Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A little funny business

Just a heads up for comedy fans in Reading: the outrageously funny Tanyalee
will be in town during the Reading Comedy Festival! I don't know if her show is part of the official festival, but hey, they coincide, so enjoy one with the other.

The Canadian-born comic will be at Jongleurs on Friar Street (located above Bar Risa) on 9 and 10 October. If you plan ahead, you can save mucho £££s by buying tickets in advance with the help of a discount code. Using the code found here, you can get 3 tickets for the price of 1 -- if you order by 28 September. You can place orders for later on, presumably as far ahead as the Jongleurs' calendar listings go.

Tanyalee is a little person who brings big laughs. I've seen her perform several times, and she's always funny and full of energy. Here's a brief intro to the world of TLee:

John Pinette

Another must-see act during the Comedy Festival is American comic John Pinette. He's hilarious; I still sometimes use his catchphrase "You go now!" Want to see what the fuss is about? Check it out here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Church chat

The sights in Reading include some very beautiful, very old churches. I visited a few during last weekend's Heritage Open Days.

The oldest on my tour (in fact the oldest church in Reading) was Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin (it's in an area called St. Mary's Butts, and I can't help thinking of that as the name of the church, lol). It dates from AD 979, and of the churches I saw, it seemed to be one of two that remained ancient inside and out. Some others incorporated contemporary features inside (like the flooring and seating and very modern touches), but this one was all beautiful old church through and through. The large, tranquil churchyard includes walking paths (often used as shortcuts by many) and crypts. Many people go there to eat lunch on benches or on a monument with steps. While we were there early Saturday afternoon, the grounds also featured a man drinking from a 40-ounce beer can and yelling to passing women. Classy.

The final, exterior picture was actually taken in 2008. The rest were from last weekend. I'll post more from other churches later. :)

Monday, 13 July 2009

I have a winner, part deux

The winner of the original draw for the book"Britannia in Brief" never got in touch, so I drew again and have a new winner: Tiffany S. come on down! Congrats!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

American Style Hand Car Wash?

This business recently opened in the Kings Point building on King's Road. I don't know what it means, either. What exactly is an American-style car wash??? Note the broken glass in one window below, and boarded windows in another. It had been a vacant building ever since I've been here.

Friday, 3 July 2009

We have a winner!

I'm sorry to be late announcing the winner -- my computer got "sick" on Monday and has been getting treatment since Tuesday, and in the flap of laptop woes, I honestly forgot it was already time to pick a winner! I'm borrowing a laptop now to go ahead and end the suspense, so drumroll, please:

Congrats to: Sharon Parramore of Tuscaloosa, Alabama! Please email me at with your address and I'll get the book in the post!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Dipping into Water Fest

The River Kennet bustled with brightly colored canal boats and the occasional bellow of a steam whistle Saturday during one of my favorite local events -- Water Fest.

People crowded the walk along Blake's Wharf and up through the abbey ruins, browsing booths and jockeying for a spot to watch the activity on the water. I really love the canal boats -- the long, lean craft are designed to go through narrow passages and to be somewhat homey. Many have flowers and other homey touches, and the insides of at least some had stoves and places to sleep. I'd rather like a long cruise on one. If there are decent facilities for when nature calls that don't require some gross tank-cleaning procedure, that is.

The booths included fairly professional stalls offering food, clothes and crafts, to flea-market type stands run for various charities. Many of these offered several tickets for a quid to try and win a variety of items -- mostly also flea-market type stuff, but it was still fun to play. I won a bottle of chardonnay that my husband thought was awful yet drank anyway, a tiny teddy bear, and a couple of kid's toys I left for the next winner to take. There were also a few costumed people making the rounds, including the two women on stilts that "swam" through the crowd.

We also took a ride on a little boat with a green pavilion on top. I don't know what you'd call it, as it wasn't a canal boat and just held a few passengers. I loved the view of familiar sights from the water, and noticed a few things I'd never seen before.

All in all, it was a fun day that I wish came more than once a year.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Writing a go-go

Romance writer Christina Jones came to a Reading library Monday. I'm not really into romance novels, but the books are set in Berkshire, which spiked my interest. Besides, hearing an author talk about how she works seemed amply worth the £2 entry fee. I really hoped she'd go into how she found a publisher, but it turns out she never had to try too hard to get one, and I didn't feel like asking questions (I've become a bit reclusive and shy, must work on that).

She seemed very down-to-earth and basically like a nice, average Jane. The kind of person it'd be nice to have a pint with, and in fact she works in a pub when not churning out a book at the last minute to meet deadline.

That's what I found truly interesting, that she works best if she leaves things to the last minute. I find that helps me, too. I don't wait until the last minute necessarily, but it's the deadline breathing down my neck that makes me actually finish something. I keep wanting to rewrite, take a different direction, start over. Ever since I've gotten off the treadmill of full-time journalist and freelance columnist on the side, I haven't written very much, even though I have more time. And I've started far more pieces than I've finished. With a deadline, it's the knowledge that I can't keep changing it, I have to finish and be done with it whether it's perfect or not that forces me to wrap something up, smack it on the ass and send it out into the world.

Of course, the deadline also helps because that means you already have someone waiting to publish it; it's a bit harder working on something when you don't know if or when anyone will actually buy the damn thing, and that you'll have to actually hunt someone down and convince them to take it. Then there are submission deadlines for magazines/journals, but that's the deadline for everyone jockeying to be selected rather than a commissioned piece, so it's not the same motivation because you don't know if you'll make the cut. A deadline for a commissioned piece or full-time job may be stressful, but in the end, it's a magical, lovely thing to have.

Of course, I've never written anything the length of a book. It's hard enough to decide I'm actually done with and can stop re-writing something that's 1,000-2,000 words -- can you imagine actually staying on the same track without second-guessing it all for 60,000 words or so and actually deciding it's ready to hand in? Hats off to that accomplishment.

I checked out a book by Jones before she came, because I didn't want to go if it was unreadable tripe. Luckily, it was an enjoyable book. It was light fare that distracted me from other worries for a brief time, and that's probably the whole point of romance novels.

I really didn't intend to blog on and on about this, but it was interesting to see how another writer works, even if it's a rather different sort of writing than what I do or what I typically read. I should've bought a book and said hello after the talk, but at the time I was just thinking of the mountains of books I already have waiting to read and that I didn't know if I'd get around to another romance novel. But now I wish I had, as I'd enjoyed the talk and I'm sure I'd get around to the book eventually. Ah well, maybe next time.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Bang the drum loudly ...

This evening I heard a slow boom ... boom ... boom outside my window. When I went to look, nothing was there and the sound faded away. Within 15 minutes the slow, steady thump returned, gradually growing louder. This time I made it to the window quickly and snapped a picture of ... well, I'm not sure what's going on. A man at the front of a long boat pounded time on a drum as the other men rowed. The boat seems to be decked out as a dragon -- doesn't that look like scales on the side, and a tail on the back with the head at the front? Or is that a tail near the drummer and a head on the other end? I can't tell, but I'm sticking with my theory of a dragon theme to the vessel.

Anyone have a clue what's going in the photo?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's contest time! Whoop, whoop!

As promised, I'm giving away a copy of "Britannia in Brief: The Scoop on All Things British" by Leslie Banker and William Mullins (they were good enough to contribute a copy for the contest). The book is an interesting, witty guide to British pop culture and history; for more details check here.

So, what daring feats will I make you complete to secure this worthy prize? Here we go:
  • First, this contest is open to people in the UK or the U.S.
  • Next, tell me why you want the book. Your reply can be a simple, single sentence, or you can go into more detail (feel free to share!); the choice is yours.
  • Make your entry in a comment to this post (my preferred option, just click on the word "COMMENTS" below) OR via email. Either way, include your first name and last initial as well as your city & state (or city & country in the UK). If you enter by way of comment to this blog entry, I'll enter your name TWICE in the drawing. If you opt to enter by email (, I'll put your name in the hat once. By email, use the subject line: Book Contest Entry.
  • I'll do a random drawing on June 30 at 5 pm (GMT) and post the winner by July 1. If you're the winner, email me by the end of the day July 7 with your full name and mailing address. If I don't hear from you, I'll draw another name out of the hat and post it July 8.
Good luck all!

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Want a crash course in what makes the UK tick?

If you're an American arriving in the UK to visit or live, you'll immediately get an exciting sense of being in a foreign country, while at the same time experiencing a comforting feeling of familiarity because things here aren't all that foreign to us Yanks -- especially to fans of British music, TV, movies or books.

However, differences mount once you get beyond the first glance, and a brief bit of background on the history, slang and pop culture can go a long way to making sense of things. That background helps even if you've no plans to board a plane, but are simply intrigued by all things British.

I just finished a new book that serves up that background in a brief, contemporary, fun-to-read form that's perfect for Americans with little knowledge of the UK, and even old pros will find useful or enlightening information in its pages.

"Britannia in Brief: The Scoop on All Things British" by husband-and-wife team Leslie Banker (a Yank) and William Mullins (a Brit) serves as both history lesson and guide to life in the United Kingdom (they also write a witty blog of the same name). It could also help fans of Britcoms or Brit cinema decipher some of the slang, attitudes or comments they encounter (any U.S. fans of the Stereophonics wonder what the hell the song "Bank Holiday Monday" refers to? Check out Page 186 of this book -- just keep in mind that the lyrics of the song aren't an example of everyone's typical activities on these holidays.)

I spent about a month in the UK on vacations years before I moved here, and also learned a bit about it by way of British friends and boyfriends. Now I've lived here more than two years, so I'm not exactly a newbie to the information in this book. However, it still manages to offer several things I didn't know and give greater detail to things I knew of only in passing.

For instance, I live in one of the Home Counties of Berkshire. I just assumed all counties were called Home Counties and never thought more of it. Turns out that moniker only covers six counties that are immediately around London. Who knew? Well, OK, most English people probably knew that, but I sure didn't. Chapter 3 gives a good explanation of the leanings and types of newspapers, which is quite interesting to newcomers. I knew which ones were total scandal rags, but I didn't quite understand the different political leanings of the "highbrow" papers and what it said to the natives if they see you reading a given newspaper. This book breaks it all down, and keeps the explanations short and sweet.

I thought I'd just glance through a few pages of this book and relay a couple of facts, but I ended up reading the whole thing and found it a breezy, interesting read. You could finish its 238 pages on the plane ride across the pond and still have time to take snaps of the wing surrounded by clouds and catch some movie you'd normally never watch.

Keep in mind this book lives up to its title -- the information is "in brief." If you're a big history buff or like the full story behind a given situation or incident, this book won't fully sate your curiosity -- but it might just whet your appetite and tip you off to items you'd like to research more fully elsewhere. I really enjoyed the brief entries and getting a little knowledge on a wide range of topics here.

Tempted to read it? Then check back here in the next few days, when I'll post a contest to give away a copy of this book, thanks to the authors who sent one for me and one to share with my readers.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Descent into barbarism in Berkshire

The so-called heat (it was 78F -- that's a heatwave to the Brits) may be why everyone seemed a bit crazy today. My misadventures in how a very little heat can rattle people not used to it began with two guys blocking the door at the post office. One hands over a wad of cash, while the other promises to pay it back soon and pleads with the first man not to lose his passport, as then he won't be able "to get nothin' cashed". The first guy, gripping a huge can of Stella (at a quarter past three in the afternoon), brushes him off with assurances. Now, why would you give someone your passport anyway? "It's better not to know" my husband replied ominously when I told him of the encounter. I'd guess it was some type of loan/collateral situation.

Then my hip-and-happening day took me to Poundland for a microwave egg poacher and a copy of Tommy on DVD for a quid each. While waiting in line, I was treated to "Drunk old dude in Poundland" theater. A little old man in a suit was shouting loudly to the woman checking out at the register next to him: "Do you want me to say it nicely or do you want me to say it rudely?!!!" She went on about how he cut in front of her, and he can't do that just because he'd had a drink, she wasn't going to let him get away with that. He repeated his question a few more times before yelling "F*** off!" a couple of times and teetering out the door.

I'd had enough drama at Poundland, so I toddled off to Boots. On the way there, I heard a woman talking about how "it was like stepping into an oven." I guess she meant the "heatwave." She better never go to Alabama, not even in the winter, if 78 with a cool wind is a heatwave. It's amazing how by the time temps are in the 60s, people pull out the shorts and flip-flops.

A few people were red-faced and pouring sweat from the "heat," and I'll skip my other minor misadventures for now. Let's just say I finished up at the grocery store, bought some wine, and headed for home, far from the madding crowd. Ahh, it's good to be home. When I told all the news to my hubby, he said "Descent into barbarism in Berkshire." Now how can I not post about it when I have a title like that hanging around, eh?

Monday, 25 May 2009

Busking on Broad Street

Sunday on Broad Street some men dressed as American Indians were busking their hearts out to sell CDs of traditional music (I guess that's what it was supposed to be). These were some of the best faux-performers I've seen out there -- they went whole-hog, dressed in buckskins and feathers with one doing a dance and the other pretending to play some type of wood-flute. Note the woven basket at the dancer's feet -- they were collecting tips, too.

What they and others like them do is set up the instruments and even microphones and pretend to play the music that is blasting over the speakers -- music that is actually emanating from one of the CDs they are selling. I've seen groups do this with steel drums too, and as I came up I really thought they were playing at first.

The most pathetic attempt at this "faux performance" busking I've seen was a guy standing there singing along with Elton John songs. You could clearly hear him over the microphone, merging his non-show-stopping voice with Sir Elton's. I'm not sure he was even selling CDs, he may have just been collecting tips. Not many, though.

Friday, 10 April 2009

My post office has got it going on

My local post office recently remodeled and changed it's whole set-up. I don't know if all UK post offices follow this new model, but it's such a great idea that I hope U.S. post offices follow suit.

There are counters with staff along two walls, and fairly hip red, sectioned oval couches with seating all the way around in the center of the room. And here's the best bit: You can take a number from a little ACM-looking machine and SIT DOWN TO WAIT. Woo hoo, what a fabulous idea! What's more, there is always a Royal Mail employee standing near the ticket machine offering assistance and directing customers to where they need to go for various transactions/needs. It's so simple, yet so helpful.

I think the whole "take a number and sit down" idea is particularly great. It's especially helpful to anyone with mobility issues, the elderly, a parent trying to comfort or wrangle little ones, women in ill-advised heels that are killing them, someone fighting an illness and just trying to get through the day, someone carrying heavy packages, or any number of other scenarios where it would be a godsend to sit down as you wait your turn.

This is truly an example of where a business in England is providing a wonderful example of showing that it cares about good customer service. And believe me, you don't find that often enough.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Are you f****** kidding me?!!!

According to this article, the anti-bacterial hand gels located at many sites around the Royal Berkshire Hospital (the gels that aren't attached to the walls) will be removed amidst fears that youths will drink them because they are alcohol based. Um, even if none-too-bright youngsters wanted to try and get drunk off this stuff, would they really sneak around the hospital to steal some? Or just buy (or steal) it from any grocery store or drugstore? And is that really a big risk of happening, anyway?

It was already unimpressive enough that the gels are placed throughout the hospital with signs urging you to use them to keep down spread of virus (which makes you wonder how clean hospitals are kept here -- they don't have the antiseptic smell of U.S. hospitals), but now they are taking them away for such an unlikely reason? Not very confidence- inspiring.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Monday, 16 February 2009

Crazy chip update

So far, I've tried three of the new potato chip flavors on trial with Walkers, and they're all "meh."

One was more "bleech," actually. On the Fish & Chips flavor, my husband said: "Eeeww, I don't go for that. Get me some turpentine to wash that taste out!" He later said: "They taste like they were fried in Long John Silver's old oil." Not a glowing recommendation at all.

I actually thought it was OK after eating one chip. Taking a bite reminded me of Violet in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. She was the one who ate the gum that gradually tasted like all the parts of a meal (before she got to the dessert part and turned into a human blueberry). The chip didn't make me feel like a piece of fruit, but there was an odd sensation of tasting first the chips (fries) and then after a slight delay, the fish. After my husband tried one and nearly gagged, though, it put me right off these chips, lol.

We also tried the Builder's Breakfast flavor, and it was good. You really could taste eggs and bacon. But this wasn't significantly different than the current Smoky Bacon flavor, so I won't be voting for this chip, either.

Lastly, we tried the Onion Bhaji flavor. It really did taste like onion bhaji. Which I'm not super fond of. So this one was OK, but didn't earn my vote. Stay tuned, you crazy crisp fans!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

On the streets of Reading

Today out shopping in Reading's city centre, I noticed a couple of interesting things. Firstly, while someone walking along singing to himself may not merit much attention, a man walking along rapping to himself appears to have The Crazies. It sounds like he's having an argument with the voices in his head.

Secondly, they are much freer with clothing styles in England. It's nice that people can walk along in the middle of the day looking like they're heading to a costume party (fancy dress party to the Brits), when you suspect that's just their "normal" clothes. No one gives them a second glance. While it's really great to have this freedom, the outcome is a few people go around in really costume-like outfits. Sometimes they probably are on the way to a party, as the Brits love costume parties. But I still suspect a few outfits are just normal wear for others.

Today I saw a woman in a frilly blue dress (like something from a '60s high school prom), a tiara, and bright blue lipstick to match her frock. She was walking past the mall. I looked to see if she was carrying fliers or in some other way was dressed up as part of a business promotion, but no, she was just going about her business. My husband thinks she must have been on her way to a hen party (batchelorette party) even though it was the middle of the day, but I'm not convinced. If she were on the way to a hen party, she surely would've had a bunch of blinking, bobbing penises attached to some bunny-ears contraption on her head (normal hen party gear).

I think she just had this cool dress, so why not wear it? And if you're wearing a frilly, princessy dress, of course you need a tiara. And naturally you match your lipstick to your dress. You think? And does dressing like that limit your job options? Could you be a bank clerk or doctor or restaurant manager dressed like a Disney princess? Just a point to ponder.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Care for some Cajun Squirrel potato chips?

One thing about the UK that's cause for a giggle to an American girl is the wacky potato chip flavors. The norm here is things like steak and onion chips (or crisps, as they're called), roast chicken flavor, and prawn cocktail. And they all taste a lot better than you'd think.

Now Walkers wants to find a fresh, new flavor that's freakier than ever (and perhaps more fabulous?) with it's "Do us a flavour, Pick us a winner contest." People were invited to recommend a new flavor, and six were selected to be whipped up for consumers to sample. Sadly, my suggestion of chili cheese fries didn't make the cut. But junk-food aficionados can sample the new tastes and vote for a winner, with the most "out-there" option being Cajun Squirrel flavor. Seriously. I just bought two little bags of each new flavor yesterday for myself and husband to try, and I'll report back what we think.

Here are the options:

Builder's Breakfast (egg, bacon, sausage and beans)
Crispy Duck & Hoisin
Onion Bhaji
Chilli & Chocolate
Fish & Chips
Cajun Squirrel

Hungry yet? If you've tried these or would like to, let me know what you think!

If you crave more information about this unusual contest, check out this story in the Telegraph.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Newspaper freebies are cool, too

Another cool thing about England is the freebies newspapers often offer to get you to part with some coin. Granted, all these alluring freebies wouldn't be necessary if more papers here didn't seem to think a National Enquirer-type reporting style was the way to go, but the freebies are still nice.

For instance, the Daily Mail may not be that great of a read, but it can get some great DVDs on offer as freebies. My particular favorite is when they offer costume dramas for the price of a newspaper (as in when they offered Pride and Prejudice, the wonderful Colin Firth version, as a two-parter). This week I nabbed Jane Eyre, and today's offering is Lady Chatterley.

The shame is that the better papers, the ones I'd much rather actually read, don't give out as many freebies. They probably focus more money onto design and better writers -- though that doesn't stop papers like even The Times from having a slew of typos and sometimes doing rather misleading reporting that's far beneath it.

It will be interesting to see how UK papers can survive changing reading habits that are putting the hurt on U.S. papers. Will freebies make the difference? Would you be more likely to buy a paper in the States if it cost 50 cents or so more but you got a free Bowie CD? Time will tell what papers have to resort to, to stay alive.

Monday, 19 January 2009

British TV is kinda cool

No, not all of the original programming is cool in the UK. Much of it sucks. Man oh man do they love bad game shows and asinine reality shows (they have precious little like the reality TV I watched in the States, like Project Runway - the UK spinoff sucks - and things like Breaking Bonaduce on VH1). People on Big Brother become celebrities and have even gotten their own perfume named after them (as in the now fallen Jade Goody). AND you're forced to pay a monthly "license fee" to finance said crap programming. (Though some of the programs are good -- a few of the comedies, and many of the costume dramas are fab).

However, what's really cool about British TV is that they run movies, as well as shows that originally appeared on HBO and Showtime, UNCUT. That's right, no key scenes cut due to content, no funny lines watered down into some stupid, nonsensical crap to cut out a dirty word. It's awesome.

I once watched part of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" on cable in the U.S. It had been one of my favorite films back when I was too young to really be watching it. And cable TV ruined it. Due to editing, it was unclear what Phoebe Cates was doing when she was demonstrating oral sex on a carrot in the cafeteria, and a very funny line when stoner Sean Penn called Mr. Hand "You Dick" with just the perfect inflection became a not very funny voice-overed "You jerk." I gave up.

But in the UK, you would hear all those lines and more. You would see the scene where Phoebe Cates took off her bikini top and launched a million male fantasies. No cuts, no editing, no basically ruining the movie because certain scenes don't make sense anymore after the cuts. There's simply no point watching a modern movie on U.S. TV, even on cable - only the premium pay channels get it right. What's more, while you can't subscribe to HBO or Showtime here, you do get to see the best of their original shows on various Sky Satellite channels. Which has been nice for me, as I subscribed to just HBO in the States. Here I've enjoyed Californication and Weeds, both Showtime series I would've never seen (at least not unless I heard enough good word of mouth to rent them on dvd). Good stuff.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Showing your undies - Brit style

This goes under the category of "things that gross me out about England." You know that hip-hop style of wearing ultra-baggy jeans with the underwear showing? Usually involving showing either just the waistband of some boxer shorts or, for full tackiness, the whole boxers with the jeans nearly falling off some dude's skinny butt?

Well, I've seen an English version of this look around Reading, and it's ultra-gross. A few super-skinny Brit youths will wear tight-legged, skinny stretch jeans with the waist pushed waaaayyy down below the butt cheeks so you can see all of their their tighty-whiteys (which are plain white jockey underwear, the kind that look like they were bought in the aisle next to frozen foods at some discount store).

I wish I had a picture of this look. It's ghastly and yet mesmerizing because I just can't believe someone would wear that. Icky.