My Tai Chi Journey

My Tai Chi Journey

The local Kai Ming Tai Chi Association, with which my Wednesday night class is affiliated, recently asked would-be writers for contributions.  A sequel is being published to a book which came out about three or four years ago called View From the Back of the Class.  This is an anthology of articles, stories, poems and cartoons by class members and instructors.

So I thought I’d exercise my rather idle writing muscle and have a go at something:

 

 “Foorwarrrd…baackwarrrd…ward off riiiight!”  Raj’s voice was as hypnotic and warm as the Indian Ocean lapping rhythmically against the surrounding beach, as he guided us through the rudiments of what I would come to know as The Form.

This was my first taste of tai chi.

My husband and I were on honeymoon in heavenly Mauritius.  The wonderful Raj was quite possibly the most relaxed man I had ever met.  He had a wise, serene, “guru” air about him, was stupendously supple (he also taught yoga), possessed a permanent smile, and chanted instructions to us in a very long-vowelled Indian accent.

We were, believe it or not, the only participants in his tai chi class.  We occupied a private niche in the hotel gardens, where a heady brew of floral scents suffused the late afternoon air.

I had never experienced such utter contentment.

 ******

It was over a year later, in August 2008, when I heard that a new tai chi class had begun local to me, in the somewhat less exotic surroundings of Little Aston Village Hall.

Now admittedly utter contentment had been very easy to achieve in Mauritius, but I did go some way towards replicating the sense of wellbeing during that hour in Little Aston.

People talk a lot these days about going on a journey, be it literal or metaphorical.  I embarked on my personal tai chi journey that evening.  To the regular soundtrack of soft Chinese percussion music, I began to learn the 37-stage Cheng Man Ching Form – in obviously far more intricate detail than during half an hour with Raj among the jasmine flowers.

The standard posture took some getting used to initially: feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, pelvis tucked under, head lifted as if pulled upright by an invisible string.  Some of the exercises involved adopting positions which probably looked extremely silly yet felt entirely comfortable.  I was soon balancing wobble-free on one leg while twirling the other ankle for several minutes.

I remember the first time I rubbed my hands together then held my palms an inch apart to feel the flow of energy between them.  Oh yes, there was a definite force, as though something tangible and spongy was held here, like a ball of dough.  It was an electrifying and lovely feeling.

After the half-hour warm up the group split, with one instructor, Neil, taking us beginners (just two of us that week) aside to start the basics, while his colleague Mark progressed the more advanced members – who had been attending the class since April – further through the Form.

At the end of the class I felt so alive, yet in a different way to when I’m hiking over hills (I’m a keen walker too).  These exercises were neither aerobic nor gymnastic; in fact I had barely moved from my spot, but it was all about internal energy.  Mine was positively surging around my body.

It took a year to learn the form in full, averaging at one new step per week – steps which glory in such names as Single Whip, Repulse Monkey and Carry Tiger to the Mountain.  Once learned, each move is repeated and repeated and refined to the nth degree, with the focus on different facets.  Patience is not so much a virtue as a prerequisite in tai chi.  This is an art that can take a lifetime to practise and perfect. 

 ******

I have well and truly fallen in love with tai chi.  The benefits to my health and general wellbeing have been enormous.  It can’t be a coincidence that I haven’t (touch lots of wood) had a day’s illness in three years.

I also find I sleep much better on “tai chi nights” (Wednesdays), and that just 10 minutes of practice a day – a routine I try and adhere to – takes me out of myself and calms me beyond belief.  The intricate moves require such intent concentration that all thoughts of everyday stresses are temporarily pushed out of the mind.

I am forever discovering inventive ways to incorporate tai chi into my daily life (a spot of Standing Post while waiting for the kettle to boil).   I am more conscious of my posture and balance; I feel physically stronger; I try, as often as I can remember, to “breathe abdominally!”

I would like to say a huge thank you to Neil and Mark for being such inspirational instructors!  Though I won’t be ruling out future excursions to Mauritius to revisit Raj.

What’s the Buz

My Big Brum Buz Tour experience
Saturday 6 June 2009

The Big Brum Buz is a 90-minute open-top guided bus tour which was apparently used to run years ago and was recently resurrected in Birmingham. But no, owing to today’s dire weather, I did not avail myself of a roof seat.

The informative running commentary is aimed chiefly at tourists, but also local residents with a desire to discover more about their city. There were passengers aboard this afternoon from New York, Poland, Reading, London and, er, Castle Bromwich. Some were furiously jotting information in notebooks.

Neville, the driver, and Kay, our bubbly guide, took us through the commercial heartland of Colmore Row, past numerous examples of city’s magnificent Victorian architecture, through the famous Jewellery Quarter, along the ‘golden mile’ of Broad Street, through Edgbaston, through Digbeth and Deritend, past the Bull Ring and the more modern iconic Selfridges building, and back to our meeting point opposite St Philips Cathedral.

It can be easy to take the sights and sounds of your locale for granted, and one thing I enjoyed today was hearing the manner in which Birmingham, its landmarks and eminent residents are presented to, as it were, outsiders. Sometimes to view a place through fresh eyes can be so energising. I learned an abundance of historical facts and quirky snippets of trivia.

As I said, the weather today was vile. It has rained relentlessly all day, I got a wet Brum bum, and my fellow passengers and I collectively whiffed of musty cagoule. The dye from my jeans dripped on to my trainers, customising them with lovely blue streaks! By the time we disembarked, my teeth were chattering – in June! – from sitting still so long in a sopping cagoule.

I hadn’t travelled on any kind of bus for years, and had forgotten the mysterious water that drips from the top of the windows in every single one (actually I’m sure this phenomenon occurs even when it isn’t raining). As I shuffled into the middle of my seat to avoid the trickly window, I could have been 14 again, back on the rickety old school coach!

Not that I’m moaning, just attempting to give a flavour of my ‘buz’ experience. I would recommend this fascinating trip to anyone interested in the rich history of the second city (and numerous folks exist who are).

Oenology* for Beginners

(*That’s the study of wine.)

I attended a wonderful course with my mum yesterday, run by the organisation Wine Unearthed, at Bank restaurant in Birmingham’s Brindleyplace.  We learned what to look for in a glass of white or red; how to analyse its colour, nose and palate.

It was a present for my birthday, which fell two weeks ago – perfect for me, as I love doing quirky things and I’ve said before that I much prefer activities and experiences to possessions.

We started to feel somewhat nervous on the morning, however, wondering whether we had spent money rashly (these courses are far from cheap) and fearing the information might sail over our novice heads.  I had visions of being surrounded by frightfully pompous Brian Sewell types sporting burgundy bow ties and monocles and taking the whole thing terribly seriously.

We arrived at the salubrious Bank extremely early, and for about 15 minutes wondered if we might be the only attendees, especially as in these lean economic times a wine tasting workshop is unlikely to top most people’s lists of priority spends.  Folks slowly started to pour through the door, though – mostly couples but a few individuals too – until there were 24 of us.

At 10:30 Adrian Bucknall, who was taking the course, ushered us into the small private anteroom separated from the main restaurant area by glass walls (Bank are big on glass).  We were grouped into four tables of six, and all got chatting straight away.  Everyone was exceptionally friendly, down to earth and up for a bit of fun.  Not a bow tie in sight!

The unpretentiousness of it all put us at ease immediately.  In fact Adrian was quick to dispel a lot of the snobbery that can prevail in the wine world.  He even put paid to the myth about screw-top kinds being inferior!

We sampled 15 wines altogether: six in the morning, three with lunch and a further six in the afternoon.  While that may sound like a booze-bag fest, the actual quantity we each consumed in the whole day probably added up to about two to three glasses.  We were also supping plenty of water in between each vino serving.  I certainly wasn’t Brahms and Liszt!

We focused on white varieties in the morning.  Adrian talked us through the first one, which actually turned out to be my favourite of the day: a 2007 vintage Argentine Torrentes.  I had never heard of this particular variety – indeed none of us had tried it before – but will definitely seek it out on future Sainsbury’s trips.

Anyway, Adrian educated us on the art of tilting the glass to examine the colour and clarity of the wine, swirling it around, checking the length of the ‘legs’ running down the side of the glass which denote the alcohol or sugar content, sniffing the wine and gargling it like Listerine to reach every corner of your mouth.

The Torrentes was dry, pale and almost silvery in colour, with a hint of pineapple and elderflower, and apparently a lovely accompaniment to light dishes such as fish and grilled vegetables.  I kept it to one side, rather than tipping it in the spittoon, so I could compare it to subsequent samples.

After talking us through that, Adrian brought around each bottle in turn, left us to talk amongst ourselves for about 10 minutes and make notes in the notebooks provided before inviting us to share our impressions with the group at large.

He advised that everyone’s taste buds and senses of smell can differ vastly, and encouraged us not to be influenced by other people’s responses.  There are no right or wrong answers on this subject.  If you can smell petrol, leather, nutmeg, or even cat pee, while others are smelling blackcurrants, you are not ‘wrong’ (unless perhaps you can taste cat pee!).

There was a good mix of Old and New World wines.  In each case Adrian gave us details of the alcohol percentage, average price for a bottle (they ranged from £6.99 to £12.50) and what foods it might appropriately accompany, as well as a bit of background information about the grape variety.

We tasted the final two ‘blind,’ i.e. without being told what they were, and in addition to making the usual notes were invited to guess which one was from the Old World [Europe] or the New World [rest of the world].  I guessed which was which, and also that the New World was Australian, although did mistake the Old World for Italian rather than the French Chardonnay it turned out to be.

At 12:45 we were served with an excellent three-course lunch, naturally with a soupcon of wine appropriate to each course: Verdejo from Spain with the starter of porcini mushrooms and pine nuts on toasted brioche, Californian Zinfandel with the main course of spicy Malayan chicken with coconut and lime sauce and sweet potatoes, and Sauternes dessert wine with the crème brûlée and lemon shortbread.  That was followed by some very welcome coffee.

Over lunch we had the opportunity to chat with other folks.  Again everyone was extremely friendly and sociable.

The afternoon followed the same format as the morning, focusing on reds.  Again we discussed each one amongst ourselves and tasted the final two blind.  I again identified which was Old World and which was New, though failed to identify their respective countries of origin (mistaking an Italian Chianti for a Spanish vino and an Australian Shiraz for something Chilean).

My favourite red was a South African Syrah Mouvedre (so it ought to have been at £12.50 a bottle!); my favourite white the aforementioned Torrentes from Argentina.

It was a fascinating day.  One of the best Saturdays I have had for a long time.

Cat on my Shoulder

Cat on My Shoulder
or
A ‘Cat the Tat’ story

 

For five years, I felt like a cartoon character with an angel hovering over one shoulder and a devil over the other.

The devil cackled: ‘Do it, Leigh – surrender to your wild side!!!’

While the angel would caution:  ‘No, Leigh – they hurt, and they last forever!!’

The subject of this indecision?  Tattoos.

From the age of 20, I yearned for one.  As an art form, they fascinated me.  There was something exquisite and rebellious about them; they seemed like the ultimate form of self-expression.  

But my boring old angel always prevailed – until January 2002, when I finally resolved to go for it.

I wanted a cat, on my right shoulder.  I had thought carefully about the location: ankles were too bony; arms too conspicuous (could scupper chances at future job interviews).  The shoulder was perfect: I could flaunt my unfading feline in strappy dresses or conceal it when the occasion demanded.

I selected a local studio from Yellow Pages and drove over one Saturday.  It was very important to me to get a feel for a studio and its staff, having heard horror stories of bleeding and pain from grimy needles administered by equally grimy tattooists in backstreet joints.

But I knew as soon as I entered the unassuming little building (which, from the outside, resembled a corner shop not unlike Arkwright’s) that I had made absolutely the right choice.  It was as antiseptically clean as a dentist’s surgery.  They were choosy too.  A sign warned potential clientele that this firm would under no circumstances ‘do’ faces, necks or hands, or ‘persons under the influence of alcohol.’

I spent a good hour leafing through the sheafs of designs.  There were literally thousands.  A wad of these laminated sheets was piled high on the waiting room table; yet more sheets concealed every square centimetre of wall.

Every conceivable taste was catered for.  One could have literally anything, from an obscene drawing to one of Winnie the Pooh (or an obscene drawing of Winnie the Pooh).  There were hearts, flowers, daggers, Grim Reapers….and there were cats.  Black, white, ginger, tabby, Garfields, Sylvesters; sitting, standing, with claws bared….

I hadn’t gone along with a particular design in mind, but plumped for a ginger, fluffy-tailed, grinning moggie, which the girl there informed me would cost £20 and take a bearable 15 minutes to complete. No appointment was necessary, I could merely return when I was feeling brave.  

‘Will it hurt?’ I whimpered, getting to the crux.

‘No,’ she insisted, ‘it’s more of an irritant than a pain.’

The shoulders, apparently, were among the least delicate bodily zones – the most delicate being the chest, bum and tummy!

When I spoke with my dad on the phone that week, his response to the news his only daughter was getting tattooed was merely ‘Oh’ – but a very loaded ‘Oh.’

In Dad’s mind, tattoos were the preserve of sailors, criminals and Ozzy Osbourne.  Then there was the danger factor.  But in this age of AIDS, I assured him, needles are sterilised and changed for each new customer.

Three days later, I drove back there after work.  Even as I parked my car in the grimy side street and strolled in, I could hardly believe I was there at all.  Was I totally insane?  Well, yes.  It was a completely out of character exploit for me.

As I walked in, at 5:30, a chap and the girl I saw previously were tattooing one customer each.  They operated on a first come first serve basis, and the man told me I would be looking at an hour’s wait for my ‘turn.’

It was on the tip of my tongue to respond, ‘In that case, I’ll go away and come back’ – but then leg it!  I imagined this comedic scene, with me leaving the building in one frame, and then the next sound to be heard being the cough and roar of my hastily departing car.  I came that close to bottling out – but somehow my legs propelled me across the waiting room and calmly guided me to a chair.

During my lengthy wait, it was all I could do to stop myself bolting for the door.  I was taking such an enormous, irreversible step!  I could not escape the thought that I would still have this distinguishing mark when I was 85.   Whilst my decision to have it done was hardly spur of the moment, it was still scary and kind of bizarre to know I was truly going through with it.

Sitting in that waiting room was torment.  The sound of the needle, a piercing, drilling drone that evoked images of torture instruments, set my teeth right on edge. 

I was in a prime spot for people-watching, though.  A girl who was also having her first tattoo, and also on her right shoulder, turned so queasy that she had to be given a cup of water!  This did not inspire confidence.  

After her, a little girl, no more than ten, had her belly button pierced (but she seemed to feel no pain).  Another girl had a Chinese symbol, yet again on the right shoulder (obviously a popular tattoo spot) and another had chosen a purple Celtic swirl for the base of her spine.  

There was a convivial atmosphere; reminiscent of a club, with members swapping stories: what they were having done, where they were having it, whether it was their first one, etc.

As the clock hands inched past 6:30, I knew my time was approaching.  Now was my final chance to dash for that door.  But I knew I would kick myself if I turned chicken.  I wanted this tattoo!  Even if it did hurt like hell, what was 15 minutes of wincing compared with something that was going to be there forever?

The girl having the Celtic pattern was in the chair now.   It was her ‘first time’ too.  She was around the same age as me, and just as jittery.  

While she was being done,’ I paced the waiting room, pretending to examine the designs that papered the walls; contemplating what I might have for my next one (supposing I survived this ordeal!).

I dispatched a shaky text message to my then boyfriend, now husband, which read simply: ‘OH GOD, I’M NEXT!!!’

Finally, at 7:00, the girl was finished.  Hers had hurt, she said, but mine probably wouldn’t because I had chosen a less bony location.

And now I was in The Chair.

I could almost hear the Mastermind theme music. 

The amazing thing was that once I entered the ‘surgery’ itself, my terror magically evaporated and all these positive thoughts were dashing around my head, pushing away the frightened ones. 

After all, I was there because I wanted to be – nobody was forcing me to have a cat permanently emblazoned on my shoulder.  I was right to be excited.  This was one of those momentous, anecdotal events that you remember for the rest of your life.

I WAS GETTING A TATTOO – wasn’t I big and bwave?!

The man imprinted my little smiling cat on to a tiny square of tracing paper and slapped it on my shoulder, leaving a black outline.  He asked me to check the mirror to make sure it was positioned where I wanted.  It was.

And then the needlework commenced!!

This was it!!!

That evil-sounding needle – which did not sound half so evil close to – was now touching my skin.  The chap used it to draw around the outline in black, then filled it in with a mixture of orange, yellow and red to give the moggie a ginger coat.   

The question everyone asks me is, ‘Did it hurt?’ – indeed this was the first thing I wanted to know myself prior to acquiring the thing.

And the answer is I wouldn’t say it hurt exactly – it was more of a sting, the kind you experience when you cut yourself.  The kind that makes you jump, but doesn’t make you scream.  My right arm was numb and heavy whilst the needle was touching me – but afterwards, I felt absolutely nothing.  

The tattooist slapped a sheet of cling film over ‘tat,’ which I was to keep on for just 40 minutes.  That was it!  No bandage was required, and I suffered no scabs or bleeding.  

Afterwards, I felt this enormous sense of pride – as though I had accomplished some truly heroic feat.   I harboured this mad urge to yell to the world: ‘I’ve got a tattoo!!!’  It was all I could do to stop myself hammering on somebody’s door to announce it.

As a postscript to the above: I originally planned to get another one, possibly a tortoise, but subsequently decided against it.  I figured adding another tat would take away the specialness of that one, and thus the ‘cat on my shoulder’ remains my unique piece of body art.

The Mathers-Rowley Wedding

The Mathers-Rowley Wedding
Saturday 30 June 2007
The Mill at Alveley, Shropshire

You can read a much longer write-up of our day on the Confetti website: http://www.confetti.co.uk/article/view/9253-7949-0-Leigh_and_Nathan_s_real_life_wedding_UK_national.do

You can also have a nose at the official pictures (which, as they say, are worth a thousand words) on our photographers’ website http://www.geminiphotography.fsnet.co.uk/ – click on ‘Recent Weddings’ and ‘Leigh & Nathan.’

I also made a little slide show of unofficial pics on my MySpace page www.myspace.com/leighrowley.

And I’ve uploaded a ton of them to Facebook, but you’ll have to be my friend to view those!

OK, grab a cuppa – it’s my wedding report!!!

Where do I start?

Well it rained! Torrentially. Put me in mind of that Alanis Morissette song – “It’s like raii-iiaaaii-nnn on your wedding day!” (Though I can’t quite see what’s so ironic about that.)

During the week prior to our wedding, the ground floor of our fabulous venue was completely flooded, resulting in new carpets having to be laid and the highly professional staff working around the clock to restore normality. My lovely Mum and some of my friends knew all about this, but didn’t tell me until the big day in order to minimise my stress levels!! I was very grateful!

Now a heavy downpour was the eventuality I was dreading most – but it’s true what they say, on the day you don’t care about the weather. It really is useless getting depressed over something you can do nothing about, and to be surrounded everyone we loved in one room was enough to banish any despondency.

And everything else went like a dream. Naturally I’d rehearsed my wedding day over and over and over in my mind for months beforehand, and I really did have the wedding of my dreams. In fact the reality was so close to the dream, it was almost spooky. Everything worked, everyone had a fantastic time, and it truly was the most euphoric day of both our lives.

From the moment I walked into that room on my mum’s arm and saw Nath looking all besotted and happy, my nerves evaporated. I’d been most jittery about saying the vows, possibly saying the wrong thing (wrong name?!) or tripping in the aisle and ending up on You’ve Been Framed, but I took my time and made a conscious effort not to gabble and rush.

It was an incredibly informal, relaxed civil service which reflected our personalities perfectly. A common comment from our friends and relatives is that we had exactly the kind of day WE wanted rather than going through the motions with a ceremony that would simply please our parents. This is exactly what we strove to achieve, and we are so glad it came across to people.

Our good friend Dave Howard gave a brilliant reading of the ‘Love is a temporary madness’ passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

During the signing of the register another friend and former bandmate of Nath’s, Ben Marshall, provided the music: a lovely Brian May guitar solo Last Horizon.

Both reading and music were applauded – no po-faced sitting in silence for our guests! My two bridesmaids – my sister-in-law Julie Mathers and best mate of 15 years Ros Thomas – looked absolutely stunning.

Our venue, the Mill Hotel in Alveley, Shropshire, has THE most beautiful grounds, hence my initial disappointment at the rain and consequent possibility that we wouldn’t get any outdoor photos. But our photographers kindly stayed a little longer than usual, in order to capture a few shots when the rain abated to a drizzle.

The speeches were wonderful and paid lovely tribute to us both. My mum (in lieu of Dad – who passed away in 2004) did a fabulous job. Nathan’s two brothers Jez and Nick as best men cracked us up with a few anecdotes from Nathan’s naughty childhood.

We were delighted that Nick and his wife Kristie were able to make it – Kristie (who had been due to be bridesmaid, but for obvious reasons had to bow out) was nine months pregnant, and just three days later gave birth to our first nephew, the gorgeous Samuel!!

Two days later, we jetted off on our mega honeymoon to Mauritius. I will never forget it, and we have never been so depressed about a holiday coming to an end. It really must be the closest place on earth to paradise. We had a total rest, beneath coconut trees on idyllic beaches, but were also on the go a great deal with activities such as parasailing (probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done – apart from get married), waterskiing and kayaking.

Once the experience was all over, I was actually rather relieved to “de-wedding” and get back to my life. Strange as it may sound, I certainly wasn’t sorry it was over. Having said that, it’s a cliche but were I to do it all over again I wouldn’t change one aspect of it.

Our Day at the Beeb

Our Day at the Beeb

 

On Saturday 9 February 2008 my hubby Nathan and his band Queen on Fire performed on the semi-final of BBC1’s The One and Only talent show.

An fun and fascinating – if also long and tiring – day. It was a beautiful February afternoon. After a minor nightmare getting lost around the wilds of Willesden and Shepherd’s Bush, we – my MIL and DIL Chris and Frank and myself – made it to BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane (which I remembered vividly as the address they used to give out for competitions on Going Live back in my youth) at 4:30, in plenty of time to be ticked off the list, allocated our numbered stickers and sent through to the foyer.

On our way in to that vast, vast building, we happened to meet Nathan and his bandmates and had the obligatory cheesy ‘standing outside TV Centre’ shots on our phone cameras.

There was a great deal of hanging around before the 350 or so audience members were called through to the studio in the appropriate order. Contestants’ families and friends first (recognisable by their badges bearing legends such as ‘Lionel’s Mum’ or ‘Robbie’s Granddad’), then the superfans, then the rest of us.

It was absolutely amazing to see how many hundreds of crew members and assistants and technicians, how many zillions of cameras and lights and miles of cable it takes to make one TV programme.

There was great excitement, and applying of emergency ‘I’m gunna be on the telly’ lippy and powder (and that was just the men taken care of) when our group were shown to seats which we were told would feature on camera throughout the show (‘So no nose-picking,’ the floor manager ordered)! We were directly behind the bench on which the contestants sat once they had performed. I dispatched a few quick texts to my mum and friends indicating where we were and to ‘look out 4 us!!’

There is such a fun atmosphere in that studio. I must admit to cynically suspecting the unnaturally deafening sounding crowd noise was dubbed on these type of programmes – but no, the audience really do go that wild! It was a riot. Each artiste had their throng of supporters – the Lionel Richie-a-like, Moni, seemed to have a busload in. At times during the show we couldn’t hear what Graham Norton was saying over the applause (in fact we heard more watching it back on the telly).

The floor manager did a great job of hyping us up, telling us at what points to applaud and for how long, during which songs to stand up and clap and which to sit down but sway!

The lovely Graham Norton, and judges Carrie and David Grant, were announced on shortly before transmission time. Graham seemed very sweet, camp, energetic and impish – exactly how you’d expect him to come across really. He certainly gives the impression he absolutely loves doing the show.

He was chatting down with the friends and relatives, asking who won the afternoon’s rugby, when the continuity announcer boomed through to indicate the live programme was about to start, forcing our Graham to do a little ‘ooh, I’ll miss me cue’ dash up the stairs he would then descend. He was over our side of the set, and in response to Frank shouting ‘Go for it Graham,’ waved and flashed us an excitable, ‘Good here innit’ sort of smile.

The competitors performed the following numbers in this live first show:

Anthony Adams, alias Frank Sinatra – My Way (beautiful song – my dad’s song – but I’ve heard much better Sinatras)
Siam Hurlock, alias Diana Ross – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (difficult song and she did it well)
Simon Abbotts, alias Tom Jones – Sex Bomb (cringe-o-rama)
Joanna Berns, alias Cher – I’ve Found Someone (sang her socks off – the best, in my opinion)
Moni Tivony, alias Lionel Richie – Hello (sweet, sincere performance)
Katy Setterfield, alias Dusty Springfield – I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (sounded just like Dusty)
Tony Lewis, alias Robbie Williams – Rock DJ (shouty and posey)
Whole group – December 1963 (Oh What a Night) by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

The crowd all ‘gave it some’ – as instructed by the floor manager – and it was so easy to get caught up in the spirit of cheering rapturously when Carrie and David praised a contestant and booing at the vaguest hint of criticism. We were encouraged to cheer every contestant, not just our favourites, and I have to say everyone was lovely and supportive to all.

Immediately after the live show, which finished at 7:45, Queen on Fire’s performance was pre-recorded, to be inserted into the results show. There was a practice run-through – to heat up the audience – then the real take.

They had a strict three-minute time slot, and chose a medley consisting of Killer Queen and We are the Champions. Scott, Nath, Sean, Tom and Ade were just superb and gave it their all. The crowd went mad again. It was a complete buzz. I’m so proud!!

Watching it back (which I have – as you can imagine – a hundred times), they all sounded and looked great. Plenty of close-ups of my hubby – which was lovely and kind of surreal!! They were all delighted with how it went.

Hopefully the phone will start to ring with more gig offers now…

Graham then recorded a few trailers for next Saturday’s final, to be broadcast at progressive points during the week: ‘Saturday at 7:30 on BBC1!’ – ‘Tonight at 7:30 on BBC1!’ – ‘Next on BBC1!!’ – ‘Over on BBC1 now!!’

We were dispatched back to the foyer for a break – and to pounce on the free crisps and bottles of water up for grabs – and then ushered back for the results show, which kicked off at 9:25. There were two more group performances: Take Another Little Piece of my Heart by Janis Joplin from the girls and Elvis’s Suspicious Minds by the boys. Queen on Fire’s pre-recorded insert was then shown to us on monitors. Watching back, you can’t see the join, as it were, and would never know which bits were not live as they segue so smoothly.

Graham made a quip about ‘Brian May in Cher’s wig’ – then it was results time and he announced ‘in no particular order’ the first four acts going through to the grand final: Frank, Lionel, Robbie and Dusty. The audience whoops were naturally by now chimpanzee-like, and there was euphoric ‘Lionel’s in the final’ chanting – to the tune of the Conga – from his posse.

‘The act with the lowest number of phone votes and therefore leaving the competition tonight’ proved to be Tom Jones – which left Diana Ross and Cher (a travesty in my opinion – those two were the best of the night) to battle it out for their fellow contestants’ votes in the sing-off. The finalists elected to save Cher, so Diana was out too.

The result was slightly disappointing then. In my opinion, Tom (though Simon Abbotts is a fellow Dudleian) was right to go, but I felt Robbie was the next weakest. These two did a lot of posing, and the sexy choreography of the dancers around them distracted from wobbly vocals! By contrast, Diana showed total star quality.

I definitely want to go and watch more TV recordings (the ones that particularly spring to mind would be Strictly Come Dancing and Who Wants to be a Millionaire – I guess there are waiting lists you can go on?). I could even make it my hobby. Certainly when I retire I shall consider it as a regular pastime. It’s free (well not entirely, of course – most of these recordings are in London, and there are the astronomical petrol prices to consider), and a fascinating day out. There’s a fair bit of hanging about, but it’s well worth it.

Now if you and wish, for any reason, to see my in-laws and me clapping along and ‘giving it some’ – you can also watch the clip on my You Tube page www.youtube.com/user/mrslmathers. We were on the second row of the block right behind the contestants’ bench. I’m in glasses and a blue T-shirt with Sweep (Sooty’s mate) on!!

Clee Hill Yomp

Clee Hill Yomp

 

For a couple of years now, I have belonged to a walking group, Peak Hostellers.  We take quarterly yomps of between eight and twelve miles in March, June, September and December, predominantly, as the name implies, across the wild and lovely Peak District.

In May 2008, we slotted in an extra trek, this time in Shropshire’s Clee Hills.  I wrote a piece about the day, mainly for my own enjoyment and to exercise my creative muscle.  Then I thought I’d share with you too.

 

Our eleven-mile slog up and down and across Titterstone Clee Hill proved to be the most punishing I’d done with Peak Hostellers.  It took more than six hours, on diverse terrain and in wavering weather conditions.

The forecast rain thankfully never materialised, and the day remained bright – though when the seven of us convened at 10:30, a cutting wind was buffeting the hillside car park.

Opening the car door proved an effort against the elements, and once outside I was grateful I’d packed the fleece, gloves and benny hat I hadn’t been sure I’d need.  Within an hour, though, the hat and gloves were shed; by lunchtime the fleece was in my rucksack; by the end I was sweating and my cagoule was knotted round my waist.

It was a gradual gradient to the 533-metre summit of Titterstone Clee Hill via expansive scrubland that was historically a very productive mining and quarrying area.  Edifices ancient and modern crown the skyline.  The ruins of an Iron Age fort form a fragmented necklace around the giant ‘golf balls’ of the National Air Traffic Control System.  These gargantuan orbs on stilts are actually radar domes.

On such a clear morning, we had a splendid view of the boundless greenery below.  It was pretty exposed up there, and the fingerpost on the crest of the hill was a welcome prop in the robust wind.  In this once industrial landscape, the post was a waymark for the Victorian miners who crossed this moorland to nearby Magpie mine.  We clung to it while posing for the obligatory ‘looking windswept on top of a hill’ group photograph.

And on we went.  We felt noticeably warmer the minute we began our descent of the bracken-mantled slope, and thus became protected by it from the gust.  By the time we reached the scenic hamlet of Cleeton St Mary, the first layers of thermals were coming off.  This three-mile mark also proved a perfect snack-and-respite spot.  We perched on the squat church wall, and out came the muesli bars, apples and bottled water.

From Cleeton St Mary we advanced, via the country lane (single file, yelling ‘Car alert’ to one another when an intermittent Land Rover or tractor obliged us to hug the hedge) and then quaggy footpath, to the adjoining hamlet of Farlow.  This remote path is home to a surprising feature – Lanes End Recording Studio.  The studio is not visible from the track, but a ramshackle sign on a farm gate declares its presence.  Well at least there’s nobody there to bemoan the noise.

Most of the neighbours are canine in any event.  They scampered, yapping, from the nearby farmhouse to greet us: five Yorkshire terriers and a Jack Russell.  Hairy, scratchy mopes with barks that could curdle the soup in a thermos flask.  I am not a dog person, though this spry pack were friendly enough.

It was nearing lunchtime now and we tramped into Oreton the proverbial weary and hungry travellers.  Well sheltered from the wind, we were being blowtorched by the sun, and more layers would have to be shed.

Our leader, Robin, had forewarned us to pack sandwiches as the tiny pub in this hamlet was not renowned for its gastronomy.  Robin was right – the New Inn was shut.  Near derelict, in fact, with only the presence of a budgie in the upstairs window implying life inside (unless this bird had ceased, like its distant Monty Python cousin, to be and was in fact nailed to its perch).

In the absence of inn seating, we deposited our rucksacks and bodies on the grassy verge opposite to devour our picnic.  One thing regular walking teaches you is that the childhood cliché about food tasting better outside is so, so true.

The post-lunch leg of the trek was the toughie.  Predominantly uphill, in searing sun, on country lanes, spongy grass, mud, brambles, woodland and ultimately scrubland revisited.

It was lanes first, and close to our roadside picnic station was an industrial relic.  The Oreton brick kiln dates back to 1870 and is one of the country’s two surviving examples built to the distinctive ‘beehive’ design.

The remainder of the route was rather more featureless, which lent a consequent monotony to the last couple of hours and made the walk feel never-ending at times.

Hardest on the calf muscles was the spongy grassland that began our circuitous return across Titterstone Clee Hill.  In places we were knee-deep in brambles which could impale even the most impervious of waterproof trousers.

On such undulating and partially obscured terrain our steps were slow and ankles might easily be twisted.  The innocuous looking hump of earth on which you ventured a foot could give way and suck you into its muddy belly, or turn out to be concealing a trench.

This vast common was bisected by a gully of gunge, and our passage from one side to the other was by means of an obstacle course that involved inching around tree trunks, crawling under low branches and fashioning makeshift bridges, Swallows and Amazons style, from stray chunks of wood.

Now if you like your walks to have a gentle, downhill ‘last lap,’ membership of Peak Hostellers is not for you.  It was upwards all the way in sludgy boots for us.  The final hour was gruelling as we trudged to that towering car park and in that forgotten wind.  Each time we scaled a slope, or rounded a corner, I felt sure we must be nearly there – then spotted ‘there’ a disheartening two miles, mile and a half, one mile, in the distance.

It was after 5:00 by the time our cars were no longer a mirage and we could fold our dead-beat legs into them for the meandering drive home.  It had been a challenge, though on the whole a rewarding one.  I buzzed all over with energy, relief and the self-satisfaction of having done something more constructive with my Saturday than shopping or ironing.

Next day, I indulged myself with the intemperate luxury of a midday lie-in.