s project at her new secondary school. We all got involved and it reminded me about what Lego used to be about and the creativity it offers once the prescribed boat, plane or train has lost some of its bits and is gathering dust. It also made me aware that what we were lacking, despite owning hundreds of pounds worth of Lego, were bricks to build castle walls – or any walls! I spoke to the Lego people about this and they reminded me about the Lego creative range which if you can get away from the hype of the latest model are probably the best buy. You can get a creative ” suitcase” of building bricks for £35.
If you are not into Star Wars or Thunderbirds there is another play-set in the Top 12 – the Paw Patrol Paw Controller . No, I have never heard of it either, but Paw Patrol is the fastest growing brand this year. This toy is essentially a control centre which can hold three paw control vehicles. It has sound effects and a working lift and comes with Ryder and his ATV vehicle.
Frozen has been around so long now that it almost seems retro itself and our children just cannot get enough of that song. I dare not write the words for fear that I – and you – will start singing it. While Lego has brought us Princess Elsa’s Sparkling Ice Castle with a disappearing staircase and of course the cute minifigures of the main characters, fortuantely the castle does not sing! The judges of the Top 12 though, consider that it is the Disney Frozen Singalong Elsa that will be the top seller this Christmas. The doll has a “magic” microphone so that your child can sing a duet with the doll. If the microphone is near the doll’s mouth, the doll sings. If darling daughter or beloved boy takes the microphone Elsa stops singing so the child can take over. This little girl was clearly enraptured by it and although I can’t share her voice with you, I thought she rather upstaged Elsa!
For the little girls who are not into Frozen ( are there any?) and those that are, Shopkins is the new craze. If you are saying what? You won’t be for long. The Shopkins are little rubbery collectables in the same vein as Trashpack if your remember them? So each Shopkin has a character and you can collect and swop them. The Shopkins Scoops Ice Cream Truck has made it into the Top 12 ( £19.99). The ice cream van is fully equipped with an ice cream display, freezer and the van has moving wheels. There is also a fashion boutique (£30) with a slide in it – did they take that idea from Jigsaw on Westbourne Grove? It is a brilliant way of keeping real kids busy and in one place while you are shopping!
Another one for the battle weary is Little Live Pets Cleverkeet – an interactive singing and talking pet bird also in the Top 12 (£59.99). He will respond to touch and to your voice and answer questions (though the answers are random, he does not have the knowledge of Google so you wouldn’t want him to be helping with homework). I rather liked him and the obvious advantage over a real pet is that the cage doesn’t need cleaning and he can’t die! They also make a mouse and a terrapin.
There’s always a huge market for pets and toy animals whether interactive like these or the Bright Eyes Pets or simply cuddly like the Beanie Boos Buddies. Parents may not understand why these large eyed, strangely coloured creatures are so popular with children – but they are – and there is no age limit I’m told. Certainly, my 11 year old still classes them – along with most animals and young children – as “adorable”.
Pie Face is a plastic contraption that allows you to put a wet sponge ( or cream pie if you have one at home!) into the face of your nearest and dearest and it be considered good family fun. It’s been advertised on the TV to good effect and both my children think it hilarious and an essential on their Christmas lists. On the plus side, it is the cheapest toy in the Top 12 at £19.99 so it is at least affordable, unisex – and could even be a shared present – although it could create family warfare that makes Star Wars look tame!
For the creative, the Deluxe 3D Design Studio ( £40) allows you to draw or trace 3D models with a pen that creates the outline in a kind of plastic. You wait for it to dry and then put the pieces together to make the model. It looks ingenious and again made the Top 12.
And finally for the little ones the judges have put Toot Toot Friends Busy Sounds Discovery Home – not the catchiest of titles – in the Top 12. It’s basically a plastic dolls-house from Vtech (who make the kidizoom cameras), where you can place the characters in certain places and they will interact, sing talk and light up. Actually at £44.99 this one again seems good value.
Most of the toys are priced fairly for what has gone into them and hopefully for what the children will get out of them and of course these are the recommended retail prices – where they are 29.99 I have rounded it up to a penny as I think it is more accurate. But you should be able to get most of these things more cheaply if you shop around. A third of all the toys we buy are bought in the Christmas run up each year . So there are a lot of shoppers out there and if there is something your child has set their heart on, then do buy early. The “Buzz Lightyear – must-have-it, but-it’s-sold-out effect does still go on I’m told. Manufacturers make a finite number of the products based on predictions of sales and if many more people actually want them they cannot turn a new order round in time for Christmas.
It really is my birthday and I am very happy to celebrate it online, by letting you know about a drive to get your unwanted warm winter coats to those who need them. The initiative is called Calling London Coat Drive and it is an incredibly simple idea – you just take any unwanted winter coats (clean and in good condition) to a Chesterton’s estate agent from Monday and they will pass them on to Calling London who will sort them into sizes and redistribute them to those who need them. The coats are not sold, they are handed out. They need children’s coats as well as adults and I’m sure many parents can find something a smaller family member has outgrown.
Coats can be taken to any of Chesterton’s 30 branches in London – they are in Ledbury Road, W11, Kensington High Street and Kensington Church Street – as well as Battersea, Greenwich, Tower Bridge, Kew and Westminster. See the full list at Calling London
You can also drop them off at the town halls in Chelsea, Kensington, Hammersmith and Westminster.
The drive runs from Monday 2nd November (my birthday) to Friday 20th November
Paper Planes is a charming Australian film about an 11 year old’s fascination with flying, which leads him to enter the world of Paper Plane competitions.
Dylan, played by Ed Oxenbould, is not having the best time – being bullied at school for not having a smart phone and using some kind of basic Nokia from 10 years ago. ( I was cheering not that quietly at this point, sorry my kids, but no you cannot take an i-phone to school!) More seriously, it soon becomes apparent that his impossibly beautiful mother has died leaving his father ( the equally lovely Sam Worthington) in so much grief he is barely able to function, let alone take care of his son.
Dylan is clearly interested in flying – he feeds local birds of prey and watches them soar above him and his grandfather was a wartime pilot, who still wears his uniform, and regularly breaks into the local airplane museum to get back behind the wheel! So when a visitor to the school shows the children how to make paper planes, it is not surprising that Dylan proves to be a natural. So much so, that his plane flies round corners , out of the school door and across fields as the children and teachers chase after it. There is a lot of willing suspension of disbelief in the film, but it is such a simple idea, it is easy to go with it.
Dylan enters the local competition and meets and falls for Kimi the very emotionally astute Japanese champion. Naturally there is an evil rival, the son of a famous and wealthy golf champion – his much nicer dad is played by David Wenham (Lord of the Rings) . And there is a journey ahead not only for Dylan of course, but his former tormentor at school who becomes his first “mate”, his dad and eventually even the mean spirited rival.
I particularly enjoyed the fact the film was not American or European – and we in the UK were given a new perspective, on Australia, seeing the country from the inside and on Japan, where the finals of the championship are held. Yes, it’s a little sentimental at times – but the idea that you can have that much fun with nothing more than a piece of paper is a lesson I’m sure many parents would LOVE their children to learn! May origami and paper plane making be the new cool pastime that takes over from computer games! I know. In my dreams! But this half term, I am going to try.
Paper Planes opens on October 23