Monday, October 31, 2011

Eight things I loved about October

~ 8 ~ Celebrating one year of Jenn-based awesomeness: I first met Jenn at about 7:30 p.m. on 29 October 2010 (a). We were scheduled to have met half an hour earlier and, sitting in the back of Penarth's Ocho Lounge, I told myself I would just leave if she didn't show up before I finished my pint. For the first time in the season I was wearing a sweater, my favourite one, and realising I had been overly ambitious for winter's chill to arrive. I was uncomfortably hot.
Despite having spent a fair amount of time selecting an outfit and primping for this meeting, I was not feeling optimistic and a certain part of me was content with the idea of being stood up. Jenn and I had first corresponded via the internets, which is actually a good way to meet people. There is a stigma attached to dating websites but if you think it through that stigma makes not a damn bit of sense. The people who roll their eyes at internet dating would have no issue with a relationship starting via a conversation in a bar, but think about it: the odds of success in a bar are dramatically lower than in a setting where you know a person's interests. That said, however, dating, regardless of how you do it, relies on a certain degree of chance. I had met a few girls before Jenn and found no success whatsoever. One of the most amusing experiences came when I met a girl at a pub in Cardiff Bay. She showed up and I offered to buy her a drink.
"Hmm," she said, looking at me sideways. "That depends. I am definitely not going to sleep with you, I'm afraid. So, I'm not sure how that affects your decision. You know, I've got nothing else to do this afternoon. But I'd hate for you to feel you were wasting your time."
So, as I say, in the stifling hot of the Ocho Lounge I was resigned to having this date flop. I was feeling somewhat relieved, actually. I knew from Jenn's profile she was a few years younger than me and in those days was feeling older than my actual age, so I feared I was just flattering myself. As now, I was struggling financially and worried I was just spending money on an evening that almost certainly would go nowhere. This girl would turn up, I told myself, find nothing in common with me and be itching to leave within minutes. Looking back now on my personal calendar I see that I had noted a gig at the Gwdhiw that started just an hour after Jenn and I were to meet. Some part of me felt success so unlikely I had a back-up plan for the evening.
My phone buzzed.
"Bit late. Just waiting outside," said a text from Jenn.
I wound through the crowded bar toward the front to find her, then led her back to our table.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "Been here long?"
"Nah," I said. "Just got here myself."
"Yes, I was all ready to go and then I got distracted because the television was on professional wrestling. It's silly, but it's kind of interesting to watch. And there was this one guy, and this move he did, called 'The Snake,' or something."
"The Cobra? Like this?" I asked, lifting my hand up.
"Santino Marella. He was in blue tights, right?"
"Yes. I know it's silly, but I just got hooked," she said.
"I love you," I said.
We stayed until the Ocho Lounge closed, with me doing the majority of talking. I talked and talked and talked, trying to think of anything, everything that might sound in the least bit impressive or funny or interesting. The next day I sent a group email to my friends Eric, Paul, Dan and Anthony under the subject, Sometimes my life is awesome:
"Last night I went out with a girl who was once a burlesque dancer.
I just felt the need to brag about that.
A year on I am still keen to brag. Jenn is amazing in a bajillion ways and I am one lucky muthahugga that I stuck around long enough to meet her. And even luckier to have been able to stick around in all the days and weeks since.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Devon: Jenn was born and raised in Devon. In mid-October I got to visit the place for the first time and see why she takes such pride in her home turf. Even before meeting Jenn I've long had a fascination with the southern England county. In Portsmouth I had a mild crush on a girl from Devon and so formed a stereotype that pretty girls are from there. In my novel The Way Forward, Claire, Ben's love interest, is from Devon.
After years of imagining the place I was not disappointed. Jenn and I were down for just an overnight trip and as such limited more or less to exploring Exeter, where a handful of relatives live and where she went to school, but there was enough to make me want to return. What surprises me is that we hadn't gone before; Devon really isn't so very far away -- just about two hours drive. I have happily driven that distance to get to Tenby on any number of occasions. I don't understand why I had imagined it to be so distant.

~ 8 ~ Visiting Forest of Dean: Although the beauty of Devon is not so far away, even closer is Gloucestershire and the Forest of Dean. I had lived here more than five years and never visited the area just across the England-Wales border until this summer when Jenn suggested it as a day-trip activity for when my parents came to visit. Since then I've been keen to get back as often as possible, it being in roughly the same area as the Offa's Dyke path I mentioned in last month's list of eight things.
In late October, Jenn took a day off work, we packed up the car and the two of us drove out to spend a day in the beauty of English forest. I had a great time, although I think next time we go Jenn and I should pack a more adequate lunch than two packets of crisps and some chocolate bars. Also, next time I go, I'd prefer not to be stopped and hassled by the police upon my return.

~ 8 ~ The pine smell of my T-shirts: Jenn and I purchased a trifecta of cheap chest of drawers when I first moved into the flat back in May. They were about £15 each from IKEA and just barely large enough to hold most the belongings of a man who has always quietly prided himself on having few belongings. As indicated by their price, the chests of drawers are basic bits of furniture -- young pine churned from some corporate forest somewhere, cut up and thrown into a cardboard box with a set of instructions so simple as to be mildly confusing.
Even though they were assembled several months ago, the chests of drawers still have a strong scent of pine. So, when I pull out a T-shirt it has that smell. I don't know why I was so particularly fond of that smell in October, but I was. Something in the scent seems to be trigging a tiny, tiny thought of hope -- a feeling I can make my life better.

~ 8 ~ Auto repair: In September, I bought a new car. And, of course, by "new" I mean "new to me;" it is in fact several years old. Old enough to have a handful of foibles, such as the fact that the heating blower didn't work when I first bought it. As it happens, the guy who sold it to me, Mark, had another Honda he was using for spare parts and sent me the blower from that one, thus saving me pooploads of money and trouble in trying to find a replacement. All I needed to do was install it. Sure. No problem. I've worked on cars before. Sort of. OK, I've bought beer for my friend Jim, or my brother and watched them work on my car. But I've got a masters degree (in Welsh). How hard could it be?
Pretty hard, it turns out. My first challenge was finding evidence of anyone ever having done this job before. The internet is the font of all knowledge these days but in searching how to replace the blower for a 1998 Honda Accord I was confronted with endlessly helpful advice and videos on how to do this with the U.S. version. Turns out, bafflingly, the U.K. version is completely different. As in, the parts look nothing alike, nor are they located in the same place. But with a bit of guesswork and blind faith in my untested ability I did, after several hours, replace the blower. And for that I felt like a manly, manly man.

~ 8 ~ Vlog no. 200: Sometimes I really wonder the point of the daily video log Jenn and I do. I'll think: "Who would watch this? Why? Aren't there better things I could be doing?"
Then I ignore those questions and just carry on vlogging. One reason is that the advertising earns us £20 a month. That's not exactly a mortgage payment but, hey, three months of vlogging paid for our recent National Trust membership. I can't complain. And, the overwhelming majority of the time, I actually enjoy vlogging. I'm not 100-percent sure why. I think it's the experience of each day looking back on the one previous and seeing that it was (usually) pretty OK and that I have a gorgeous girlfriend. It is a way of counting blessings, I suppose. And it's a way for my parents and family and friends to still have me in their lives. Should they want such a thing. I often wish my friends back in the U.S. would vlog so I could keep a feeling of contact with them.
Anyhoo, October saw the milestone of Jenn and I recording our 200th vlog. Appropriately, we did very little on that day but made the best of it.

~ 8 ~ Mince pie mondays: I'll admit that some days on the vlog are better than others. Sometimes there is little going on in a day. Jenn and I found that Mondays were consistently slow and dreamed up the idea of Mince Pie Monday, a weekly review of mince pies. For those of you playing along at home, mince pies are little fruit pies that have been a part of the British Christmas tradition for centuries. Just about every shop in the country offers its own brand of mince pie, so we set out to taste test as many as we can before Christmas to identify the best. It is ridiculous and usually pretty amusing. A little closer to Christmas I'll put up a list of all the mince pies we ate, with links to the videos. But in the meantime, you can find most of the mince pie vlogs here.

~ 8 ~ Christopher Rees: One of the highlights of the musical year in Cardiff is Sŵn, a multi-day, multi-venue music festival held throughout the city. It uses South by Southwest as its inspiration, though, admittedly, has a little ways to go before it garners as much attention. Regardless, it is still a good time and, I think, an incredible positive for Cardiff and Wales as a whole. Jenn worked as stage manager for one of the venues, which meant I had the opportunity to get in to see several bands for free. Perhaps foolishly, I instead spent most of that day writing. I have been struggling with writer's block for a year now so have developed an attitude of simply dropping everything in those rare moments inspiration strikes. But, at the end of the day I dragged myself from the laptop and went to see the excellent and bluesy Christopher Rees. Any band with a horn section always wins with me. Which reminds me, 3 Minute Hero have a new album out, released Halloween weekend. I have yet to hear it, but expect it to be on my November list of eight things.

(a) This was the first time for us to speak, at least. As it turns out, I had actually seen her on a train roughly nine months before and had wanted very much to talk to her but had failed to build the nerve.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Strictly week 4: Pasha's weekend

Pasha Kovalev's feet. That's what stands out most to me from this past weekend of "Strictly Come Dancing." There alongside Katya Virshilas to add a bit of flair to Caro Emerald's musical performance he effectively stole the entire weekend, as far as I'm concerned. Did you see that? He had cartoon legs. This, coupled with the fact he and his insufferable celebrity partner, Chelsee Healey, performed amazingly on Saturday night, made it very much Pasha's weekend. Yes, Russell Grant and a teddy bear is TV gold, Robbie Savage broke his nose, the J-Train was derailed and Nancy Dell'Olio appeared to be fighting with Anton du Beke in the middle of a routine -- it was another brilliant Strictly weekend -- but the most important thing to take away from this weekend is that Pasha is a bit awesome, bitches. He can move his feet superhumanly fast. Dude's a freak.

Here's a look at everything else from Week 4, starting with the exiting couple:

Rory Bremner and Erin Boag ~ Cha Cha Cha ~ 24:
Rory's early exit felt inevitable. Take a look back at previous Strictly recaps and you'll see I've always labelled him as an Also There, i.e., one of the people you'd struggle to remember if challenged to list every celebrity from this season. But it was never going to help having him perform to a song that forces irony. Rory and Erin did their cha cha cha to "Dance to the Music," which only drew attention to the fact Rory was not really dancing. To music, or otherwise. He was moving into a set place on stage, performing a sequence of steps, then moving to a new spot. The transitions weren't too far from having him simply walk from sequence to sequence.
Rory seemed genuinely sad at his exit and one couldn't help but feel a little sorry for him, but not so sorry that you particularly lament the fact Nancy Dell'Olio was clearly the one who should have left.

Nancy Dell'Olio and Anton du Beke ~ Pasodoble ~ 18:
Anton frantically pointing ay and screaming, "CAPE!" was a bit of Strictly gold. The outburst came in response to the question of whether Nancy was portraying a bull or a cape in the pasodoble story of the matador. There is something amusing about the Anton/Nancy dynamic; they are like a bickering version of Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister, being rolled down a hill in a large barrel. That's definitely one of my more obscure references, I realise. But trust me, they are like that.
They seem to do very little other than argue with each other. Even within the dance. At about 1:25 in this performance, Anton jerks his hand away from Nancy as if she were covered in poo. It's hard to gauge these things but he seems to be genuinely annoyed by her. Meanwhile, Nancy lurks around like a burned out señora in a Federico García Lorca play, a woman who was once the object of every man's desire now lost in the falsity of clothing and makeup, deluded by alcohol.

Russell Grant and Flavia Cacace ~ Tango ~ 24:
"You're already a Strictly legend," Alesha told Russell after his dance Saturday. Which is code for: "Judges' scores have become irrelevant in your case."
Queen Russell (or "Mama Rose," as Flavia calls him) is having the time of his life and I can't imagine the Strictly voters are going to put a stop to that any time soon. In terms of what we've come to love about Russell, this week's dance was lacking just a little bit of something, featuring a bit more actual technique than other dances, but it was still enjoyable. Russell again took on the persona of a big gay queen who looks up from his martini, waves away the the thong-clad cabana boys doing his nails, looks his naïve and overly idealistic niece in the eye and growls: "Honey, first thing we do is teach you how to tango."
Yes, I make up my own little narratives for the dances. Don't judge me.
Mama Rose has promised to bring back the campness (Did it ever leave?) for next week's Halloween-themed samba. Why can't it be next week right now?!

Lulu and Brendan Cole ~ Samba ~ 25:
Meh. It wasn't bad. Watching the dance, Jenn observed: "She seems to be adhering to my philosophy of the bigger the hair, the closer to God."
Lulu's enormous coif made her look like a Charlie Brown character. Unfortunately, that made her no more likeable. Both Lulu and Brendan seem eternally lost up their own backsides and I find them to be as genuine as a £15 "oak" dresser from IKEA.
Also, how shit of a dance is it when even the pro admits to wasting time? Len got on their case about the bit in which they run up the stairs and Brendan defended himself by saying: "We had 1 minute, 15 seconds of content. I think that's enough."
It would be if the dance were 1 minute, 15 seconds long, but they're not. 

Audley Harrison and Natalie Lowe ~ Foxtrot ~ 25:
The first 20 or so seconds of this dance involved Natalie twirling about whilst Audley rose from a chair in a supposed-to-have-been-debonair way. My grandfather is in his mid-80s and also takes about that long to get himself out a chair, and with an equal amount of panache.
Once on his feet, Audley performed admirably. It just didn't click, however. I think Natalie needs to try an alternate route to success; these two are in need of a Kenny and Ola-style paso.

Alex Jones and James Jordan ~ Rumba ~ 25:
Craig was right. It was sexless. I have spent years perving on Alex Jones, she had her boobs almost falling out of her top and was sporting a pair of slutty tights to make even the Cardiff girls on the pull blush, and still I found myself thinking: "This is all rather awkward."
Somehow, bafflingly, the combination of James, who usually gets his partners to behave like absolute whores during the rumba, and Alex, whom I would like to lock in a shed and keep for personal use, created a situation that was wholly not sexy. It's like taking the best chocolate in the world, combining it with the best raspberries in the world and discovering it tastes like garlic butter. What the hell?
I'm not even sure it would have helped had they listened to Jenn's advice of: "Touch yourself! You need to touch yourself, Alex! Why are you not touching yourself?"
On a side note, the fact my girlfriend shouts this at the television is one of the myriad reasons I love her. 

Robbie Savage and Ola Jordan ~ Jive ~ 27:
According to the always-reliable Daily Mail (and conformed by the actually reliable Guardian), Robbie may have broken his nose doing a knee slide into the camera at the end of his dance. That ranks up there with some of the greatest Strictly injuries: Austin Healey dislocating a finger in the cha cha cha, and Jade Johnson tearing a ligament in the tango. Strictly will break you, bitches.
Whether Robbie did or did not damage his proboscis, it's a sign of how much he was putting into his performance Saturday. The fact he seems to be generally trying and strangely loving the ridiculousness of it all is changing my overall impression of the guy. I still don't really like him, but more and more I'm content to see him do well.

Jason Donovan and Kristina Rihanoff ~ Pasodoble ~ 27:
Ah, the fall from grace. It happens in every good Strictly journey. This week the J-Train started out full throttle, wearing a Freddie Mercury-like matador coat and dancing to Queen, but rather quickly into the dance things went a bit stompy. You could see J-Train was trying to remember the steps. He might as well have done that "I'm remembering something" face of looking up and slightly sticking out the tongue. It wasn't a bad dance, and I think perhaps the judges marked him a bit harshly, but it wasn't what we had come to expect.
Also, how utterly mental was the video package before their dance? I want to see more of the J-Train simply running around supermarkets wearing a cape and a ridiculous moustache.

Holly Valance and Artem Chigvinstev ~ Viennese Waltz ~ 30:
Remember last week when I said I think the Viennese waltz is boring and can really only think of only one example of a good one? I said, also, I couldn't remember who had performed that one good Viennese waltz but randomly guessed it was Ali Bastian because she got a really high score for it. I was wrong. It was Kara Tointon's Viennese waltz, which was choreographed by Artem. And by the same token, I am pretty sure that Holly's Viennese waltz will be the only one I like this series.
Len didn't like the lamppost props set up on the stage but I think they served to show the audience movement in the dance. Holly and Artem ran a little slalom course through the lampposts and I thought it worked. Well, it worked as well as it was ever going to work. It was still a Viennese waltz.

Anita Dobson and Ronin Windsor ~ American Smooth ~ 32:
Anita Dobson, the likeable and portable stage actress! So easy to carry! And fits in most hand luggage! I realise Robin's a muscular guy but he made Anita look as if she only weighs about 12 pounds.
There's a kind of subtlety to the interaction of Anita and Robin. For a big camp fella who likes to train in man cleavage ripped T-shirts, Robin tends to tone down his performances. Watch the dance from Saturday again and pay attention to his facial features. It's rarely more than a wink or grin. That's admirable in a way, because you can see he's keen for all focus to be on the celebrity, to let Anita be the star. But I think at the same time it causes a kind of void. One forgets about Anita and Robin during the week.
"Each week I think, 'She's not going to be very good,'" Jenn said of Anita. "Then she comes out and I remember I love her."

Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani ~ Slow Waltz ~ 35:
Jenn was very well-behaved this week, only kicking her legs into the air once in teenage glee at the sight of Harry. As such, I am not boycotting him and can confess it was a quality dance. I agree with Len, though, that the bit on the stairs was a waste of time. I disagree with Alesha that it was a 10. Harry still shows all the emotion of a saddlebag when he dances. That kiss on the cheek he gave Aliona looked the sort of thing you'd see in a Nativity play put on by 10 year olds.
"Oh. Mary. I love you."
"I love you. Too. Joseph. (smooch) Now we will go to Bethlehem. And I will have the baby Jesus."
"Oh. What a. Happy day."
The dance earns the distinction of getting the first 10 of the season. But then, that 10 was from Alesha, so it doesn't really count.

Chelsee Healey and Pasha Kovalev ~ Quickstep ~ 36:
This dance was really good. That I am able to admit such a thing despite my overwhelming dislike of Chelsee probably means it was, in fact, really, really good. I had expected it to pull the first 10 of the season. Chelsee seemed to have decided at some point during the week she actually wants to try and it showed. I think it helps, as well, the costuming department didn't again try to make what is, in fact, an average-looking girl look like a super-hottie. Her massive top end was battened down and her midriff covered, and it was a look that flattered her. Now if only they could secure something over her mouth to keep her from speaking. 
Also, points to the both of them for being able to use the props with fluidity. Props are more often than not a bad idea in dances, especially when the prop has an integral role in the storytelling. The end bit, in which Pasha covertly unbuttons his jacket so Chelsee can pull it off his shoulders and reveal a "boarding pass," could have gone so very wrong.

  • Jenn and I came up with a new term this weekend: "faux-mance." That's the faux romance, or chemistry, the show would have you believe exists between each of the couples. The one between Russell and Flavia is awesome; the one between Lulu and Brendan is creepy and false.
  • I liked that Lulu and Brendan were so crap Len had a go at playing the trumpet rather than watch them dance.
  • I love this picture of Flavia and Mama Rose in their tango.
  • Tess' dress on the Sunday results show, yo. It seemed odd rather than sexy. Tess didn't seem to be selling the thing very well. It was as if someone had put her into it, she had walked out onto stage and then only realised upon seeing herself in the monitors it had been a bad choice. She then spent the results show attempting to cover up, folding her arms and often placing her script cards in front of her.
  • I was correct last week in guessing Nancy would be in the bottom two but wrong in claiming Audley would be there with her. But I'm going to make the same prediction this week and guess Nancy will be the one to go. I would like to think the cantankerous faux-mance between herself and Anton is wearing on the patience of other viewers as much it is mine.
  • Despite the setback, I'm still betting on the J-Train to be in the final. Joining him will be Harry Judd and Holly Valance

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Eight things I loved about September

~ 8 ~ Coming home: As much I loved being back in Minnesota at the end of August, I wasn't able to fully enjoy myself during that trip because the whole experience was absent one very important thing. Well, not thing, but person: Jenn. This is the downside to falling in love with someone, of course: being 5,000 miles away from them induces melancholy.
Since moving to Britain, visits home have consumed me with a kind of madness, a desperation to return to the United States and live a somewhat caricatured American life of pick-up trucks and country music and ice cream and baseball. And in past years, it has taken several months for said madness to wear off. This time 'round, however, it was starting to ebb even before I got on the plane back to her majesty's United Kingdom. Undoubtedly, a part of me wanted to stay, to be able to head over to friends' houses for barbecues and football games and beers and wandering conversations and to watch their kids grow up, to smell the Minnesota autumn, to eat big breakfasts, to drive endless roads. But even as I pined for all these things I knew I wouldn't be happy with them. Not without Jenn. I wanted to get back to her, back to waking up to her each morning, back to always kissing her goodnight and back to all our silly things.
At 8:30 a.m. on 1 September, after roughly 12 hours of flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Cardiff, I again set foot on Welsh soil -- exhausted and happy. And Jenn was there at the airport waiting. Home, according to cliché, is where the heart is. My heart is stretched all over the place. Increasingly I think home is where people wait for you to return.
After being randomly stopped by a customs official and then making him regret it by insisting upon speaking Welsh to him, I stepped out into the arrivals area. Jenn jumped from her chair and skipped toward me, then wrapped her arms around me.
"You're home," she said, her eyes welling up. And she didn't let go of me the rest of the day. Not that I would have let her.

~ 8 ~ The return of 'Strictly Come Dancing': One of the silly things Jenn and I enjoy, and one I have enjoyed since before even meeting Jenn is, of course, the BBC programme "Strictly Come Dancing." If you have ever before read this blog, or watched the vlog, or spoken to me in person for more than three minutes you'll know I have a weird and possibly disturbing addiction to this light-entertainment festival of glitter, C-list celebrity and nonsense. I can't help myself. And I'm afraid it's not going to ebb away anytime soon. In Jenn I have found someone who will giggle and yell and laugh along with me. We sit with our bowl of popcorn and overfilled glasses of port, commenting away as if we understand anything of ballroom dance and as if we somehow know the celebrities. That is, after all, one of the best parts of Strictly: that strange feeling you could somehow invite all the people on the show over for dinner.
What the ancient Celtic peoples used to refer to as The Long Dark -- i.e., the short-dayed space of time stretching from roughly October to April -- is fast wrapping its miserable grip on the Soggy Nations, but I find the fun of Strictly is a way of staving the woe. Whilst the world outside is cold and blustery and wet, I can wrap myself in a duvet, fortify myself with wine and cheer at the sight of ridiculous people being ridiculous.

~ 8 ~ Back to the Ebbw: I wouldn't say I necessarily love the fact I am back teaching Welsh in the south Wales valleys; I wouldn't necessarily say I am even happy about it. What I feel is a strange melancholy pleasure -- that kind of sadness some weird part of you enjoys. I am not unhappy to be earning money, at least, and that comes with the three classes a week I teach up there. Additionally, I teach one class a week in Caerleon. If you are from anywhere outside of south Wales, these town names will likely be unfamiliar to you. In all honesty, I would suggest they stay that way; south Wales is a bit like the day after an automobile accident: there is nothing to see here. But, having said that, there is a certain beauty in the valleys. I can't decide whether the beauty is in potential or history -- what it was or what it could be. The people of the valleys, the ones who are not drunk, at least, are kind and extend of themselves in a way I sometimes find difficult to fathom. People in the valleys take the time to learn your name. When they ask a question they actually wait for you to give an answer:
"How are you today, Chris?"
"Oh, I'm fine."
"Yeah? How so?"
Some part of my emotional memory often connects Ebbw Vale with Moorhead, Minnesota, where I went to college for a handful of years. My emotions about that place were and still are rather mixed. It simultaneously represented for me opportunity and misused chances. I think if I were to find myself five years on, still trekking up the A470 several times a week to teach Welsh I might see it as a failure. For now, though, I am content. I feel welcome up there; I feel a sense of emotional safety. That feeling of: "I've got this. And from this I can build."

~ 8 ~ My new car: A key facet of my working in places dozens of miles from Penarth is my getting there, of course. I don't make a list of things I hate about each month but were I to do so, the day I got into a car wreck would be at the top of September's list. In an instant, I felt the bottom drop out. That thing I have to build on from Ebbw Vale is tiny and not really even large enough for me to properly support myself, let alone go around purchasing new automobiles. Sitting on a guardrail of the westbound M4 on 13 September, I felt that tiny thing had been lost.
A day or so later, however, I heard from someone who watches my vlog, who was selling two cars, both for around £500, which was all the money I had in my savings account. Cue a flurry of emails and texts leading to Jenn and I travelling to Monmouth and coming away from the experience as the proud new owners of a 1998 Honda Accord.

~ 8 ~ Dyffryn Gardens: Jenn was so taken with Dyffryn Gardens in the summer, when she, my parents and I went for a visit we found ourselves back in September and signing up for a season pass. Combined with my purchase of a Honda, this meant that September was a month in which I was made to feel like a responsible middle-class adult. This is the sort of things adults do, isn't it? Purchasing economical cars and visiting gardens. That we do not have a National Trust Membership is, I feel, perhaps a failing. But the thing is: I don't really mind being such an adult. The gardens are vast and beautiful and relatively quiet. There are a hell of a lot of people packed onto the Island of Rain and I find often that aspect of life here can affect me quite negatively. I feel a desperate need to escape. To actually do so is impossible, but I can, at least, find little moments of quiet in places like Dyffryn. Author J. Frank Dobie once wrote he felt as much a sense of freedom in a manicured British garden as he did on the open Texas plain. I can't say I agree with him, but the latter can, at least, help keep the mental monsters at bay.

~ 8 ~ The Wye Valley: Additionally helpful at keeping those terrible things of my mind from attacking is getting out into the British countryside. I don't know why it has taken me so long to develop an interest in the Offa's Dyke Path, the trail stretching Wales' length along its current and one-time borders with England. Originally built to keep those blasted Welsh where they belong it is now just a lovely place to go for a walk. I have visions of hiking the whole of the trail at some point -- possibly next summer, if I can organise myself properly -- but for the time being, I am enjoying various stretches running along the River Wye, between Chepstow and Monmouth. This is the British countryside they write books about. This is the sort of scenery that makes your heart skip. The fact so few Welsh are willing to "own" this part of their country depresses me, and may explain why it has taken me so long to properly explore the area. I am only beginning. My greatest complaint these days is that I am not often enough out enjoying the Wye Valley. I am especially looking forward to seeing it change as autumn takes its proper grip.

~ 8 ~ Doctor Who: Ah, he was a robot the whole time. In terms of conclusions for a story arc, the way this last series was about as weak as the classic, "Oh, it was all just a dream," ending. Which, of course, they have also done. But who cares? Watching Doctor Who for sci-fi accuracy is only the road to frustration. The reason we watch is for the quick, banter-style writing -- of which there was a fair amount in the second half of the series. I was happy to see it come back and slightly sad to see it go so quickly.

~ 8 ~ Danielle Ate The Sandwich: This isn't really a new thing. Sometimes the things you have loved for a long time spring back up and remind you why you are such a big fan. As is the case with Colorado-based singer-songwriter Danielle Ate The Sandwich. I've been a fan of hers for several years now; in 2009 I drove the width of the United States, from Boston, MA, to Tacoma, WA, just to be able to see her perform in a coffee shop.
In September I was reminded again of how much I like her voice and humour and style. Danielle Ate The Sandwich has built a career for herself using simply the tools available to anyone with access to a Macbook and the internet. She used to record herself for YouTube in her bedroom, now she's travelling the country. I admire the way she has built her own success, without a label, and remained so talented and likeable.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Strictly week 3: All aboard the J-Train

Let's mark this past weekend down as the one in which I finally agreed with the judges about Jason Donovan. After the absolute brilliance of Russell and Flavia dancing to Barbara Streisand, I was pretty sure the third verse was going to be same as the first in terms of finding myself again starting a 'Strictly Come Dancing' recap with nothing but praise for Queen Russell. Where do you go from there? How do you possibly make it better? The J-Train had the answers, making a finger-wagging, tush-shaking stop in Campville. And the gauntlet was thrown down, bitches.

The J-Train is obviously here to win. And if winning means cranking the Big Gayometer to 11, you can bet your ass the Antipodean dance warrior is going to 11. That's not to say Queen Russell was anything other than amazing. Indeed, many of the couples seemed to step up their game this week. Whether it was Harry deciding to leave his shirt at home or Holly strutting about in little more than pantyhose and electrical tape, the celebrities were selling it. 

And, for the most part, Jenn and I were buying. Here's a look at this past weekend, starting with the exiting couple.

Dan Lobb and Katya Virshilas ~ Viennese Waltz ~ 24:
The departure of, uhm, oh, you know, that one guy from that one thing... remember? He was kind of tallish, you know? Nice enough fella. He danced with that crazy girl -- the one who looks like a porn star. Remember? No? My point exactly. His departure was hardly a surprise. Though it is unfortunate because he seemed genuinely likeable and his dancing wasn't all that bad.

Nancy Dell'Olio and Anton Du Beke ~ Tango ~ 20:
Nancy puts the 'bat' in 'batshit crazy,' doesn't she? If the British tabloids are to believed (which, I doubt they are) she is a boozing, ego-maniacal, hot-tempered diva who hates her dance partner because he won't make a pass at her. Let's assume that's not totally true; but it's relatively easy to see how one could come to such conclusions. After conveniently not dancing through the first 30 seconds of her routine (which Anton later tried to sell as 'hard to do' on 'It Takes Two'), Nancy then stomped around the dance floor like Lainie Kazan's drunken id made flesh. Immediately after the performance, she went straight over to flirt with Brucie, not so much as even glancing in Anton's direction, nor waiting for him to join her in the walk over to listen to judges' comments. If she's not insane she is still unlikeable. I look forward to her departure.

Audley Harrison and Natalie Lowe ~ Quickstep ~ 20:
Being roughly 78 feet tall and weighing 52 tonnes, it was unlikely Audley was ever going to produce a stunning quickstep. What he managed here was the best anyone could hope for: successfully embracing the spirit of the routine. No, he wasn't dancing particularly well, but you could tell he really wanted to be dancing well. And that's sort of half the battle at this stage.
On a side note, I would like to thank the BBC costume department for locking Natalie out of her dressing room Saturday, thus leaving her with no option but to wear whatever came to hand, namely a handful of serviettes and some mosquito netting.

Lulu and Brendan Cole ~ Rumba ~ 26:
A number of people after the dance described this number as 'beautiful.' Is this one of those 'bad' means 'good' sort-of things, in which 'beautiful' actually means 'creepy and disturbing'? If so, then, yes, I totally agree: it was beautiful. I like Lulu about as much as I like stomach cramps.
Also, it's worth pointing out the lift. In last week's 'Choreography Corner' (sweet baby Jesus, did I just write that phrase without irony?) on 'It Takes Two,' Karen Hardy said that when Brendan gives up on his partner he simply picks her up into the air. And what happened this week? Illegal lift, yo. Brendan's given up on Lulu -- so, too, should the viewing public.

Anita Dobson and Robin Windsor ~ Jive ~ 27:
In that wig, Robin looked like Harry Connick Jr.'s stupid brother. The whole thing had the feel of a parade float having broken loose and careening down a hill toward a raging Sandinista gun battle. Aboard the float, the performers know they are going to die but decide to give one last performance, to jive their way to bullet-riddled glory. So, there's Anita: trying desperately not to fall over on the out-of-control float, bracing herself for the deathly sting of hot lead, frantically working toward the climax of the routine before coming into the crossfire. And looking so darn likeable doing it. I mean, gosh, how can you not want her to do well? So, go on Anita! Dance wildly to your doom!

Russell Grant and Flavia Cacace ~ Foxtrot ~ 28:
At just 10 seconds into this dance you knew it was going to be, if not technically the best dance, the most enjoyable performance of the week. Because 10 seconds into the routine Queen Russell flips a parasol over his shoulder and hits the audience with a glare that says: 'IT'S RUSSEL MUTHAHUGGING GRANT, BITCHES!'
Then, bedecked in an all-white suit like a gay version of Will Varner in The Long, Hot Summer, Queen Russell takes two steps, sweeps his foot seductively and again flashes the audience a look; this time the look says: 'You are loving it.'
You bet your sweet biscuits we were loving it, darling. I have since watched it again at least six times. Each time I feel joy. I particularly liked this dance because there is a bit more partnership between Flavia and Russell. Yes, he's stealing the show but seems to be drawing her into the routine, saying: "Come on, honey. Let's ride this ridiculous wave together."

Chelsee Healey and Pasha Kovalev ~ Cha Cha Cha ~ 30:
I liked the music. Everything else, however.... Meh. Tits McGee is still, to me, just a chavy hot mess whom I dislike a little bit more each time I see her. What's with her crazy pound-shop-bought Beyonce wig and Hamburglar face? Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Jenn, on the other hand, is less cruel and insists it was an OK dance. Though, she couldn't help notice that in the shoes worn Saturday, Chelsee looked to have horse feet.

Robbie Savage and Ola Jordan ~ Tango ~ 30:
Robbie's growing on me. A bit. I still don't like him but I would, at least, discourage people from throwing things at him. The thing with the chair made no sense, in which he picked up a chair, did a little turn, thrust it away from him, did another little turn and defiantly set the chair back where it had been in the first place.
"You want chair? Robbie give chair! You no want chair? Fine! Robbie take back chair! You no get chair! Now Robbie dance with pretty Polish girl! Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!"

Holly Valance and Artem Chigvinstev ~ Tango ~ 30:
As mentioned above, Holly chose to go all Blue Peter this week and make her dress out of pantyhose and electrician's tape. I can't decide whether it was as sexy as I'm pretty sure the costuming department expected it to be, but I'm not complaining. However, the routine was flawed from the beginning by the song choice: 'Cell Block Tango' from the musical Chicago.
At the start of the song, the singer says the name 'Lipschitz' several times, leaving a viewer to wonder whether saying, 'lip shits,' over and over really is acceptable pre-watershed material. As a result, I was distracted through the beginning. Then there's Holly missing a step and getting her heel caught in her dress. Good recovery and all but...
I guess what I'm trying to say is I feel a little disappointed in the fact I'm not perving on Holly as much I think I should. I don't really find I want to do naughty naughty things in a shed with Holly Valance and for this I am placing the blame squarely on her shoulders.

Rory Bremner and Erin Boag ~ Quickstep ~ 31:
Every. Single. Damn. Time someone does a quickstep, the judges namecheck Fred Astaire. Rory looked nothing like Fred Astaire. He did, however, look alright. It was easily his best performance so far. But still there wasn't a great deal to pull you in, to make someone want to vote for him. It felt like a very good drawing on a styrofoam cup.

Alex Jones and James Jordan ~ Viennese Waltz ~ 32
The fact James was dressed a bit like the Joker confused me slightly, but once I got over that I found it to be a pretty good dance. I've watched six seasons of Strictly and I can only think of one Viennese waltz I actually enjoyed watching, and at the moment I can't remember who performed it. Ali Bastian, I think. Point is: it's not the most exciting of dances. This coupled with the fact that, at times, Alex was making a face like a trophy wife trapped in a loveless marriage who, when called upon to suffer wifely duties, lies back and thinks of Cymru. I can't decide whether I think Alex will blossom into an amazing dancer, or simply follow the lead of her national rugby team and be good, but not good enough.

Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani ~ Jive ~ 33:
I am boycotting Harry Judd this week due to the rapturous teenage squeals his shirtless performance induced in my girlfriend. Jenn was kicking her legs in the air and giggling with lusty delight, so, of course, I hate him now. And his abs.

Jason Donovan and Kristina Rihanoff ~ Tango ~ 36:
Would you like a little awesome sauce with your awesome sandwich? Why not? It's complimentary on the J-Train buffet car. I still think the J-Train makes silly, Ricky-Groves-esque faces but there's no denying he's set himself out as the one to beat in this series. I particularly liked the way he looked as if he was shouting right before launching into little sequences. He would grab Kristina into hold, they would snap their bodies taut and then launch forward with him mouthing: "Hooah!"
I love that kind of thing. I frequently (far too frequently) daydream of being on Strictly and have long promised myself I would shout all the way through my tango and paso doble. Thank you, J-Train, for living that dream for me.


  • Ol' SuBo is a big ol' bag full o' crazy, ain't she? She was this week's musical guest, not necessarily performing at her best and looking she was going to stab somebody.
  • I often re-watch the dances on Ye Olde Tube of You, thanks to the dedication of user MrAtariST. He/she uploads each dance individually, making it easy to watch just the performances you want. I think it's interesting to look at the page views for each dance. You'll notice Holly Valance's performance was viewed more than 50,000 times (as of Friday, 21 October 2011) and the J-Train's performance more than 20,000 times (again, as of Friday, 21 October 2011), whereas Audley's dance has only been viewed about 1,500 times. I wonder if the YouTube views are an insight to how the people will vote next week. 
  • Watching Nancy on 'It Takes Two' this week I have decided I very much dislike her. She's creepy.
  • I liked the Footloose performance but, uhm, what's the point of remaking Footloose? It feels like sacrilege. How dare you try to take from Kevin Bacon's limelight?

  • I'm predicting Audley Harrison and Nancy Dell'Olio in the bottom two again this week, with Audley most likely making his exit.
  • I remain relatively certain the J-Train will be in the final. I am loving Queen Russell but I have an oh-so-slight doubt his appeal will last all the way to Christmas. I mean, how many iconic gay songs can he dance to? OK, enough to last until Christmas, perhaps, but against so many good dancers I'm not sure. So, I'll choose Holly Valance and Harry Judd to be in the final with J-Train.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Strictly Week 2: God save the dancing queen

I hate to start out exactly as I did last week, but, honestly: Russell Grant, bitches. If you don't like Russell Grant, there is something very wrong with you. No, really; you are suppressing some kind of deep psychological trauma and if you don't seek help soon you may be a danger to yourself or others. I cannot imagine what kind of sick, twisted, miserable state of mind a person would need to be in to sit and watch Russell mincing about the dance floor and not feel at least a modicum of joy. If you are such a person, I pray for you.

On a side note, if you ever happen to find yourself in the great state of Minnesota when the mighty 3 Minute Hero are performing, I suggest you go. You'll find my friend, Jeff, lead singer of the band, employs a number of similar moves on stage. He is like the sleazy, heterosexual version of Russell Grant.

Back in His Majesty's United Dancing Kingdom, all was made right this week with the exit of Edwina "Did I mention I shagged John Major" Currie. I found her to be disturbing in all sorts of ways, not least being the fact she looked a bit like Rob Brydon in drag.

Starting with the exiting couple first, here's a look at the second weekend of "Strictly Come Dancing:"

Edwina Currie and Vincent Simone ~ Foxtrot ~ 19
At this stage in the competition, a routine is just 1 minute 45 seconds long. Edwina and Vincent ate up the first 30 seconds by sitting or stylishly placing themselves near a table. Some 15 more seconds were then eaten up by their swaying back and forth behind the table, thus hiding any shoddy footwork. Once they finally got moving there wasn't much to keep you from wishing they would sit back down. The dance was emblematic of the whole Edwina/Vincent dynamic, which is that they were kind of creepy in a child-predator sort-of way. I am sure great rafts of curry puns had to be thrown out by Brucie's writers, but it's for the best.

Nancy Dell'Olio and Anton du Beke ~ Salsa ~ 14
Anton and latin dance have never gone well together. They are like lemon cake icing and a chicken enchilada; it's never going to work. With a fair amount of tweaking it may be possible to make the pair tolerable but no one, ever, is going to sit back after the experience and say: "You know, I really, really enjoyed that."
So, even if Nancy could dance, this would not have been one of the couple's best routines. And, of course, Nancy cannot dance. On Saturday she appeared to be stumbling down a very steep hill, with Anton unsure as to whether he wanted to help out.
Using an algorithm based on social media and online searches, the Guardian predicted earlier this week Nancy would be dropped. She wasn't, which, I have to admit, doesn't yet upset me. I strangely like the bickering dynamic between her and Anton. They are like a post-modern buddy film: the Turner and Hooch of the dancing world.

Dan Lobb and Katya Virshilas ~ Salsa ~ 21
Dan's growing on me. I liked his seemingly impromptu slapping of Katya's ass late in their dance. It seemed as if he had forgotten what he was supposed to do and just thought: "Go for the bum."
You would, wouldn't you? I would. Katya strikes me as 32 flavours of crazy but, still, you would. In terms of actual dancing, however, the two remain non grata as far as I'm concerned. I don't imagine Dan as ever being anything more than one of those people who fill out the show.

Rory Bremner and Erin Boag ~ Salsa ~ 22
In his comments after the dance, Len said: "This is not a natural dance for an Englishman... it's not what we do, is it?"
I'm sure there are a few million people who would like to point out Rory is Scottish-born and -raised. Not that it has any effect on one's capacity to perform the salsa. His promise last week to channel Sean Connery for this dance was a clear sign it was never going to go well. Sean Connery and salsa dancing? No, Rory. No. And even the costume department knew he was doomed, kitting him in what I have deemed to be the Loser's Shirt.
It's well known amongst Strictly freaks the costume department will often re-use outfits from one year to another. The budget of Her Majesty's British Broadcasting Corporation demands as much. Tweaks are made here and there according to a celebrity's particular frame and the nature of the dance, so often the recycled clothing isn't obvious. The shirt Rory was wearing, however, has been worn at least twice in other people's salsa performances -- those performances being so forgettable I cannot now remember who wore it. It is the shirt of salsa mediocrity and it was right to be worn by Rory.
Erin's body, meanwhile. Hello.

Audley Harrison and Natalie Lowe ~ Salsa ~ 23
I'm not sure why Audley was dressed in the uniform of a Star Trek security officer, but I suppose it fit. You could imagine him wielding the bat'leth with a special kind of ferocity. Meanwhile, the aerobic workout routine Natalie and he performed was acceptable. It was far more zumba than salsa, but fun to watch. I was upset to see him in the bottom two; he strikes me as being pretty likeable. But perhaps he has no real support base. The average Strictly fan is unlikely to be wildly fond of boxing and the average boxing fan unlikely to be wildly fond of Strictly. Additionally, according to my friend, Simon, Audley's not that well-respected in boxing circles, though I'm not sure why.

Lulu and Brendan Cole ~ Foxtrot ~ 25
What was that whole thing with the mirror? It was a strange attempt to add artistic flair to a dance that wasn't good enough to merit artistic flair. The whole routine had the feel of a son dancing with his slightly intoxicated mother on the day they both discovered he is dying of AIDS.

Russell Grant and Flavia Cacace ~ Salsa ~ 25
Amongst the myriad things I love about Team Flaviant is the joy both sides seem to be having as a result of the experience. Flavia is actually smiling. Not that crazy, "Someone's gonna die" smile she usually has, but the smile of a person for whom there is some kind of actual emotion behind the act. To use a second Star Trek analogy, this is like when Data got an emotion chip. You feel a kind of happiness for her as she discovers what it's like to be a real girl and not simply an incredible set of abs.
Russell, meanwhile, is rightly making the very most of every moment. In their dance Saturday, there was a part when he grabs Flavia by the shoulders and the two just sort of spin around madly in the centre of the dance floor. In slow motion the next day, we saw Russell was effectively in the throes of ecstasy during that spin. Good on him.

Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani ~ Foxtrot ~ 27
Under-marked. Again. Jenn is so in love with Harry she went all wobbly watching his dance. I can't say my reaction was exactly the same, but I agree he danced really well. There is a certain teenage mopeyness to his face and frame when he dances that could be ironed out but he easily out-danced a number of the people who finished above him on the leader board. Also, who's idea was it to dress him like a gay James T. West?

Anita Dobson and Robin Windsor ~ Salsa ~ 28
A score of 28 is a little high, but perhaps the judges were concerned about the repercussions of giving Anita low marks. Can you imagine how devastating it would be to see her little face turn to a frown? You might as well stomp a puppy to death on live television. There is something imminently likeable about Anita. Similar to Russell Grant, she seems to be savouring every blessed moment of this experience that has plucked her from the celebrity obscurity of being someone who's name is usually followed with, "And who is that again? Oh, really? She's still alive?" to being someone for whom a room full of people hoot and cheer. And you can't begrudge her for enjoying it. The only questions I have are: 
1) When are they going to dance to a song by Queen? 
2) When is she going to start actually dancing?

Chelsee Healey and Pasha Kovalev ~ Salsa ~ 29
Mr. Tumnus with an enormous rack: that is what Chelsee looked like on Saturday. Those car-wash-brush trousers were a bad idea, as was exposing her less-than-chiseled belly. In fairness to the vapid, unintelligible, love child of the Hamburglar, Chelsee is not fat, she is simply someone who should not have an exposed midriff on national television. It made her look like a genie who'd been left in the bottle too long.
I dislike Chelsee in almost every way, but I have to admit that after starting out like a hot mess near the judge's table, she managed a pretty good -- if not actually pretty -- salsa. I am not sure, though, this is enough to overcome how utterly unlikeable she is. Rubble-rubble, Chelsee.

Robbie Savage and Ola Jordan ~ Foxtrot ~ 29
I don't really like Robbie Savage, so I'll go back to talking about Russell Grant. Another point in the dancing queen's favour is the fact he so totally enjoys the show and is supportive of everyone else. Case in point was his diverting away from the fawning praise and standing ovation he had just received Saturday to say: "You know, can I just say, I am more thrilled about my friend, Robbie, getting such fantastic marks."
And, indeed, he did. Robbie is annoying and looks like an Elvish warrior who's moved to Vegas and is now doing three shows daily at the Luxor, but he is, frustratingly, not a bad dancer. I am struggling to come to terms with this. Additionally, I am torn over the fact he seems somewhat genuine in his nervousness and attempts to do well. It's like the American Civil War is being fought inside me, y'all. In that conflict, as in this one, a man named Grant played a decisive role. And I fear my hatred for Robbie is on the Confederate side.

Alex Jones and James Jordan ~ Foxtrot ~ 29
Admittedly, I was a little disappointed this dance did not allow for James to use his superpower of getting women to behave like harlots, but this was, for me, one of the best dances of the night. It was under-marked. Alex looked very much the part and even made me wish, just for a moment, I was John Prescott, which is something I never have before wished and never will again. There are minor improvements to be made here and there but I am so looking forward to seeing her carry on I can't even think of anything particularly snarky or perverted to say. 
There. The balance is restored.

Holly Valance and Artem Chigvinstev ~ Salsa ~ 30
On "It Takes Two" Monday Craig Revel Horwood expressed concern that Holly may be just a little too confident. I think this is a diplomatic way of suggesting he thinks Holly feels she is too cool to be on the show. It's hard to tell. I think Holly is like Artem's partner from last year, Kara, in that she probably won't decide internally until about Week 6 whether she genuinely wants to be on the show. If/when she does decide to put her heart into it, I think she will improve dramatically.
Thus far, however, Holly's yet to produce the stunning dance of which one suspects she is almost certainly capable. And what I mean by that, of course, is this: Holly has not yet worked me into a fit of lust. I mean, Holly should be dancing in such a way that I wonder whether I should be watching her alone, with the door locked. I'm not getting that from her, though. Which is kind of disappointing. Obviously, there is work to be done.

Jason Donovan and Kristina Rihanoff ~ Foxtrot ~ 33
The J-Train rolls on. But here's the thing: he was sitting down for the first 23 seconds of the song. Where were you on that, Len Goodman? Len famously hates "faffing about" at the beginning of a dance but said nothing in this case. Once again, Jenn and I couldn't help muttering the word "fix" as the scores came in. Yes, the music was good and Kristina looked like sex in a full-body unitard and Jason got all the steps right but I would not say his footwork was all that much better than Harry Judd's or Alex Jones'. As with last week, I've found myself having to watch the dance again in attempt to see what the judges were so crazy about. I'm not seeing it. As a matter of fact, on second viewing I'm spotting a cavalcade of goofy facial expressions. I don't think he should have scored higher than Alex Jones and I don't feel he was a full six points better than Harry Judd.

This week has done nothing to shake my belief that the J-Train is going all the way to the finals. I am uncertain, though, about the three others who will be there with him. At the moment, I'm going to stick with my prediction of those other two being Holly Valance and Harry Judd. Though, I think Alex Jones has a strong chance.

  • On "It Takes Two," discussing last week's dance disaster, Zoe Ball asked Anton: "When did you realise it was all going a little bit wrong?" - "Thursday before," quipped Anton.
  • Randomly, I miss Lilia Kopylova.
  • Lulu and Anton are set to dance the rumba this week. Make the bad man stop.
  • Will Young's musical performance seemed a bit odd to me. Jenn would not agree. She refers to him as "Willy Yum-Yum" and confessed to me she has seen him twice in concert.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Especially at this time of year

Oh, Minnesota. Sometimes I miss you so much I feel my heart is going to stop.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Strictly Week 1: The Rise of Donovan

Russell Grant, bitches. Russell muthahugging Grant. There are some who fear he will be the Ann Widdecombe of this series but I think those people are overlooking some minor differences:

1) He's never suggested handcuffing pregnant women to their beds.
2) He's actually trying.
3) He's awesome.

Along with some surprisingly OK dancing for so early in the competition, Russell was perhaps the highlight of this past Strictly weekend. But, of course, what's Strictly without a bit of intrigue, so I'll just throw this out there: is Jason Donovan a fix? 

I've vowed to keep the Strictly updates considerably shorter this year, so, bant â ni straight into the individual performances, starting with the lowest-scoring couples.

Nancy & Anton / Waltz / 12
What is the dealio with Nancy Dell'Olio? Apparently she sees herself as a sexual predator. Fortunately, she can be easily stopped if you simply throw a feather boa at her. That bit of costume was her undoing; one can see why Anton chose to have her just sit on a chaise lounge through much of the dance. According to a tweet from Russell Grant, Nancy was supposed to have left her feathered nemesis on the couch, which suggests perhaps that even without the boa the dance would have been awful because Nancy is crap at taking direction. How did "Leave the feather boa behind" get translated to "Carry that thing with you to the death"? 
She's like that old salt in the eyes sketch from Kids in the Hall.

Edwina & Vincent / Cha Cha Cha / 17
I find it difficult to criticise too heavily the people who seem to be having genuine fun on Strictly. I imagine that if one had been able to tap into Edwina Currie's thought process during her Cha Cha Cha, it would have been something along the lines of: "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
Bless her for trying. And seemingly losing herself in the moment; rolling around on the floor at the end of the dance and flashing her knickers before an audience of millions. Why aren't American conservatives this fun? In terms of actual dancing, however, I'm not entirely sure Vincent is up to the challenge of choreographing for someone who isn't Flavia (his professional partner) or, at least, quite Flavia-esque. The dance was too jokey.
My favourite comment on Edwina comes from the Guardian's live blog: "Edwina's dress is a bedraggled-looking red affair, with a rhinestone choker that looks like she's being throttled by Michael Jackson."

Lulu & Brendan / Cha Cha Cha / 17
You know it's bad when Brendan concedes defeat. All too often he insists upon defending his celebrity from the "harshness" of Craig's camp villainy. In this case, however, after manically flouncing about the stage with Lulu for a bit -- at one point actually turning to her and raising his shoulders, as if to ask: "What the hell are you doing?" -- he was happy to just stand there and admit that, yes, Lulu had chosen to make up her own steps in the moment. She looked like an inebriated mother of the bride, trying to relive her youth on the wedding party dance floor.

Robbie & Ola / Cha Cha Cha / 19
Len is right: of all the footballers to perform in the whole of Strictly, Robbie Savage shows the most potential. That isn't really saying much, though, and there was far too much standing rigidly still in his Cha Cha Cha to make an assessment of what he may or may not be able to do. From what little dancing there was, however, I am pained to admit it was not as awful as I might have hoped. I really hate football banter on Strictly and I thoroughly dislike Robbie's taking so much pride in having been a dirty player during his footballing career. It's OK for Ric Flair to be the "dirtiest player in the game" because he is a professional wrestling heel. For an actual sportsman to carry that mantle is embarrassing. I dislike him on principal.

Audley & Natalie / Waltz / 20
Did they really only have three days to put that dance together? In the "Here's a look at them in training" video package, Natalie said she and Audley Harrison had just three days to work on their dance due to, uhm, some sort of reason that wasn't properly explained. It had something to do with the fact Audley lives in the United States, though, last I checked, airlines are still operating flights between the U.S. and the UK, so I'm not sure why that mattered. From her physique, Natalie looks she could have swam to America, so a part of me feels pity for Audley and the workout that must have been waiting upon his arrival in the UK. But boxers are used to intense training and it seems to have paid off somewhat. He was far more graceful and comfortable on the dance floor than Joe Calzaghe ever was (the only other boxer I can remember being on Strictly). The fact he has hands the size of Shetland ponies was always going to hurt him, though -- especially considering Craig's armography fetish. Indeed, the very first word from Craig after the dance was, simply: "HANDS!"
I fear any attempts at Latin dance. I worry they'll have the feel of the "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene in Young Frankenstein.

Russell & Flavia / Cha Cha Cha / 21
Russell Grant, you magnificent queen, I like you far more than I thought I would. He and Flavia seem to be on the path of embracing his campness and running with it, something I think could work out brilliantly if done right. In this dance, both Russell and Flavia just sort of did their own thing. They need to interact more, with Russell being playfully naughty about Flavia's quite admirable physique. Of course, Russell will need to be able to breathe in order to do such a thing. At the moment, his getting through the whole routine without needing to stop for oxygen seems to be the primary goal.
He'll get time to work on fitness level, though. He's very clearly popular with the audience; that alone will likely carry him to at least week four. If he and Flavia master the camp-burlesque dynamic, and he manages to do the basic steps (as he was this weekend), I would expect him to carry on to the Blackpool show.

Alex & James / Cha Cha Cha / 22
As I mentioned last week, I have a long history of perving on Alex Jones. But in all that time I had never noticed she has boobs. I mean, it's not that the things weren't there, but they didn't really stand out. On Saturday, however, suddenly, they were there: boobs. Bronnau, as they are known in Alex's native tongue. The Guardian live blog described her as looking like "a broken chandelier." A broken chandelier with lovely boobs.
In terms of her actual dancing, however, it was less than exciting. James, who is my favourite professional dancer for just this reason, managed to get her to work in a few raunchy moves but Alex hasn't yet developed the ability to make you think: "Oh, crikey. They're going to abandon this dance at any moment and just go straight to having sex."
That's the sort of thing I want from Alex Jones: naughty, naughty, naughty broken chandelier and boobs.

Dan & Katya / Waltz / 24
Before writing about Dan Lobb's waltz I considered watching it again on YouTube, because in my memory I have it confused with Rory Bremner's waltz. I decided against doing that because obviously it was so wholly unmemorable it's not worth watching again. Every Strictly must have its dancers that are there to simply fill out the roster. Dan, it seems, is one of those people.

Chelsee & Pasha / Waltz / 27
Top-heavy Chelsee Healey annoys me just a little more with each passing moment. Unlike Alex Jones, I noticed Chelsee's boobs because she has no other redeeming qualities. After her dance, as Chelsee and Pasha were making their way to Tess' area, Tess said: "Here she comes, a favourite, running up the stairs."
I think that statement would be more accurate sans one of the commas. That is: a favourite running up the stairs. Men watching the show will almost certainly put her in their top five favourite people to watch running up stairs. But as I said, last week, it's just not enough for me. There is too much wrong with Chelsee to be compensated for by the presence of ginormous breasts.
Her accent, for example. Listening to her speak is like pouring petrol into your ear. In the whole of her video package I only understood a handful of words: "Wahmah mah wah nah gah baby wah nah fah mah wah out wi' me mates wah mah wah nah gah mum."
Frustratingly then, despite looking "like a poodle wearing a pink trumpet made of icing" as the Guardian live blog described her, Chelsee was not an awful dancer. She was, it pains me to admit, OK. Perhaps her utter lack of attractiveness, personality and basic verbal skills allow just enough room in her brain to retain dance moves. An awful, deviant, perverted part of me is eager to see her perform Latin.

Rory & Erin / Waltz / 27
See the above, re: Dan & Katya. Replace "Dan Lobb" with "Rory Bremner."

Harry & Aliona / Cha Cha Cha / 28
Under marked, yo. Aliona has scored again with a good partner whom Jenn has a girly-type crush on. All through Harry Judd's Cha Cha Cha, Jenn was squealing and giggling, which probably would have knocked my confidence just a little had I not already consumed so much port and the fact Aliona was distracting me by wearing as a top something that basically looked like a glittery sock. Raised amidst the crumbling Soviet Union she almost certainly understands the importance of thrift and seems to carry this philosophy to her costumes, where she wears in a season the same amount of fabric Ann Widdecombe wore in a night. Bless her. 
Also it's OK for Jenn to perv on Harry because I may have a wee man crush on him, as well. He wore a Minnesota Twins T-shirt in one of McFly's videos, after all; regional love carries a long way.
Their dance was on par, if not superior, to Jason Donovan's and was probably under marked because they were first to perform on the night. As I mentioned in a recent vlog, I am so confident of Harry's success I'm considering putting money on it.

Anita & Robin / Waltz / 28
If watching Anita Dobson's waltz didn't make you just a little bit teary-eyed, you have no soul. Robin the big gay monkey seems to have a knack for putting together emotionally stirring waltzes, having done similar with crazy Patsy Kensit last year. I had no idea who Anita was before this. She played the former bitchy wife of an "East Enders" character who was killed off, brought back to life and killed again all before I moved to this country, which means my attitude toward her was tabula rasa. Based on the video package, she seems a nice person who is genuinely excited to be on Strictly, so she has gone from "Person I'm not paying any attention to" to "Person I kind of like." That said, I do not look forward to seeing her perform Latin.

Holly & Artem / Cha Cha Cha / 28
Having performed first on the Friday show, Holly Valance's Cha Cha Cha may have slipped your memory by now. Wearing what the Guardian live blog described as "a dress made from four Quality Street wrappers, a fistful of chocolate coins and a few scraps of tinsel" Holly performed admirably amidst the crazy spinny handsy madness of Artem's movement. In high-energy stuff Artem doesn't seem capable of toning things down a little, so, by comparison, Holly looked just slightly as if she had just been roused from a slumber. There's likelihood of improvement, though, if Holly decides she actually wants to be taking part -- which I'm not sure she has yet done.

Jason & Kristina / Cha Cha Cha / 32
OK, I've gone back and watched Jason Donovan's Cha Cha Cha and, yes, it was good. In the moment, however, I agreed with Jenn, who said he looked like a pervy dad who's getting to dance with a drunken 18-year-old girl and still can't believe his luck. Fair enough; dancing with Kristina might elicit the same response from me. As I say, though, I don't think J-Train's dance was all that much better than Harry Judd's. Certainly not so wonderful it deserved such glowing praise from Craig. The wonderfully camp villain of Strictly suddenly got all regional, referencing the fact both he and Donovan are Australian and then shouting: "Bonzer, mate!"
What? He's never done that with Natalie; he didn't do that with Holly Valance (both of whom are also from Australia). His own Australian accent has been allowed to disappear in favour of a more British one. Where the hell did this Australian patriotism come from?
When you work regionalism into the mix it affects your opinion of a person (see above, re: my opinion of Harry Judd). Perhaps that's the reason Craig dropped an 8 on the J-Train but what's the explanation for the other judges? I feel the J-Train was just so slightly over marked because the judges like him. He's been a frequent guest of "It Takes Two" over the years and I think, perhaps, he's got a slightly different status amongst the judges than the other contestants. They like him and want him to do well and, I think, perhaps, they are allowing that to cause them to score him a bit less harshly.
Not that it matters, of course. The massive ovation given to the J-Train even before he shook his moneymaker is sign he will have plenty of fan support along his Strictly journey. Indeed, unless Harry Judd and Aliona find true love in one another's arms (thus echoing the endearing romance last year between Artem and Kara Tointon) the safe money at the moment is probably on J-Train to walk home with the coveted glitter-ball trophy. And, I suppose that's fine. For some reason I can't really figure out, I like the J-Train. Perhaps one of the reasons I like him stems from the reason behind my nickname for him:
Last week, my friend, Elisa, drew my attention to the group dance from the launch show. At about 2:10 into this video, Jason Donovan throws Nancy Dell'Ollio out of his way like Thor dispensing a frost giant. Nancy learned the hard way: you don't stand on the tracks when the J-Train's coming.

I can't think of too many other things that stood out for me this week. It was good to see Tess Daly again with her crazy hit-or-miss fashion sense. And it occurs to me that somewhere in his great big bag of cliché and pun, Bruno almost certainly has a "Prince Harry" reference ready should Harry Judd perform well in waltz or foxtrot.

Expect to see Harry Judd and the J-Train in the final, possibly accompanied by Holly Valance.