So, I wrote a review of the Tesco cafe

I’ll start with a story.  It has the virtue of being amusing and true although it didn’t happen to me.  A friend, let’s call her Mrs A, lives in Hastings/St Leonard’s.  The massive Tesco Extra for the area until recently got by with a small cafe space that had latterly been an unimpressive Costa (more on these things later) and it underwent a refurbishment over the summer.  The day came when the gleaming new cafe was ready and Mrs A, having done her shopping, thought she’d have a restorative coffee and maybe a cake.  The kind of thing that people have in supermarket cafes.  Over she went to the this new place called “Decks” where before even noticing the sign that told her to wait before being seated she was asked, “Have you booked?”

Maybe you had to be there.  But that little episode, weird and wrong though it is, does not even begin to scratch the surface of all the things that do not work about this thing called Decks that is how some bright spark at Tesco imagines its proles want to eat.

So, let’s go through what we like about cafe supermarkets.  These are things that work to greater or lesser degrees if you go to Morrisons, Sainsburys or Asda.  You want a straightforward cheapish cup of tea, coffee or carbonated beverage.  If you want food a small selection of standard cakes or a few standard meals or jackets.  Breakfast baps rather than wide selection of cooked breakfasts.  And you don’t want it to be a burden greater than your weekly shop.  I’ll declare here that I am a habituee of several of these places.  I like the functionality, the reasonable quality, and I like the price.

Now, Decks.

Tesco has dicked around with its cafes.  You don’t often come across one of its nice ‘bogstandard’ places.  If you’re lucky they’ll just have converted into a Costa, if you’re unlucky it’ll be a Harris & Hoole.  In both cases the faux hipster coffee environment is somewhat wrecked by being able to see the home pregnancy kits whilst you’re sipping your slightly too hot americano.  I used to like the straightforward places offering 8 item breakfasts and 70p coffee.  I can just about cope with artisan infiltration although I’d rather be at Asda.  But, Decks.

Let me explain how it ‘works’.

You are shown to a table having waited to be seated.  Honestly.  You can’t just sit down.  You then have to wait to be served.  The server does not bring you food.  Or drink.  The server scribbles down that you want go to the deck (this means you want food) and what drink you’d like.  You then go to the deck.  There is no option here, not really.  It’s either a breakfast deck or, bizarrely, a roast deck.  Like a full-on, proper, Toby Carvery selection. We were there at lunch so it was roast deck.  We could either have a roast in a baguette or roast on a plate and choose our own vegetables and gravy.  What we couldn’t have was a tray.  Decks don’t do trays.  They also, once you’re at the Deck, take away the menu so you can’t even see what few alternatives they are and nor can you see how much it costs.  Bizarrely eight left-over breakfast sausages were being warmed at the end of the ‘deck’ but no one knew what to do with them.

So, we filled up with our Sunday roast when we’d thought we were having a midweek snack.  Our drinks never showed.  Instead, we were brought, several minutes later, two glasses and told to fill our own.  The machine was practically back inside the supermarket.  By now the whole experience was so poor we were wondering how many words it would take to describe how bad it was.  (609 so far and counting).

If you want to know what the food tastes like I’ll explain.  It’s like Toby Carvery have given up.  Go to a Toby and – naffness aside – you get a decent portion and all the food tastes fresh even if it has been flown in frozen from Gdansk.  You also get to be in a pub where this sort of thing makes sense.  This food does not taste fresh, the Yorkshire puddings crunch and the veg and gravy are less than so-so.  This is all so meh.

After we’d partaken of this unexpected, not really wanted, and mediocre-at-best feast, our lovely, smiling waitress asked if we wanted pudding.  You don’t got to a deck for this, you either get a hot pudding brought to you or get given a glass bowl for your sundae to take to an ice cream machine.  It’s basically the kids offering from Pizza Hut.  Gee, thanks, Tesco.  We declined.  Our smiling waitress told us smilingly, as we paid, that many customers don’t seem to ‘get’ Decks.  They come in expecting a Costa, or a normal cafe.  Funny that.

There was absolutely no need to ‘book’ this time.  Lunchtime on a busy day for the supermarket and the place never got busy.  The majority in there had confused expressions like us.  Nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves.

And why would they?  Decks is basically insulting. Creating a restaurant without service and then where self-service comes without a tray, without decent food and without imagination or choice … well, it’s not exactly saying you respect your customers is it?  It’s like a management group has gone, “The core British cuisine is cooked breakfast and Sunday roast so let’s only offer those, and Brits don’t care about things like quality food or good service so let’s take those out.  Now, what’s the bottom line …”  I suspect the profit isn’t bad at all given that this unenjoyable farce cost us just shy of £20.  We could go to a real restaurant at lunchtime for that.

At no point do they seem to have asked why people would actually want to have a cafe in a supermarket.  If they need some answers they should probably visit one Hastings/St Leonard’s other supermarkets that have all stuck to their core idea and which are all busy all day long – and where nobody needs to be reassured by the staff that it’s not really as bad as it seems.


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Glyndebourne Tour: The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne is a remote country house and, on a day when Hurricane Gonzalo blew out its last, it made a suitable setting for this revival production of Britten’s ambiguous operatic adaptation of Henry James’s ambiguous novel about spooksome goings on in a remote country house.  Are the ghosts real?  What are these things of which we cannot speak?  Why is Peter Quint ginger?  All this and more are half-answered as the treble’s voice rises, Malo, Malo

The Turn of the Screw is a novel whose simple telling and comparative short length mask a whole heap of possible meanings and suggestions.  Britten’s opera follows this.  It’s over and done inside two hours, is set for a chamber ensemble and gets by on a half dozen characters in a couple of acts.  But it gets inside you.  It lingers.  Ignoring some of the wilder moral outrage of the characters in the book, Britten’s music (and Myfanway Piper’s libretto) draws only on key scenes.  The ghosts have voice but their motivations are unclear.  Nothing is ever truly explained.  The music that accompanies this never settles but never collapses into total dissonance.  There are tunes, there is beauty but it is surrounded by threat, by malevolence, by forces the characters, possibly not even the ghosts, cannot control.  Naturally, the opera stays true to the source material’s sad ending.  No one wants to walk out smiling.

This production is top drawer, building on that ambiguity.  The house and its environs represented by a giant, multi-framed window that sends lines across the stage, creates shapes.  The world moves in tight circles, the characters vanish into the furniture.  Harsh lights mellow and then glare again.  Shadows are cast everywhere.

The cast, too, do not put a foot wrong.  Of particular note are the children: Thomas Delgado-Little as Miles and Louise Moseley as Flora.  But this is strong throughout – and clearly sung too.  I did not need the surtitles on this occasion, something I wish would be true for more opera when it’s in English.  The sound from the orchestra pit was still strong but not overwhelming at the back of the hall.  (And a note of praise for Glyndebourne here too: this was my first visit and I was on the next to back row.  At other places that would mean a lousy seat, no proper view and dodgy sound.  Here in Sussex all was good – and for a price that would shame many other opera houses (I’m looking at you, ENO).)

All in all, a tremendous production and a very pleasing way to break my Glyndebourne duck.


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A rainbow over rugby (town)

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014 - All rights reserved

There was a debate about whether the chips might come with gravy (they did not to us but apparently special favours can be granted) and about whether the absent Rugby Town goalkeeper really does have a broken toe (unresolved) but what there could be no debate about was that this was a match that poets would have called The Game of the Four Rainbows.

This is half of one of them.  We were heading towards full time and I was back in the main stand.  The one that has the letters “VS” in dark blue against the sky blue of the rest of the block.  VS standing for Valley Sports – Rugby Town’s former name.  The fans still yell “Come on Valley” when feeling particularly exasperated.  They did that a bit today what with their team fluffing a lead twice and almost blowing the game entirely.  2-2 was the final score.

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Film review: Under the Skin

under-the-skin-620x229Reviewing Under the Skin is not a simple thing to do.  It’s a mainstream film that’s more arthouse than a dozen festival entries.  It has a Hollywood star who blends into the Glasgow background.  And it’s adapted from a novel whose plot it barely acknowledges.  In short, we’re dealing with something out of the ordinary.

There is a novel called Under the Skin.  It’s by Michel Faber and should I ever be on Desert Island Discs it will be on the shortlist for inclusion.  A very hard novel to describe, although the Wikipedia entry does a pretty good job, it is one of those whose essential themes and observations stay with you long after the details of the plot have lost their clarity.  Which is just as well as this adaptation takes very little of the plot and leaves us instead with some of the observations and a lot of the eerie and enigmatic interaction between the alien and the human, and the natural world around them, as well as adding a few more layers in between.  To say this is a marmite film would imply marmite had never divided opinion – as an indicator, on Amazon there are 80 five star reviews and 100 one star reviews, with hardly any in between.

The film is set mostly in Glasgow and Scarlett Johannson is our female protagonist.  She abducts lonely and alone men and then, in a ritual more at home in a modern dance production, they are killed whilst nakedly anticipating sex.  But, wordlessly, she is drawn more to the wonder and beauty of the Highlands and to the other things that make life worth living including, but not limited to, a black forest gateau in a quaint hotel.  The story, such as it is, does not end well.  Too much empathy for humanity means no abductions.  Our heroine is doomed, but we pretty much knew that from the start.

Where the film really does triumph is in the direction of ‘real life’ and its soundtrack.  Glasgow’s working class streets are rarely shown and even more rarely are they populated by actual people.  People who are not judged but who are just getting on and whose lives are, genuinely, worthy of intrigued exploration.  This is all very cleverly done by Jonathan Glazer.  The use of strong-accented natives is presumably a way of increasing the disconnect, especially when Johannson talks in straightforward RP.  The music to accompany this is striking in its apparent simplicity.

There is also a strong performance from Johannson.  If you said ‘she uses her body’ you’d think it’d be all lingering shots like a reprise of Lost in Translation.  You would be wrong.  Yes, she does use her body and yes, it is all on display.  But there can’t be many occasions when a genuine Hollywood beauty has had that beauty framed so prosaically or whose increase in wonder at the natural world has been done so tenderly, so subtly.  It is restrained, it is the reason to watch.

But, overall, is this a five star or a one star film?  The problem these days is so few films like Under the Skin make it anywhere near the mainstream.  This isn’t the 1970s when experimentation and weirdness was allowable.  Nobody wants subtle aliens observing snatches of life and then staring at a tree for a bit.  Even if the pay-off for that is the kind of emotional ending that is only possible in wordless art.

So, there’s nothing to compare it against.  Not really.  I’d give it five stars for trying and because I really want there to be more out there like this.  But I don’t think it works totally and I don’t think it’s as well realised as its source novel.  Faber’s work has enough to keep you going back but having seen the film once I’ve no need to see it again.  The direction is clever, the photography and acting top drawer but what’s missing is the thing that our protagonist also lacks: depth.  There is not enough under that skin.

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At the De La Warr Pavilion: One Archive, Three Views

Leonard Freed, Women’s Liberation March at City Hall, NYC, 1970 © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos

Magnum is possibly the only photographic agency that anybody not particularly interested in photography stands an outside chance of having heard about.  Formed in 1947 and focusing primarily on the human interest side of reportage and documentary its pre-digital archive has 68,000 prints covering the span from its foundation to the internet.  From that vast collection three people have been asked to select images that bring out specific areas of interest.  The result is this excellent exhibition at the constantly engaging De La Warr Pavilion.

Elizabeth Edwards (historian and anthropologist according to the notes) is the only one to clearly itemise her selection.  We get ‘Viewpoints’, ‘Anxieties and Pleasures’, ‘Watching’ and ‘Absorption’.  The distinctions are a little arbitrary and some prints could clearly be in any of the four sections.  What Edwards does well is show how human passions cross the class divides of post-war Britain.  That Magnum way of capturing individual and collective emotions really does come through strongly in this opening third.

The next section has been chosen by photographer Hannah Starkey.  The opening image is a self portrait by Eve Arnold.  Already this feels different.  Arnold’s shot is not reportage in the way that what has gone before is.  It is a hidden moment revealed by photography.  And that, in some way, is Starkey’s motivation.  She uses the archive to show a narrative of women’s era. It is a very engaging selection and perhaps the one out of the three that would reward multiple viewings.

The final portion is curated by artist Uriel Orlow.  His concern is the people on the margins – best summed up by possibly the most striking image in the whole exhibition: Philip Jenes Griffiths’ shot of marines landing on a beach in Vietnam – immediately in front of three local young women who watch with various levels of interest whilst they sunbathe.  Again, the standard is high, and the images beautiful in their documentary black and white way.

All in all this is a very smart way of enabling what could be a tired archive – Oh look, dear, it’s another Chris Steele-Perkins shot, I wonder if it’s Blackpool beach again – to be seen again with fresh eyes.  It is revelatory. And at the bargain price of completely free it is well worth a diversion to Bexhill to see.

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Film review: Frank

There aren’t many films out there that successfully probe suburban aspiration, artistic integrity, pretension, modern celebrity and the pressures of working together.  Fewer still will do so with wry humour, intelligence and a ‘through the looking glass’ approach to reality.  And none, until now, have done so by using the large fake head of the late Frank Sidebottom as a launchpad.

Penned by Jon Ronson, Frank, is ‘inspired by’ the life of Frank Sidebottom. Or at least, the life and ‘outsider spirit’ (as the dedication has it) of Chris Sievey who was Frank and who died a few years before this film was made.  Ronson was keyboardist for a time in Frank Sidebottom’s group and he has used his own writing on that subject as the basis for the story of ‘Jon’, a keyboardist yearning for popular acclaim but seemingly lacking the talent to write anything more complicated than riffs on It Must Be Love, who by freak circumstance becomes keyboardist in ‘Frank”s band and who then winds up being an integral part of the creation of a record in darkest, remotest Ireland.

The cast around Jon and Frank includes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara – a theramin player with a mean attitude and harsh haircut – and Scoot McNairy’s Don whose love for mannequins and occasional insanity seem remarkably un-out-of-place.  There are others too, and it is a pleasure to spend time in their company, safe in the knowledge that they can’t actually hurt you.

Frank‘s performances, notably Michael Fassbender as Frank and Domhnall Gleeson as Jon, are very good but it truly is the writing that keeps you going.  The dialogue crackles nicely and there are many, many wonderful, subtle observations about the human condition (especially in the age of social media) that reflect the best of Ronson’s extensive work in the field.

So, there is a lot to enjoy packed into 95 tight minutes.  Just don’t expect to be able to describe it adequately to the next person you meet: There’s this guy in a head, and he’s in a band and … well, just see it.  You can thank me later.


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There’s a world outside your window

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014

The things you see from the train window as you head into work.  Signs advertising insurance jobs, shapes made by the morning sun, unused disabled ramps, and people strutting like it’s not 9.10 in the morning in Tunbridge Wells.

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