Christmas Carols at the Royal Albert hall

Royal Albert Hall Christmas Concert John Rutter

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

John Rutter's Christmas Celebration. December 2015

John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration. December 2015

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.


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Praying for Paris

Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien

Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien

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Top toys for 2015

Top 12 Toys 2015

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.

Thunderbirds Interactive Tracy Island PlaysetOne 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 Meccano ThunderbirdHealth 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.Meccanoid personal robot 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.

Jedi master lightsaberStar 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 Starwars Millenium Falconwhich 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’s also a Star Wars Bop it R2 D2 which I like the look of Star Wars R2 D2 Bop-it(£19.99). It’s the usual Bop it game but in the shape of R2 D2 with the actor’s voice of C 3PO and R2 D2 sound effects!

Star Wars Room GuardsThere 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 Lego City Deep Sea Exploration Vesselprefer 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.

Princess Elsa's Sparkling Ice Castle

Princess Elsa’s Ice Castle

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 Disney Frozen Singalong Elsathough, 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!

Shopkins Food Fair Scoops Ice Cream TruckFor 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 CleverkeetLittle Live Pets Cleverkeetan 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 Little Live Petsliked 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 Beanie Boos Buddies 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 FacePie 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 ID03D Deluxe 3D Design Studio 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.

Toot-toot Friends Busy Sounds Discovery homeAnd 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 Ninja Turtlesrun 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.

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Calling London – on my Birthday!

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



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Halloween in Notting Hill 2015


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Paper Planes – Film for Half Term

Paper Planes, Ed Oxenbould,

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 Paper Planes, Sam Worthington and Ed Oxenbould 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 famousPaper Planes rocket 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





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Frieze Masters, 2015

DeWain Valentine

Large Blue Circle, DeWain Valentine

I didn’t know what to expect when I was given an invitation to the Frieze Masters event in Regent’s Park, by the American artist DeWain Valentine, who had an exhibition there. I suppose I thought there would be four or five artists and given that his work is pretty distinctive – colourful, acrylic and as you can see sometimes quite large – I thought I would find it easily.

Imagine my surprise when I got off the shuttle bus, otherwise a 15 minute walk away  from Regent’s Park’s main event , the Frieze Art Fair (the bang on, last week/this week modern stuff) to be confronted with another vast tented structure just as big. Inside it was divided into dozens of galleries of “masters” and there was no list of artists available for the general public. So we walked around looking – and our eyes got wider and wider.

There were original (of course) Picasso oils and line drawings by Picasso and Klimt; paintings by Fernand Leger, Richard Hamilton and Lichtenstein; photographs by Man Ray, Horst P Horst, Bill Brant, Cecil Beaton and David Bailey. There were ancient masks, medieval illuminated manuscripts, 16th century oils, religious icons and modern installations with flickering television sets or huge coils of rope. There was a collection of early works from the “(w)rapper” Christo – he now wraps buildings, but he started small and in the sixties he wrapped motorbikes, chairs, statues and sometimes women! Fortunately perhaps, the exhibits here were all inanimate objects.

Almost nothing at Frieze Masters had a price tag visible – there was definitely a vibe of if you need to ask you can’t afford it – and when I did ask, I couldn’t!!

Dewain Valentine, Christo, Horst B Horst,

Looking round, it was like being inside a mini Tate or National Gallery under canvas – except of course these works are not normally on public display – they have been and will be in private collections. It seemed both a privilege to see them and astonishing that these masterpieces might be found on display in someone’s house, and that some of the people walking round with me were of course considering buying something and potentially spending hundreds of thousands of pounds, perhaps millions.

The excitement of coming round the corner into a collection of cubist period Picassos or German expressionist paintings (think women with blue faces, fine hats and green parrots) and works by other artists I hadn’t much thought about since my History of Art A level, was increased  by our continuing search for DeWain Valentine’s solo exhibition. I spotted some American works from the Seventies in one gallery and asked if they knew him. After a little consultation they pointed us to a gallery and there we discovered this magnificent blue circle, cast from polyester resin,  which drew admiration from adults and young children alike. Unsurprisingly it had been sold days earlier!

Many of Valentine’s original works were made back in the Sixties and Seventies – hence he is up there with the old masters – now in his seventies himself and wearing his trademark Stetson.  His early influences were apparently both an interest in fine art and time spent stripping boats and painting cars which gave him an enthusiasm for  polished and reflective surfaces as well as  industrial processes. In the mid Sixties, he discovered the minimalist and Light and Space art movement of California and moved to LA to join them. He was influenced by the huge Californian skies and worked using industrial methods to produce a resin that could create monumental size  translucent sculptures,  reflecting and distorting the light  around them but also allowing you to see through and inside them. Uniquely he developed a formula that could be cast in a single pour. Although other artists were experimenting with similar ideas, Valentine was the only one to achieve this. He also taught plastics technology at the University of California.  A lovely quote I’ve come across from an interview at the Guggenheim perhaps encapsulates the essence of some of his work:  “When I moved to California, I said that it was like you could take a chainsaw and cut a chair out of the air and sit in it.”

After success in the 1970s, Valentine seems to have been “rediscovered” and this is his first exhibition in the UK.  It was fascinating to see Valentine’s colourful columns and his watercolours from the 1980s.  These photos taken on my phone certainly do not do justice to anyone’s art – but  DeWain Valentine’s exhibition will continue at the Almine Rech gallery in Savile Row until November 21st should you wish to see for yourself.

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Ancient Egyptians

Alexander tells me he is studying the ancient Egyptians and Tutankhamun at school. We are having special mother and son time over hot chocolate and cheesecake while waiting for big sister to finish at big school!

So rather than skimming through work emails or texting or phoning builders I am actually listening to what he is saying and focussing and engaging. You know like I assume it may say in parenting books if I were to read any.

“Tutankhamun,” I exclaim. “How fascinating. My mother took me to see him when I was a child – younger than you in fact. There were long queues to get in to the museum.”

“Was he still alive?” asks the 8 year old  looking very serious…

Note – Tutankhamun lived from 1336BC – 1327BC.


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Silent Sunday

Box Hill in November

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We had a lovely day out at Wisley over half term and my mum enjoyed talking to the children about the various types of plants and trees – and remembering not to use the Latin name as it makes the children go a bit cross-eyed.

Trying to get into the spirit of things,  I was desperately searching for any plant I could actually identify.  (My mum has green fingers but sadly I didn’t inherit any of the gardening genes).

At one point we were looking for the children’s playground and one of the Wisley staff pointed to the tree-laden horizon and said “It’s over there right next to the Oak Tree.” I had to ask: “Which is the Oak tree?” ( I can recognise them close to, of course, but not on the horizon!)  Mum rather sweetly tried to spare my embarrassment saying – “Well,  it’s a very unusual shape for an Oak!!” Not so unusual she and Wisley-man didn’t recognise it though!

Anyway, just as we were leaving and admiring a stream gurgling alongside the footpath, I spotted some plants I not only recognised but could name.

” Ah children, do you know what those are?” I said pointing very specifically to the plants.

“Grass” said my daughter. ” Reeds,” countered my son.

” Yes very good but what kinds of reeds?”

Blank faces

“You must have read about them in the Bible”, I suggested. ” You know – the story of Moses?”

Blank faces.

“A woman is trying to save baby Moses when the wicked King is trying to kill all the boy babies”

“Oh yes I know that story,” my daughter says. I should add perhaps that they do go to a church primary school !

“And what does she use to help her? It starts with bull…” I said helpfully ” Bull…”

“Bulldozers! Yes – bulldozers,” they shout triumphantly.

Bulldozers? thousands of years ago. Moses was hidden in a trench dug out by bulldozers. Or bulldozers were used to fight off the King’s men. Or Moses was hidden in a bulldozer. The story is definitely due for a modern makeover!



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We’ve just watched The Curse of the Midas Box – a British fantasy adventure film starring Michael Sheen, Sam Neill, Ioann Gruffudd and Keely Hawes. It’s a great thriller for an Autumn evening – tucked up on the sofa under cosy blankets with some hot chocolate and is just out on DVD!

The film opens in Victorian London, when the life of the young hero Mariah Mundi (Aneurin Barnard) is turned upside down after his parents vanish and his younger brother is kidnapped. After an encounter with the charismatic Captain Will, Midas Captain Will Mundi follows a trail of clues to the majestic Prince Regent Hotel on a remote island. There he discovers a hidden underground world of child-stealing monsters, deadly secrets and a long lost artefact with the potential to grant limitless power at a devastating supernatural cost: the Midas box. With the fate of  his family  (and the world) at stake, Mundi has to unravel the curse of the box – find it and stop it falling into the wrong hands!

The film hasn’t had the best reviews but it has a great cast, a good plot and I rather enjoyed the adventure and the colourful labyrinthine world revealed beneath the mysterious hotel. So what did the kids think?

Alexander (8)  liked the hero Mariah Mundi because he wanted to save his brother and he thought it was funny when they thought the big truck was a monster – ( although he was taken in too).  He also liked the part when the Midas box turned into a life-sapping gun! He writes: It was very good! (From Alexander)

Amelie ( 10) says she liked the plot because it had lots of twists and turns! Her favourite characters were Sacha, the maid at the hotel who helps Mariah in his search for his brother and ” the bad guy” Otto Luger (Sam Neill). Sam Neill She also liked the final scenes in the mines where children are working as slaves and everyone is looking for the Midas box.

Judging by the end of the film, there may well be a sequel, or two!



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Sunday in Hyde Park

No words. To see other Silent Sunday posts or add your own go to Cosmic Girlie


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