Friday, 26 December 2008

Resident Alien's Boxing Day, Back in England

I don't think there is any such thing as Boxing Day in America. Shame. It's a fantastic tradition. Basically, Boxing Day is the same as Christmas day but without the presents. So just as much eating, drinking and enjoying yourself, but no presents to go with it. We had a bit of a lie in (= "sleep in" in American, in the unlikely event that any Americans are reading) and we needed it because once again the jet lag had kicked in big time last night, and I couldn't get to sleep until 4. I spent some of the extra time reading, some of it blogging, and most of rest of it lying awake thinking about the dating of Mark's Gospel and the evening's Doctor Who special.

At midday, my sister, my brother-in-law and I went for a four mile run. It incorporated Hartshorne (see pic.) and Manchester Lane, and I was well and truly knackered by the end of it, and still couldn't keep up with my sister. Still, I made a better show of it than when I last ran with her, and was pleased to have made the effort. When we got back the modern-day re-working of The Railway Children was on the telly on one side, and South Pacific on the other, but I didn't get the chance to watch either and instead helped with the preparation of a fantastic lunch which we ate quite late, more turkey and stuffing, beef (freshly roasted), nut cutlets (freshly made) and jacket potatoes and the like. Fullers London Pride to begin with, then another nice red, and liqueurs to finish (Tia Maria this time for me).

In our family, Boxing Day is the day for the slide show. This year, for the first time, it has gone digital and we have all provided photographs and videos and he has provided the digital projector. It was an excellent show, with bits of America as well as bits of England, Austria, France, Italy, and various members of the family in each place. The North Carolina contingent all looked very brown, I thought, and it was lovely seeing shots of summer and the swimming pool -- brought home just how much I hanker for it until May each year.

We ate pretty late, 8.30, 9ish, I think, and I helped my mum prepare it. We just drank beers or ciders, and watched an evening of telly about Bill Cotton, head of light entertainment at the BBC for years, who died this year. After the documentary, there was an episode of Morecambe and Wise, the Christmas Special of 1971, which featured two of the all-time classic bits, André Previn and the Grieg piano concerto (". . . not necessarily in the right order") and Shirley Bassey and the boot. I don't think I had ever seen them in situ in the actual programme before, and most of the rest of it was pretty ordinary. Next up was an episode of Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game from 1973, which took me right back to my childhood. It was actually quite funny.

Several of us stayed up late, taking in some more port and channel-surfing. It's an enjoyable treat to be able to channel-surf British TV. And we went to be late deliberately, what with the jet lag still affecting us in strange ways.

And that's it for this year's Christmas day and Boxing day narrative. I won't bore myself with any more of this diary keeping for now, though it's a tradition I am tempted to try again at some future point. In the mean time, I will add my comments on the Doctor Who Christmas special and will then rest the Resident Alien blog for a bit.

Resident Alien's Christmas Day Evening -- back in England

In yesterday's narrative, we had reached the most important part of the day, for me, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, at 6pm on BBC1. This has become something of a Christmas tradition in the UK in recent years. The revival of the series from 2005 onwards was so successful that a Christmas Special was commissioned. The first, back in Christmas 2005, was the best, David Tennant's first outing as the doctor, but the others have all been fine, and this year's was the fourth. Since I do have a nerdy, Doctor Who streak, I may blog my thoughts about this episode separately, but at this point I'll just say that it was an enjoyable hour, the pleasure increased by the fact that my nieces were watching Doctor Who for the first time. My dad, my brother and my brother-in-law all fell asleep, and missed my favourite bit from the episode, but I obliged by narrating it for them afterwards.

Having said yesterday that a British Christmas, or our British Christmas, is all about telly, I am interested to find that in fact this is not really the case any more for us. So far, apart from Gavin and Stacey and Doctor Who, I have been able to take or leave the rest. And there is the far more important business of catching up with family over food and drinks.

We had turkey sandwiches for supper, latish, with another nice red, and about eight different cheeses brought over by my sister and brother-in-law. Several of us stayed up after having cleared to watch a nice documentary about Blackadder, and we then channel-hopped different bits of rubbish until bed.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Resident Alien's Christmas Day -- back in England

It occurred to me this morning that one of the problems with family memories of Christmases is that they are all so recent. At best they span a generation or two. When my Grandad, who died earlier this year, was interviewed last year for the local paper, he was able to share his memories of Christmas from the 1920s, with cockerel for Christmas day and more. Perhaps one day there will be interest in memories of Christmas 2008, long after we are gone. Perhaps, just as I enjoyed hearing my Grandad's memories, my grandchildren and great grandchildren will enjoy hearing mine. Or perhaps not. But either way, I like the idea of writing to them, further in the future than my future self, to whom I was writing yesterday.

I have no idea how traditional our Christmas is, but not a lot has changed since we were celebrating it in the same house when we were kids. And I still love it.

This was the third night since arriving, and the one when the jet lag set in. I felt like I was wide awake all night. Perhaps I was just reliving childhood Christmas eve excitement, and I could hear the sounds of nieces' footsteps on the landing while I lay awake. When we were kids, we used to open presents in our pyjamas, very excited, as soon as we woke up. Our nieces did that today, and loved their new bikes and mp3 players.

Most of us walked to church this morning (Blackfordby, above), nieces on their new bikes. It's a mile or so and a lovely walk, taking one across the Derbyshire / Leicestershire border, and passed the house where we lived when I was born. The service was a traditional Christmas eucharist and I enjoyed it immensely, even if the church was more than half empty. There were thirty-three people there, including the vicar, the organist and the choirgirl, and ten of those were our family. My mum stayed at home to get ahead with the Christmas dinner. My dad was the least well-behaved in the group, and his musical tie went off during the Gospel reading, John 1.1-18. It was just going into a second verse of "We wish you a merry Christmas" as "the Word became flesh".

My mum is an amazing cook and our Christmas lunch was fantastic, turkey, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, sausage meat stuffing, chestnut stuffing, brussel sprouts, sausages in bacon, bread sauce, lots of gravy. I take up residence by the sink for a couple of hours either side of lunch and get the washing up done. My brother-in-law provides the wine, always something special, and we finish the meal with liqueurs, mine a Cointreau. I think we must have sat down to eat after 2 because I was in the kitchen again, washing up, when the Queen's speech came on at 3. I'm not much of a monarchist, so I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy the sound of the Queen's voice as something of a Christmas tradition.

Present opening comes next, about 4pm or so. I remember the time clearly because I was relieved to see that we definitely had enough time to open presents before Doctor Who at 6. Our present opening session, going round in a circle, one at a time, resembles the way it was done in last night's Gavin and Stacey, so it looks like we may not be all that unusual. I had lots of fantastic presents, Kim Newman's "critical appreciation" of Doctor Who, Dave Simpson's The Fallen, all about his search for ex-members of The Fall, The Wedding Present Radio 1 sessions (complete), three Dad's Army DVDs, a book about Abba and Mamma Mia, and a Doctor Who DVD, "The War Machines". And other stuff like clothes and chocolates.

Happily, we were all done in time to get a cup of tea before Doctor Who began at 6.

But as I write, time is getting on, so I will pause there and complete the story tomorrow.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Resident Alien's Christmas Eve -- back in England

This will be our fourth Christmas since moving to the United States from the UK. But on all four occasions we have been back in the UK to celebrate. Perhaps one day we will experience a truly American Christmas, but it's difficult to imagine, at least at this point. Christmas is such a family occasion, and our family is all here in England. And other than the summer, it is the only time that we can get enough time all at once to travel as a family. The girls have two weeks off school; I have two weeks with no teaching at Duke; and Viola travels with her work and manages to find the time to mix work and pleasure.

Although Viola has blogged Christmases past (Christmas 2007, Christmas 2006), I have not done so myself here, other than to talk about the Doctor Who Christmas special, of course. But digging out some old diaries of mine has made me a little nostalgic for Christmases past and it makes me think that one day I may be nostalgic for Christmas 2008 and curious about what we were doing. I stopped keeping a diary some time ago, and blogging partly takes its place. So this is a little self-indulgent and likely to be of interest to the future me, so the rest of you feel free to tune out at this point.

I am blogging late on Christmas eve. We are at my parents' place in South Derbyshire. It is the same house I was brought up in. Almost all of my memories of Christmas are in this house. Now it is a bit more full of people, but not a lot has changed. My mum still works too hard; we all try to help as much as we can; we all eat a lot, laugh a lot and enjoy the Christmas telly. The telly is absolutely central to a good British Christmas, and it is a major difference from the US, which does not appear to have any new programming over the Christmas period at all. In Britain, it's the best time of the year for telly.

There was a lovely piece in today's Guardian by Lucy Mangan, Tinsel and Telly, which gets it exactly right:

Some families, of course, push their chairs back from a table strewn with turkey wishbones and cracker trimmings, and head off for a restorative walk. Off they go, breathing deep lungfuls of crystalline, wintry air before returning home for a quick game of charades and a snifter of brandy before bed.

It must be awful. In the Mangan household, the countdown to Christmas never begins with the first day of advent, but with the advent of the two-week edition of the Radio Times . . . .
That was the same in our house too. No publication could ever be so thrilling as the Christmas Radio Times and TV Times (you had to buy both back in the day), and my brother and I used to create our own Christmas TV times, with little "breaks" or "rests" occasionally written in to a day full of wall to wall entertainment. I have grown up a little bit since then, but I still got the same thrill today, working through The Guardian's highlights for the next few days.

In fact, the great TV already begun for us tonight, with the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special. We are recent converts to Gavin and Stacey and watched both series back to back on BBC America, so this was our first chance to see a new episode, and it was as good as we had hoped. But Christmas Eve is less about telly than tomorrow or Boxing Day will be. We drove up from Peterborough earlier today, and our major outing of the evening was to see the Christmas lights in a local neighbourhood. Several houses in a particular cul-de-sac have joined forces to create a fantastic exhibition of how to decorate your houses. Several people were out viewing the scene, and those who had put up the lights were collecting money for charity, air ambulance.

We had game pie and mulled wine when we got back. Much of the rest of the evening was low-key. Several people still had lots of presents to wrap. I am lucky in that the kids actually enjoy wrapping presents so the amount of wrapping I need to do is pretty minimal. Nevertheless, I quite sympathize with Clive James's delightful article, also available as a podcast, It's a wrap. But I think the best tip came from Smithy in tonight's Gavin and Stacey, who wrapped his presents in tin foil -- no need for scissors and sellotape, and they are still wrapped and shiny.

In other news, we couldn't help being surprised to see the Queen's Speech reported, with footage on tonight's news. What's up with that? It's not that interesting when you watch it on Christmas day, even if it is something of a tradition in our house to watch it, but how much less interesting is it if you have already got the gist of it the night before? Seems a bit spoil-sportish to me.

My sister's kids, down the corridor from us, are doing Christmas properly. I have just spotted Santa arriving up the stairs with two enormous sacks of presents which appear to have been delivered to their bedrooms. It's not quite so old-fashioned or romantic for ours. Resident aliens end up having Christmas present opening in a variety of different places, first back in America before we leave, and then in different places as we tour around here.

It's gone past midnight while I have been typing, so merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fifth Annual Ralphies (2008 Best ofs)

The bibliobloggers are offering their best ofs for 2008, known as "Ralphies" (Ralph the Sacred River), a tradition now five years old. One of the ideas here is that we are busy blogging boring old Biblical Studies related items all year, and this is the one chance to indulge ourselves and to talk about the stuff we avoid talking about for the rest of the year. In the past, I have done this on the NT Gateway blog (2007, 2006, 2005, 2004) but since The Resident Alien now provides me with the opportunity to blog about any old rubbish anyway, this seems the appropriate forum now for my own best ofs.

Film of the year: Last year I realized that I had not been to many films and resolved to put that right. This year has been much better. The kids are getting older and so we go to see more with them, and not just kids' films, and we seem to have found a bit more time to see things. I didn't like The Dark Knight as much as everyone else, though I could see why others admired it. Quantum of Solace was also, of course, a disappointment. I quite liked Cloverfield, though it made Viola sick; I quite enjoyed watching the film our Emily really loves, Twilight. I didn't mind Iron Man or the Incredible Hulk. Wall E was nothing like as good as everyone said it would be. I quite enjoyed Forgetting Sarah Marshall (especially seeing Russell Brand). My favourite film was probably Mamma Mia (comments) even if it is not that great a film. You have to have seen it to understand what I mean. Best film review of the year is undoubtedly Mark Kermode on Mamma Mia -- almost as much fun as the film itself:

TV Programme of the year: I am of course going to say Doctor Who. The fourth series of new Who may be my favourite since the revival. Catherine Tate as Donna was superb. There were fewer lows than in previous series -- no dud episodes at all. And if there were no single episodes to rival "Blink" or "Human Nature" / "Family of Blood" from the last series, there were still some gems, "Planet of the Ood", "Silence in the Library", "Midnight" and "Turn Left". The only disappointment was the last episode, with its absurd non-regeneration and odd job junior doctor (my comments) -- it's taken me a long time to come to terms with that.

Honourable mentions: Torchwood -- pretty good second series; Spooks -- best series for a while; Little Dorrit-- fantastic; Cranford - almost as good; Tess of the D'Urbervilles -- v. good; Lost in Austen -- sublime; Ashes to Ashes -- thoroughly enjoyable (and we loved Keeley Hawes). The best children's programme was Sarah Jane Adventures -- a super second series, especially "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith", as good as most Doctor Who. The best comedy was Gavin and Stacey. Viola and I only discovered it this year, and so caught up with the entire run on BBC America and adored it. BBC4 continues to show some wonderful documentaries, and they are part of my staple diet. I especially loved their railway series this autumn. And of course the best BBC mini-series featuring Jesus in which I was involved was The Passion, and one of the most memorable things in my career -- such a privilege and I realize how lucky I am.

Come to think of it, all those are all British. I do enjoy American TV too, especially Desperate Housewives, Chuck and Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles. Like many others, we have given up on Heroes and we have pretty much given up on The Office too. The American Life on Mars is hanging by a narrow thread. It's a shame that the push to make massive 20+ episode runs continues to affect the quality of so much American TV.

Radio Programme of the year: Russell Brand's Radio 2 show, now sadly missed. I listened to every one this year before a spot of bother brought an end to all that happiness.

Honourable mentions: tons of stuff on Radio 4, still my major staple. I particularly enjoyed the latest series of Jon Ronson on and laughed out loud for Count Arthur Strong and Bleak Expectations. On Five Live, I listen to a lot of Simon Mayo.

Podcast of the year: Most of the podcasts I listen to are simply BBC Radio programmes, the Daily Mayo, Mark Kermode's Film Reviews, Weekly Political Review and so on. So I should pick a favourite podcast from "true", non-radio ones, so I might go for The Guardian's Media Talk, closely followed by The Guardian's weekly political blog. And all the Doctor Who podcasts brighten up my commute to work, Podshock, the Whocast and Tindog.

Song of the year: I am tempted to say Human by The Killers, but I've only been listening to that non-stop for about two or three weeks, since the new album arrived. The one I have been listening to since the summer is Coldplay, "Viva La Vida":

Hmm; still think it might be the Killers actually. Can't get enough of it at the moment. Ask me again in six months. Honourable mention: Morrissey, That's how people grow up.

Album of the year: there was a Fall album this year, Imperial Wax Solvent, so of course it is that. I quite liked the album by Elbow, though, and the Killers album is growing on me. There was a new Wedding Present album too, but I haven't had the chance to spend much time with it yet, and I was really disappointed to miss them in Chapel Hill in October.

Gig of the year: Maroon 5 at Walnut Creek in Raleigh -- fantastic.

Sporting Event of the year: the Olympics, of course. Watched it in three different locations, and had the pleasure of catching it with different sets of enthusiasts, which adds to the fun, in England while visiting family, in France (Brittany) while on holiday, and back in America. Great to see Team GB doing so well this time. Looking forward to London 2012.

Most missed: Humphrey Lyttleton. Life without I'm Sorry I haven't a clue will not be the same.

As usual, I have not read any fiction, I ashamed to say, so pass on that one.