Reading in Heels August Box

The third and final of my Reading in Heels subscription boxes arrived yesterday – making up slightly (though not totally!) for the fact that a friend had sent me a gift and the envelope had come unstuck in the post, meaning all that came through my letter box was a sad, empty padded envelope. Wah! (The gift was handmade, too, so I was doubly crushed).

Still at least I had some pretties. The new Reading In Heels box wasn’t bad at all, although not enough to convince me to renew my subscription. One of the sweets had nuts in and I don’t drink tea, so the fact that they send teabags every month is wasted on me. The ‘beauty’ element was an overnight masque that looked nice, and the book looks interesting, so while I think the box is decent value for money and would be great for some people, there’s not enough to keep me buying.

Still, was glad I gave it a try.

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Birchbox and Rainbow Shoes

Feeling a bit under the weather this week, so pleased to get a couple of fun deliveries yesterday. This month’s Birchbox arrived and, as usual, it was a mixed bunch. I’m not a user of highlighters, so that’ll likely go in the Christmas box, as will the shower gel, since that is coconut (urgh!). The body scrub will come in handy, and I’m always willing to give some skincare a go, though, so enough to make me feel like I got a treat.

Even more of a treat, my new shoes from the Collectiq sale arrived. I feel like my wardrobe has got a bit boring since I started to work from home, and these beauties will brighten me up. They have a removable shell at the front, which clips on – I worry that might rub, but they are equally pretty unadorned. And at a mere 15 quid plus postage, they are a bit of a bargain!

Putting my money where my mouth is – joining Live Theatre and Northern Stage

Anyone who follows this blog – or sits down next to me for more than 5 minutes – will know I am passionate about the arts, about theatre, and about accessibility. Since moving back to Newcastle I have fallen more than a little in love with many institutions that seem to me to hold the same values: that care not just about putting on a good show or showing a good film, but about serving and engaging with the community they are based in.

I really believe that venues like Alphabetti, Northern Stage, Live Theatre and the Tyneside Cinema are more than just places to see a play or a movie: they add to the cultural tapestry of the city in truly valuable ways. I’ve been a member of the Tyneside since I moved back, but am slightly embarrassed to admit it’s taken me this long to investigate similar schemes at two of the theatres I so regularly attend.

It may seem crazy for a theatre critic – who, after all, gets to see most shows for free – to pay to join a theatre membership scheme, but it’s not just about the benefits (though I do actually regularly buy tickets to shows as well, and, let’s face it, as both Live and Northern Stage offer a discount on drinks at the bar, I’ll have made my money back in a year…). It’s about doing my bit to ensure that these venues thrive. Part of what has made coming back to Newcastle such a glorious experience is its rich arts scene: coughing up a few quid to support it seems like smart self-interest to me.

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Interested?

Membership of Northern Stage starts at just £30 for a year (20 if you pay by direct debit, which feels like a steal to me) – you can get details here.

Becoming a Friend of Live Theatre starts at £5 a month (or £60 a year) though there are levels above that if you are feeling particularly flush. You can find details here.

You can become a Friend of The Tyneside Cinema here for around £35 (£30 with direct debit).

 

 

 

NE1 Newcastle Restaurant Week and The Muddler

It’s Restaurant Week again in Newcastle, where a whole bunch of venues across town offer £10 or £15 menus. So that and my friend M’s pending birthday seemed a great excuse to try a place I have been dying to visit since I moved back, The Muddler on Grey Street.

A lux looking Pan-Asian restaurant with a great cocktail menu, The Muddler was offering 3 dishes for £15 as part of Restaurant Week. With plenty of vegetarian options (and a comprehensive allergy menu so I could be sure there was nothing on there I couldn’t eat), there was lots to choose from (and when I couldn’t decide whether my gyoza should be steamed or fried, the waitress offered to do half-and-half: yum!). M went for a mix of meat and fish dishes (the salmon was her favourite), while I had tofu, tempura and vegetable gyoza, which were all delicious, and surprisingly substantial: 3 dishes was more than enough! We both had a cocktail from an extensive and well-thought-out menu, and were both pleased with our choices.

The staff were really friendly and helpful, and the vibe laid back – though the place was so booked up we could only get an early slot, so if you want to check it out, advance booking might be an idea.

We followed that with more cocktails at Beeronomy, which had changed its cocktail menu and seemed to have got rid of anything I wanted to drink: luckily, they are still more than happy to whip up a classic, so we both had very decent espresso martinis, before rounding the night off with a glass of wine at the Tyneside Cinema Bar.

The offers run all week and there’s a huge range of restaurants taking part, so why not check out the Restaurant Week website?

Jaws at the Tyneside Cinema

I must admit I am a sucker for an old movie on the big screen. Whether it’s a beloved favourite or a classic I have somehow missed, I love getting a chance to watch a film that’s become a TV staple in a cinema.

So when I saw that The Tyneside Cinema was showing a screening of Jaws, I decided to book tickets. It’s one of those films that I feel like I have seen because so much of it has become part of the lexicography of both film and cultural life, but I realised I had never actually seen the whole thing. I suggested to my friend D – who is a massive fan, and had already seen it on the big screen as part of its 4K* restoration last year – and she agreed to come with.

This of course presented a whole load of other issues: what if I hated it? D is a real fan: she was in fact wearing not one but three different pieces of shark-themed jewellery. And when I mentioned my ignorance of the film on Twitter, another friend said it was ‘like an episode of Murder She Wrote, but with sharks’ which didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. (Or maybe, did, since that sounds awesome.) I was slightly worried this might be the end of our friendship.

Luckily, the problem didn’t arise. The film has held up really well, albeit the imagined horrors of the shark fare slightly better than the actual, clearly mechanical one – there were still some moments that actually had the audience jumping out of their seats. Even having been turned into cliche hasn’t diluted the key scenes (there was actually an advert for Veet hair removal cream for men based on the famous ‘compare scars’ scene shown before the trailers), and the underlying themes: respect nature, listen to experts and don’t put capitalism over human life, couldn’t actually be more relevant. (The first half IS a little like Murder She Wrote with sharks, but I didn’t mind that at all…)

As ever when I watch films from that era, I feel a little sad: because I can’t help thinking none of those people would be cast today. Some of the men might do OK – though likely shunted off into character roles – but everyone else would be straight out of central casting: glossy, toned, even the older women trim and well-preserved, though they might hire a single fat guy for the sake of ‘veracity’. (This was reinforced not just by the trailer for the new Tarantino film, which features lots of toned, glossy, beautiful people made up to look as unpolished as the 60s, and watching The Meg when I got home, in which all the women look like they came to their auditions direct from the gym, and marine biologists look like Jason Statham, not Richard Dreyfuss, and spend a lot more time with their shirts off.)

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(This is my friend’s bracelet – if you like one you can buy it at Stella My Star on Etsy – they do a whole range of geeky themed jewellery.)

Afterwards we went to The Alchemist in Eldon Square for snacks and drinks – and I was impressed to see the most extra ice bucket I have encountered, overflowing with dry ice. The food was also good – very nice vegetarian selection – and the staff friendly, so I would definitely go again. I rarely think to go into Eldon Square to eat – it feels a bit ‘food court’ for my tastes – but both times I have eaten their recently have actually been pretty great, and if you sit further inside you can generally forget you are in a shopping centre, so perhaps I need to be less snobby about it…

(*I have no idea what a 4K restoration is, or if that is even what it’s called.)

Homecoming one year on

I am alone in a hotel room, bleeding, and I’m pretty sure I’ve just made the worst mistake of my life.

OK, that’s a bit melodramatic, but I’m a writer. I love a killer opening line. But the truth is, this time last year, there were plenty of moments that felt just like that. Because a year ago today, I got on a train and came home.

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It hadn’t been a long-planned exodus. None of mine ever are: I’m bad at plenty of things in my life, but making major decisions on the fly oddly isn’t one of them. (Ask me to pick a restaurant, mind, and we’ll both be here all day). But a combination of circumstances meant I had become increasingly weary of Brighton life – a rent increase on a small, storage-free flat that was already at the top end of my budget and was increasingly falling into disrepair, since in a property market as cut-throat and competitive as Brighton there was little incentive to maintain it; the grind of trying to earn money in an expensive city; the loneliness of living somewhere you only know a handful of people and never entirely feel at home.

I knew I wanted to move, and that it made sense to move North – to Glasgow, or Newcastle, which would both be cheaper and where I already had a network of friends, albeit ones I mostly hadn’t seen much in the five years I’d lived in Brighton. It was fate, family and an intervention from Sting that made me plump for the latter, which I guess isn’t something everyone can say. But a trip in the spring to review the Sting-penned musical The Last Ship at Northern Stage had reignited something in me – a love of local theatre, a connection to not just the show but the audience that I hadn’t felt in a long time. When an invite to a family party brought me back to the city a mere week later and reminded me that, wow, I actually really like most of my family – even if we hadn’t seen each other in years – it seemed like a sign, and I took it. Newcastle it was.

Three months later, that plan was a reality, and I wasn’t sure I was happy about it. I didn’t have anywhere to live, and some of the accommodation I had counted on had fallen through (a friend’s spare room had suddenly become unavailable: I tried not to take that as an omen), so I was spending more time and money in hotels than I had planned on, depleting my meagre funds. My body had taken the exact moment of my move to plunge into what I now realise was perimenopause, and gift me with periods so heavy and so constant that leaving my room for more than an hour was an exercise in risk, and so I was traipsing round looking at flats with the unhappy, sodden knowledge my knickers looked like the lift scene from The Shining.

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My friends and family were happy to see me, sure – and most of them went out of their way to be helpful and welcoming – but, not unreasonably, they still had lives and commitments of their own, and moving back to a city where your company will be on tap is a very different experience than just coming back for a weekend every few years, when everyone is motivated to make time to see you.

Even when I found a flat – in an area not far from where I grew up, but a far cry from the trendy surroundings I had envisioned myself living in – my doubts persisted. I remember vividly the first weekend I moved in. I wandered around the neighbourhood and it was so different to where I lived in Brighton that I came home and cried. There would be no more popping out for coffee in the morning to the cute little French patisserie, no browsing in the bookshop only minutes away, not even a late-night trip to the Co-op or the off-licence. There was nothing but a questionable pub and a Metro stop. I felt like I might as well have moved to the moon.

I also worried that I had picked the Worst Possible Time to move. Exciting things seemed to be happening in London theatre – Emilia was playing to rave reviews at the Globe, tapping into a real and widespread craving for feminist inclusivity. The success of Misty and Nine Night were shaking up preconceptions about the whiteness of the theatre scene: showcasing both black talent and the hunger for seeing it on stage. Had I left just as things had got interesting? Traded the chance to be really part of something for a bigger flat and some fitted wardrobes?

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But then, some strange things started to happen. A happy confluence of circumstances meant I was commissioned to write not one but two articles on the local theatre scene: these got a little traction, and suddenly I was getting invites to meet people for coffee, to talk about what was happening in Newcastle. Sure, I felt like a total fraud sitting down with the AD of an Actual Theatre – I was constantly waiting for them to say ‘oh, you’re not who I thought you were, this has been a huge mistake, please leave immediately’ – but I was also surprised by how welcoming everyone was. Not just the people with an incentive to speak to me – the PRs and the like – but across the board. In just a few weeks, I found I’d made, if not friends, then certainly enough acquaintances that I always found someone to talk to at a show.

And more than that: there was none of that isolation I had often felt in both London and Brighton, where I felt disconnected from the mostly middle-class Southern audiences. I was surrounded by My People: I regularly struck up conversations with total strangers who just happened to be sitting next to me, or who I was standing near in the bar, and so it rarely felt I was going out alone. And the theatre scene itself offered so many of those things I had thought I’d only see in London: political plays, plays by working class artists, by artists of colour, plays that addressed the world I lived in, that the audience lived in, that weren’t set in the aspic of some middle-class living room. I’d been looking to the other end of the country for a revolution that was happening on my own front door.

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I found that once I relaxed into the rhythm of being back, so many things fell into place, and even more unexpected things happened. I reconnected with my family and friends – my cousin lives around the corner from me, now, and I spend every Sunday night at her place, drinking beer and sharing our stories of the week, a routine that is luxurious in its very mundanity. Even more wonderfully, people who had been absent from my life for decades now came back into it: friends I had lost touch with in the days before Facebook and Google, now once again part of my life.

A lower cost of living made a difference almost at once. Not crippled by rent, I found I could travel more – London trips and shows that had been out of my budget when I lived a mere hour away were suddenly, if not an everyday option, an affordable treat. I’ve been to Scotland 3 times already, allowing me to spend time rekindling relationships I had long let fall into neglect. I rediscovered my love of going to gigs, and poetry readings, and exhibitions – all the things I had often felt too exhausted or too broke to do before. The vibrancy of Newcastle’s arts scene injected some long-needed enthusiasm into my own creative work – yes, yes, I know I’m still behind on the next book, but I managed a whole load of other stuff.

I had more space, and I realised just how much that changes how you live and work and operate as a creative artist. In Brighton I lived in a one bedroom flat with no cupboards: I spent my time looking at everything I own. Here – for literally half the cost – I have three bedrooms, and fitted wardrobes, and the luxury of working in a different room from the one I live in, of being able to shut the door on my job.

Sure, I miss the sea and I miss the coffee shops and I miss, sometimes, feeling part of the cosmopolitan and vibrant London or Brighton scenes. Newcastle isn’t perfect – it has a ways to go before it matches either of those places for inclusivity and diversity (though it’s improved on both those fronts since I lived here last). But I like not feeling like an outsider every time I open my mouth. I like not feeling like the weird, loud, working-class Northerner in a room full of Southern polished poshos, who will never understand what austerity really means, that a fiver can be a lot of money, that it’s totally correct to be outraged by being charged £7.50 for a glass of wine, because you can buy a whole bottle of that for 7 quid in the shops. (Not that everywhere in the South is rich, of course, but the circles I moved in – theatre and the arts and the law and the City – tended to attract the upper middle classes and the wealthy. And it’s not that everyone in the North is poor: most of my friends here are way better off than me, and live in houses that my Southern friends could only dream of. But to grow up in the North is to understand poverty, to be its neighbour, and therefore to think ‘there but for the Grace of God’ in a way that too often I don’t see in the South.)

I have let down my guard here, in a way I didn’t think was possible – because in truth I had been so guarded for so long I didn’t notice it anymore. But being surrounded by friends who have known me for decades means it’s foolish to pretend to be anyone else. Being accepted for who I am means I don’t have to. And so I have found to my surprise that moving home has been one long exhalation, letting out a breath I didn’t realise I was holding. I had forgotten what it feels like to belong, and I am discovering that I like it.

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Afternoon tea at Jesmond Dene House

Afternoon tea is one of those things I love in theory more than practice. The idea seems fabulous – an elegant and stylish treat – but as someone prefers coffee to tea and savoury to sweet, the reality is usually just an over-caffeinated sugar high and feeling nauseous from eating too much food at a weird time of day.

However, none of this was going to stop me attending a good friend’s baby shower in the upscale surroundings of Jesmond Dene House. The venue has been on my ‘returning to Newcastle’ bucket list, so I was doubly excited at the prospect. It’s gorgeously located – I used to live relatively near Jesmond Dene, back in the day, and the hotel always seemed like a fairytale castle to me, nestled in the leafy backdrop that gives it a sense of being smack in the heart of the countryside, even though it’s an easy walk into town (not in the shoes I was wearing, mind).

Previously a residential building for one of Newcastle’s fancier folk, the Georgian house was built by John Dobson and has been extended over the years. It’s now a boutique hotel and restaurant, and popular venue for celebrations – the mum-to-be, U, had her hen party afternoon tea there also.

(Sorry this photo is so blurry: I promise this was before I had any wine!)

Both inside and out, it looks impressive. We were in a large dining room / banquet hall that looked almost medieval, spacious enough to easily accommodate our 20-odd group. The afternoon tea itself was very tasty – sandwiches (though I was baffled by the non-nut-allergy option of cucumber and peanut butter, which sounds vile, apparently it’s a local thing, and many of the guests were delighted by it), a tart and vegetable pasty being the savoury, two scones (I gave away my fruit scone, since dried fruit is the evil, but the cheese scone was mighty tasty), and the sweets were a strawberry mousse, a fancy eclair, a slice of carrot cake (which I also gave away, because my feelings on carrot cake match those on raisins and sultanas) and a mini-fruit tart.

The staff were very on the ball in terms of catering to such a large group and all the dietary requirements that involves (including mine), and were friendly, efficient and pleasant throughout. We weren’t made to feel we needed to rush out of the space, and they were generous with the tea and coffee throughout.

I didn’t really know that many people there, but they were a lovely, friendly bunch, and I had a great time – it’s definitely a venue worth a visit. My only regret was wearing my Vivienne Westwood Melissa high heels, which are very high and not designed for a hot day, so of course after getting an cab back into town after the event, my friend L and I decided I needed to anaesthetise my throbbing feet with copious amounts of wine…