Sunday, 27 December 2009

Tree, slain

(originally intended date of posting: December 12th, 2009)

There I was, walking to the train station, thinking about all the incredibly important and complicated things I usually think about on my regular 13-minute morning constitutional, when I saw this in front of me:

A tree, fallen, sprawling on the street.

It had not been a particularly windy night. There were no attendants in fluoroescent gilets declaring the area a hazard, no tree surgeons pondering its demise, no buzzing of chain saws or hauling of ropes, no triangular signs warning of its imminent descent and subsequent removal and apologies for any inconvenience caused.

There was just a tree lying on the pavement.

A tree that, with no evidence to the contrary, appeared to have fallen of natural causes, wrenching itself free of its foundations. Perhaps it took some kind of funny turn, botanically speaking, and swooned on to the tarmac below, clasping at the railings with its branches on the way down, in an attempt to break its fall. 'Is it hot out here? I feel a bit... ooh, look out down there!'

Since there was no prohibitive red and white tape to stop me, I walked on past the tree. I was this close to it. Something about the scale of it made me feel a bit queasy. Trees are really, really big when they're lying down. And this one looked horribly undignified, lying prostrate and vulnerable to attack from any road or pavement dweller. I am particularly thinking of the under 5s on their ill-controlled scooters in what is a very busy area for young families.

Basically, what I kept thinking was, 'Aslan.'

I was so distressed I found myself wondering whether there was a slim chance that any part of it could still be alive, and at what point a tree technically dies, but I decided that when it had been 100% severed from its roots, that point had almost certainly become history. Even I, ludicrous, twee fantasist, had to concede that it was unlikely to open a pair of barky eyes and say, 'This is terribly embarrassing but could you help me up? I feel such an old fool.'

The next morning, every trace of it had disappeared, except:


What had become of it? Where had they taken it? I would never know, but if I had an open fire, I would be thinking twice about tossing a fresh log on to it.

Saturday, 26 December 2009


So the hard work is over. The seasonal loafing has begun in earnest. Paid work and familial duty are over for me, for now, so it is time for the WhyMissJones end-of-year clearout to begin. There will be no need to spend the night on the pavement with a flask and a sleeping bag, unless you are involved in some kind of extremely worthwhile charity work. I have attempted to engage the services of Myleene Klass to cut some kind of virtual ribbon, but the Marks & Spencer sale has started and they were a bit short-handed on the tills. Still, the fact remains that between now and January 1st, and probably a bit after as you know how these things drift on, I will be posting unpublished posts, purging my mobile phone photo folder and getting round to things I didn't previously get round to, blog-wise. Everything must go.

You are right, I am over-egging this slightly.

But essentially we are talking previously unreleased material. I accept that it is slightly less exciting than, say, Macca going up to his attic to try to find the swingball for Beatrice to play with, and coming down with some dusty old tapes of him and John throwing some ideas around. But it's all I've got for now.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

You make me feel alive (alive, alive)

Sometimes when celebrities are interviewed in publications like Smash Hits and The Guardian, they are asked to describe their favourite ever Christmas present. There is no deliberation for me. It was my first ever Walkman (or the Philips FM Sky Way in sleek navy blue, if you insist on specifics). It was a chunky box of delights with a long shoulder strap, like the kind of medium-sized handbag that was probably in vogue at the time, and it had three fat, clunking buttons - until they were gradually shed in the autumn of its life.

I wish I still had it to mount in a modish, framed glass box and put on my wall, as they would probably recommend in Wallpaper* magazine (their asterisk, no smart-arse footnote implied). I don't know what happened to the Sky Way, but perhaps when my mum moved house a few years ago, it was disinterred from a cupboard boneyard of twisted leads and chargers and fossilised electrical equipment, the relics of any family home, and perhaps she decided to let it slip quietly away. This is unlikely though because, to her credit, Mrs Jones has always been incredibly charitable towards our childhood treasures, providing any and all of them with a home for as long as we felt they needed it, without a murmur of complaint. Now I am more aware than ever of how emotionally valuable this kind of ephemera is, I am increasingly appreciative. No, I can only assume that it was I who pushed my faithful friend away in favour of a newer model that actually had some working buttons. I have no defence. I was young and my head was easily turned. I know better now.

I don't remember the precise moment I peeled back the wrapping paper, but I remember putting the first tape in and pressing play and being full of shock and wonder as I was told that no one else in the room could hear what was powering into my ears loud and clear. There was much taking off and putting back on of headphones to verify that this was genuinely the case. This truly was a Christmas miracle to me, and a new and thrilling private world had opened its portal. These can be hard to come by when you're 9.

Around this time - it may even have been the same Christmas - I also got the Rio album by Duran Duran. It was one of the first proper albums I owned (I am not counting Disney, The Muppets or Danny Kaye sings Hans Christian Andersen, although those are seminal records that were played incessantly in the Jones house. In any case, I think they were technically my brother's). The two of them - Rio and the Philips FM Sky Way - are still joined in blissful union in my heart, their enduring commitment to each other forged on interminable car journeys to grandparents' houses or far-flung domestic holiday destinations. I remember the constant, plaintive call to my dad echoing around the service station forecourt as he went to pay for a tank of petrol: 'Daaaaad, can you get me some new batteries pleeeeeeeeeeeeease?'

Despite having negotiated the ages of 15, 18, 21, university, moving to London, Madchester, Britpop, the rise of dance music (and the rites of passage that came along with them) I don't think any album in its entirely means as much to me. For better or worse, it is my Sgt Pepper, my Never Mind The Bollocks, my Meat Is Murder.

Even now, I listen to it and, with the zeal of youth still courageously flickering, I think, 'Come on, seriously, this is BRILLIANT. How could anyone NOT think this is TOTALLY COOL?' I remain utterly immune to the derision that was aimed at Duran Duran then and, to a lesser extent, now. I hear the opening surge of the title track and I am eight years old again, discovering pop music for the first time, assiduously typing out all the lyrics on my mum's typewriter, not understanding a word of them, carefully administering Tipp-ex with my tongue out for concentration, filing them away with obsessive compulsion in a ring binder with the PG Tips chimps on the front (at a young age, we also owned and loved our vinyl copy of Bernard Cribbins being Mr Shifter), rendering a version of the album cover on graph paper with felt tips. I was a child who loved graph paper.

I was talking about my devotion to Rio with my friend Mr Taylor last week (not John, Roger or Andy, although when I was 9 I probably would have counted them among my closest friends). Mr Taylor made the point (and apologies if I am misquoting him) that despite being a ludicrous pirate-shirted pop band, doubtless pastiching more edgy artists of the time, their artistic pretensions were sincere and even ambitious, which could probably not be said of their critical counterparts today. I am less concerned about that, though. The fact is, I still put that album on and find it madly exhilarating. All the albums that should define my youth and stir my heart - Stone Roses, Definitely Maybe, Different Class, Blue Lines - can only muster powerful but nonetheless isolated pangs. It all started with Rio.

You can't choose who you fall in love with.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Strictly Come Delayed

Remember the Strictly Come Dancing final? Of course you do! The thing with the glitter and the dancing, yes? Obviously I should have been writing this three days ago, but it's Christmas and we're all busy people. And my remarkable gift for procrastination is a subject to which we will return - if I get round to it - several times between now and the end of the year, as I present to you *EXCITING HEADS UP* the Why Miss Jones Bootleg Series.

The fact is that some people had forgotten about the Strictly Come Dancing final before it had even happened. Some People - and let me say that I don't know any of them - claimed to have more important things to do on the Saturday night before Christmas. Some People think this year's is a letdown of a final, the anti-climax of a letdown of a series - and it is no longer a battle between the best dancers, but about whether someone who is plucky and popular can or should defeat someone who is their dance-skills overlord. To be honest, I see nothing wrong with this as a potential narrative. As my niece, Young Miss Jones The Younger (aged 6), said before Saturday's final: 'It's a matter of like and death.' And Might vs Minnows is exactly what made the FA Cup great.

This can surely be the only explanation for wheeling out Gray Lineker to present a sports-style stats-and-screen-gimmicks lowdown on the two contenders near the start of the show. Urgh, Lineker. If I want emotionless droning, at least rearrange the rota so I can entertain some sexy ice-maiden fantasy about the penetrating glacial glare of Alan Hanson. We are also treated to an exhaustingly over-written soundbite rumble between the contestants: 'See you later, Whittleator', 'It's The Hunk versus The Hobbit.' And brilliantly from Ola, 'We're going to set the roof on fire.'

Prior to this, Tess and Bruce have made their entrance - the former finding herself the subject of numerous comments from my viewing companions along the lines of 'Get that women to Rigby & Peller.' They are, in at least one sense, a supportive crowd.

We meet the contestants, who will retread their favourite ballroom dance for starters. I feel a bit worried about Natalie tonight. She appears to be hyperventilating already and she hasn't even started dancing yet. Despite her much (and unfairly) maligned competitiveness, I am honestly more concerned for her physical welfare if she wins than if she doesn't. An unfortunate meeting of hairstyle and dress has left Natalie looking like one of those dolls that pensioners in the 80s used to cover their toilet rolls.

Scholars and philosophers have spent recent weeks wondering What It Is About Ricky. He is an incredible dancer, he is polite, respectful, funny, hot, emotionally invested in the competition and yet... why don't The Public like him a little bit more? I have an epiphany as I watch his brilliant quickstep. He never smiles when he dances. It can't possibly be that simple, but then that's probably what they said when man first made fire.

Ricky and Natalie score a perfect 50. When Craig puts up the first 10, Natalie drops to the floor. You there, Recently Graduated Production Runner. Run down to Shepherds Bush Green and find a brown paper bag for Natalie to breathe into, can't you?

Chris and Ola, meanwhile, look like they're having the biggest laugh ever. I want to go to their party, not the one Ricky and Natalie are throwing next door where Natalie is crying in the kitchen because people are throwing the Maraschino cherries off the balcony at passing pedestrians and not using them to make the special Strictly cocktail she invented, even though she laminated the instructions and left them by the drinks table, while Ricky tells everyone to peace out.

Chris and Ola don't score as highly as Ricky and Natalie, but you won't be surprised by that.

Their next ordeal is a group lindy hop. Can you have a group of two? Of course you can. Remember Wham!? It's as fun as a dance that constantly riffs on the threat of physical violence between men and women can be. Ooh! I'm going to spank you! Bah! I'm going to kick you!

You guys! Can't we just love each other?

Chris and Ola narrowly beat Ricky and Natalie. Not physically, in terms of scoring. We wonder if the judges have been made to swot up on the Bumper BBC Book Of Psychology and are over-marking Chris and Ola just a little in order to a) validate the victory they know is coming or b) nudge Ricky and Natalie more towards underdog status in an attempt to boost their viewer votes.

Next is the moment that all Strictly fans have been waiting for. Not the Showdances. Not Bruce's number, although lord knows that is three minutes that's making us all delirious with anticipation. It's Jade and Ian's tango! Jade is neither limping or crying, which for me is a result from the start. They are brilliant, but we can't talk about that as it will remind us what we could have had, and tonight is all about keeping a stiff upper lip and pretending that the Strictly final is EXCITING and IMPORTANT and UNPREDICTABLE, whatever those others say.

Listen up, fans of age-inappropriate romantic duets, and turn down Somethin' Stupid on the stereo. Now Bruce and Alesha are going to sing together. According to the tabs, Alesha wanted to have her moment in the singing spotlight, just as Cheryl did on The X Factor, but I'm not convinced this is exactly what she had in mind. Cheryl had a smoke machine, a laser show and her troupe of sexy military-style dancers. Alesha has a rictus grin and Brucie.

This more or less marks the end of the first show, so we stop and eat some dinner, which is perfect timing since we've just lost the day's previous meals at the sight of Bruce Forsythe, 81, rotating his dessicated pelvis in the direction of Alesha Dixon, 31.

By the start of the second show, Tess has had a costume change. She has essentially given some GCSE fashion students a roll of bin bags and told them to let their imaginations run wild.

Ricky and Chris re-perform their favourite dances that aren't ballroom dances. For Chris and Ola it's the Charleston. Kristina Rihanoff is caught on camera rolling her eyes when they score 50. If only they'd had the Charleston on Strictly last season, eh Kristina? That really could have been John Sergeant's dance. Showbusiness is SO UNFAIR.

As Ricky does his cha-cha I speculate on whether it is a calculated decision that Ricky is dancing in the coveted save-the-best-till-last spot. Even if it is, all this is powerless in the face of the secret weapon Chris and Ola reveal as we get to the show dances. It is not Chris's revolving hips or an impressive crotch lift. It is this: Ola is wearing BLUE SEQUINNED JEGGINGS, and the fight is all but over.

You will not be surprised to learn that Natalie and Ricky's showdance is less fun and more sexy than Chris and Ola's cute-fest. Why change a winning formula, right? Erm... Anyway, there is a lot of touchy-touchy going on. Lovelorn Natalie is clearly giving Ricky one last shot. 'Yes, Ricky, now rub your hands all over me and let me grind up against you. You have to do it, it's FOR THE DANCING.'

At one point Ricky appears to be lifting Natalie using just his neck, which is not only incredible but, I believe, illegal in this country.

Afterwards, in Tess's room, Natalie tells Ricky he's her soulmate. Erm... Natalie? You said that out loud that time.

Lately I've been hearing a lot of the expression 'hot mess' and I think that is the best way to describe what happens next. There is a professional showdance featuring two of last year's finalists, Lisa Snowdon and Rachel Stevens. Stevens is tiny and imperious. Snowdon is, according to several members of my party, drunk. Also, she is doing that hairstyle called Large Mound Of Curly Hair Nestling At The Side Of Your Neck Like 80s Roadkill. Jessica Ennis was working the same look on Sports Personality Of The Year the previous weekend, hair-trend fans.

At the end of the dance, Lisa lurches over to Bruce, throws her arms around him and shouts 'We missed you, Brucie!' like she has just rediscovered her lost friends at the end of a very long works night out in a Yates's Wine Lodge. Then she makes the pawing animal hands at him, like, 'Grrr!' Oh God.

I love Lisa, and for this reason only I must point out that it is cruel in the extreme to make her stand next to Rachel, as I find myself not thinking: 'Isn't Lisa tall and strikingly beautiful?' but 'I wonder if they're showing Tootsie this Christmas.'

Tess is sitting dancefloor-side, chatting to the audience. She introduces Tom Chambers to the crowd. (Why isn't he dancing? Did Camilla make him wear some kind of dancing promise ring?) Almost immediately, she turns her back on him like Russell Harty did to Grace Jones, swishing her princessy ponytail in his face, to talk to renowned dancing authority and boxer David Hayes and Chris sodding Moyles.

Anyway, all this is a laboured preamble to the results. Incredibly, the winners are... Chris and Ola. Was it ever in doubt? Ola bursts into tears. Chris looks slightly sheepish, and is very articulate and composed, as though he is the only one staying sober at the party and now he's got to try and get Lisa Snowdon down off that table and into a cab. Good luck, Chris! And congratulations...

Saturday, 12 December 2009

One, twice, three times a big baby

Rejoice! It's the Strictly Come Dancing semi-finals! Let The X Factor have its flashy A-list duets and its dazzling light show. We have awkward co-host chemistry, slightly disappointing celebrity guests, unflattering polonecks and training-room sweat stains. Right? RIGHT?

We are beginning with a professional dance, which sees the ladies dressed as Quality Street. Kristina has come as the caramel keg. Katya is the hazelnut in caramel, which is awkward as that's my favourite Quality Street, yet she's not my favourite dancer. The Ginger Russian is the praline triangle. Again, a poor match of dancer and chocolate. She should be the dried out mini-Bounty. Lilia is fudge. They are dancing to Red Light by Billy Ocean. This seems a slightly random choice. I have never even heard it before now. I imagine the professional who choreographed this routine sitting at home crossing off the weeks off the calendar, saying, 'When, WHEN will I be able to dance to Red Light by Billy Ocean?' Tonight! Tonight! as Billy Corgan would say. He is a big fan of Dancing With The Stars, and hopes that touring commitments will allow him to compete in the next series.

Tonight, Tess's presenting style will comprise unconvincing whooping. That's three times in about two minutes.

Chris and Ola are going first, which is the Draw Of Death for them, since their hopes rest entirely on the public vote, and it seems that the average phone-voting audience member can barely remember how many legs they have, let alone the first act of a 90-minute programme. Ola is attempting to counteract this failure of memory by wearing a costume that can be screwed up and stored in one of those plastic balls that goes in the washing machine. In their training footage Chris puts his shoes on and says, in a voice that is pure Maria Von Trapp, 'Come on, Cuban heels, another adventure!' Oh voters. He may not be able to dance very well but he talks to his footwear. How can you fail to fall in love with him?

I feel a bit sick with nerves on Chris and Ola's behalf, but they are dancing to Total Eclipse Of The Heart which is about the best rumba music you could wish for. Chris is Giving It Everything He's Got, which unfortunately includes That Face.

Ali and Brian do their Argentine tango. They attempt to walk on stage together 'in character', but Ali just looks a bit fed up and sulky, like they're on a real let-down of a date. Maybe Ali thought she was being taken out for a romantic meal, but they ended up in Pizza Express because Brian had some vouchers.

So what about the dance? Some mistakes and still no fire for A&B. Plus ça change… – or whatever that is in American.

Ali talks in Tess's room about how nervous she's been and Brian says: 'And you've put up with me this week so thanks for that.' It's a bit like they're having their own private conversation. Brian says he thinks he left Ali's hair straighteners plugged in at her flat. Ali tells him not to worry as they switch themselves off automatically. Brian says he's relieved about that, and does Ali fancy getting some more of those really nice M&S fishcakes for tea tomorrow. Ali says OK.

God! How can Len and Bruno score them a 9 when they have clearly made mistakes. A 9 should reward a brilliantly executed dance that just needs a little more polish, no? This didn't need polish so much as, like, actually doing the right steps at the right time.

Ricky and Natalie. Before he goes on, Ricky genuinely looks like he's about to be a) cry, b) be sick or c) cry and be sick. I feel sorry for him. Please like him, everyone. They are dancing to that Desree fishtank song from Romeo + Juliet=MTV. The judges have clearly all read the same memo re: Trying To get Ricky Into The Final, As Opposed To Chris Who Is Not Quite So Good At The Actual Dancing, as they talk a lot about how very hard Ricky and Natalie's routines are, and how well he's doing them. So 10s all round then? Hmm, not quite. Tess suggests Ricky makes a plea to the voting public, and he waxes nostalgic about how he used to watch the show with his gran when he was little. Is she still alive? If not, Ricky, you should really mention that. When it comes to reality shows and audience voting, Grief Is Good.

Chris and Ola are back for their Argentine tango. Uh-oh. A short review of their Strictly story precedes it, including Chris's mid-series meltdown. In one training clip from that time, Chris tells Ola how catastrophically he's Lost It, and she says in a small but sincere voice: 'I believe in you. I love dancing with you'. Embarrassingly, I have a small cry at this point. It's like when Seth and Summer got together in The OC. Like, Ola's all popular and gorgeous, and Chris is all geeky, but she just really likes him. Anyway, I don't think they make a bad stab of their tango. The judges are also encouraging. Except for Bruno. I'm over Bruno.

It's Ali and Brian's American Smooth! In their VT, Ali mentions how her grandma used to compete in ballroom dancing, but she died when Ali was very young and she would have been so proud to see Ali in the final. Atta girl, Ali. I appear to be crying again. Ali is wearing lilac that is a bit washed out and grey. It is like she put a prematurely purchased wedding dress in the wash with a pair of Brian's purple satin boxer shorts. She looks really nervous again, and I feel like they're going wrong, even when they're not. They DEFINITELY actually kiss ON THE LIPS at the end. Bruce mentions this several times. Thanks, Bruce. Despite my qualms, they appear to have aced it. I really don't know anything about dancing. But I know what I like. Mostly I like the jive and the quickstep.

Ricky and Natalie's Argentine Tango. Ricky is incredible. Ricky's dad stands up at the end, on the verge of tears. I am crying for the third time this evening. I am over-tired. Craig points out Ricky's mistakes. Oh Craig! But he loved it, all the same. Len goes a bit Merchant Of Venice and dishes out a speech on justice. He is, for once, right. Really, all three couples should be in the final – and I don't mean that in a 'You're all winners' kind of way. You're not. Some of you are losers. Here is a question. When Jade and Ian had to withdraw, why didn't they just reinstate the couple who went out before them? Problem solved. Brilliantly entertaining three-team final guaranteed. You're welcome.

Next up, a clip of Darcey Bussell learning to ballroom dance with Ian Waite. She's a bit goofy. She is going to dance the jive. I don't know that Darcey is massively good at the jive. I would say Jill Halfpenny had her beaten on the kicks and flicks. However, Darcy can do any variety of the splits you care to think of, and I most certainly can't. Couldn't speak for Halfpenny. God, I hope they're not going to do that thing that happens when you go to the ballet where they bow for 20 minutes. I want to get my dinner on.

I fail to register who is top of the judges' scores. Sorry.


Well, it was nice of them to put the X Factor duets on in between the Strictly shows. Olly and Robbie are a 5-aside team just waiting for 911 to join them.

Back with Strictly. Recap featuring backstage footage. Ali is wibbling sweetly about how the tango wasn't so great, but they have the American Smooth to turn it around. Chris bustles past her telling her, 'It was brilliant! It was brilliant!' and Brian says, like some dashing GI, 'I'm proud of you, baby.' Cut to Natalie holding Ricky very, very tightly and saying with quite terrifying and steely intensity, 'That was the most amazing experience of my life.' This, perhaps, is why people aren't really warming to Natalie and Ricky.

Ian Waite dances with Natalie to You Don't Bring Me Flowers. Dave Arch's singers are no Babs and Neil. There is only one Neil. Look, here he is (public service announcement: you can also hear this song in the trailer for the new Caroline Aherne show):

Now we will watch a film that will teach us about showdances, which the finalists will perform next week. When it comes to the showdance, there are NO RULES. It is bare-knuckle cage fighting in sequins. The female half of the world professional champion showdancers (or similar) says the medics have to be on stand-by in case anything goes wrong. I think that's a bit strong, to be honest, but never mind, she and her partner are going to dance for us. My friend and former flatmate, Ms H, hates it when the non-Strictly professional world champions come on. I wait for a hilariously irate text from her, but it doesn't arrive, so let me say on her behalf that this is like an Eastern European gymnastic act from the Royal Variety Performance circa 1987. Tess says afterwards, 'Are they human?' No Tess, they are dancers. Ahahahahaha. Sorry.

Next, a song from Hairspray. I love Hairspray. And I love this song. This, however, is not a great advert for Hairspray. Phill Jupitus looks like he'd much rather be at The Comedy Awards. But wait! It's Austin Healey! Doing his hoppity, skippity jiving! And aww, look at how beautiful Belinda Carlisle is.

Finally, Lily Allen. Her hair looks nice. She is singing about a boyfriend who is no good in bed. I wonder how my brother is explaining this to the Young Miss Joneses, 6 and 9, who are keen Strictly fans.

Results time! I feel sick again. But I have eaten quite a lot of Marks & Spencer's Milk Chocolate Snowy Balls. The first couple through is.................... Ricky and Natalie! That is a shock. But the right shock, you would have to say. The second couple is......... Chris and Ola. Wow. That is a shock². Poor Ali and Brian. I am so sad for them. But they have each other, right?

Tess asks whether they are 'terribly devastated'. Ali is dignity made flesh. Good girl. Bruce and Tess burble over the top of Brian and Ali as they try to express how much the other one means to them. SHUT UP. Go on, have a big snog, pleeeeeeaaaaaaase. I mean you two, Brian and Ali, not you, Bruce and Tess. No one, repeat no one, wants to see you snogging. Ali and Brian do have at least a couple of Meaningful kisses on the lips. Cut away to Ricky, who looks truly stunned and sort of reeling. Dave Arch's band are playing Every Loser Wins. Christ, is that really the best they could do for them? Never mind because Ali and Brian are having a proper, end-of-the-evening, school-disco smooch. I can't decide whether I want Brian to put both his hands on Ali's bum or not. I definitely don't want the others to crowd round and interrupt. Sod off, non-losing gooseberries.

I think I might have another cry now. Join in if you like.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Messages from the charity-shop beyond

Inside A Fruit For You, at the Oxfam Bookshop near the British Museum:

['Dear Kev and Gorana, I hope you will heed the tale of the cat and dog and live happily ever after. Lots of love, Emma xxx']

'Dear Emma, Thank you very much for your very thoughtful, if thrifty, wedding present. You were not the only one to stray off the John Lewis wedding list. Kev's dad did too, but he gave us a house. Anyway, Kev and I did indeed heed the lesson of the cat and dog, but not the one in the book, the one where they fight all the time. As a result, we are now separating, and dividing up the presents, but neither of us think we should be the one lucky enough to get custody of A Fruit For You, so we have decided to donate it to a worthy cause. Hope you understand. Thanks again. Love, Gorana. x PS, Just wondering if you are still working with that guy who asked for my number last Christmas at the pub, before he knew I was engaged..?'

Inside Birds Of America, by Lorrie Moore, also Oxfam Bookshop near the British Museum:

['To Dad, Happy birthday 2009. Love Stephen xxx. Very best wishes, love Sue x' + Bookmark from The Cidery, Western Australia]

'Dear Stephen and Sue, Thanks for the book of Lorrie Moore short stories. Interesting choice, although I'm not sure it's what I'd call holiday reading. It may be written "with the magisterial economy of Kipling", but if you ask me, a proper plot wouldn't have gone amiss. Call me old-fashioned, but it's a bloody long way to Australia and it would have been nice to be distracted from the miles of fresh air beneath us holding the plane up. Anyway, Australia was superb. Spent my actual birthday with your mother at The Cidery in Bridgetown, Western Australia. Not enough free cider for my money, but they did give us a bookmark. A bloody bookmark! No idea where it is now, though. You'll understand if I don't hang on to the book, but thanks all the same. Dad.'

Inside Disturbing The Peace by Richard Yates, Oxfam Drury Lane:

[John Lewis receipt for hand wash (£14) and body wash (£16), plus gift tag with hand-drawn elephant and the words 'Posy Simmonds' on one side, and 'James' on the other]

'Dear Posy, Thanks for the book, although according to Mum, alcoholism, adultery and mental dissolution are rather challenging themes for an eight-year-old. I liked the picture of the elephant. I have seen an elephant in real life. Mum says, do you want the credit-card receipt back for the luxurious hand and body wash? You left it in the book. And also maybe next time you could give us some of that instead, as the whole family would really enjoy it. Mum is basically writing this. I am watching Ben 10. James. PS, are you that Posy Simmonds?'

Sunday, 6 December 2009

18 steps to Saturday's Strictly Come Dancing

Ready? Off we go…

Bruce and Tess, blah blah blah. Bruce makes a Tiger Woods joke. Topical! Tess has been at the curling tongs. Barbie!

2) A professional group cha-cha-cha. I know! At the beginning of the evening! This is highly irregular. Now, you could say that I'm easily annoyed, and you would be right. But honestly, this is RIDICULOUS. It's like the professionals are deliberately taunting me with MORE WHITE POLONECKS. We start with three of the lady dancers, and Erin and Flavia are wearing the p***necks, while Kristina invokes the 'Minimum Flesh Exposure' clause in her contract and flashes a lot more skin. When the boys (and by that, I mean Brendan, James, Matthew, Ian and Vincent) step up to do their boys-only bit, they strut forward one by one like Zoolander, but – quelle domage – no Blue Steels. Anton is not taking part in this, since they are dancing to the Motown classic Get Ready, and he has a 'No Music After 1950' clause in his contract. Oh yes, and he is still in the competition.

3) The competitive dancing begins with Ali and Brian dancing the tango. Ali says in their training montage, 'If there was ever a time to be passionate, it's the tango.' Basically, in every weekly training montage, Ali says, 'If there was ever a time to be passionate it's the [INSERT NAME OF THIS WEEK'S DANCE]'. Any time you like, Ali. They are dancing to Born To Be Wild which, thanks to numerous driving-themed compilation CDs, has surely now become permanently dislocated from any sense of rebellion and breaking free, and instead merely conjures up the Aura Of Clarkson.

We meet Dave Arch and his band. Hello, Dave! I've seen Dave Arch on It Takes Two, out of his Light Entertainment Band Leader's uniform, and he looks quite young and attractive. Yet somehow on Strictly he seems to get totally Kaplinskyed, which is to say groomed into disorientatingly dowdy middle-age.

4) Darcey Bussell has joined the panel. *Waits for this to move the competition on in any way whatsoever.* In Strictly Come Groundhog Day, starring Ali Bastian, the judges tell her she needs more fire. Ali does her 'angry' face and says 'grrr'. It's extremely cute, which you have to say is not really mission accomplished.

5) Laila and Anton do the American Smooth. While this should be right up Anton's strasse, the judges are unimpressed. Alesha tells Laila to 'fix up, look sharp'. It would be amazing if Dizzee Rascal was on Strictly. He could be partnered with Erin Boag, and after some initial clashing and frostiness, he would achieve true respect for her headmistressly discipline, and she would find a sincere and enduring love of grime music which releases her from the shackles of the ballroom, like Julia Stiles in Save The Last Dance.

6. Chris and Ola dance the waltz. I am nervous for them. Chris is doing That Face. Stop doing That Face, Chris! There is much judges' talk of Chris's Face. Erin O'Connor probably hasn't had her face talked about as much as Chris Hollins.

7. Ricky and Natalie do an excellent foxtrot. I find it hard to care.

8. Second round! Time for Ali and Brian's Latin. But before each Latin dance, there is a pre-recorded segment in which the judges stand in front of dancing holograms of each couple and discuss them, and then robotically turn in synchronisation to watch more dancing on a giant screen behind them. Give them capes and helmets, and they are dark sci-fi overlords of dance. Well, that is, until the conversation moves on to how Ali needs to get her sexy on, and then they all start singing Timberlake's SexyBack, and it is like the inhabitants of your average provincial staff room cutting loose after a sherry or two on the last day of term before Christmas. Embarrassing.

In her samba, Ali is dressed as a flamingo. She is technically excellent as ever, but her SexyFace is awful. (I cannot comment on her SexyBack). The band are singing 'Ain't nothing gonna change'. You said it, lads. Ali's expression is that of someone pluckily smiling their way through sheer terror, like she's in a 60s children's drama and she is rescuing her pet dog from Mild Fictional Peril.

9. Laila and Anton's salsa. Anton has the chest rug out. They start pretty encouragingly, even if the way Anton moves reminds me slightly of Bob Downe. But before long, they have buggered it up royally and they get a total pasting from the judges. Even before this, it really should be Anton and Laila's time to go tonight, but now I am concerned that this particularly stern criticism will galvanise Anton's many fans into forming an army of phone voters, like some kind of menopausal Twilight Barking.

10. Chris and Ola dance The Dread Samba. From the initial head-and-shoulders shot, Ola looks to be wearing straps of diamanté at the front and a blue satin cape at the back. From the ribcage up, she is like She-Ra, Princess Of Power, the dance-master of the universe. She will need every bit of that power to get them through this. There is not hip action in abundance, but there is chemistry and crowd-pleasing. Chris does a brilliant surprised face at the end, as if he can't believe he survived it. The audience go mental. They score 8s across the board, apart from Bruno who gives them a 7, which starts off a House Of Commons-style low-level booing and braying that goes on and on.

11. Ricky and Natalie dance the cha-cha-cha. This should be dynamite, right? It's one of the easier dances, so they could really turn it on. It leaves me a bit cold though, and the music doesn't really catch alight, but Ricky does get to use his acting skills, when Natalie walks away from him on the dancefloor at the end, and it is like the bit of Hollyoaks that comes after the closing credits, with Ricky's character left alone in the shopping precinct, thinking Serious Soap Opera Character's Thoughts. They get 9s and 10s so I know nothing. Like, surprise!

12. The dancing is over, for now, so it's time to move on to the This Is How Much We Really Want It video package, where the contestants emote to the strains of… hmm, the music from The Piano. It makes you wonder whether if they actually played some contemporary music on Strictly, everyone involved would start screaming and holding their hands over their ears and falling to the ground in agony, brains a-buckling.

13. It is time for the results show, in which I enjoy a clip of Darcey Bussell walking along the corridor clutching an exercise book. I would have loved it if, when they'd introduced her earlier, we could have seen her unzipping a brand new furry pencil case, and putting out her felt tips on the judges' desk in colour order. It would have been far more memorable than anything she actually said tonight.

14. Vincent and Flavia dance the Argentine Tango. I know some people who will be salivating over their Radio Times at the mere printed promise of this. I always find it a bit hoppy, skippy, pointy, twitchy, stoppy, starty and Not For Me. Also Flavia is wearing black shoes with a red dress, and I don't really like that either.

15. Chat with Tess in the red green room. Close-up on Ricky, who says you have to dance each dance like it's your last. Wow. Someone really should write a viral email about that and forward it to all their friends. This is all very inspiring, of course, but I am more fixated on the hideousness of Natalie's French manicure as her hands dig into Ricky's shoulders from above, in a way that says, 'He may be back with his ex-girlfriend but HE IS MY BOYFRIEND IN THE DANCING.'

16. Bette Midler is the star turn. Naturally, since they are both Genuine Showbiz Legends, she has to have an embarrassing scripted chat with Bruce, and then, after a laboured lead-up about Bette's birthday and how Bruce has got her a stripogram, he starts doing a striptease. Surely no toe of anyone watching can remain uncurled. At this point, I imagine Simon Cowell watching his BBC adversaries through a telescope, like Fenella in Chorlton & The Wheelies, cackling mercilessly at their ineptitude. Seriously, BBC, WTF? FFS. ETC. Anyway, Bette sings The Rose, and Ola and James dance a rumba. I'm not in favour of the sexing up and ageing down of Strictly, but really, both parts of this entertainment compound make Dynasty look edgy and modern.

17. Lights down! Tension! Ola looks like she's crying already. Who will be first to go through? Ali and Brian! Aww. They hug for AGES. It is adorable. When the lights finally go off them, I think they do actually start snogging. Who else is safe? Chris and Ola! Yes! This surely means Ricky was bottom of the viewers' votes. Right, Strictly Hivemind?

18. Ricky and Natalie and Laila and Anton compete in a dance-off that has about as much dramatic tension as Eldorado. Farce ensues when Anton lifts Laila and her dress completely covers his face, leaving him to stumble around in the dark like Some Dancers Do Ave Em. Predictably, they are ejected, and justice has prevailed.

Next week, we attempt to answer the question pondered by Strictly bloggers the world over. OK, in London then. Why oh why are Ricky and Natalie not more likeable? There may not be answers.