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Our carefully thought out decision to get a dog...
Our black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Socks (or Socksington to give him his full name) has been living with us now for 2 and half years. He''s a four year old little boy with the biggest heart but perhaps not the largest of brains.
We had always wanted a dog. There have been dogs in mine and my partners families forever and on getting our first place a dog was pretty much a given, but we had to find the right breed, time and make sure we had enough time and money to provide for it. It''s pretty much like having a baby. All that careful consideration went out the window, however and, much like some babies, Socks was unplanned. We looked after him for a few weeks whilst his previous owner was on holiday. Looking back, I think we were just being groomed as Sockington''s new owners as not longer after his owner announced she didn''t have the time to care for him, being out sometimes 16 hours a day. Even if the life we could give him might not be perfect, it was a lot better than what he had and besides we''d fallen in love with his little sad face. So took him in we did.
I have to confess, I hadn''t really considered a spaniel. I wanted to rescue one of the millions of poor staffies sitting in rescue homes. Or perhaps a retired greyhound, or a beautiful English bull terrier. My partner had a similar taste. We wanted to call our pet Sherlock or Elvis or something equally cool. Still I think he''s become fond of shouting ?Socks!? in the park and walking along with a scatty floppy eared fluffball in a polka dot harness.. I think he has anyway.
Not to badmouth any other breed but I don''t think I could have asked for anything better. This little spaniel is the most soppy, loving and fun little creature. Just as mini drivers wave to each other, I think dog owners with the same breed form a sort of club. I get very excited when I see another cavvy walking along. Not quite as excited as Socks does, obviously. Talking to other owners it seems it''s pretty rare to find a grumpy cavvy. They are amazingly gentle and I have to stop for most kids to pet him. He never minds, except occasionally gets a little bored and wanders off. That''s only made a child cry once. Not so long ago a horrible little boy wanted to pet him, but instead started throwing stones at Socks and rather than react, Socks simply walked away from him. Now if I was a dog, I''d have probably had a growl at that little boy and no doubt would have a got in a lot of trouble for it. I can''t help but admire Socks'' patience and good natured temperament. He wouldn''t hurt fly, whatever it might have done to him.
Aside from just being gentle, Socks is genuinely kind and really cares for ''his people.'' Not long after we got him, I had a bit of a rough time and wasn''t in the happiest of states. Whenever I am upset or poorly, Socks knows and hops on my lap for a cuddle and if I''m crying, will lick up my tears. He will even give proper hugs where he will jump up, put a paw on each shoulder and snuggle his head into my neck. I''ve never taught him to do these things or asked him to. I can only assume he does them because he wants to. Even at my worst, when an animal goes to that amount of effort to make me feel better, the least I felt I could do is get out of my pit and feed him or take him for a walk around the block and sometimes, getting yourself to do those things is the start of getting better. I strongly believe now in animals as therapy and could can''t get kinder than a little cavvy. (Apart from anything else, a proper hug from a Great Dane would probably floor you.)
Given what I''ve said, I think Cavvys have nothing to worry about when it comes to emotional intelligence. Common Sense, however, isn''t really their thing. I mentioned about wanting a Staffy or a Greyhound ? something that will run around, play, fetch a ball, do tricks, be obedient. I don''t really get any of that with Socks. If you throw a stick or a ball for him he will look at you like you''re crazy and wander off to lick the nearest tree. Occasionally, at home he will run after a toy if you throw it but instead of bringing it back, he''ll hide under the table with it, chew it and then probably rest his chin on it and nod off.
He loves to socialise with other dogs, but once he''s chased them, sniffed them he just stands and looks confused. He just about manages sit. Stay is good until his mind wanders, usually about 5 seconds. Pointing is, well, pointless because instead of following your finger with his eyes he will just lick your finger.
I''ve know doubt that with a good lot of patience and dedication you could train a cavvy. Certainly to a much higher level that I have with Socks, but let''s just say that they will never be top of the class. If you want a dog that actually does stuff, this might not be the breed for you.
(Having said that, there''s a lot to be said for the comedy aspect of owning a stupid dog.)
As mentioned, there''s not really any issue with cavvys and aggression. The main behavioural problem they have is anxiety, mainly from being left. Dogs, so I''m told, don''t have much of a concept of time so whether you''re gone three hours or three minutes they will be as pleased to see you when you get back. The flip side of that of course, is as soon as you shut the door behind you they think you might never come back. I don''t think Socks'' previous situation with being left has helped matters and I do think he still has some issues over being left. The good think with cavvys though is they are pretty lazy. Whilst Socks might sit by the front door and look longingly at me when I leave the house, sometimes I have to go and find him and wake him up when I get back, so he can''t be that frantic.
When they do worry though, they tend to show it by peeing on things. We had a few spots where Socks would go. Sometimes when we''d be out for only a matter of half an hour or so. Getting rid of the smell from these areas stops them thinking these are toilet spots and lavender works particularly well as a deterrent. He seems to have got better and maybe it''s worse in younger dogs. I have heard stories of this being quite an issue with some who need professional trainers to get it under control.
As with all dogs, some breeds are prone to certain conditions. Blocked anal glands is one we''ve encountered with Socks... nice. Apparently quite a common one, as is problems with their back legs. They also have problems with the battle of the bulge and I''ve seen quite a few older little fat waddling cavvys. I give into Socks'' sad eyes a little too much with the treats but I make sure I balance it out with lots of walks. Although they are fairly lazy and little, they probably still are better for people who can offer a good deal of exercise for this reason. The best advice I can give it get your dog fully insured straight away because once something has become a known problem you won''t be covered for any vets bills for it.
They also have long coats that require quite a lot of maintenance. Socks brings back several branches of trees, leaves and various other debris in his coat after most walks and needs bathing, brushing and trimming regularly.
As you can tell, I''ve been won over to this breed. For families, they are amazing. They are so loving but for that reason you need to be someone who has the time to give them loads of fuss back or they tend to worry their little heads. They need a lot of grooming but aside from that they are pretty easy going and a lot of fun to look after. The same goes with all dogs ? make sure you have the time and money to devote to them, and they''ll repay you in bucketloads, cavvys might not win any mastermind trophies along the way, though.
LUSH, apparently everyone's favourite cosmetics and smellies shop seem to think that all their products are fun, or at least that's what their pun laden product descriptions and over enthusiastic sales staff lead me to believe. But wait, I spy a bright selection of products (weirdly tucked in the corner of this store) called FUN. Well, it's a bold name from the company who like nothing more than fun. This must be REALLY fun.
Lush's 'Fun' bars look like bright lumps of plasticine, and there's a reason for that, because that's pretty much what they are. Though they don't smell nearly as good, but then I am one of those weird kids who love the smell of plasticine. If 'Fun' smelled of plasticine, I'd be sold on it.. but then you may as well just take a lump of plasticine into the bath with you I guess... anyway, I digress. 'Fun' comes in five bright, childlike colours: Blue, Red, Green, Pink and Yellow. I went with the blue, well because I like blue, though the rest may have smelled better. When shopping in Lush though, your sense of smell can get a little confused and your not sure what your actually smelling is the thing you have in your hand of one of the other hundred or so conflicting smells surrounding you.
I suppose 'Fun' is targeted at kids, but I wasn't really aware of this until afterwards. The display in the shop I purchased this from made it look like another soap bar, albeit a rather garish one. The Lush website claims 'Fun' is great for relaxing children just before bedtime. I'm sure by this it means that the scents used of lavender and chamomile are relaxing. If I was a kid, a soap with all the modelling capabilities of plasticine would send me into a bit of an excited frenzy at the possibility made sharks and whales to swim around in my bath water that, thanks to 'Fun,' is also now turning bright blue!
Fun is marketed as a 4 in 1 product: for fun - ie modelling, as a soap/bodywash, a shampoo and to 'crumble' into the bath as a bath foam. In order to review this fairly, I obviously had to use this product each of the four ways, and not because I was dying to make shapes with it.
The mould-ability of 'Fun' is it's real selling point, and it is quite fun even for someone perhaps a little north of the target age. After my nice bath, my partner came back from the pub to find a collection of blue sheep on the bathroom basin and probably felt he shouldn't have had that last pint. The problem with 'Fun' is when you've made your lovely little creations, you don't really want to smash them back up in a block. They are made from a product designed to melt, so the next morning I felt like James from The Snowman to find that the steam from the shower had turned my sheep in to little sticky blue puddles. Now this is one of the problems with 'Fun', you really have to keep out of the bathroom once opened because if you don't, you'll end up as I did with the remainder or your bar melting and seeping all over your nice white bath like a ever growing blue blob. I think Lush really need to look the packing here and maybe sell it in a tub that you can pop it back into after use as the cellophane wrapper isn't really sufficient to preserve it.
I think this products most successful practical use is as a soap. As previously mentions is melts quite readily when in contact with the water and produces a good amount of froth. It does melt quicker than a normal soap, however, so to buy it and use it for this sole purpose is not very economical. The smell as I've mentioned isn't to my taste, however. The lavender is far too overpowering and whilst it might look like a bright blue thing from the future, it smells like your nan's sock drawer liner which is disappointing.
Looking like Marge Simpson
'Fun' doesn't really have any properties that make it any better than soap would be as a shampoo. It lathers up pretty well, leaving you looking like Marge Simpson, but left my hair feeling a bit stripped of any softness. My hair is long and again, using this regularly as a shampoo wouldn't be very economical. Given that it simply cleans, I used conditioner afterwards to get rid of the vast number of tangles but this ultimately left my hair with a bizarre smell as the 'Fun' and conditioner scents battled it out.
It does work fairly well as a bubble bath, giving satisfyingly blue water, however you can't really 'crumble' it as instructed, especially if it's been near a hint of moisture and you do end up with a few blue lumps floating around, and more annoyingly, stuck to the bottom of the bath.
'Fun' costs £5 per bar which is equivalent to 5 little blue sheep. It's appeal to regular sized and big kids for it's modelling potential is great and for that I think it's a great product. For any practical uses, I think it's pretty poor. The smell is overpowering, and doesn't really go with the young, fresh, 'fun' element and I can't see strong lavender being a scent that kids would like. I think a fruity fragrance would be much better. For a novelty product, and as a gift I think it's an ok price but expensive if you're buying it to use as a soap, body or hair wash. I think Lush are trying to make 'Fun' too many things at once and really should just have kept it as the name suggests, just a 'fun' product. In addition, the packaging needs rethinking to allow the product to be kept until it's next use.
'Fun' is available online at lush.co.uk and in Lush stores. It's vegan, preservative free and not tested on animals.
August: Osage County caught my attention initially from it's cast, my thinking being if this many big names agreed to do this script, it's got to have something going for it. Not only does it boast the likes of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor heading the cast, but also has George Clooney on board as a producer, not that this would be something that would necessarily persuade me to watch anything. Directed by John Wells, the film is based on the play of the same name by Tracy Letts.
As if the title wasn't a give away, the film is set in Osage County, a rural area in the north of Oklahoma in a very hot August. It follows the family of Beverley Weston (Sam Sherpard) as they come to terms with his death and learn a few truths about each other over the few days in which they come together for the funeral. I hope I'm not spoiling anything by saying that early on in the film we learn that Beverley drowns himself, or at least that how it seems, after a hard time dealing with his own alcoholism and his wife's cancer and drug addiction. Billed as a black comedy-drama, and whilst a witty script, I found it quite a hard film to raise any smiles at. The trailer itself actually gives away all the plot turns in August: Osage County and it really makes no apologies for the fact that this is a script, not about a long complicated story, but more of a study of family - the characters and the relationships between them. All very well geared towards a high profile cast being able to acts their socks off, and that they do.
The full cast are as follows -
Meryl Streep as Violet Weston
Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston-Fordham
Ewan McGregor as Bill Fordham
Chris Cooper as Charles Aiken
Abigail Breslin as Jean Fordham
Benedict Cumberbatch as "Little Charles" Aiken
Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston
Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae Aiken
Dermot Mulroney as Steve Heidebrecht
Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston
Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston
Misty Upham as Johnna Monevata
Meryl Streep, unsurprisingly outshines everyone here. She plays Beverley's widow, Violet. She is suffering from mouth cancer and has taken comfort in downing a large and regular mix of medications. She isn't a likeable character but one you can't help but feel intense sympathy for. Completely bonkers because she spends a vast amount of time high, she is also incredibly sharp tongued and not afraid to say what she thinks. Despite obvious health problems and things distracting her mind she remains very intuitive with any underlying issues with her family and knows the truth before anyone has to utter a word. Meryl Streep puts in the performance you'd expect, and makes sure that Violet Weston isn't a character you'll forget in a hurry, even if the rest of the film may slip from your memory fairly easily.
To match Streep's Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Julia Roberts is well deserved in her nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She plays Violet's eldest daughter, Barbara who has gained her mother's straight talking ways, though dishes it out with a little less venom for the most part. She is going through a separation from her husband and is being tested at every turn by teenage daughter, Abigail. She's a character it's also easy to have sympathy for. She clearly loves her mother very much, but finds it very hard to cope with, and manage her mother's addiction. She attempts to take charge of the family after her father's death and her mother's incapability. Julia Roberts is also excellent, complementing Streep's performance and completely believable as her daughter.
Not hiding, but very much in the shadow of these two huge performances of two of the biggest names in movieland, is Ewan McGregor as Barbara's husband Bill, Benedict Cumberbatch as 'Little' Charles, and Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis as Violet's other daughters, Ivy and Karen. All give excellent performances and who knew Benedict Cumberbatch could sing? Also brilliant is Margo Martindale as Violet's sister Mattie, another strong female character.
Whilst this film deals with many subjects: cancer, drug addiction, alcoholism, marriage separation, death, grief, suicide .. it's ultimately about how a family unit works, or indeed doesn't and particularly a family where the women are in charge. It's impressive how many subjects it manages to fit into the brief time the audience gets to spend with this troubled bunch of people. More than a good few weeks of Eastenders could manage. The performances are faultless and the characters engaging but whilst there is no lack of drama, there's little in the way of plot. Head of the family dies, everyone's going through a bad time, they fight about it. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but this to me seems like a script chosen to showcase the acting talents of a fine cast and little else. I'm sure it will get lots of stars from critics and nods from every award ceremony going and seems as if it was made for them rather than it's mass audience. I definitely didn't enjoy it as much as I was meant to.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the latest Scorsese / DiCaprio collaboration, released in the UK on 17th January 2014 and hotly tipped to do very well during awards season. It tells the true story of Jordan Belfont - "The Wolf of Wall Street."
This film has grabbed headlines for a number of reasons, not just because it's the latest offering from one of cinema's most successful and respected directors. It's been widely criticised for it's moral standpoint - celebrating and glamourising ill gotten riches, drugs, prostitution and all stuff you shouldn't really do. Not satisfied with this controversy it's also broken the record for the most F words - 506 in 179 minutes.
I have enjoyed one or two Scorsese films, but generally I find them a bit to macho for me. I get a little tired of films made up of violence, swearing, cars and boobs. I do get caught up in the Oscar hype though and like to see at least a few of the big tips and make my own mind up as to whether I agree with the winners and losers. I also have become quite fan of Leonardo DiCaprio in recent years. He's proved himself as one of the Hollywood names you can count on for a great performance, even if I don't always agree he picks the greatest of scripts. One of my favourite DiCaprio films is 'Catch Me if you Can' in which he showed he's pretty good at playing a slick filthy rich wrong 'un. Perfect experience then.
The opening scene of The Wolf of Wall Street gives us a taste of things to come. Fast cars, sexual encounters (at the same time) and lots of swearing. We meet Jordan Belfont (DiCaprio) at the height of his "success" before he rewinds and begins to tell us how he got there. Straight away, the audience knows what they are getting and if you offend easily you'll know to skip the next three bum numbing hours of sex, drugs, money, drugs and some more drugs. (I really hope you read that sentence in the way I intended)
We hear from a couple of characters throughout the film that a lot of the Wall Street stock brokers have rich daddies and are pretty much used to being rich even before they are successful brokers. Jordan Belfont is different in that he got there starting at the bottom, and using his quick wits and charm to get somewhere. Don't let this fool you into thinking this is a rags to riches story or gives the viewer any way in to liking the character.
Belfont starts out working on Wall Street shortly before Black Monday, where predictably, even he fails to turn his fortunes around. So he doesn't last long, but it's not before he's had a pep talk from his boss and successful broker, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), an eccentric character who tells him that the only way to do well in the business is to worry only about making yourself rich and to ensure you keep calm so you don't implode. How to do that? Cocaine and sex. Of course.
So Jordan is now down on his luck and considers working in a shop to make ends meet. This five minutes of hard times isn't dwelled on however, we want to get back to the fun stuff, right? Belfont finds an opportunity working for a company dealing in penny stocks, s place he clearly thinks he's far to good for.. until he learns the rate of commission. Before long he's ripping off anyone who'll listen for thousands. Growing greedier by the day, Belfont, with the help of a random weird neighbour he meets in a bar starts his own business. Belfont and Donnie's (Jonah Hill) company, Stratton Oakmont is soon raking it in, scamming millions from unsuspecting clients and the hottest place to work in broker world.
Cue Belfont, Donnie and a collection of other shady characters turned "brokers" (including that bloke from The Walking Dead playing same character but with a tashe) behaving like total knobs with little else happening for a bit. Over the next few hours learned a good deal about drugs, saw more naked women than was really necessary and don't worry, they managed to fit some more swearing in than just the 506 F bombs, just to mix it up a bit.
The story gets a little more interesting when the FBI get a sniff of what's going on and start to investigate Belfont. Agent Patrick Denham, (Kyle Chandler) is a forgettable, dull nemesis to DiCaprio's Belfont and although Belfont is disgusting in the crimes he's committing, from a character point of view it's hard to want to side with either.
Belfont rushes to move his money to European bank accounts as a cover up and we are taken on a not as thrilling as it should be cat and mouse chase including a bizarre appearance from Joanna Lumley as 'Auntie' Emma. There is a delightful moment where on a rush to get to Switzerland for reasons I won't spoil, they are on board a boat in very turbulent water and DiCaprio clings onto wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and tells her it will all be ok. I couldn't help but think of Titanic, probably rather unfairly to DiCaprio but I'm sure I'm not the only one who couldn't help but smile.
I can't fault DiCaprio's performance in this film. DiCaprio's Belfont is arrogant, obnoxious, selfish, greedy and completely unapologetic. Because of this, it's really hard to be with him on his journey to wealth and debauchery. Without any real connection with the main character, let alone any of the others, The Wolf of Wall Street is a bit of a pointless exercise. Jonah Hill, who plays Belfont's 'business partner' Donnie, is equally good but as equally dull as a character. Likewise for other Stratton Oakmont suits, and model like wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) who is showed off at every opportunity. Even when she eventually, inevitably gets cheated on a treated like dirt by Belfont, you can't feel sorry for her as she knew exactly who he was when she got involved. The stand out performance for me is by Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna, a fleeting appearance but a quirky, albeit arrogant character. The only people I have any real sympathy for is Belfont's first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) who falls in love with broke Belfont and ends up broker Belfont and all the hell that goes with it.. and of course the victims of Stratton Oakmont's scams who don't feature at all. This film is all about the glamour of the brokers lifestyles and not the heartache of the people who lost all their money. Hence the controversy. This stunt is getting a little old now, but the real Belfont also makes a fleeting appearance, taking his time out from his latest career move 'Motivational Speaking.'
Overall, I can't really recommend this film. Yes it has some good performances but what use is a good performance of a bad character? Belfont's makes for a good true story, but for a true story to be a good feature length film they need to be extraordinary. Whilst he made an obscene amount of money, had loads of hookers, two beautiful wives, did a loads of drugs and basically acted like an arse, it doesn't really warrant 3 hours of film to tell us about it. However much fun he was having doing all that, it's not as much fun to watch. The film looks as slick as Belfont himself and it's got glitzy Hollywood blockbuster stamped all over it but it's a bit style over substance(s).
Orphan Black is a show made by BBC America, and aired in the US and Canada in March 2013 and in the UK in September. It's set in, and filmed in Toronto with a largely Canadian cast. It has been released on DVD in the US and it is possible to get this imported. It is not yet released on DVD in the UK, but it currently available to watch on the BBC iplayer.
It's very hard to review Orphan Black without including any spoilers and I will try my very best not to give too much away. I guess to give you an insight into what it's all about I'll outline the first scene. Sarah Manning is on a station platform when she sees a woman commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. In her final few seconds, Sarah catches a glimpse of the woman's face and she looks just like her.
What follows this dramatic opening scene is a twisting tale as Sarah finds out more and more about this woman and whether this uncanny likeness is merely coincidence or whether is unlocks the key to where this orphan came from. All she knew is that she and her adoptive brother were brought to live in Canada by their foster mother 'Mrs S' from the UK to start a fresh but she's never really known the true reason why.
A lot of synopsis of the show I've seen online give a lot more away than this and I kept my ears pretty much shut to any give aways before watching it for myself. I think it's crucial for the audience to make the discoveries with Sarah, and frankly remain as confused as her for the first few episodes at least!
The show is incredibly cleverly written because no sooner is one mystery solved but we discover this is just the start of something bigger and then, bigger still and pretty soon you'll be left wondering which characters are to be trusted and which aren't - all the ingredients for a fantastic thriller. It's been reported that Co-creator and Director John Fawcett, used Memento as a source of inspiration which would explain the twisty nature of the plot.
The show is fast paced and, I'm afraid, another one of those shows where you look at the clock and think 'should I go to bed now or can I fit another episode in?' It's definitely got the 'edge of your seat' factor as good as any of the big successful American dramas.
I suspect that lead actress, Tatiana Maslany will be propelled to super stardom on the back of her fantastic performance in Orphan Black. She is in near enough every scene in this season and the versatility she displays is phenomenal. One thing that does annoy slightly is the occasionally over played British accent by Maslany, most of the time it's excellent but just occasionally when required to shout or exaggerate it sounds, well just a little odd.
Likewise, Jordan Gavaris who plays Sarah's adoptive brother Felix, also stands out and gives an excellent and often hilarious performance.
The supporting cast are good too and I can't pick out anyone who lets the side down, but the chemistry between Felix and Sarah makes the show for me. As a viewer you are completely on their side and with them every step of the way.
TO BE CONTINUED...?
Co-creator Graeme Manson has been quoted as saying he wants to make 8 seasons and a movie of Orphan Black and I really hope this won't be the case. Good shows should know when to give up and whilst Orphan Black could hook me for another one, maybe even two seasons, I would struggle to see how the writers would keep my interest any longer than this. (Have these writers learned nothing from Dexter??!)
The finale of season one certainly doesn't leave us in any doubt that Orphan Black will be back. I assume the writers wanted to leave us hanging so much we simply couldn't wait for the next season to air. Though, for me, they left so many loose ends it just annoyed me. I have no problems with TV series or films leaving a few unanswered questions to keep us thinking about and leave the door open for a new season or sequel but subtlety is the key. I felt like Orphan Black kept me on the edge of my seat as it gathered speed and then just like that, at the end of episode 10 it just stopped, rather abruptly.
Season 2 is due to be aired next year and I will watch it as enjoyed this first one, a refreshing new storyline and great characters, I just can't help feeling a little cheated out of a more conclusive and satisfying finish.
The Shocking Miss Emerald
I simply can not put it to words how much I adore Caro Emerald, which may make this review a little tricky. For those unfamiliar, she is a Dutch singer songwriter, whose second album 'The Shocking Miss Emerald' went to the top of the UK album chart in April this year, and following that, this 'Live in Concert' DVD was released in September.
If you had to put Caro Emerald's music into a category, I guess she would fit most neatly into Jazz, however don't let that put you off. I am not a Jazz fan as a rule, but there is so many more elements to her music and influences from across a number of genres that makes her pretty unique. In the special features on this DVD, Caro talks about her favourite artists and she reels off a good broad list from the ones you may expect - Ella Fizgerald, Billie Holiday..and less so Beyonce.. Rhianna. Her own music is Jazzy, funky at times very theatrical but always dripping with class. This lady not only sings with elegance with a little dose of cheekiness, but her looks match her voice perfectly. A refreshing female image in the modern music industry, she is beautiful, and when she performs you simply can not takes your eyes off her, but she doesn't need to wear revealing clothes or add in any stupid dance routines - she is just being herself. In this live DVD she wears her trademark elegant style in the form of a little black dress, kitten heels which she kicks of half way through and her hair pinned to the side under a fantastically glamorous black hat.
This live performance was filmed in front of a very lucky small audience at BBC radio theatre in London, a pretty intimate gig for her considering she's just booked shows for venues such as the o2 next year. This show features a collection of songs from latest album 'The Shocking Miss Emerald' and her debut, 'Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor' as well as a treat in the form of a stunning cover of 'Mad About the Boy.' This may seem a fairly obvious choice for a cover version and she executes it with the precision you'd expect, however not all her covers are so predictable. If you're interested, have a search for her cover of Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance' and you'll see just how versatile her style can be.
For this cosy live performance Caro is, as usual, joined by her backing band complete with Drums, Keyboards, Bass, Guitar, Saxophone, Trumpet, Trombone and.. Turntables. She is obviously very fond of her band and in awe of their talents. She makes sure throughout the performance that the audience give equal credit them and to her. In her interview she talks about how she was always musical but finding where her true talent lay wasn't immediately obvious and she tried a number of instruments before realising her true instrument was closer than she knew. She is quite honest in telling us that it was mainly down to a lack of patience that she didn't become a pianist or guitarist and I'm sure her fans are pleased about that.
She has an electric chemistry with the band and her voice to the big band sound, all making for a fantastic show. She starts with a trio that we should know, 'Just one dance,' 'You don't love me' and 'Riveria Life' from debut album 'Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor.' She then mixes up the old and new, interjecting with introductions to the band and snippets of stories as to how some of the songs came about. One that particularly sticks in my mind is about the story behind 'Paris,' a song about a late French fashion designer, the story of which she read on Wikipedia of all places.
Real highlight performances for me from the show are fun upbeat 'Pack Up the Louie,' flirty 'Dr Wanna Do' and the theatrical bond-esque goosebump enducing 'I Belong to You.' She finishes up with you of her bigger hits from 'Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor' - 'A Night Like This' and 'Stuck.'
Caro, the band and the audience all end up looking like they've enjoyed the night as much as each other and leaves me sitting on my sofa wishing I'd been there and making sure I will be next time she comes to town.
The DVD package
The DVD itself is presented in a baby blue cardboard case in the style of old concert hall posters. It contains a booklet with credits, photos and a fairly in depth background piece behind the making if the concert and, indeed of Caro Emerald the singer.
For more of this, the previously mentioned interview with Caro Emerald gives viewers the story of how she got her career started in her own words.
In addition to this there are two rehearsal performances of 'Tangled Up' and 'That Man' in which she looks and sounds as effortlessly beautiful as ever.
I can't fault the performance given by Emerald and the band, the filming, sound and DVD package itself. What I will say is I was disappointed that one of my favourite tracks 'The Wonderful in You' wasn't on the set list. This song, from 'The Shocking Miss Emerald' is one that when I first heard it, I was convinced was a cover. It had such a classic and familiar feel to it I was sure it had been around forever. I was wrong, co written by the lady herself and brand spanking new. I guess I can't really knock any points off for this. We all have our favourites and there's no time for them all!
I do hope I've not been too gushy, but yes! If you are a fan of Caro Emerald's music this is a must. If not obviously your sort of thing, then it might be worth a go anyway. My taste in music tends to be of the more rocky persuasion so this is a bit of a departure to my usual taste. Though I do have a real love for the theatre and musicals and maybe that's why Caro's style appeals to me so much. And style she has in bucketloads.
The DVD is available from the usual places, at the time of writing £11.59 on amazon.
James Numatic: If Henry was a Simpson
When I was at school, the cleaner had a Henry Numatic Vacuum cleaner (or Henry Hoover as lots of people call them, but is wrong as they aren't made by Hoover). Pathetically, one of dreams then was to have a Henry of my own.
Henrys are the vacuum cleaner most used by cleaners and in many an office cupboard or seen being pulled around a restaurant after closing. They have a reputation for being reliable, portable and hardworking little machines. I wanted one because they are cute.
James vs his famous relation
When I moved into my little flat, I was very excited getting together all my home bits and prioritised important stuff like a toaster and kettle. Soon though, it was becoming more apparent that this thing mysterious activity called cleaning was going to be pretty much compulsory. So I started looking for a vacuum cleaner. Doing some research, to my delight, the reviews for Henrys were pretty hard to beat, but they start at £110.00 and for a little flat, I didn't really need something quite as powerful. So during my search I discovered James, Henry's little brother? cousin? (not sure of the relation.) A little smaller, less suck, yellow and £25 cheaper - but most importantly, still cute.
Motor Power: 800 / 500 W
Power: 230V AC 50/60Hz
Airflow :30 L/sec
Suction: 2000 / 1300 mm
Capacity: 8 L
Cleaning Range: 26.8 m
Weight: 5.5 kg
Just to give you a bit of perspective on these numbers, James is only fractionally smaller than a Henry, but a kilo and a half lighter. The cleaning range is the same but the capacity is 1 litre less, motor power is much lower compared to Henry's Hi 1200/ L600 W and about 20% less suck! Cuteness: equal.
I wanted a vacuum cleaner to begin with, to clean the smallest of flats and so having a powerful one or one with a high capacity wasn't really essential. What I wanted was something compact that I was able to wheel around, and that I would easily be able to buy replacement bags. My mum had a vacuum cleaner for years, it never gave up but the problem she found was the bags just stopped being made. I don't see the numatic range going our of production any time soon, and the James machines take the same bags as Henrys so they are very easy to get hold of and the official and non official bags work as well as each other. Many 'own brand' bags are available fairly cheaply.
I did consider going for a cheaper vacuum cleaner which are available for around half the price of James however, having worked in an electrical department of a large chain I used to have to process returns on so many of own brand and entry price cleaners that I think it's a purchase worth spending that little extra for something that will last.
Putting James to the test
James served me well in my teeny flat, but he wasn't exactly tested to the limit. He came with me to my new house though and since then we've got a dog, parrot and live minutes from the river which means regular muddy footfall. James is certainly being tested these days and he's not showing any signs of struggling and still whizzes round with a smile on his face.
James comes with an extension pole for tall people but I don't need that. The pole is very light weight and James is very easy to move around. There is a handle on the top to carry him and even when full he's a comfortable weight. He moves freely around on his wheels and just by moving around he follows me easily enough. The cord is more than long enough for most houses. I can plug him in upstairs, (which has to be the bedroom as there is no plug socket on the landing) and get down the the bottom with ease and plenty of slack left in the cord. The cord on James is replaceable which is a good feature in case it gets snagged or broken. From what I've read I don't think this is possible with the rest of the numatic range. The only downside I would say is that there is no retractable cord feature. There is a well on the top so you can wind the cord round here to store it, but this can be a bit of a faff. I guess they made the cord replaceable as there is more likelihood of it being damaged due to this.
I've had James for 4 years now and I'm still very pleased with him. The bags hold more than enough for my use and he not only provides excellent performance but also has proved to be economical.
I will give James 4 stars, just one deducted for the lack of a retractable cord.
**This review might contain some small spoilers but nothing you won't have heard in the papers and indeed, these stories are over 100 years old**
It's very hard to come up with something about Sherlock that hasn't already been said - even with less than 24 hours after series 3 coming to a close. The internet has gone Sherlock-loopy and we haven't seen fandom this obsessive since Breaking Bad. I have to confess, I am one of those slightly unhinged Sherlock crazy people who spent the full 90 minutes of the season 3 finale in the can't sit still excited buzzing state similar to consuming 20 cans of Red Bull, then went on the Twitter Q&A with the creators (I don't even like Twitter) then read every fans thoughts and feelings in the comments on the facebook page, then watched all the funny gifs that had been created in the 60 or so minutes it took me to do all that and then went to bed and couldn't sleep all night. But I will try and keep this review balanced...(ish)
Sherlock first aired on BBC1 in the Summer of 2010, and was well received but I think it took a little while for word to get around about just how good it was. By the time we were given series two in January 2012 there was more of air of anticipation from a solid fan base. Series two finished on the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers and were were left waiting an agonising two years for our answers.
After a few months of teasers, series three hit our screens on New Years Day 2014 to mixed reviews from fans. After three feature length episodes, we are left mid January with the Sherlock whirlwind over again, but after initial doubts I think the finale has left Sherlock followers as over emotional as ever... in a good way.
This modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories is the brainchild of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. (It seems recently whenever I find something good on TV, Mark Gatiss has something to do with it.) These two, so the story goes, came up with the premise for Sherlock while on train journeys to and from the set of Doctor Who, their other mildly popular collaboration. Gatiss is always very quick to point out in interviews that this genius behind the stories lies with Arthur Conan Doyle and it's very evident that Sherlock was born out of two peoples love for these books. The essence of the books is all there - the cases, the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Watson and their famous London address but with a modern twist that works so perfectly.
WHAT? ONLY 3 EPISODES?
Without meaning to point out the blindingly obvious, Sherlock Holmes is a detective show. This means the case needs to be set up, clues planted, investigations carried out, the odd murder along the way and the oh so clever revealing of how it was all done in the end. It might be a new spin on it but all the ingredients of a good detective drama are there. Sherlock being the modern, witty, fast based, technology rich programme that it is, not to mention with some of the hottest actors around at the moment means it's acquired a fan base wider and a little different to the likes of Poirot and Taggart. Consequently, there has been some uproar from fans used to the 12 or 24 episode format of American hits to the fact that there are only three episodes of Sherlock per series. The thing is Sherlock just wouldn't work with more, shorter episodes. Like other detective shows, they need to be feature length. There needs to be time to fit all the elements in and we don't want to be left thinking back to the week before for clues do we? Yes, I want more but I think the writers had been wise, very self restrained and right not to give into the temptation and pressure to extend the series and keep the quality high and everyone wanting more.
Series 3 is no exception. The quality was high and I want more. That said, there was somewhat of a lull in the middle, but arguably one that was needed. I'll get there in a minute.
SO HOW DID HE SURVIVE THAT FALL?
The finale of series two of Sherlock left a bemused audience with one question - How did he do it? For those living in the real world, viewers saw, or think they saw, Sherlock jump off a roof to his death and right at the end reappear to watch sidekick and best friend John Watson, blubbing at his graveside. The build up to series three nearly broke social media with the amount of fan theories as to how this 'magic trick' was achieved. Quotes from Moffat at Gattiss telling us that all the clues were there and there's something everyone's missed didn't help calm the hysteria. Don't worry I'm not going to give it away... not to avoid spoilers, but I simply don't know if I can. You see, we are given at various points in the show, an explanation of how it was all achieved an then we are thrown a line to make us doubt that was true. The opening sequence starts where series two left off and it's as if Gattis and Moffat have taken all the theories floating about, mixed 'em all up and filmed them - there's even a bizarre cameo from Derren Brown. Of course, with all this build up, whatever the answer, could it be brilliant enough to satisfy everyone and could there really be something NO ONE has thought of yet? The result is season three's opener is an incredible, fast paced, heartbreaking and hilarious episode, which indulges most fan theories and leaves us ultimately not knowing whether we know or not. Infuriating clever bastards. Maybe they'll come back to it later... I'm hoping so but suspect not.
BRINGING BACK SHERLOCK: 'THE EMPTY HEARSE'
The other huge thing that the first episode needed to do is reunite Sherlock with John Watson. Sherlock has become as popular for the relationship between it's two central characters and the amazing acting chemistry of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Martin Freeman (Watson) as for it's plots. John took the death of his best friend hard and his life took a turn for the worst before he managed to get things back on track after meeting Mary, the woman who he intended to propose to the night Sherlock makes his reappearance. I won't spoil it, but this is done in the most painful way possible. The performances of Cumberbatch and Freeman are taken to new heights as the audience feels all of John's pain and anger and don't know whether to laugh at Sherlock, punch him in the nose or hug him.
There was a lot to do in 'The Empty Hearse,' explaining the fall (or not), reuniting, and of course some insight as to where and why Sherlock has been away. But what about a case? Well, we weren't going to be denied that. The case in question? ..only a small terrorist attack on Parliament. As if they have time for that?! You'd have thought with everything else going on in this episode that the case may end up being secondary, but not so. As soon as the loose ends are tied up (or not) we are back, propelled into the chase as Sherlock and Watson do what they do best. It's a good one too. Twists a plenty.
'SIGN OF THREE'
'Sign of Three,' episode two, is a bit of a departure. Whilst they could be forgiven for making the case secondary in the first episode, the case in which a guard mysteriously dies in the shower gets second billing to John Watson's wedding in episode two. Cue lots of comedy lines, a predictably excruciating best man speech from Sherlock and a few near deaths all mixed up in quite a lot of gushyness and a bizarre amount of camp. Unsurprisingly, this change took a lot of Sherlock fans aback but equally delighted others. I guess it depends why you watch the show. For those who are interested in the genius deductions and ever most elaborate crimes then understandably 'Sign of Three' won't push all your buttons. For those who have fallen in love with Cumberbatch's Sherlock and Freeman's Watson and finally want that moment where they admit how much they mean to each other, they get it. It's been a long standing joke about whether these two are in fact a couple and several references are made in 'The Empty Hearse' - most amusingly in Mrs Hudson's (Sherlock and Watson's landlady) reaction to Watson 'finding some one' - "So soon after Sherlock?"... "What's his name?"
That aside it's a brilliant platonic TV friendship that's been like no other to watch and I think it got to a point where this had to be addressed and made centre stage, after all when your best friend dies, returns and then you get married, you're bound to get a little emotional. Also, Jogn Watson's wedding couldn't really go by unnoticed. 'Sign of Three' is an episode I found very funny and enjoyed immensely, but I was worried the writers ere getting a little cocky and over indulgent. Thankfully, in one episode it was it done and out everyone's sytems and in episode three it was back to business. (For all it's non-Sherlockness 'Sign of Three' will always be amazing for bringing us drunk Sherlock "clueing for looks.")
'HIS LAST VOW'
In 'His Last Vow' we are introduced to a new villian - Charles Augustus Magnussun. Surely no one can top Jim Moriarty, Sherlock's former nemesis who also died in that roof scene in season 2 finale. Moriarty does appear in this series in the form of flashbacks and visions and I think it's done as much for the fans as anything. Moriarty, and particularly Andrew Scott's Moriarty is perhaps my favourite villain of all time. He is over the top, witty, clever and amazingly handsome. A likeable evil, whilst Sherlock's arch enemy you kind of got the feeling he liked him, at the very least respected him. Magnussen is a very different beast, nothing likeable about him. For all his antisocial traits, it's the first time we really see Sherlock hate someone. The much used quote in all the episode three trailers is "Nobody turns my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen." I can't give away to much plot here. There are certainly a lot of twists, turns and revelations and we are back to the Sherlock format we are used to. Fast, clever, witty, confusing and an astonishing and real crowd pleasing ending, leaving the viewer want to watch it all again for there's certainly about 45 ½ things they've missed.
Whilst I've gone on a lot about the style, pace and writing of Sherlock the amazing cast has to be mentioned. Obviously Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are the headliners and it's no surprise that they both went on to superstardom. It's so nice though, that their love for Sherlock has kept bringing them back to do more, it's certainly not through lack of work offers. I heard a rumour that Martin Freeman told Peter Jackson that if he wanted him for the latest Hobbit film he had to put back filming as he was doing Sherlock. I always take these stories with a pinch of salt, but I'd like to believe it's true.
In addition to Watson and Holmes, the brilliant supporting cast are back - Una Stubbs as long suffering ladylady/housekeeper at Baker Street Mrs Hudson, Louise Brealy as Molly Hooper, Johnathan Aris as Anderson and, unfortunately, quite infrequently Rupert Graves as DI Lestrade and flashbacks of Andrew Scott as Moriaty. Mycroft Holmes, played by Mark Gatiss himself is also on top form and we learn a little more about Mycroft who has been quite a closed book before this series. Lars Mikkelsen plays the chillingly horrible villain, Charles Augustus Magnussen. I'm surely he a perfectly nice person but he does evil very well. The other new addition of course is Amanda Abbingdon as John Watson's new wife, Mary. She is also Martin Freeman's real life partner so no lack of on screen chemistry. She makes Mary a likeable character who can certainly stand up for herself and compliments rather than be any threat to the Holmes/Watson dynamic. There is no shortage of family members in the Sherlock cast, Benedict Cumberbatch's own parents play his on screen parents and Steven Moffat's son also makes an appearance as a young Sherlock. Lazy casting? It's not just the acting talent alone, it's also a very attractive cast. Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott are good looking anyway, but Sherlock and Moriaty are even more so once the addition of the witty dialogue is added - clever is sexy.
There is one more star that makes up the package, and that's London itself. The backdrop to these stories really makes it all. A few questionable continuity errors for London Underground geeks, but that aside, I love seeing all this drama play out in such familiar places I've been to so often.
ONTO SERIES 4
So that's series three. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt have told us there will be a series 4 and 5 so lots of happy Sherlockians(?) Whether you already love the stories of Sherlock Holmes or not, Sherlock is a great watch for anyone who likes exciting, clever, well made television with a good twist in the tale. Sherlock Holmes fans may not like the modern day spin on it, but it's one of the most frequently adapted works of fiction that everyone is going to have their favourites. For me, I don't think anything can touch Sherlock. If you've not seen series 1-2, I wouldn't recommend seeing series 3 without having seen them. There is enough to entertain as each episode has it's own plots but there are so many references to previous happenings that's worthwhile starting from square one and getting up to speed. Plus, they're so good, why miss out? I can't give any less than 5 stars. It's always worrying when a much love show returns, as some don't know when it quit but it would seem this is one that has much more life in it yet. I'm very pleased Sherlock's home.
WHERE TO WATCH
This is a "film only" review as Sherlock has just finished showing on BBC1. It's still available on the iplayer and not wanting to waste any time it's available from 20th January 2014 on DVD, and available to pre order from the usual stockists now. Amazon are pricing £12.75 for series 3 at the time of writing and a series 1-3 box set will also be available, priced £24.50 which I think is a good price.
Nokia Lumia vs iphone, Galaxy and friends
I have to say, I don't really understand the current need for mobile phones to double up as a lap tray. The size of some of the handsets on the market is silly and when looking for a new phone I struggled to find one that I didn't need both hands to hold it when using the keypad. Hopefully, with the ever increasing popularity of tablets, the people wanting the big screen will switch to these for the entertainment features and the mobile phone can return to a more pocket friendly size. For all it's over-rated, over-priced showyoffyness the iphone is actually one of the better out there for being compact, but I just can't justify the price tag, plus I don't really want one. My make of choice is usually a Samsung but my partner recently purchased the Galaxy S3 and it looks like someone's taken a rolling pin to a perfectly well proportioned phone. So putting features aside to start with, began my phone search based on holdability alone and hoped that one on my short list would also have all the features I desire... all for an affordable price tag. Not too much to ask? Well it was a struggle and I ended up surprisingly, favouring a number of Nokia handsets - a brand which had previously never appealed. The one I plumped for was the Nokia Lumia 820 - bizarrely not much in the spec to the newer 920 and nowhere near as pricey as the 1020, which seemed to want to be a camera 1st and a phone 2nd. The Lumia 820 is still chunky, but it's screen being 4.3" rather than the 4.5" of it's later sisters meant it was the slightly more compact. Rectangular with rounded corners and a slightly domed, smooth matt back, it's quite slick but on the downside of it not being of the super thin variety, it's a little on the heavy side.
Ok, so it looks good... what does it do?
Well firstly, and most importantly, it makes calls. The good thing about touch screen keypads is the number are usually pretty big so it's pretty hard to misdial. On the home screen, the phone icon is the biggest and first on the screen (though you can personalise this). Easy to see how to use it's most important feature at first glance. This phone knows it's a phone. I like that.
The full spec can be found here htttp://www.nokia.com/global/products/phone/lumia820/specifications/ but just to sum up here are the key features, or at least the ones I was interested in when choosing a handset -
Software platform - Windows 8
Screen size - 4.3"
Removable battery - 15 days standby 15.4 hrs talktime
RAM - 1GB
Mass Memory - 8GB
Micro SD port, takes up to 64GB memory card
Camera 8.7MP with flash
It has in built a number of applications to get you started, such as maps, weather, train times etc. All of these can be removed if you wish, which is great as other handsets I've owned have their starter apps locked to the phone and even if you'll never use them, you can't get rid of them. Of course, you can also add new applications too and there's plenty of storage to keep going and going.
Windows phones are very much geared to working on the move and a it has office software to create, download and view files on the go. I tend to only use it for viewing as I find creating emails tedious enough on a phone and personally don't have the patience to start making spreadsheets on a 4.3" touchscreen whilst sitting on the train. It is good though, to be able to view attachments to emails and the like and save them to your phone to have with you to refer to.
~Adapting to your needs~
Customising is very easy. It will look a little odd to start with if you've never used a Windows 8 phone before as the main 'start' or home screen menu is made up of blocks which act as the icons to which ever content you decide to keep there. To move the blocks around, you simply hold and drag, very similar to using a PC. A swipe to the left will bring up a list of all other applications and features on your phone and you can add or remove these to the home screen. I probably jiggle around the layout every month or so as I may start to use some features more than others.
Nokia makes a big thing about the cameras on their Lumia phones. This model has a high 8.7MP camera. I use my SLR to take 'proper' photos but obviously don't have it on me all the time. I was excited to have a reasonable quality camera on my phone so I could snap away in the 'aww I wish I had my camera on me' moments and still be good enough for prints.
Unfortunately the camera promises more than it really delivers. Yes, the photos are of a good size but the quality is not really there unless it's perfect light and everything is still etc. The flash is very useful to have if you want to take a photo with minimal light, just for yourself or to record something, but you won't get anything you'd want to frame. Fine for night out Facebook pics though! It does have settings for low light, night portrait etc but none of them really achieve anything and often using the appropriate 'scene' only achieves a worse result than on auto.
I have been quite impressed with the videos I've shot with the phone. You can zoom to begin with but not during shooting. It records well with sound, and can keeps going for as long as you have memory for.
Music and sound quality
It's very easy to download, or transfer music, video and games from a computer. The 'Music and Video' section stores your files under 'music', 'videos' and 'podcasts' for ease of finding everything. There is a useful 'most recent' feature for finding your current favourites rather then searching though everything.
I have to say I haven't played around with the music section a great deal. I already have all my music on my ipod so don't really use my phone for this, however if my ipod ever gets dropped in the bath or trodden on the way it's predecessors have, I will probably avoid replacing it and use the phone instead. The storage capacity is more than ample, with being able to add up to 64GB of additional memory. Earphones are supplied with the phone which are black, reasonable quality ear bud type and, unlike the old days, they use the standard jack to plug into the phone so you can use any earphones you wish.
The sound quality overall is very good. Without the earphones, watching video / playing music the sound goes up to to 30 points and at home, I can easily watch a video with a sound on around 5 and even on the higher volume, the sound does not distort of go too tinny. Even still, please don't play your music out loud on the bus...it's really annoying.
This good sound quality also means that the phone is easy to hear when it rings, and I don't tend to fiddle to much with the ring volume. If it's on loud it's on 30 and if it's on silent, it's on silent. You can choose to have the vibrate with the ring or just vibrate on it's on. I don't use the vibrate on silent as it makes more of a noise that a shake, which kind of defeats the purpose.
The built in ringtones range from dull to outdated to embarrassing, best to download some of your own. One exception is a cat meow alert, which is fun for me, not so fun for my dog who is still looking for that cat.
The Lumia 820 uses Internet Explorer 10 as the browser and there's not a lot you can do about that. It's not my browser of choice for my PC but actually, it's been more than adequate on my phone so far. It's simple to use and to flick between tabs, bring up history and favourites and you can pin links to your home screen for a nice shortcut.
The search engine inbuilt is bing and this can be accessed by the magnifying glass hot key at the bottom of the screen. I use this so often, much more that I thought I would.
The phone uses the now standard charger, with the USB lead plugging into the 3 pin so no need for two leads. I'm so pleased they've standardised phone chargers, save money and hassle for everyone... but wait, Nokia have something else up their sleeves.
The Lumia 820 is capable of wireless charging. There is a component in the back of the case which allows you to charge without plugging anything is. Neat and wire free. There is a catch... they don't supply the wireless charger, you'll have to buy that separately. Which I haven't on principle.
The only extra I have been temped to buy is a different colour back for my phone. In all the ads they show the phone with a funky red or blue or purple surround but on the cheaper providers they tend to only supply the black option. Extra shells are fairly pricey - around £20. I bought what I thought was a cheaper copy on ebay but was in actual fact an extra case to go round the existing one rather than instead of. Using is made the phone very chunky and cheap looking so I ditched it in the end. It's very hard to tell from the pictures of a lot of the online products so best to buy on a shop or go for the official stuff.
This is not Nokia's latest handset, it was launched in 2012 and it still holds up to newer phone in terms of performance. A handset alone at the time writing will cost you around £200 but if you're going for a contract there are many deals where you get this phone chucked in. I got mine through Tesco Mobile around 4 months ago on a £20 per month 'free phone' contract. I think it's good value for money. I can't think of anything else I would want a phone to offer me right now to justify spending more on any of the newer models. The 820 ticks most boxes.
Overall, a good reliable phone, reasonable if not amazing camera, good sound quality, easy to use, attractive. The only downside for me is that it is on the heavy side given it's size. Recommended.
Swagbucks.com is a US based reward site which gives it's users a virtual currency called 'Swagbucks' for activity through the site, which can be saved up and converted into vouchers or used to enter Swagbucks competitions. The site has been going since 2008 and I hopped on the swagwagon around 6 months ago.
Getting started and earning bucks
To start off with, you need to set up a Swagbucks account and pick a 'swagname', or username much like on dooyoo. You're then ready to go. The site can look a little daunting at first, and a lot of the ads on the front page can look like a load of spam but anything that's a paid offer or requires you filling in your details will be clear, and I've had no problems from a safety point of view on the site. A lot of these ads on the homepage will be directing you to ways to earn swagbucks and there are a number of these -
Searching the web -
The easiest and most rewarding way to earn with the least time put in. There is no guarantee that you will earn anything for using swagbucks as your search engine as the swagbucks awarded for searches are done randomly and can range from modest amounts such as 5 or 6 bucks or even 40 or 50 if you're lucky. I have installed the swagbucks toolbar which I use for searching so that I don't have to go through the site every time and don't forget to use them in order to always be in with a chance of earning some bucks, what's more they give you one buck a day just for using it. Whilst it is random, I will always get one reward for searching a day and obviously, the more you search, the more chances you get. The search engine itself isn't bad and usually finds me what I need. You might need to scroll down a little more than in google for example and there are a fair amount of sponsored links as you would expect from a site of this nature. I still use google for general searches from time to time, and for image searches, maps and shopping.
Daily Poll / NOSOs/ Swagbucks TV
These are all features that allow you to earn small amount of bucks for little effort.
The daily poll is exactly what you'd expect, simply cast your vote for one swagbuck - hardly high earning but for one click, you can't really complain. You can also suggest ideas for polls to swagbucks - they can be on anything - and if your idea is used they'll reward you with swagbucks. I've tried a few times but have never been chosen.
NOSOs (No Obligation Special Offers) - These are just a series of thumbnail ads for things such as online casinos, bingo and the like. Just click the arrow to say you've seen them and they'll reward you with 2 bucks. As the name suggests you don't have to sign up to anything or even click on the ad at all.
Swagbucks TV is an area of the site which features short videos to watch in return for bucks. This is a little more time consuming, with videos ranging for seconds to minutes and you have to watch 10 in order to earn 3 bucks. Subjects range for celebrity facts to cookery demos and exercise classes. Occasionally there is something that will catch my eye and I will watch a video but more often I would just click it to start and let it run on a tab while I get on with other things. Not really the idea but I'm sure I'm not the only one. Even doing this gets a little tedious and this isn't a feature I use very often.
This is a part of the site I stayed away from for a while as it looks fairly complicated. Don't be put off to begin with by the tournament aspect of the games. All of the games on the site are also free to play. There are a good range of arcade style games, words puzzles and memory games. If you're like me and prefer things like tetris to Grand Theft Auto, you'll be happy but don't expect anything fancy.
Playing games for free, you'll get 2 swagbucks for every second go up to a maximum of 10. Not really something to do for the bucks but if you fancy a game of something, nice getting rewarded a little for doing so.
Of course if you get good, you might want to start entering the tournaments. Here, you can use your pot of swagbucks to enter tournaments and win more, or indeed lose them. Costs can start at a low 2 swagbucks up to 100 for the big winners. I've tried a few of these and have won a prize once but overall, lost more than I earned so gave up. It's probably profitable if you're really good at a particular game, but it's essentially gambling.
Swagbucks offer a generous amount of swagbucks for completing surveys. These can range from 50 swagbucks up to 300 sometimes. The daily survey is always worth 70 swagbucks and there is a limit to how many participants they need, so you need get to it early. This is true of a lot of the surveys and annoyingly it can lock you out of a survey after completing half of it saying they now have enough candidates. Very frustrating. When I started using swagbucks I earned a good amount from surveys but more recently, the swagbucks have never appeared in my account. It seems to be a regular occurrence as they are often posting Facebook updates and blog posts to say they are working on issues with swagbucks not tracking for surveys. I don't tend to do them very often now. Excellent way to boost your balance though...when they work.
This is an area of the site I only briefly visited and completed a few tasks for a small amount of swagbucks. Tasks such as searching for answers to questions and the like are time consuming and swagbucks, I think, is a little harsh with what it decides is not up to scratch, and I found this whole area frustrating.
This works very much like a cashback site, by clicking through swagbucks to online shops and shopping as you would normally earns you swagbucks. I did this just once and my bucks didn't track. Most of the retailers are US based, but they are slowly adding more UK sites. The thing is, most of these sites featured in swagbucks shopping are on cashback sites anyway and I'd rather go through topcashback and get money rather than swagbucks.
Very hour on the swagbucks blog they announce a random winner that gets 1000 swagbucks. Though it's not automatic. If you are that winner you need to see your name announced and claim your prize. I don't know how often this happens, but I doubt very often. You can also enter 'swagstakes' - by paying so many swagbucks to enter you can win high value prizes. Not something that's tempted me to try, but they like to push this.
These are a nice little feature. On the blog, twitter page or facebook page, they will often feature codes to enter on the site. If you spot one, enter in the box and you will be rewarded. Most codes are only worth 3 or 4 swagbucks but sometimes more.
What's a swagbuck worth?
There's no easy answer to this question - it all depends what you want to spend them on. As I mentioned, you can use them a kind of swagbucks currency to enter competitions or play tournament games. When you want to cash out, there are various things to spend on.
In the rewards page of the swagbucks site there are a list of all the vouchers you can 'buy' with your swagbucks. Most of these places are again, US based, but they are adding more UK retailers here too. Amazon is always a good one, and I tend to save mine up for these. A £5 Amazon giftcard will cost 849 swagbucks, but the more you save up, the cheaper it is to buy the higher value cards, for example the £25 card is 4199 swagbucks. You can also choose paypal giftcards, which I guess you can then withdraw as cash but these are more expensive at 999 swagbucks for a £5 card and 4949 for a £25 one.
The other hassle with cashing out is the verification step. The first time, you cashout your swagbucks, you will need to be verified. The only way of doing this in the UK is to have a postcard sent by airmail to the UK with a code to enter on the site. There is also no warning you'll need to do this before you go to withdraw, so if you want it for something special, worth doing this a bit in advance. To be fair to them, they were speedy in sending it out and I received my card in under a week, but once the withdrawal is requested it then takes another few dates to get your voucher code.
Swagbucks markets itself as rewarding you for the things you do anyway and I think this is how it should be treated. It's very tempting to see 'free money' and spend a stupid amount of time and effort on survey that don't track, boring, low earning videos and expensive tournament games. If you use it to search the web, install the toolbar, look out for codes and do the daily poll when you're online then it will slowly reward you for no extra time or effort on your part. I've accrued around 6,000 bucks in the last 6-7 months or so which have been a few free Amazon vouchers for me.
A worthwhile site to join, but beware of it guzzling time for little reward in some areas.
This 'review' is more therapy for me than anything else as I have just returned from failing my driving test a second time. This time, as with the last, my nerves got the better of me and bumping up a kerb as my manoeuvring skills (or lack of) were scrutinised as a frustrated motorist watched and waited for me to get on with it meant curtains for this attempt to turn my little photocard from green to pink.
I guess I wasn't ready to be let loose out on my own. As my instructor said, sometimes you can be let off for mistakes such as this if the rest of your driving is spot on, but it's all about whether the examiner thinks you'll get by overall on your own out there on the increasingly more complicated British roads. Turns out, I won't. Not yet anyway. I guess it's better to be a nervous driver to begin and grow into a confident one, rather than be over cocky from the start. I've definitely encountered a few of those over cocky drivers and am often bemused how some people out there already managed to get their pink card at all. The problem is, each knock back at failing a test only knocks my driving confidence, the one thing that's stopping me passing. A vicious circle.
Beginning the learning process...
Going back a bit, I took my first driving lesson about 10 years ago now. Now, I haven't been learning ever since don't worry. If I had, I'd know to give up by now and embrace our hit and miss local buses. I started to learn, really because it was the thing to do. I wanted a car and to get from A to B, but I don't think back then I wanted to LEARN, I just wanted to drive and that's the big difference.
I started learning with an instructor personally recommended to me. My friend was already learning with him and her brother had recently passed his test after also learning with him. Generally speaking, this is the best way to go. With most services you're going to invest your money in, whether it be builders or driving instructors, recommendation is often the best way to pick. I have to say though, there's no guarantee that because someone you know has done well with them, you will too.
Learning to drive and in fact learning in general, is a very personal thing and we all learn in different ways and indeed better from different people. I personally didn't get on so well with this instructor, and in hindsight should have switched earlier than I did. In the end I felt I was making little progress and although it was clear I was no natural, didn't feel I was getting the encouragement I needed. So called it quits.
I don't NEED to drive, do I?
Last year I decided to give the whole driving thing another go. A lot older, and hopefully wiser, I had my own place, solid relationship, good job, even a dog. I still haven't found my maternal instinct so we'll leave that life land mark alone for now, but I felt a little run around was the independence I was missing.
I had managed perfectly fine up until now with public transport, lifts from friends and my 'oh so used to walking everywhere' feet though there had been increasingly more instances of 'if only we had a car' and 'this would be so much easier with a car.' Things like the weekly shop - my saving grace is the online grocery deliveries that most supermarkets now offer, as getting home on the bus or walking with endless carrier bags is just a faff and quite often, for example coming up to Christmas, simply impossible to carry everything. Even this would be improved if I could do it myself, browse a bit, not have to pay the delivery cost, or wait in for it to arrive.
I live just outside London and you'd have thought the public transport would be pretty good. The trains are pretty good and I commute to work, however it's one of those towns where the station is a way from the main town and I have a bout a 30 minute walk before I get on a train, so chopping that hour off my day would be amazing. The buses are regular (if not entirely sticking to the timetable) to the main two towns either side but getting any where a little more out of the way is somewhat complicated and time consuming. The time factor is a big issue, understandably they need to serve a range of people but it does turn a 15 minute drive into a 45 minute journey. In addition to this is the ever spiralling cost. I now pay £7 return for a 6 mile journey on my local bus. An annual ticket to get to the same area - two stops along the line by train - is still over £1,000. True, driving is an expensive business- tax, insurance, petrol, parking not to mention the car itself to consider but I'm afraid public transport just isn't good enough or cheap enough to make it an attractive alternative forever.
Getting back in the driving seat...
This time I drew up my own criteria of what I was looking for in an instructor. I decided to do the exact opposite of what I had last time. I looked for a female instructor, obviously in my area and price I could afford, and also I decided to try learning automatic. This was on the advice of a friend who had been driving automatic forever and said it's great for people who aren't really natural at driving, by taking away one less thing to think about took a weight of her shoulders and made a real difference when she learned.
It sounds silly, but I was almost embarrassed to admit I was learning in an automatic car, it seems to be a bit of a dirty word among drivers in the UK, and you certainly would never admit to it if you were in audience of Top Gear, you'd get beaten! Over the pond however, it's the norm and I remember a great scene in a later of episode of House where Wilson has a go at driving House's sport car, yelling "I can't drive stick!" Neither can I, Wilson and I don't care.
I was getting on much better with the omission of the 'stick' and the ability to 'creep' that driving an automatic gives you helped a lot with my manoeuvres and mastering the art of slow driving. More to the point, I was actually enjoying the learning process this time and each new thing mastered gave me a real buzz. This time I wanted to learn AND wanted to drive. Alas, after the failing of my first test my driving instructor was heavily pregnant and about to go on leave so I switched instructors again and had to get to grips with a new car, something that really dented my confidence yet again as I had to learn to re judge distances etc with this new shape and size and some of the stuff I had down, I now was struggling with again.
Thankfully, the driving theory tests have not been too much of an issue for me. First time around, I passed this first time however you only have two years to complete practical exam other wise you need to take it again. So take it again I did, and passed again... first time. Everything is so much easier in theory... right?!
A couple of months on with car and instructor number 3 and we're facing practical test number 3. Maybe 3 is the magic number.. let's hope so. I have to say I get on best with this instructor than them all. His jokey, encouraging, positive manner are slowly but surely turning me into a much more confident driver. Saying things such as "Come on, this is learner driver speed, you don't want people to think you're a learner do you?" rather than, "Speed up you're going to slow" is exactly the sort of direction I respond to, and until now I didn't even know it. Just goes to show, it's all about the teacher.
Ok, so I've not passed yet so perhaps not the best person to take advice from, but if you want to learn from my mistakes this is what I'd say to people thinking of learning to drive.
*By all means try manual first, after all, there are more options out there for you when you pass. I won't go in to all the arguments between manual and automatic but if you really are someone who struggles with the "patting your head and rubbing your tummy" aspect of driving, don't rule out trying automatic and don't let the petrolheads make you feel bad for doing so.
*Put some thought into choosing your instructor. Ask friends for recommendations, but ultimately decide what type of person you are going to get the most from. If you have to have a few trial lessons do so, but don't be afraid to say this isn't working and try someone else.
*Don't get down if you're just not getting it. I really started to beat myself up at the start. I consider myself a fairly intelligent person with a good deal of common sense so why can I not grasp this everyday activity that millions of other people seem to be able to do? I came away feeling very stupid after some lessons. You're not stupid, it's genuinely a really hard thing to do, there is a lot to remember and I've had a lot of conversations about driving the last year - it would seem being a natural is actually not that common.
*Think of the cost. Learning to drive is expensive. I guess the only plus to this is it will get you prepared for the expense of owning a car. My lessons cost £26.50, the cost of taking your theory test £31 and your practical £62. In addition to this, your instructor will often have a higher fee for test day that covers the use of the car for the test. I have had friends who've stopped and started because they've realised how expensive it is. To get good, you need to keep going so bear all this in mind and work out the money side.
*Keep at it! Failed? So what? Try again. Maybe a cliché, but it's a pretty good motto for life, not just driving.
UPDATE - 02/01/14
I'm pleased to say driving test number 3 was a success - thanks for all the encouraging comments.
'Winter Wonderland' is a temporary theme park type set up held in Hyde Park every year over the Christmas period. It's got a large ferris wheel, various rides, circus, ice rink and numerous festive stalls and food and drink vendors. In 2013 it opened on 22nd November is open everyday exclusive of Christmas day, until 5th January 2014. My work colleagues had been going on about WW the last few years, and seem to count down the days until it's on. So this year, I went on the first weekend to find out what all the talk was about.
We went to Marble Arch tube, and one of the entrances to Winter Wonderland is just a 2 minute walk from there. Other tube stops nearby are Green Park and Hyde Park Corner. Also easily accessible by bus and, well it's central London so you're never stuck for transport. Just don't drive, it makes no sense as you won't save any time or money and good luck finding that parking space.
The actual site is free to enter but don't be fooled into it being a nice free day out. All the attractions cost extra. Here's a few examples -
Ice Skating - Adult £10.50 (off peak) - £14.50 (peak) / Child £8.50 (off peak) £9.50 (peak)
Ice Kingdom - Adult £7.00 (off peak) - £9.00 (peak) / Child £5.00 (off peak) £7.00 (peak)
Giant Wheel - Adult £7.00 (off peak) - £8.00 (peak / Child £5.00 (off peak) £6.00 (peak)
Circus - Prices from £6
Fairground rides - average £3
There is a full price list for all the main attractions on the Winter Wonderland website including Family tickets and details of concessions. You can either buy tickets for the attractions online before you go and save yourself the queuing, or at the various vendors around the site which can get rather busy at peak times. As you can see it can easily add up to a costly day out.
What's worth doing /not doing?
I guess, it depends what you're into. There are a good selection of rides for thrillseekers which throw you up in the air and whizz you round at a million miles and hour, which if they has a 'pay once and everything is included' ticket, I'd probably taken advantage of but a £3 a go and a heap of queuing to boot... nah.
The ice skating is always a favourite at Christmas time, and of you're nearby or visiting anyway and fancy getting you skates on then why not? I wouldn't make a special trip, however. With lots of pop up ice rinks in and around London with much more impressive views and atmosphere such as Somerset House, The Tower of London and Hampton Court to name a few, Winder Wonderland's offering isn't really up there with the best.
The Giant Wheel and the Ice Kingdom are the more worthwhile attractions and have a bit more 'wonder' to them than the rest. The Ice Kingdom has impressive ice sculptures while the giant wheel will give you a views over the park - but it's a bit chilly at the top!
Maybe I'm getting a bit old for the main attractions because the main draw for me was the food and markets. The food is mainly based on the German Christmas markets so expect plenty of sausages, hog roast, beer, hot chocolates, waffles and warming boozy concoctions. The food here is pretty good, thought not a lot of variety. The markets were also a let down, not nearly as may stalls as I was lead to believe and again, a lot of the same. Once again I wouldn't advise a special trip to Hyde Park for these as there a far more superior Christmas markets about.
But it gets you in the Christmas spirit...right?
Well I have to say, no... not really. The element are there - the pretty lights, the smells from the stalls, but it's just lacking in atmosphere. I think it's become a bit of a victim of it's own success because it's so popular you simply can't move for people. Looking at some of the stalls is almost impossible and just as you're about to take a swig of your eggnog, it's likely to get poured all over you as you get elbowed from all sides. Also it's a pretty big site and it's tiring being on your feet all day. I think if the organisers want people to spend a decent amount of time there they need to think about some more seating areas as trying to find somewhere to park your bum is pretty impossible. Even without the crowd rage though, I think they have overstepped festive and ended up with tacky.
Overall, Winter Wonderland is a one stop shop for festive attractions, though the quality and atmosphere is compromised and there are many other places doing the festive thing much more effectively. As I took the painfully slow walk back to the tube in the crowd of zombie like visitors, I could only feel relief to be out of there plus a good measure of Bah Humbug.
More information - http://www.hydeparkwinterwonderland.com
Another box set to binge watch? Yeah!!
There have been a lot of excellent new series in the past few years and generally they have lived up to the hype for me. The latest show I have tried out is US channel AMC's 'The Walking Dead.' It's first pilot season aired in 2010 and it's up to number 4 so I'm a little behind but I've had other things to binge watch (It's a thing now, it's in the dictionary!)
Zombies? ..But wait, haven't we heard this story before?
'The Walking Dead' is yet another take on the zombie apocalypse plot and I've seen enough of this kind of thing to wonder just how the makers could find a fresh take on the idea and more impressively keep enough story and intrigue for 5 seasons?! Apparently they had though because everyone is still talking about it and I've seen endless flawless reviews. One selling point for me was that the lead is taken by the fantastic London born Andrew Lincoln, who I've only ever seen be great in whatever he does. All sounds good so far...
Setting the scene and building the suspense....
The opening credits to 'The Walking Dead' are fantastic, really setting the scene and building suspense. I think with all these series that go on for a good few seasons, it's important to have iconic credits that stir up the excitement for the next instalment and ultimately don't get boring. They can also stir up real nostalgia when it's all over and later on you hear that opening bars again. Top marks for TWD's intro, the faces of the characters in broken pictures frames, shots of the deserted streets all to a fast orchestral score promises a lot of drama to come.
TWD starts with Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes played by Andrew Lincoln, getting shot in a shoot out after a pretty over the top and unrealistic car chase. I guess it wanted to start it off with a bang so we'll let some of that go. Anyways, Rick is taken into hospital and the next he knows he wakes up and everyone is gone. The hospital is filled with corpses and there is no one living around. Of course this doesn't last for long or it would be a pretty dull show and slowly but surely, Rick encounters more survivors and together they embark on the quest to find answer to how the world came to be over run with the dead or rather the undead and a safe place to settle whilst battling the flesh seeking "walkers" (TWD speak for zombies) along the way.
First things first, Andrew Lincoln with an American accent is weird. I can't decide whether the accent itself is terrible or whether it's ok and it's just the acting as a whole that's shocking (probably the latter but I'll get to that in a minute.) I thought, and hoped, this would wear off after the initial shock and a few episodes in he's be Rick Grimes and not Andrew Lincoln talking strangely - didn't happen. His character Rick Grimes, is the central character to the story, likeable and trying to do the best by everyone. Incredibly attractive which also helps with a hero type character, but unfortunately, ultimately a little dull.
...his stupid bunch of friends...
The rest of the zombie dodging ensemble is made up of fellow officer Shane Walsh played by John Bernthal, Grimes' family - wife Lori played by Sarah Wayne Callies and son Carl (or horribly pronounced Caarrrl) played by Chandler Riggs. In addition are a varied bunch - male, female, black, white, asian, old, young - seems like after the zombie apocalypse they had a conveniently evenly proportioned cross section of the community left.
The thing they all have in common though, is that they are really stupid. Maybe the idiotic choices they make are to make us yell at the TV and heighten the drama as they get themselves into more and more ridiculous pickles - it can be the only explanation. I have lost count of the amount of times I've shouted 'Noooo! Why would you do that?!' True I've never been in their shoes but similarly I've been chased by a man in a mask and a big knife, but when watching a slasher film, I'd like to think I'd run out the door and not up the stairs.
You see with a disaster film like this, the audience has to want these survivors to continue to do just that, survive, but when presented with people this dumb, I can only think they've kinda got it coming.
Or the 'Walkers' as our super sharp troops refer to them. Of course, they don't just walk - they jump, climb, crawl, run, swim... in fact they are a lot more agile than any undead I've seen depicted in any other apocalyptic tale. I'm not saying that's wrong, of course no one truly knows what capabilities a zombie would have. TWD has been highly praised for the 'realism' of the walkers. I have to say the gory effects and make up, prosthetics is excellent and I can't complain about that part - realism? Er, thankfully I've never come face to face with a zombie so can't really comment there.
... Do Zombies like ham? Maybe that's the problem here!...
I have been trying to work out whether Andrew Lincoln is bad in this, but actually I think it's just the way he and indeed TWD has been directed, because the whole cast are as bad. I know Andrew Lincoln to be a good actor so I can't imagine everyone else involved is also this bad. The problem is everything is overacted, hammed up to the point where it's just all a bit silly. There are lots of lingering camera shots of horrified expressions and some of the near misses as another survivor is saved from the clutches of the undead really wouldn't have been so near if they didn't spend so long exclaiming about and posing about it rather than run or smash the damn thing in the head.
Having said all this about the core cast the zombie actors are fantastic - seriously - full marks for being gormlessly horrifying.
I guess it's hard to make this sort of drama seriously - I mean zombies are funny, that's why spoofs such as Shaun of the Dead work so amazingly well. While they have tried here to give the characters some depth - there's a love triangle and some blossoming potentially complicated relationships and friendships between the characters, it all gets a bit lost among the ridiculousness of the situation. The attempt to give the characters some back story as they share tales about their childhood comes across very schmaltzy - there is a particular scene in which two sisters are fishing and realise that their father has taught them to fish differently as he knew one would want to take the fish home and another to throw them back - of course they both end up in tears, as do I nearly but more out of despair than heartfelt emotion.
If I came back to consciousness in a hospital where everyone else was either dead, a zombie or vanished, I'd really want to know how it all came about, how long it had been going on and, well a kind of run down of recent events to get me up to speed. What bothers me is Rick Grimes seems to just accept all this and not once does his quiz the other survivors about the possible causes of such an epidemic. There are many other similarly puzzling holes in this story, such as how come they all can go on for days, weeks and rarely does anyone eat or drink? How come they are always clean shaven?
Some of the bigger questions and unfinished business is clearly put there on purpose and there are various characters that are 'lost' throughout the journey - there whereabouts no doubt will be revisited at a later date. It seems even in this short first series TWD was expected to go on for a lot longer as there are a lot of ideas planted and not explored sub plots to be tied up. At least I hope that's why some of these things have happened and not that they will just get forgotten about.
...Onto Series two...
As you would expect the finale of season one leaves it wide open to be continued. While I think that it's generally a pretty poor show, I hate myself for wanting to know what happens and still clinging onto the hope that it will get better. I considered throwing in the towel at the painfully slow start to Breaking Bad and was rewarding for my patience in buckets so maybe I should listen to the people who say to stick with it. I will - but I feel cheap and angry at myself for doing so. I'll let you know how it goes.
My Nan was a really keen traveller and managed to get to see an impressive 82 countries in her time. After she passed away few years ago, my Mum and I decided we would use the money she left us to tick a few more off the list for her. First on the list was a 'must do' for both of us and had also been on my Nan's list for a very long time : Galapagos.
Galapagos is a group of islands off the coast of Ecuador, in South America. The islands are famous for it's many endemic species and the part they played in Charles Darwin's research for his 'Origin of Species.'
Just a short flight, a boat and a jeep through the jungle : FLIGHTS AND TRANSFERS
We visited Galapagos on a package in which we spent a few days in Quito and Guayaquil on the mainland of Ecuador. This is quite common with trips to Galapagos as you will need to get a domestic flight from one of the mainland airports to San Cristobel, or more likely, Baltra airport and then a bus to the dock and a boat to your destination, most likely the island of Santa Cruz which houses The Charles Darwin Research Station and the main tourist area with shops, restaurants and hotels. We did the journey from dock to town by 4x4 and it was our first glimpse at the wonderful world of Galapagos. The collection of pelicans at the dock were our first wildlife spot and they would turn out to become very popular throughout the trip. The journey itself takes around 45 minutes going at a reasonable speed. After a long journey when you're hot, thirsty and tired it might have seemed like a chore anywhere else but that 45 minute journey is little a fast forward snapshot of what Galapagos is all about. From the beautiful coast, we pass seemingly endless fields of cactus up into the leafy highlands where the weather changes in the blink of an eye. Our guide tells us to look back down the road and you can see a clear line in the sky where the climate suddenly changes. Back down into the town on the other side and we are back in sunshine. Bizarre and amazing.
What to do for the best? : TOURISM IN GALAPAGOS
Tourism is growing to Galapagos and it's a difficult situation that the people find themselves in. The money is needed to keep the research going into it's unique wildlife and protect it's future so every penny spent from the visitors is welcomed. On the other hand, it's important to keep the tourism fairly modest and keep the unspoilt, non inhabited islands just that. I was surprised just how much there was in Puerto Ayora, the capital. It's not big, but there are a fair amount of tourist shops and bars. Thankfully, it's all fairly in keeping and no modern glass buildings or chain stores have appeared...yet. I guess I was expecting one or two shops and as many small hotels for visitors. People don't visit Galapagos to be pampered or for the night life, it's just not that sort of holiday but I guess the local people need amenities too.
There are a few hotels and we were lucky enough to stay in one of the nicest, Hotel Siberstein which is in the heart of Puerto Ayora and minutes from the Research Station. The hotels aren't the most modern, but the people will do everything they can to make you as happy and comfortable as possible. Of anywhere I've been I haven't met a community so friendly, proud and enthusiastic about where they live, and you can't help but see why.
I think we were lucky to find a package holiday in which we stayed on Santa Cruz and were able to explore a little on foot as we pleased. The vast majority of Galapagos holidays are cruises. True that an increase in ocean liners cruising around the islands isn't without its problems but it does tackle the problem of allowing people to see this amazing place without having the need to keep building in order to accommodate.
As you would imagine, the limit to tourism puts the cost up. This really is a once in a lifetime deal for most people that visit as it is not cheap. Expect to pay around £4,000 from the UK for a two week break - and as I mentioned it's unlikely the full itinerary will be spent on the islands.
Charles Darwin and what he tortoise : THE CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH STATION
The one place everyone needs to visit is The Charles Darwin Research Station. We stayed round the corner and so visited here on our first afternoon and walked back in an amazing Galapagos sunset.
The station is a centre in which Ecuadorian and foreign scientists are constantly researching the islands incredible ecosystems and working on conservation projects to sustain it's future.
One of the most iconic animals associated with Galapagos is the Giant Tortoise. Here at the station they breed them an reintroduce them to their native island. There are a number of different species that have lived or do live on the islands and the aim is to keep every one going. We saw babies from six weeks old to the famous and recently deceased Lonesome George. He died last year and was known to be over 100 years old but his true age remains a mystery. The real tragedy of George's death was that he was the rarest animal in the world - the very last of his kind. I am so pleased to have seen him, though admittedly, not the best view. By then the celebrity lifestyle had taken it's toll and he preferred to chill out and the back of his enclosure rather than come up and see his adoring public.
Recently they have discovered on Pinta Island, the island George was native to, a surviving sub species of George so hopefully they can breed some cousins and keep a little of his legacy going.
Even without George, I recommend a visit to the station if you come to Galapagos. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable and I challenge you to pose them a question about the islands and wildlife that they don't know the answer to. It is good to visit early in your trip too, before you get out an experience the wildlife for yourself as it gives you some good history and background information and help to identify some of the species as you come across them.
Sun, Sharks and lots of boobies: No, not a low budget horror film, EXPLORING GALAPAGOS
Right you're off the explore and find those amazing species you've heard so much about up close. Got your camera, good comfy shoes, guide book, all set? Without trying to sound like your mother, make sure you slap on a shedload of sunblock and if you have one, one of those fetching hats with a string underneath (the boats get breezy.) I experienced the worst sunburn I have ever had on my first day out on the islands and it made me very uncomfortable for the rest of the trip (especially that itchy 11 hr flight where I was shedding faster than the island's reptiles). There is no shade and, once on the islands, little breeze either. Think about it, this is a place where some of the world's biggest cold blooded animals thrive, it's going to be a little toasty.
We visited three islands in total, Santa Cruz where we stayed, North Seymour and the tiny Plaza Island. These are relatively close together and we didn't venture as far a some of the bigger islands such as San Cristobel and Isabela which have a lot of the impressive volcanic scenery seen in many Galapagos documentaries. This is a shame, but it was simply a matter of time - whilst Galapagos doesn't seem vast, it would take most of a day by boat to get to some of the outer islands and as a lot are uninhabited, it's not something you are really able to do unless you do a cruise.
~Santa Cruz/Tortuga Bay~
The islands we saw house a lot of the most famous and impressive species, so whilst we didn't cover a lot of ground we saw an impressive amount of wildlife. If you're based on Santa Cruz, you don't have to go far to see some wildlife. On route to the Research Centre we saw a few marine iguanas sunning themselves by side of the road, but in order to see them on mass we took a long hot, but well worth it walk, (with guide of course) to Tortuga Bay... probably the most beautiful stretch of coast I've ever seen, with amazing sandy beach and mangroves. The less assuming wildlife is fascinating enough as you will often see tiny brightly coloured lava lizards scuttling along the paths and sandpipers scurrying in and out of the waves. If you love your animals as I do this will give you as much pleasure as seeing the 'headliners'. We walked through a sleeping mass of marine iguanas, oblivious and unbothered by this group of tourists cooing over them and taking photos. After our 5k walk we were rewarded by a dip in a secluded lagoon off the bay which was buoyant and cool and refreshing. I could have happily floated there forever.
Our trip to the highlands was less fruitful. We were in search of giant tortoises and it was torrential rain that afternoon (though quite possibly bright sunshine by the shore given the amazing 'double climate.') After a trek through some of the wooded areas and only a glimpse of a tortoise who was wisely tucked up, we thought it a pointless exercise and we arrived back at the bus to see one had decided to sit in the road and whilst it provided us with a good view, it had to be shooed on so we didn't run him over. It's probably the case most days and it might not seem to be worth visiting the highlands for the wildlife spotting, it's certainly worth it so see the variation in the Galapagos terrain.
This was the best place for seeing the main species. Before we'd got off the boat, a courting pair of Blue Footed Boobies were displaying on the rocks. The males have a mating dance in which they bring up their amazing bright blue feet and show the females just how colourful they are. You can't help be amused at these gorgeous but funny looking birds and the dance the males perform makes them seem even more bonkers, but I'm sure to the females it's irresistible. It certainly worked for one guy as we were in for a treat as we got off the boat to find a Blue Footed Booby very proudly showing off it's freshly laid egg to it's cooing public. It's truly amazing how accepting they are of humans. Every creature just carries on about it's business without a thought. It's refreshing that these animals have never thought to be cautious of us as they are so well protected here, I only hope they continue to be and never lose this as it's fantastic for us to see them so closely without causing any fear.
The islands visitors are permitted on, there are markers to show you where you can and can not step. You must stay with a guide at all times and they will quickly and firmly tell you if you step out of line. It goes without saying that only people who are truly going to respect these rules and indeed the animals themselves should visit Galapagos.
The boobies really are the stars of Seymour and as we continued around we were treated to more and more courtship displays. This is not to take away from the amazing and beautiful land iguanas that seemed to be lounging under every cactus and the aptly named 'Magnificent Frigatebird' and we were very very lucky to see a chick cuddling up to it's parents.
This small island is the place to go if you want a view of the gorgeous Galapagos Sealion. As we arrived on the island we saw a hareem complete with baby lounging on the shore. A little warning about the sealions, again these guys aren't scared of you and the males are big. If you see one lolloping towards you, you move quick as I did when a male decided the place I was standing was where he wanted to sunbathe. As striking as the bigger animals are the intriguingly named 'Sally Lightfoot crabs' that you will see scurrying around are just as fascinating. Bright bright organgey red, they are stunningly beautiful and I managed to get some fabulous photos of them again the black rocks.
This island isn't one for anyone suffering from vertigo. In order to see the amazing array of seabirds, you need to climb to the top and see them flying to and from the cliff face. We saw a good number of Nascar Boobies (cousins of the blue footed boobies but with a dark mask making them look like robbers), Black Terns, Common Noddys and Lava Gulls.
Of course, it's not just on land that the wildlife live. The marine life of Galapagos was the biggest revelation to me and gave me some of the most memorable moments of the trip and indeed, my life. The first brief but amazing encounter was a turtle poking it's head up from the waves right by our boat. I'd never seen one in the wild and as a favourite animal of mine, it's something I will never forget. Snorkelling is the best way to get close to the marine life, and we went snorkelling from the beach and straight from the boat. If you've ever been snorkelling and swum through a shoal of fish as they split and swim around you, you will know the buzz and joy of this activity. I was a snorkelling virgin before this holiday and I wished I'd started sooner! That was soon topped though, as I came face to face with a stunning Galapagos shark, inches from my nose. Scary for a second but we'd already been told that they are harmless so I kept by him for a few seconds but he soon out swam me. I'll never forget that though. Once in a lifetime.
Eating, Spending, Staying Safe : THE ESSENTIALS
The food we had on Galapagos was excellent, though I think our particular hotel was trying to appeal to our tastes slightly. The breakfasts were the real star of the show as the amazing fresh fruits here are what I will remember most food wise. Seafood is also very good as you would expect and if you are staying on Santa Cruz, make sure you visit the dock around 5pm as the boats come in. The fisherman gut the fish at the dock in case you were in any doubt of the freshness, but more that that it's become somewhat of a tourist must see as there are a few cheeky sealions and pelicans trying there luck to snatch what they can.
Don't drink the water - bottled stuff only and as always be careful with salads etc. We didn't have any trouble with tummy problems but better to be safe.
Currency is dollars and on the islands, souvenirs and the like can be on the pricey side, though is worth a haggle if there is something you like. There is a small market in Puerto Ayora near the dock where some things can be picked up a little cheaper.
Check with you doctor before you go. I only needed one shot prior to my holiday though you may need precautions against things such as Hepatitus A, Diphtheria, Tetanus and Typhoid.
There isn't much I can say about booking trips, getting around etc as most tourist activity here is all arranged trips and package holidays.
To go or not to go?
Galapagos is probably one of those places most people will never go and the ones lucky enough to will only go once. Maybe given the need to protect this unique habitat, that's the way it should be : only one go each. On a selfish note though, if I ever got the chance to revisit I wouldn't hesitate. My trip to Galapagos was the best holiday I have ever had and, I imagine, will ever have. There truly is nowhere else like it and it you love wildlife, it's THE place to go. That said if you don't it really won't be your thing because that's the draw here. There are plenty of other sunny islands to go to if you just want somewhere tropical to relax and chill out, probably for half the price - leave Galapagos for those that really want it. This is also a holiday for people of a reasonable fitness who are good with boats and can handle a good dose of heat. It's hard work, but worth it? For me, no doubt.
For more info visit the website of this great charity : Galapagos Wildlife Trust -
My two Leopard Geckos, like most of my animals, I took in after the couple who had them could no longer care for them - or that should be did not know, neither could be bothered to care for them. I have a male and a female, both were severely undernourished, dirty and dehydrated. The female looked more like a stick insect than a gecko. I think I maybe should have taken a few photos to show a 'then and now' but at the time my only concern was to get them healthy as soon as possible. Luckily, with some food, water, a clean house and a bit of tlc they soon perked up and 6 years on, still have two plump, pampered and very loved little friends.
About Leopard Geckos
Leopard Geckos are a small lizards, though one of the larger species of Gecko. Adults can get up to around 25cm in length. They are native to the desert regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have become one of the most popular types of reptile kept in captivity. They get their name from their spotty 'leopard print' style markings, though with enthusiast breeding, various 'morphs' have been bred to enhance certain colours and even illuminate these markings altogether. They are widely known as very much a 'starter' reptile due to being small and relatively easy to care for. Many have become hooked on reptile keeping after purchasing one or two of these little guys. Unfortunately, this means that as people move on to bigger reptiles, these little lizards might not be exciting enough for some and I have noticed a lot of Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons up for rehoming. If only my house was big enough to take them all in.
First thing first... RESEARCH!
So what advice would I give to someone considering taking on a Leopard Gecko? (or any other animals come to that).... DO YOUR RESEARCH! While my case was a little different, I did do all the reading I could in order to get my guys back to health, even though it was after the event of them arriving in my living room. It was quite clear their previous owners had not done any research however as they didn't even think they needed water! Yes, as reptiles go they are easy to keep but getting the right set up is important, as is feeding them correctly and learning about some of the more unusual things they do and learning what is 'normal' and what isn't, after all this isn't a dog or cat. There are so many good books out there and it's worth buying one so you have a basic go to care guide at hand for anything you might need to look up. The internet,of course, is also a great source of info and just typing in 'Leopard Gecko' into Google will bring up pages and pages of care sheets. Be cautious though and don't just read one, read a lot. As with all internet information sources, don't take every word for the truth and read from a range of sources. Enthusiasts post a lot of instructional videos on YouTube which are worth looking at, and there seems to be a bizarre 'pimp my viv' culture going on as people compete with more and more elaborate set up for their lizards and post videos of them online... perhaps for a bit later on! The best source of info I've found though is forums - talk to other people, read their posts, ask questions. The reptile keeping community seem to be a very friendly and encouraging bunch who can't wait to share their expertise with you.
The other important thing is to look ahead - these guys can live up to 20 years in captivity. Can you be sure you can look after them for that long? Also ask yourself honestly, how interested are you? These guys don't rush around and perform acrobats, they are pretty chilled out and whilst I will still happily watch my little babies for hours on end, I do get why they don't keep everyone hooked.
Where to buy?
Again, this comes down to research. Make sure your seller is reputable, and sells captive bred livestock. Ask them lots of questions and you'll work out whether they know their stuff or not. Again forums are a great way of getting some personal recommendations in your area. Of course, there are also those our there in need of rehoming, and if you are not worried about getting baby this is a good way to go. Occasionally rehoming centres will have reptiles in, but more often it's the small ads where you will find people trying to rehome their pets. Gumtree and preloved are examples of sites with this type of ad, but go and see the animal before sealing the deal, and if you have a friend who knows their stuff to come with you, even better.
This is the big bit to get right and the biggest cost you'll come across. Look at it as an investment, and get it right. These guys don't keep growing like some larger lizards, so get a good vivarium to start with and you shouldn't ever need to buy another. Viv Exotic are the biggest manufacturer of ready made vivariums, but they aren't the best quality. If you do go for one, don't get the budget bottom of the range one. My Leopard Gecko viv is 3ft x 2ft x 1.5ft and it suits them fine. As I said, these guys aren't overly active and as long as they have room for a wander around they don't need a huge mansion, though I wouldn't recommend anything much smaller than mine.
In my guys' tank I have small hollow logs for them to hide in and to provide some shade, a pot plant (check which ones are non toxic, though it's unlikely they will ever eat it), an ornamental branch that they sometimes climb along, a food dish, a water dish and a container filled with moss, which acts are their bathroom. I would arrange the set up so that they have a few places to hide if they wish but no too many, after all you got them to look at and encouraging them to chill out where you can see them is good for both of you! On the bottom, they have calcium substrate, this time it's white, but you can get a never ending range of colours, the sparkly black looks particularly good.
In addition to their various bits of furniture, the most important thing in their crib is their heat source. Unlike a lot of other reptiles, this need not be complicated. I have a 60W reflector bulb in my geckos tank, linked up to a habistat so I can control the heat setting. I turn this up high during the day and down and night to mimick the temperature in the wild.
These guys hunt their prey by sensing movement, therefore they can not eat vegetables or anything dead unless you wiggle it in front of them. The most popular food for Leopard Geckos is crickets, which mine will eat from time to time, though it's not their favourite. The other downside of crickets in they are rather noisy and chirp constantly - even the 'silent crickets'! They can also be a little vicious and I have known them to nip my Geckos on occasion - I know, wrong way round!!
My geckos like locusts best of the hoppy variety of livefood. I will never tire of watching them hunt and it provides much entertainment when they both go for the same one and end up in a 'Lady and the Tramp' moment. In addition to locusts, mine also eat mealworms and their absolute favourite - waxworms. These are essentially caterpillars - the larvae of the greater wax moth. They are high in fatty nutrients and should be fed sparingly but are a very useful food source. It's a bit like giving them a Mars bar.
The problem with live food, as you can imagine, is it dies, often before you get to feed it all to you pets and the best thing to prolong it's shelf life is feed it! You don't need to go out buying food for the food, a few vegetable peelings in the container will be fine to keep them going.
This is probably the biggest responsibility with keeping geckos, and it's worth checking out where stocks live feed near you and find out their delivery days - get it as fresh as you can. A pot of live food can set you back between £2 - £3 and I find we need a box a week, depending on the type of food. You can order online and there are some good sites I've used, but it's probably only worth it if you really have no other source, you're buying in bulk with friends or you have numerous pets because by the time you've paid postage it gets costly and you can not guarantee the quality of the food.
I feed my geckos every couple of days and just give them one or two items each, each time. This is plenty. Don't be tempted to put the whole tub of food in a let them eat as they like. It's important to let them hunt their food, and if it's there all the time, they will lose this instinct.
They don't drink a lot but a small saucer of water should be there at all times. Make you keep an eye on this as with the heat in the viv it can evaporate quickly.
Yes, Leopard Geckos can detach their tails. This is in order to distract a predator in the wild. The tail can go on wiggling after it's detached from the geckos body. The idea being the predator will go after the tail, allowing the gecko to escape. Please don't let this put you off handling your pet. The gecko really doesn't want to do this if it can help it, it's really worst case scenario for them. The tail contains a valuable fat store, much like a camel's humps and so a healthy gecko should have a nice fat tail. It takes them a long time to build this up and they don't really want to get rid of it whenever they get a bit nervous. The tail does grow back but it takes a lot of energy for them to do this and it's never as good a the first one. Often a grown back tail is smaller stumpier and will be noticeably different in pattern and texture the the geckos torso.
In order not to freak the gecko out when you go to pick it up let it know you're coming, open the viv, talk to them and slowly and gently pick it up round the middle. Never grab it by the tail for obvious reasons but don't be scared of touching it gently. As with all animals they sense fear so be confident and they will be a lot calmer. They can be pretty wriggly but they do settle and mine like to snuggle round my neck and steal my warmth. Make sure the room is fairly snuggly and don't have them out so long they get cold. Keep handling them and they will soon get used to it. It's worth making them comfortable with you doing this as if you ever really need to get hold of them, to clean them out or to take them to the vet for example, they won't stress about it.
As will all pets, they sometimes get sick. Luckily, mine so far have been healthy since they have been with me, but I do have a card of a specialist reptile vet that was personally recommended to me should I ever need it and I think that is a must have piece of info for any reptile owner.
There are various ailments geckos are prone to and the most important thing is to get to know your animal. Spend time with them, handle them, watch them eat, note when they shed their skin, how often they go to the toilet and then you will know at the earliest stage if anything is wrong. Those books you bought to start with are a good place to start if you notice any unusual symptoms.
Rewards of keeping them
As you have gathered, hopefully, you learn a lot from keeping reptiles. Their fascinating behaviour such as them eating their skin when they shed, to their squabbles over food that happens to land in front of them both or just the way they watch you watching them makes them, for me, a fantastic pet. The initial set up and livefood buying aside, they are easy to care for and fairly inexpensive.
I find myself going to check on them and finding half an hour has passed just like that watching them. Many Leopard Geckos I have seen in zoos and the like are tucked away or asleep and seem on the surface to be a little boring.
My advice would be to keep them where you spend the most time, that way you don't miss anything they do and they are comfortable and used to you walking past and being around them. Mine are in my living room and are more often then not sitting by the glass, watching me. Who's keeping who here?!
If you give them enough love, they will reward you tenfold. A truly wonderful animal to keep.