Culture Vulture

This month, classic pop band Blondie play a concert at Harrogate's International Centre with iconic Debbie Harry on lead vocals. Tony Greenway is touched by her presence.

Back in 1978, an American new wave band called Blondie appeared on Top of the Pops, performing their UK breakthrough hit, Denis. Next day at school, I remember, it was all we talked about. Or, rather, Blondie's lead singer, Debbie Harry, was all we talked about.
It's hard to describe the effect that Harry had on a bunch of hormonally charged 12-year-old boys, but I think I speak for all my former schoolmates when I say: 'Pwoarrrrr.' By then, Harry was already 33; but this didn't matter to us because she was, we all agreed, the most sizzling female this side of our beleaguered French teacher and The Blonde One Out of Abba (12-year-old boys, you see, think about little else. Well, that and football.)
Partly, our attraction to Harry was fuelled, inevitably, by the way she looked: blonde, just-got-out-of-bed hair, vermillion pout, blinding teeth, and cheekbones so sharp you could cut yourself on them. Her image was alarmingly, rapaciously sexual and her clothes were on the brief side. But we also liked her coolly detached attitude because she had a surly, challenging stare which invited everyone, unequivocally, to drop dead. Even at that young age, we recognised trouble when we saw it, and trouble looked like fun. I knew that if I ever brought Harry home to meet my parents (yeah, right - but I could dream, couldn't I?) she would be exactly the sort of woman my mother would violently disapprove of (but my dad, strangely, would be OK with).
She even had a powerful effect on females. At the girls' school down the road, various pupils started sporting shaggy peroxide 'dos - even if, in some cases, the results were more Dirty Harry than Debbie Harry. Meanwhile, my friends and I got on with the tough chore of collecting every bit of Harry memorabilia we could lay our hands on - posters, records, magazines and even a video called Debbie Does Dallas, which we presumed was a recording of a Blondie concert in Texas. But which turned out to be something else entirely.
Nearly three decades have passed, which makes Harry - eek! - 62 years of age, and me old enough to know better. Yet amazingly Blondie are still touring and this month play Harrogate which is not, admittedly, the first place you'd expect to find a band associated with the wild excesses of the seventies New York punk scene.
Debbie is old enough to be a granny now, so the only ones buzzing about her will be the sexagenarians in the stalls. And when she sings "Oh, your hair is beautiful" - a line from Blondie's 1979 hit, Atomic - expect to see most of them burst into tears.
Yet she's still a rebel at heart who refuses to grow old gracefully (if she was, she probably wouldn't be touring the world with a raucous New Wave pop group). Some commentators have tut-tutted about this and said that she is too old to be a rock chick and should retire with dignity. Funny that. No-one ever says the same about Mick Jagger or Keith Richards.
And anyway, she's still got 'it' - whatever that indefinable thing about her was back in 1978. She still looks like trouble. Plus, her voice has stayed exactly the same. Just listen to the way she purrs 'she looks like she don't care', the intro line from Blondie's 1999 comeback hit, Maria. It's as strong and true as it was 30 years ago.
So what if Debbie Harry isn't a poster girl anymore? She's now something far more potent. She's become an icon.


Just Desserts
Tony Greenway

Sitting down to watch Nigella Lawson's latest helping of TV last month, I was pleased to see that she had decided to make an entire series dedicated to comfort food. Well, it all looked pretty comforting to me.
Being a man, when I watch Nigella on the telly I can never remember what she's cooked even though I watched her cook it, like, five seconds ago. Look, it's not my fault. She always flirts with me and I get distracted. And if at any point she licks cream from the beaters of her food whisk, I actually pass out for a few minutes.
But in her latest series, the recipes got at least half of my attention. True they were created by a doe-eyed minx wearing - for reasons that must have to do with ratings - a clingy satin nightdress; but on the menu were soothing, re-assuring, feel-good comfort foods to help warm your body and nourish your soul. Nigella made pork chops in cider with gnocchi. She made roast poussin with sweet potatoes. She made softly whipped Amaretto syllabub. She made - oh God - caramelised custard which she poured extravagantly over her lovingly arranged croissants. Phew. If the camera was going to film her eating those in bed, I thought, I'll need to break out the smelling salts. There duly followed a lingering shot of Nigella, in bed, in her nightie, licking caramelised custard off a spoon.
When I recovered consciousness, I decided to make my own plate of comfort food. Because when I cook - and when I say cook, I actually mean 'reheat' - comfort food is what I do best. And when I say 'best', I actually mean 'that won't attract the attention of my local council's Health and Safety officers'.
I love comfort food. Relationship going through a bad patch? Never mind. Have a plate of Irish stew with dumplings. Work getting you down? Who cares when you have a bowl of semolina pudding at your disposal? If you're going to attempt to enter the comfort food zone, though, there are various rules that must be observed. For example, comfort food main courses are always hot and fairly gloopy (you'll never hear a bowl of leafy green salad described as 'comforting', for instance). Plus, it has to be eaten in the autumn or winter when the nights are drawing in. Yep, believe it or not, comfort food is seasonal.
It also helps if the dish you are planning to make is something you associate with your childhood. For instance, when I was a boy my mother would make cheese potato every Friday night and that, surely, must be the ultimate comfort dish. Over the years, I have developed my own version and I would like to share it with you now. Don't worry. I have done this many times before. I would even go as far as to say that I'm something of a cheese potato professional.
What you do is, you get some cheese and stir it into some mashed potatoes (it sounds tricky but you'll soon get the hang of it). I couldn't be bothered with all that peeling, so I'm using Smash. Then you get some spaghetti - it has to be tinned and in tomato sauce, mind, not any of that fresh stuff - and place it in one of those warming apparatus thingies. You know. What are they called? Yes: that's it. Microwaves.
Anyway. Give the spag a blast for a couple of minutes. Then you poach an egg. Et voila! You have cheese potato. Be careful to present the dish professionally, however: the poached egg should always go on top of the potato, but the tinned spaghetti should on no account mingle with the Smash. And don't forget the tomato ketchup. Also, I'd recommend a fairly crisp Pinot Grigio to go with this meal, or, if that isn't available, you can always do what my mum used to do. Serve it with a cup of tea.
By the way, that sound you can hear is Elaine Lemm, our Food and Wine Editor, reading this, groaning, and repeatedly hitting her forehead against her desk.
OK, so this dish is not sophisticated. Some people might say that it's not even remotely appealing. But I should point out that 'afters' is, because in our house it's always the same when we have cheese potato for 'mains': strawberry jam sponge with custard. Yum!