Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts

a miscellany of the wonderful and the banal

DURRby: N00bs to Roller Derby Learn The Basics, Pt 1

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So you’ve probably heard of this great new sport called “roller derby.” You may even know a little bit about it; people often describe it as “a moshpit on wheels” or, less succinctly, “hot chicks in fishnets and skates beating the crap out of each other.” But do you actually know what the sport is about, and how it’s played?

The History

The original incarnation of roller derby was essentially an endurance race on skates, popular from the 1880s onwards, and especially throughout the Great Depression. It wasn’t until the 50s that it started to resemble the moshpit on wheels we know and love today, when the endurance aspect was abandoned and a point-scoring system was put in place. Over time, roller derby veered away from sports and towards sports entertainment. Competition from Roller Game and Roller Jam, declining ratings, the increasingly screwed-up economic situation through the 70s, and a run of really bad luck combined to bring an end to roller derby as it was. Fortunately for us all, in 2001 a group of girls in Texas got together to found the very first roller derby league. In 2003, some of those girls formed the first flat track league, and from there roller derby has spread like a virus. In 2011, the first roller derby world cup will be hosted by Toronto Roller Derby in Canada, with teams coming from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, and France to compete. Isn’t that insane?

The Basics

Modern roller derby only has a very little in common with its previous incarnations. For the sake of simplicity, this guide will be dealing strictly with flat track roller derby, compliant with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules (v 4.0). A game of derby, also referred to as a bout, runs for two half-hour periods, with ten to fifteen minutes of half time. Each period is divided up into jams. Each team can have a maximum of fourteen players, five of which will be on the track at any given time. There are three types of players on each team; blockers, pivots, and jammers. The blockers and pivots skate in a big group called a pack, and the jammers must work their way through. The jammers’ first pass through the pack does not score any points—it is simply to determine lead jammer status. Jammers begin scoring on their second pass, earning points for every opposition player they pass, as well as opposition players in the penalty bin or opposition players.

The Pack

A more complicated concept than you’d think, with some fairly strict rules governing exactly what it is and is not. The pack must consist of blockers/pivots from both teams, be that one of each or all four of each or four of one and one of the other or any other combination. It is defined as the largest group of blockers within ten feet of each other, and any blocker who does not make up part of the pack must be within 20 feet of the pack if they want to actually block someone. The 20-foot-rule is also referred to as “the zone of engagement,” and many derby strategies involve creative ways of exploiting it. The pack lines up behind the pivot line, and takes off at the first whistle.

The Pivot

Often referred to as the brain of the pack, the pivot is basically a blocker with more responsibilities. Each team gets one. They can be recognised by the stripe running down the centre of their helmet The pivot’s job is to control the pack. They speed it up, slow it down, and control the formation of the blockers within it. They’re also the last line of defence against opposing jammers, and the point off which teams will rally. Pivots tend to be skaters with loud voices and owl-like necks, who are happy to skate while staring over their shoulder; they also need to have the best grasp of strategy of the team, and the ability to react and adapt quickly to any situation that might come up. Pivots also get some special moves—holding the pivot line, and passing the star, though more on this later.

The Blockers

Blockers are the muscle of the pack, and are demarcated by having no special adornments on their helmet. There are three on each team. Their jobs are twofold; offence, in which they help their jammer get through, and defence, in which they stop the other jammer. Blockers can also be split into two subtypes—striking and stalling. Striking blockers, as the name suggests, specialise in the big dramatic hits that are considered the hallmark of roller derby. When playing defensively, they might take up a position at the back of the pack as a sweeper, moving back and forth across the track with the intention of taking out the opposing jammer as she comes up. Alternately, they might move to the inside line, near to the front of the pack, where it’s very easy to swing out and hit a jammer as she approaches on the outside. Offensively, they can be placed anywhere in the pack and will usually man on—more on exactly what that later. Stalling blockers are blockers who specialise in positional or obstructive blocking. As roller derby leagues evolve more nuanced and complex game play and tactics, stalling blockers have become instrumental to dozens of different strategies. Even a single stalling blocker is a force to be reckoned with; the good ones can stop even the most determined jammer dead in her tracks. When used defensively, they will often team up to make the pack tighter, or get in the jammer’s way and make it hard for her to get through; playing offensively, they might occupy particularly troublesome blockers, or they might take control of the front of the pack and stop it dead to let their jammer keep on scoring. Blockers come in all shapes and sizes. While you’d think striking blockers would all be huge muscly powerhouses, some tiny girls can perform amazing blocks simply by being low enough to take everyone else’s legs out from under them. Long legs are a bonus for stalling blockers, but not even close to being required.

The Jammer

Jammers wear panties with stars on, and they score the points. They start out 30 feet behind everyone else on the jammer line, and take off at the second whistle from the refs. They’re traditionally the fastest players on the team, because they have to lap the pack—the jammer who manages to get through the pack first without taking any penalties gets awarded lead jammer status—and once they’ve done that, they can start scoring points. They get one point every time they pass an opposing player’s hip, and if there are opposing players in the penalty box, they also get a point for them once they’ve scored on someone else on the opposition team. Jams either last for two minutes, or until the lead jammer calls it off, so having lead jammer is a great tactical advantage–but more on that in a later part.

Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

May 11, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Movie Review: Thor And The Legion Of Improbable Armour

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Thor

On Wednesday I went to see Thor with my boyfriend. On Wednesday, during the day, on one of those Orange Wednesday deals, cinemas almost relent in their pocket-gouging, wallet-devouring expense sufficiently to make them worth going to. Also during the day the Wood  Green Vue is empty enough that the desire to commit genocide doesn’t begin until after the film has finished and I’ve been spat back out into the middle of a hideous shopping thoroughfare.

It is important that you understand the circumstances: this was a cheap film, I was bored, and I have a lot of homework to distract myself from. So when I say “it wasn’t a waste of money” you will be aware that I didn’t actually spend any money, and that when I say “it wasn’t a waste of time”, you will be aware that I was actively looking to squander some.

I’m less educated about Norse myths than my other half, who is something of a fan (possibly because he looks like a wizened version of the God of Thunder himself), but the film is of course based on the Marvel Comics Avengers-member Thor. Now my opinion in this area is probably unpopular (they usually are), but I think I liked the comic-book Thor best in Ultimates – the Marvel reboot which also saw Captain America turn into a raving dickhead, and fulfilled many a teenage boy’s long-lived dream in Ultimate X-men by making Colossus gay; in Ultimates, it’s actually debatable whether Thor is really the god of thunder from Asgard, or whether he’s just a mental with superpowers. Oh, and he’s a rabid environmentalist.

The movie, which if there is any justice in box office returns will not make a great deal, leaves us with no such ambiguity. It also leaves us with approximately no surprises whatsoever, broadcasting every single event, character, and line from a thousand miles away. You do not have to be Heimdall, possessed of world-penetrating sight, to spot them, either.

Every single fight scene is dotted throughout the course of the film with precision, and I can’t help thinking someone has sat down with a stop-watch and a copy of the script and some focus group responses in order to place them in exactly the right spots to maintain peak interest from the core audience. Said audience are clearly not me, as I found them enormously boring: continuing the current tradition whereby so much swooping, shaking camerawork is involved in hand-to-hand combat scenes that it’s no longer necessary to choreograph them to make sense – no longer necessary and no longer even possible.

Thor and Jane Foster

Quaint Handholding And Armour From Homeware

There is little point getting into the dialogue, which thuds along, merrily pleased with itself and its banal quips and occasional knowing asides to Marvel fans in the audience OH LOOK THERE’S HAWKEYE and a lot of the Asgardians standing around Talking Like Wankers. At least the last part is, unfortunately, canonical. I promise I am expecting very little from comic book movies – some jokes which actually make me laugh, a little charisma from the lead, a little chemistry with the romantic lead that is mandatory in almost every big-budget movie, and some heavy-handed moralising which I’d rather not have but know I’m not allowed to live without. Oh, and Stan Lee, who in this turns up in a truck trying to pull Mjolnir from the crater in which it has landed.

It is customary to find things one liked, or didn’t actively hate, about a movie one is reviewing (no but seriously do we have to have explanatory flashbacks and the same computer-animation sequences from Lord of the Rings but in different and highly implausible armour?), so I shall lay off Anthony Hopkins phoning in his performance in favour of being pleased with Stellan Skasgard instead; I shall be pleased with Kat Dennings in general for being at least vaguely interesting, and praise Natalie Portman for gamely struggling with an abysmally dull character who – in spite of being a driven and apparently intelligent woman in the manner of female Hollywood scientists who Do It Because Daddy Did – magically lost her spine and personality the minute she became infatuated with a large blond wall, Nickelback in a plaid shirt, the All-American Hero as portrayed via Norway.

Norway in this movie, incidentally, is rendered in CGI.

The title character and supposed hero of the story actually does very little in the way of character development – he’s boorish and annoying, gets a slap on the wrist, can’t lift his hammer, falls in love with a pretty girl, becomes less of an asshole, is suddenly able to lift the hammer (because he’s PROVEN HIMSELF WORTHY, DO YOU SEE?), and then has a fight with his brother and mopes around being all manly and sad while his father blames the Little Freak he adopted.

Tom Hiddleston

Tom Hiddleston: Actually Acted

Which is the main thing I found iffy about the film: Loki, who is one of the great characters of mythology, is masterfully portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. He is determined to act while all those around him are standing around reciting lines, chewing scenery, or extending a hand for their paycheques, and he brings far more sympathy to the role of the envious, nervous, devious outcast than anyone manages to bring to any of the Good Guys. He is also the only person from Asgard who doesn’t suffer from Talking Like A Wanker syndrome; possibly because he’s not an Asgardian, but an Ice Giant. This is painfully obvious from the get-go; what’s less obvious is his motivation, until he more or less spells it out during a final fight with his adopted (blond, huge, All-American, Shiny White Teeth) brother.

Thor

Thor: Also Likes Mascara

Such exposition is at least in keeping with the grand tradition of Marvel. It is very hard to forget, for example, the precise moment and manner in which John Byrne had Northstar out himself …

What about Loki’s storyline left a bad taste in my mouth? Well, apart from the idea that anyone not physically strong is automatically a traitor, the distrust of eloquence (although given the quality of writing it’s not hard to see why the script might favour a Wit Is Bad approach), and the undercurrent of “adoptees are not to be trusted”, there is the crescendo of the movie, in which Loki looks to his father for validation that he could at least have successfully destroyed Jotunheim (yes! He wanted to destroy the Ice Giants instead of defecting to them, and all for his father’s approval) had Thor not prevented him. Rather than a tactful “you could have done it, but you shouldn’t have and you didn’t need to prove anything to me”, Odin’s response is effectively “LOL NO”, after which Loki commits Pseudocide, or Disney Falling Villain Death of the “there’s no corpse so he can have him back later” school, over the edge of the world. Charming.

Overall:

Women who do anything: Frigga, Thor’s mother, draws a sword against Laufy, the King of the Frost Giants (in Norse Mythology, Laufy is the mother of Loki), but immediately gets walloped aside; Jane Foster chases “disturbances” and then large blond men with unsupportable claims without doing a great deal of questioning and is more or less portrayed as a pair of delighted ovaries with a passing interest in sciense; and Lady Sith kicks some arse for a little bit while hanging around with the most boring, badly-scripted, pointless non-sidekicks imaginable.

Take away message: Adopted kids are evil, it’s okay to play favourites with your kids, everything works out if you’re big enough and blonde nough.

Special effects: Excellent when in our world, but Asgard and Jotunheim appear to have been envisaged by an imagination-deficient savant after several watchings of Lord of the Rings and a few leafings through the Encylcopedia of Fantasy & Sci Fi Art.

VERDICT: Kind of dull but an inoffensive way to pass spare hours. Will not be watching it again.

Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

May 6, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Living Lazily Guide

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Both of us are afflicted with a certain degree of, well, how shall I put this?

Terminal laziness.

Delilah has long-since perfected the art of “making my boyfriend do absolutely everything short of wiping my arse”, but even in the dark days pre-partner had mastered the delicate science of doing as little as possible, and Amelia is single.

There are several domestic areas which take up far too much time, effort, and unexpected monetary expenditure, and you will recognise them by this: they are the ones which students almost invariably neglect first.

Washing up

Pots, pans, plates, palaver. With good cooking comes ten thousand things to wash up, especially if you’re operating under mis-en-scene for the sake of ease and speed; this, however, needn’t be the case. There are myriad dishes which only really require one pan in which to cook them – you can, after all, fry mince-meat in the same pot you just boiled the pasta that is now draining over the sink – and this business of eating off a plate is sorely over-rated. Eating out of a pan is entirely preferrable, and if you can do it standing next to the sink or the cooker you don’t have to walk as far to put it in to soak.

[Note, as environmentally conscious lazy people we’re not recommending that you use paper plates or eat disposable dinners. That would just be crass.]

The other trick to doing as little as possible when it comes to washing up is not to leave your dishes for as long as humanly possible – laziness is not equal to procrastination, because putting things off makes for more work, not less. The smart indolent person rinses regularly; whether it’s your coffee cup or the saucepan you just made spag-bol in, if you sluice it immediately after finishing there’s a good chance you won’t have to scrub it at all. And voila, no soaking, no elbow-grease, and no expensive detergent required.

Cleaning your house

A clean house is a sign of an empty mind. It’s also a signal that you intend to have people over to visit, which is not compatible with laziness. Take it from us, it’s far better for your reserves of effort to live in relative squalor and head out to be entertained in style elsewhere than it is to maintain a perfect home but save yourself the trip; apart from anything else, hosts have to cook, clean, put off the washing up until everyone’s gone home, and deal with the stress of wondering if people are fornicating in your watercloset. Meanwhile, as a guest all you have to do is show up looking presentable and with whatever bottle of cheap plonk you salvaged from the bargain bin at Morrisson’s, and try not to get too hopelessly lost on the way to the bog. Advantage: visitor.

For optimum cleanliness there are really only a couple of things to remember:

  1. Mice and cockroaches can’t get at things in metal containers. Army surplus stores sell fantastically stable footlockers in which to stash non-fridge foods, and they stack well. No, your kitchen will not look like a magazine showhome, but that takes effort, and effort is what we’re trying to avoid, here.
  2. Keep the lid of your kitchen waste bin closed at all times and both the stench and the likelihood of insect life taking up residence in there is greatly diminished. Also, while it may seem tempting to wait as long as possible before emptying the bin, if it’s summer and you live below the arctic circle your garbage can produce a thriving population of maggots in two days flat. Empty it frequently.
  3. The less stuff you have sitting out in the open, the easier it is to vacuum the accumulated dust out of your house every six months (or every six years, if you’re Delilah and don’t have any dust mite-related allergies); keep things in boxes. Those army surplus footlockers we mentioned, or nice big clear plastic boxes. [NB: If you sort out a system for what goes in which box at the start, it will save you a tonne of effort later on].
  4. It’s easier to wash slippers than carpets – go with wood laminate flooring and you can pretty much just kick dirt around instead of grinding it into the carpet.
  5. There is no shame in having to wear Doc Martens to safely walk through your own kitchen.

Washing Clothes

Not only is washing your clothes annoying, it’s also expensive and a waste of water. Oftentimes, you can avert doing the washing for weeks at a time with nothing more than some floorspace or a towel rack (or, for particularly stubborn cases, Febreeze.) All you need to do is make sure that your clothes are aired out, preferably over night. In the morning, if they pass the sniff test, they’re good to go–if not, hit them with the Febreeze and leave them for another night. You can extend the wearability of your clothes for weeks just like that. With undergarments (bras, knickers, boxers, singlets, etc.) washing can be slightly more important; bras and undershirts can be aired out, but will usually need washing before the rest of your clothes, and for the sake of hygeine underpants should be washed more regularly.

On the plus side, regular washing of your undergarments means your clothes can go even longer before they need a wash. If you’re lucky enough to be female, pantyliners can be an invaluable resource; if you’re lucky you can make your knickers last an extra week or more.

When neither airing nor Febreeze will stop the stink, or when you spill something on them, you will have to wash your clothes. There’s really nothing to be done to simplify this part of the process; just suck it up, follow the instructions on the machine, and above all remember to seperate the darks and the lights. Trying to fix clothes affected by running dye is annoying, and the antithesis of laziness.

The whole process of reusing clothes also becomes simpler if your wardrobe has a tendancy towards the nondescript. People tend not to notice if you wear the same pair of plain blue jeans for several days; jeans with artful rips, sparkles, or excessive embroidery are much harder to rewear without arousing suspicion. Plain black shirts work in much the same way, with the additional bonus of stains showing up less on dark materials.

Entertainment

Now the TV is the friend of the lazy person, but sometimes it is a lot of effort to turn the wretched box on. Fortunately, there are even more indolent alternatives for the truly idle. People-watching, for example, or people-listening (also known as “spying on the neighbours”) can provide one with hours of drama, comedy, and occasionally accidental pornography. And, naturally, there is the joy of self-love; masturbation is not only sex with someone you love, but cheap, entertaining, and not even something you have to get out of bed for.

We do not advise combining the two suggestions in this section: masturbation while people-watching is creepy and ultimately leads to either restraining orders or blisters.

Transport

The lazy man gets around the sun as quickly as the busy one.
R.T. Wombat

Driving is filled with effort and rage. Walking involves moving your legs too much; public transport requires organisational skills which require thinking, and hitch-hiking both calls for perky conversation with strangers and carries the risk of dying in the back of a Ford transit at the hands of someone who has unresolved mummy issues. Fortunately the internet, or “Satan’s own plaything”, has the answer; you don’t need to transport yourself when you can let the world come to you. With the except of friends’ parties, which a simple “I can’t drive” will avail you of lifts to, there are few things that people cannot deliver to your door, often within twenty-four hours. Most of them seem to come from Amazon these days, and we are eagerly awaiting the launch of their “order Alexander Skarsgard for free next-day delivery” service (customers who bought this also bought Peter Skarsgard: 2%. Sorry, Pete).

Shopping

As mentioned, the internet is a wonderful resource. There are even websites that will deliver food to your door. Unfortunately, these websites are often limited in their range of delivery, and the meals themselves can be expensive, so the occasional trip out of the house can be valuable.

The key thing is to shop in the same way teenage boys have sex; in and out in two minutes flat. When shopping for food, stick to things that are both cheap and filling. Pretty much anything with excessive amounts of starch gets a thumbs-up here–bread, pasta, ramen, and rice are good places to start, and can easily be augmented with things like peanut butter, frozen vegetables, and sauce in a jar, if scurvey isn’t your thing. Buying in bulk is also a must; carrying a ten kilo bag of rice home may be annoying, but it cuts down the number of times you have to leave the house drastically. If you’re shopping for something other than groceries, take a moment to plan your attack carefully. Try to figure out where the thing you want is in the store, and go straight there. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by the bright lights and vivid colours,  and do not let yourself be suckered in by signs that say things like On Sale or Reduced. After all, the less time you spend in the outside world, the more time you have to entertain yourself.

Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

April 7, 2011 at 12:38 am

Review: An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain by John O’Farrell

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Or, to give it its full and wonderfully unwieldy title, An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always. The sequel to the equally unwieldy An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge), this employs the familiar facetious tone and modern angle on recent history that O’Farrell previously used in summarising vast swathes of British History until the end of WW2.

Image of the cover of the book

Once again, O’Farrell abandons the “people were different in the past and everyone knows that” starting place of drier history books and adopts a childish, irony-heavy, almost Carry-On approach to the past, littered with modern references and elbow-nudges designed to link the situations in years past with the current world via humour. It is childish, quite frequently, but the silliness is part of its (very British) charm.

There is one area, which O’Farrell notes in his introduction, in which Utterly Exasperated differs stylistically from Utterly Impartial; the clue is in the title. Most of the events – or certainly, a sizeable portion of the book – take place within the author’s lifetime, and he can hardly be expected to be as without opinion on them as he might have been about the antics of William the Bastard. Heavy hints are dropped in the introduction – along the lines of “yay, Nye Bevan” and “Boo, Thatcher”, rather less hints than outright flagwaving – of his bias, but as it’s a bias I agree with (having grown up in the 80s in a single-parent, unemployed family and therefore been one of Thatcher’s bete noirs I am more than comfortable with loathing almost everything she did) .

As this book is covering a mere 60 years, rather than roughly 2000, in the same number of pages, there’s a lot more detail on individual events and figures than in the prequel. It is also, I’ve discovered, a lot easier to find oneself moved by the  idiocy of one’s government when their pettiness, sloth, cowardice, or incompetence, and their general scrabbling efforts to stay in power at the expense of the well-being of the country (or to pander to their pet discredited theories at the expense of the country) is still having palpable effects now.

Moreso than Impartial, Exasperated is a political history. It discusses technological developments, but the majority of the book is given over to the circumstances and consequences of political decisions and the way in which various elements of life in the country were (and continue to be) affected by the most unexpected combinations of forces. Entire weapons programmes were drawn up because someone was once rude to the Foreign Office, and whole industries razed because someone got some ridiculous idea into their head and didn’t want to be seen to back down.

As a catalogue of human failings in Britain from 1945 to roughly 2009, An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain is quite depressing and angering; that it succeeds in being funny at the same time is a credit to the author.

However, I would recommend this book not to those who are already well-versed in modern British history, but rather to those who, like me, either opted to take Geography instead or who just weren’t paying attention in school, as it is – sneakily, facetiously, and surprisingly – very informative for the “layperson” (where layperson = “I spent my history classes lobbing pens at Jimbo”).

An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain by John O’Farrell generally retails for about £7.99

Post by Delilah

Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

March 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

it has been a week of shameless self-indulgence

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Quick updates: I am very excited about this, and also this. Pokemon: Black was very good but is it just me or does each generation get progressively easier?

And also I suppose I should tell you, since Del mentioned it… the first ever Roller Derby World Cup is happening in Toronto this year. Fourteen countries are fielding teams. I am going to be there in my capacity as… the manager of Team Australia. 

Yes.

Someone saw fit to give me a position of responsibility.

I’m shocked too.

We’re working on getting Team Australia corporate sponsorship (and a better name,) and we hope to hold tryouts throughout May in various state capitals. So if anyone’s reading this and interested, keep an eye out–I’ll be posting details here at some point, even if it’s just to bitch about how many flights I have to take (my fellow team staff are based in NSW.)

So, err, yeah, that’s my big news xD If anyone has suggestions for a title that’s somewhat cooler than “manager/bench coach” then please do pass them along!

Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

March 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Posts by Amelia

A Brief Heads-up

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For information regarding the publication of books there is now my GoodReads Author Profile, and I am also vaguely maintaining a sound engineering blog/reminder site at soundslikeariot. Recently I’ve been to see Emmy the Great play at the Purcell Room in the South Bank Centre (and been impressed by the acoustic engineering of the room as well as by the excellent and moving performance), finished reading The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall with mixed feelings, finished reading Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles by Francince Prose with glowing ones, and started reading An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain; or 60 years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always by John O’Farrell with high expectations. What I have not done recently is written any reviews, sorry about that, please feel free to blame a mind-devouring college project. In the meantime, Melanie Clegg has been kind enough to namecheck me in her post on Kindle Publishing over at MadameGuillotine.org.

Amelia meanwhile has some extremely good news to share, but I don’t want to steal her thunder so you’ll get that from the horse’s mouth, when someone’s managed to stop her playing Pokemon: Black and squeaking in bat-bothering frequencies about the new George RR Martin book finally having a release date.

Post by Delilah.

Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

March 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Heston Blumenthal’s “Dinner” and mine

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I had the extremely good fortune, yesterday evening, to join my friend Burge, her partner Stu, our mutual friend Doug, my partner Lindsay, and Burge & Stu’s friend Sarah in celebrating Burge’s 40th at Heston Blumenthal’s “Dinner” at the Mandarin Oriental at Hyde Park. I should point out that this good fortune was down in part to Burge’s extreme foresight in booking a table some time last year, and funded by my increasingly impeccunious and not wholly-amused boyfriend.

Of my dining partners, Burge and Stu (the latter, Stuart Nathan, is to blame/credit for the photos in this blog entry) are slightly closer to being Blumenthal officiandos than I am, having actually been to the Fat Duck in Bray, albeit in hiking boots. For people like me, who regard the world outside of the M25 as “here be dragons” territory and for whom the internal combustion engine is wizardry conquerable only by Other People, The Fat Duck has never been a possibility.

I am largely aware of Heston’s particular brand of culinary genius in part because of said friends and in part because my boyfriend is a cookery TV junkie and will watch anything that involves food being prepared unless it’s That Awful Woman (Delia Smith) or That Awful Man (Worrell-Thompson); this means that I was secretly anticipating exploding puddings, sea monsters made of whale vomit, minced mouse, and fire and eyesballs. At the very least, snail porridge.

I should point out, I am not the kind of person who is accustomed to Fine Dining. I like good food, and have been known to bellow delightedly “thank evolution for my tastebuds” in the middle of a very nice dinner, but the fine dining atmosphere is one of stomach-clenching terror for someone who looks as if her face has been attacked by a mad stapler and who considers barking to be a perfectly reasonable form of communication with friends and acquaintances.

Therefore I’d intended to lessen the impact of my presence by showing up well-dressed, with my hair re-dyed and curled and a full face of make-up so as to refrain from frightening the other diners with my “former alcoholic and practicing eschewer of face-washing” complexion; unfortunately the best-laid plans of would-be gourmets aft gang aglay and instead of bleaching my roots and ensuring I had nice clothes laid out on Sunday night I actually went drinking with some friends from Singapore and spent a while discussing tattoos with some large gentlemen in Soho before passing out with all my clothes on and I wasn’t really well enough the next day to contemplate things more complicated than “where is the bus-stop” on my way to college.

Happily a swift change of at least some of my clothes in a public toilet in Hyde Park (after being arbitrarily stalked by a man on a bicycle who wanted to tell me about his digital speedometer) left me looking a little less like I’d been dragged through a bottle of Johnny Walker backward, but I still felt enormously self-conscious and out of place when my (similarly dowdy) boyfriend and I rocked up at the Mandarin Oriental.

This is mostly because they have a lot of staff.

One man indicated the door to us. Another held open the door for us. A third pointed the way up the stairs to a meeting area where Doug and Sarah were looking equally comfortable beside some exceptionally fine armchairs and an open fire (and in Doug’s case, also looking a little like Lemmy and Frank Zappa had a baby together). Once the whole party had been rounded up – six in total, as this is the largest group booking Dinner allows – some more people pointed our lost selves toward the entrance to “Dinner”.

A word on the decor here: the Mandarin Oriental Hotel likes pillars and dark red polished stone which may or may not be marble, and it likes archways. The entrance to “Dinner” is preceded by a massive glowing pear which changes colour from green to blue. There is a bar which has a faintly modern-Japanese feel to it but could honestly be anywhere vaguely cosmopolitan; there is an ovewhelming archway of booze encased in glass through which yet more staff ushered us (only after about forty people had shown us the way, and yet only one poor, poor man had dragged away our countless coats and bags away to the cloakroom) through to a normal-looking dining area.

Having said that, there is an excellent view through to the kitchens through huge windows (unless you’re me, and sat with your back to it), and also through to the private dining room, which has wooden pig heads on the wall for some reason.

This may sound like a long lead-in to a review-with-pictures of a three-course-meal, and I promise I am not going to do a Giles Coren on you all, but there was an obscene amount of fuss prior to the actual food:

A very prim and personable chap whom the receipt informs me was called David spent a while explaining the menu to us and talking about how the backs of the menus showed where the original recipes which had inspired the current dishes hailed from, and all-but-begged us to question him on any aspect of the Dining Experience. Despite my original angry mutter of “yes thank you I know how a fucking menu works” to my boyfriend, I did have one question regarding the “Salamagundy”, to whit –

“What are chicken oysters?”

I was eagerly informed that they’re a specific area of a chicken somewhere between thighs and the sides, “a combination of white and dark meat regarded by some to be the best part of the animal” (yes, David, but there are people who think the nuggets are the best part of a chicken) and promptly lost all interest in the Salamagundy, leaving it to my boyfriend.

“I was hoping,” I told the table, “that it would be something properly mad. Maybe oysters injected with chicken fat.”

“Well,” I was told, “at least they weren’t its bollocks?”

I didn’t actually consider that much of a consolation.

However, I stopped sulking somewhere between the bread board (wholemeal and sourdough, with very nice little pats of sea-salted butter) and instead began constructing our imaginary Mathematical Meal while we waited for starters:

Lindsay offers the starter: “Mandelbroth: all the ingredients of mandelbroth themselves have ingredients, all of which are the ingredients of Mandelbroth.”

I forget who came up with the main: “The Mobius New York Strip, a cut of beef that only has one side, served with fractal (Romanesco) broccoli.”

But of course Burge brought us to a graceful halt with dessert: “Pi. Pie. Pi-Pie.”

Nothing quite so mad, pretentious, or trite awaited us at “Dinner”, although it cannot be stressed enough that efforts were made in this area, and the food itself provoked noises bordering on the sexual.

The Meal

Meat Fruit

Meat Fruit

I did not, in the end, avail myself of this starter, the perplexing and oft-referenced “Meat Fruit” from the menu. But Burge did: this is “Mandarin, Chicken Liver Parfait and Grilled Bread”. The citrus skin conceals the parfait, so it really is Meat. Fruit. Burge did not consent to share any of this with me, but judging by her expressions it tasted bloody delightful.

Rice & Flesh

Rice & Flesh

This is what I had instead. “Rice and Flesh”, £15.00; a kind of saffron-filled rissotto with calf tails in a red-wine based sauce dotted around it. “Abusively delicious” is about the best description I can come up with, which I realise is not useful in categorising it. It was rich. The entire meal was rich, intense, and flavoursome, and in a strange way the calftails were more delicate than the heavy, dense rissotto. On a scale of one to ten I have to give it around a 9/10 because I was at least capable of maintaining a conversation throughout it.

Spiced Pigeon

Spiced Pigeon

For my main course I miraculously avoided consuming steak – my default for judging restaurants (oh hello, my name is Delilah, I have Asperger’s, I am a creature of habit) – which was recommended medium rare (abuse of a cow!) and entered into my boyfriend’s mouth instead. He let me have some and I broke down a little. There may have been some histrionic crying.

The spiced pigeon itself was oddly lacking in spice, and I think I preferred the smoked artichokes and the potato puree I ordered as a side; which is not to say that the pigeon itself wasn’t exquisitely cooked, delicate, and practically falling apart on my tongue, just that I was expecting it to be a little more … spiced. On the other hand I would have happily eaten a plate of smoked artichokes on their own.

Perhaps not for £32.00 though.

Poached Rhubarb with Rosehips and Rhubarb Sorbet

Poached Rhubarb with Rosehips and Rhubarb Sorbet

Dessert. I have a mildly unsettling obsession with rhubarb so there was very little deliberation in the choice of my final course (nor in Doug’s – after a mouthful of “Chocolate Bar” he threated to stab with a fork anyone who so much as looked like they might want to try any of his; sampling some of Lindsay’s I can safely say I am surprised he didn’t die of the intensity of chocolate). This was the “weird” I’d been looking for in earlier courses, containing what looked like a freeze-dried wafer of rhubarb, and some rose sugar “glass” shards which again constitute a perfectly marvellous concept on their own … but.

Some time previously to this I have died at the much-less-fêted but wonderful Allium in Fairford, and there consumed a fantastical confection combining floral tastes and rhubarb, crunchy and smooth textures, and it was better.

Sorry, Heston.

I should point out that while we were consuming this, Mr Blumenthal was spotted talking to Raymond Blanc about four metres away, and we were all very well-behaved and no one did anything at all stupid, although Burge later remarked that she did want to stroke his head.

Dinner was concluded with a espresso cup full of white chocolate ganache, and a glass of rosebud tea (“Iran”, quoth the menu) which smelt heavenly and tasted “quite nice”.

I have a note on my arm telling me to talk about the service, which was solicitous and attendant to the point of being intimidating; which is not to say that the staff were anything other than impeccably turned-out, friendly, helpful, and willing to comply with almost any request made of them – more that I find it unnerving for it to need four people to “take care of you” when all I am doing is going to relieve myself. I don’t think I ever want to be famous!

… Sensible people go home after a meal like that, but I went to Academy in Soho, where the bouncer grumpily made me take off my tie (to prevent suicide? The cocktails weren’t that bad) and I drank things whose names I cannot remember while shouting about lizards and ex-boyfriends (often the same thing).

Star ratings are for people who know what they’re talking about. Dinner was scary, but for the more socially-confident and wealthy I imagine it is a fantastic place to dine regularly, and I would like to steal some of the waiters.

Post by Delilah.