Wednesday, 18 January 2017

ain't that peculiar...

Have you ever found yourself caught in a conversation that you wish you hadn't started?

One of my colleagues started dating a guy who worked in the same office.  We weren't in the same team, but he sat fairly near-by me and we were on sort-of nodding terms.  "Sort-of nodding terms" are a bit like being on actual nodding terms, but because we're both British, it's somewhat more informal than that and a whole lot more awkward and embarrassed.

The knowledge that this chap was now dating one of my colleagues made the whole sort-of nodding terms thing even more awkward, because now we both knew that we had something more in common than just sitting near each other, but we hadn't ever actually been introduced.  At some point, my colleague decided that she would take some steps to get us past this point.  She didn't actually introduce us or anything, but she thought she would officially tell me that the two of them were an item (something she had never thought to do before because, being British, the start of their relationship was a little awkward and it was slightly awkward to introduce the idea that they were together into general conversation with their office colleagues, even though we all already knew).

Still with me?

Anyway.

"You know Andrew, don't you?"
"Not really.  We've not spoken, although I have seen him naked."
"Pardon?"
"I sometimes see him in the changing rooms when I cycle to work and we've stood next to each other in the shower"
"You've showered with him?"
"No.  I didn't say I'd showered with him; I said we'd showered next to each other"
"You all shower together?"
"Yes"
"You don't have individual cubicles?"
"No"
"And you don't think that's at all strange?"
"No"
"That you shower together and that you've seen my boyfriend naked but you've never spoken to him? Not at all peculiar? Not even a little bit"
"No.  We don't shower together; we sometimes shower separately but adjacent to each other. Stop trying to make this weird.  It's not weird...."
"....!"

It's not weird, right?

Monday, 16 January 2017

(In my sleep I grind my teeth)


Friday was the kind of day that you show your mettle as a cyclist.

I was at the dentist first thing, so I looked out of the kitchen window as it started to sleet and steeled myself for the ride two miles up the hill in the opposite direction to my office. It's fine. I would normally have been at my desk at the time it started to sleet, but that's fine too.

What's a little weather to an all-year-round cycle commuter like me?

I slogged up the hill into the driving sleet/snow. My hands froze as I locked my bike up outside the dentists, but that's okay. I stepped into the reception.... and my appointment was on Monday.

Ah.

A five mile cycle through the sleet and into the wind to the office, and of course the sun came out as soon as I got to my desk.

Naturally, when Monday came around....it was raining.

...and all I got for my troubles was a scale and polish and a couple of x-rays.

Pah!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

clones...

When he arrived in the office the other day, my boss greeted me warmly.  After exchanging pleasantries about our respective weekends, he told me that he had been watching the football on Friday night on the BBC with his wife. Apparently, when the managers were interviewed, they had the following conversation:

"You know you keep asking me about that guy who works for me and what he looks like?"
"Yes?"
"Well, he looks a bit like that guy's older brother"


Pep Guardiola is 46 next week. He's nearly 18 months older than my older brother.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this.  I think, on balance, I'll probably take it as a compliment.

I seem to have one of those faces. I once ran past a guy standing at a bus stop with his girlfriend, and the three of us stared at each other as we all realised that me and the guy looked almost exactly the same.  Five minutes later, I turned around and we repeated the whole thing when I ran past them again.  A few years before that, I was eating in a restaurant in York when I realised that all of the kitchen staff were lined up behind the serving counter looking at me.  I scanned from left to right, taking them all in, until I got to the chef on the end who looked exactly like me.  He gave me a little wave.

...and before you say anything, if you think that about my dad, then you haven't met my dad.

Monday, 9 January 2017

out my hair...


I didn’t really notice that I was losing my hair until I was already in my twenties and when my idea of a haircut was already clippers all over.

I think I might have been more upset by the whole thing if I had:
a) been younger, or
b) had been still trying to work any kind of a hairstyle.

I actually saw a middle-aged guy in Gare du Nord in Paris last month with a man-bun…. well, they’re quite the thing, aren’t they? Closer examination as he walked towards me revealed that this was a man-bun that was gathering together all the spare hair on the side of this guy’s head in an attempt to hide his bald spot.

I’m quite tall, so I tend to (literally) see through these little deceptions, but they often make me wonder about the state of someone’s mind to think that this was ever a good idea. I don’t go to my gym very much anymore, but it was a source of amusement to me to see younger men in front of the huge mirrors in the changing rooms, carefully and delicately and lovingly teasing their hair into position before they went up to the main gym for their workout. Often, I was tall enough to see that they were ultimately wasting their time and energy on what was likely to become a lost cause.  Bless them. I suppose you can't blame them for trying.

I was away from the office the other day, working in a store. Apparently, that lunchtime, they had a demonstration from a visiting company of a product that they shake onto a balding head that they then set with a blow-dryer to give you an incredibly full head of hair. The results, I’m told, were amazing and it was such a shame I wasn’t there to have this magical product demonstrated on me. I don’t get it: no matter how amazing this stuff might make you look, you’re still going bald, aren’t you? If your apparently full head of hair does magically attract a mate, then when you wake up the next morning, or when you have a shower, or when you go for a swim, or whatever, then you’re going to have some explaining to do, aren’t you?

That’s not to say that my hairloss doesn’t exert a kind of fascination for me too; I’m not completely indifferent to the rolling back of the tides. For many years, I had a little scar just clinging onto the shoreline above my right eyebrow. My hairline would retreat ever further backwards up my head, but this little scar seemed to cling on, offering me some small comfort that at least that boundary seemed secure from the ravages of time and tide. No more. That little island has been submerged in the high tide of my ever-growing forehead. I was also a little taken aback the other day to catch sight of a CCTV camera screen, showing the view from a camera located immediately above and behind me. 

Only now, at the end did I understood what my wife meant as we lay in bed one evening and she gazed lovingly at me for a while before whispering in my ear, “gosh, you really are going bald aren’t you?”

Who says romance is dead?

Thursday, 5 January 2017

wRoNg

the inevitable heat death of the universe, in equation form

2016 was a year when it seemed easy to believe that at least half the world was batshit crazy.

How else can you possibly explain why Britain would be so keen to apparently make the entirely ridiculous and unjustifiable decision to walk off the cliff and determine that, not only were they hellbent on leaving the EU, but also that they were determined to make it the most painful, damaging exit available? How else do you explain the election of Donald Trump? I understand that Hillary Clinton is a pretty long way from being an ideal candidate, but in a two horse race you honestly thought that Donald Trump was the preferable answer? DONALD TRUMP?

These are both difficult things to understand, especially when you are encased in a lovely, liberal bubble where you surround yourself with people who largely believe the same things that you believe. I have tried to remind myself that, just because someone is on the other side of the debate to me, that doesn’t automatically make them a moron. I debated Brexit long and hard with a few ‘leavers’ before the referendum, and although I thought they were fundamentally wrong (or at the very least, seriously misguided), I never for a moment thought that they were voting with anything other than honest intentions.

We live in an increasingly polarised world, but you can't live your life thinking that people are either with you or against you. It's just not possible and you don't have the luxury of everything being that simple. Life isn't black and white, no matter how hard you might wish that it was.

I’m an atheist who thinks that the belief in an all-powerful Sky Fairy is nonsensical, if not downright delusional. And yet…and yet…. I know enough people who are warm and intelligent human beings who also believe in God to understand that you can’t always put people into neat boxes; that evidently you can believe in something I believe to be ridiculous and also be a perfectly sensible person. That’s life. My dad - a doctor - is also proof positive that a belief in God certainly isn't compatible with a belief in evolution.

Of course, in the main, the belief of these good people in God doesn’t affect me (or anyone else) negatively in any way; their belief makes them happy and that’s wonderful (and sadly, can’t really be said for everyone religious). A vote for Donald Trump or for Brexit is a little more problematic, because these things will have a tangible impact on the lives of others.

I mention all this, not as some kind of half-arsed review of 2016, but because I’ve been watching the BBC documentary on Yellowstone over the last couple of days. Following hard on the heels of Planet Earth II, this is another nature programme in the last few weeks that has laid bare the impact of climate change on the natural world. Of course, there are other sides to this debate, but the evidence of the impact of rising global temperatures is surely now overwhelming, isn’t it? The temperatures in the North Pole this winter have been THIRTY degrees higher than average. Thirty!

You can argue all you like that there isn’t sufficient evidence to definitively conclude that this is a change driven by human agency, but the balance of probabilities would suggest that it almost certainly is (as Richard Dawkins says about belief, just because I can’t definitively prove that there *isn’t* a God, doesn’t mean that it’s 50:50). Any yet, climate change denial seems likely to become US Policy – after all, Donald Trump is on record as saying that he thinks it’s a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

I’m struggling to understand this, I really am. It seems intellectually dishonest to continue to trumpet that climate change isn’t real when the empirical evidence is growing every day and we can see the changes with our own eyes. As a historian, I’m well aware that climate has always fluctuated and that (for example) we had a medieval “warm period” when global temperatures were a couple of degrees higher on average…. but frankly, the debate about human agency –ridiculous though it is - is fundamentally irrelevant. Surely the simple fact of the matter is that we need to do something about climate change or risk mass extinctions and global catastrophe. If restricting carbon dioxide emissions will help with that, then what are we arguing about?

...it’s almost as though these people had some form of vested interest in extracting, refining, selling and burning every last bit of carbon energy remaining on this planet.

Nah, it can’t be that, can it?

These guys just honestly believe that climate change isn’t happening and we should respect that as we watch the world burn.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

we drink, we sing on the state we're in...

One of my Christmas presents this year was a ticket to go and watch Wolves (my team) playing Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on Bank Holiday Monday, 2nd January.  In spite of the lingering suspicion that really this was just a ploy by my Sheffield Wednesday supporting friend to have someone to accompany him to the game on a grim January day, I decided to embrace the opportunity to spend some quality time with someone I don't see anything like enough of during the year.

The plan was to leave early enough to have the time to have a nice lunch in my friend's favourite cafe by the ground.  Get your timings wrong, and you won't be able to get a seat, so a prompt departure was essential.  We left Nottingham a little after 11am, but somewhere on the M1, at the point where the road splits for Meadowhall, traffic suddenly ground to a halt.  For the next 30 minutes or so, we made very little progress at all and tried not to get annoyed at some of the idiot drivers who let their impatience get the better of them and spend their time trying to push their way through the traffic.  We had plenty of time, but the cafe was starting to look optimistic.

I have a general philosophy when I'm stuck in traffic that, no matter how inconvenient it might seem for me, there's probably someone up ahead who is having a much worse day than me.  And so it proved.

After a little while, we could see the lights of the emergency vehicles ahead, and as we filtered into a single lane of traffic, we saw that there were a couple of fire engines and police cars, but apparently no ambulances on site.  There had been a collision between a car and a reasonably large camper van and, as we drew closer, we could see that the front seats of the car contained two bodies, partially covered by plastic sheeting that had slipped down a bit and was sitting on their chests.  Presumably, they were corpses and the ambulances attending the scene had taken away anyone who still needed medical attention.

It was a sobering sight, to say the least.  As we headed on north towards the ground, it was impossible not to think that those two people had got up this morning, chatted about when they needed to set off in order to reach their destination and then headed up the motorway later on that morning.... exactly the same as us and exactly the same as every other car on the road.  They were never going to reach their destination and, for the people close to them, 2017 has got off to the worst possible start.

We didn't get a seat in the cafe, and were forced to have an (excellent) tray of Sheffield fish cake, chips, gravy and scraps before enduring a fairly uneventful 0-0 draw on a cold afternoon in early January.  But you know what?  We'd both been given a fairly hefty dose of perspective that morning.

Here's to better things ahead for everyone in 2017.

Life is short, my friends.  Hold the people you hold dear close.

We drink, we sing on the state we're in if it leads to another year.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark...


My #MistletoeMugshot for the MS Trust - pucker up people and share the love! And text MWAH16 £5 to 70070 to donate £5 to support the 100,000 living with MS in the UK this Christmas.

It has to be said that Minou was less than amused to be taking part in this picture. The cat box was down from the attic, so she was already suspicious... and this seemed to confirm all her fears.  And then we took her to cat prison.

Whatever else you're doing during the darkest time of the year, try to spend some time with the ones that you love and who love you.

See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

the years go by so fast, let's hope the next beats the last

I really like Christmas.  As Tim Minchin sings, it's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it.

People just seem a bit softer at this time of year, with some of their rougher edges smoothed off a little bit as they prepare to spend a bit of time away from work and with their families, eating and drinking too much and watching crap telly.

I like the cold, dark nights and the warm, convivial atmospheres as people get together with their friends, families and colleagues to bring some light into the darkest part of the year.

What I don't like, though, is "Christmas"... the brightly packaged thing that people -- retailers in particular -- want us to consume in order to make them more money.  This "Christmas" starts to appear around September-time, when shops begin to put out their seasonal offering; earlier and earlier every year because of the apparently logical thought that, if this is their most profitable time of the year, then it can't start soon enough, can it?  I work for a retailer, and it never fails to amaze me how people moan about how Christmas shopping is starting later and later every year... meaning that most people don't really start buying presents until December.  Which is normal, right?

I've been working in-store most of the last week, and it struck me as I was loading shelves on Friday afternoon that I was listening to the same, shoddy seasonal playlist that is played everywhere, and I was unpacking pretty much the same gift sets that we were selling last year... Christmas is about more than this, isn't it? ...and no, I'm not expecting any presents from Jesus.

Don't get me wrong: we sell some pretty good gifts... it's just that if you bought them for your brother and your sister and your mum last year and the year before that, why on earth would we expect you to keep on buying them now? Especially when the internet has opened up a whole world of small, boutique designers just waiting to sell you something interesting and possibly personalised.  Perhaps we think that hearing Wham and Shakin' Stevens on a loop will somehow hypnotise people into auto-pilot, buying this stuff because they always buy this stuff.  It sort of works, but it's diminishing returns, surely?

Or maybe this is the Christmas that people actually want: wearing crappy jumpers and cheap Santa hats and reindeer antlers as we tramp around the shops like zombies listening to the same playlist of fifteen songs everywhere we go and buying Aunty Doris the Soap and Glory gift set for the tenth year in a row. The annual excitement over the big shops' Christmas advertising on the telly would seem to indicate we really like this shit.  Why on earth are we wasting brain space getting excited about the John Lewis advert or whether the Sainsburys one is better?  Who cares? You know they just want you to buy stuff, right?

But, in spite of all of this,  I do love this time of year.  It's the winter solstice tonight, and the night is the longest it will be all year.... but I prefer to look on the bright side and to think about lighter times to come.  The daytime tomorrow will be three seconds longer, and that's a start... isn't it?

Whatever 2016 has been for you, there are lighter days ahead.

---

same old songs, every single year?  Well, my favourite seasonal songs are these ones:

Tracey Thorn - "joy"
Smith & Burrows - "this ain't new jersey"
Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler - "home for the holidays"
Joni Mitchell - "river"
Tim Minchin - "white wine in the sun"



Monday, 19 December 2016

you lit a torch in the empty night...


Ash @ Rock City, Nottingham – 12th December 2016

When I bought my copy of Ash’s debut album, 1977, in the glorious early summer of 1996, it came with a promotional frisbee. It was bright green and had the band logo printed on it. As far as I know, it’s still in the TV room of that post-graduate hall of residence in York where I left it. If you had the right kind of CD player – and I did – you could wind back past the beginning of the first track and hear “Jack Names the Planets” and it’s b-side in the pre-gap before the album proper began. You don’t get that kind of thing with an MP3 download, eh? Nevermind a frisbee. The band are the same age as my younger brother and I’d been buying their singles through the last couple of years of my undergraduate degree when they seemed ridiculously young (I’ve still got “Kung Fu”, “Angel Interceptor” and “Girl From Mars” on CD single at home). A couple of years later, in 1999, the “A Life Less Ordinary” soundtrack was one of the first pieces of music that my wife ever bought me (I bought her “Scott Sings Jacques Brel”, because I’m highbrow like that. CULTURAL ELITE, Steve…)

Twenty years later and these kids are now pushing 40 and are taking this classic album out on the road to play it in full. My younger brother spotted the gig in the listings and asked if I minded if he made the trip up from Bristol to watch the gig and to stay the night, and did I fancy coming with him? Of course I did. As well as having the chance to watch a band I’ve enjoyed live many times before, it was a chance to spend some time with my little brother and to off-load all the Christmas presents onto him to take down to our parents and our other brother and his family. At this time of year, that’s ideal. My team at work were out for a meal in town too, so they got the chance to have a look at my brother and for me to buy them all a Christmas pint.

Rock City was what you expect: filled with people about my age. A slightly younger crowd than when I saw Therapy? touring Troublegum a little while back, but not by too much. It wasn’t quite sold out, but seemed full enough and had leaking toilets and crap beer, so it was still the Rock City that we know and love. It’s a great venue to watch a band.


The gig was pretty much what you expect too: the band ripped through 1977 from start to finish without too much messing around and without too much chatter with the audience. They sound good and the majority of the material stands up really well too (they started the set with the sound of a screaming TIE-fighter flyby, obviously). I saw an interview with Tim Wheeler the other day where he was talking about how “Goldfinger” is the song he’s most proud of writing, and that he’s not sure that he would be able to write something as sophisticated as that now, all these years later. It sounds great – and given that he must have written it when he was a teenager, the fact that it still sounds so good is a real tribute to how good a song it is. The singles definitely stand out, but they always did… so it’s hardly surprising when “Girl From Mars” and “Angel Interceptor” bring the house down.

With 1977 out of the way, the band settle in to play us out with a set that is mainly made up of their earlier songs – with a “Life Less Ordinary” sounding as good as it always does. It’s one of those songs that feels loose and lacking in production polish, but Tim Wheeler has such a keen ear for a melody that it just soars. They’re back for an encore, of course, but any encore that includes “Orpheus”, “Shining Light” and “Burn Baby Burn” is just fine with me. They’re three very different songs, but each in their own way showcase Wheeler’s enduring talent. take “Burn Baby Burn”: in the harum-scarum of the guitar riff, it’s perhaps easy to lose sight of just how good those lyrics are:

Tumbling like the leaves
We are spiralling on the breeze…

Not for nothing was this the first song ever played on BBC 6 Music.  And “Shining Light” won an Ivor Novello songwriting award, for goodness sake.
As for“Orpheus”… well, that just appeals to the heavy metal fan in me, I think.

They’re a good band. Apparently they’ll be back next year with a new album… nostalgia bands are all very well, but it’s even better if they’re trying to keep pushing forwards creatively*

VERDICT: 7 / 10

* the exception to this rule is when Shakin Stevens announced in the middle of his Glastonbury Set that he was going to be playing songs from his new album. There were audible groans. NO Shakey. NO. And he didn’t play Green Door, which must have disappointed the guys who had lugged a full-size wooden door into the festival JUST FOR THAT SONG.

Setlist:

1977:
Lose Control
Goldfinger
Girl From Mars
I'd Give You Anything
Gone the Dream
Kung Fu
Oh Yeah
Let It Flow
Innocent Smile
Angel Interceptor
Lost in You
Darkside Lightside
-
Petrol
Cantina Band (John Williams cover)
Jack Names the Planets
Does Your Mother Know (ABBA cover)
A Life Less Ordinary

Encore:
Orpheus
Let's Ride
Uncle Pat
Shining Light
Burn Baby Burn

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

...and my course is marked by stars...


James @ Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham 
- 6th December 2016

I think I first watched James play live on a Thursday night at Oxford Poly. I’d been working in Wellingborough, drove across to Oxford to the gig and drove home to Nottingham again afterwards. I was knackered and, at one point on the drive home, I had to stop and get some fresh air lest I fell asleep at the wheel. It was totally worth it though: the band were on a high after the success of their "Whiplash" and their Greatest Hits album, and were playing their last warm-up before a big set at Glastonbury the following night. They were electric: so good that Tim Booth actually wondered aloud to the audience whether they should have kept some of their powder dry for the bigger gig on Friday.

I’ve seen them many times since then: at festivals, at Wembley Arena in a sold out Christmas show, playing “Pleased to Meet You” to a half-full Rock City when it looked like the bubble might have burst, and again at a sold out theatre in Oxford when touring their comeback album,“Hey Ma”, some eight years later…. they were the festival openers at Glastonbury this year, too. Slightly delayed by the weather, they were playing to a massive crowd and did that entirely typically James thing of refusing to just perform as the nostalgia act that their sozzled and damp festival audience might well have expected. It’s not that they don’t play their hits, because they do… and they clearly really relished playing the Festival too and were introduced onstage by Michael Eavis himself… it’s just that they don’t always play the hits you might expect to hear, and they will insist on performing songs from their more recent albums.

Here’s the thing though: James might be best known for “Sit Down”, a song they released in 1990 and for albums like “Seven” (1992) and “Laid” (1992), but the very reason that they are still together as a band today is because they have kept creating new material and haven’t just given up and taken the cash that must surely have been on offer to them to be a nostalgia band cranking out songs that are well over 20 years old.

The simple truth is that they are still recording material now that is every bit as good as anything they’ve done. This show is part of the tour for their most recent (excellent) album, this year’s “Girl at the End of the World”, but “La Petite Morte” (2014) is also brilliant and, in “Moving On”, contains a song that I think might just be my favourite of anything they’ve ever recorded. The band took a hiatus after the relatively poor sales of 2001s “Pleased to Meet You”, but since they got back together in 2008, they’ve been absolutely storming it. Interestingly, “Getting Away with It (All Messed Up)” from “Pleased To Meet You” is played early in the set and sounds absolutely brilliant. Still, it always seemed that this band has a special knack of missing out. That massive selling, double-platinum greatest hits was followed by “Millionaires”, which was brilliant but never seemed to get the recognition it deserved at a time when a band of chancers like Oasis were selling absolute tosh (“Be Here Now”)by the truck load.

The band were actually due to play this gig in May, but were forced to cancel because of Tim Booth’s illness. When he takes to the stage tonight, Tim makes a point of telling us how sorry he is to have inconvenienced everyone and that the band felt they owed us… so get ready and settle in, because this was going to be a long one.

Two hours, as it turns out… but in that time, the band manage to work their way through songs from almost every part of their career. They don’t play “Laid” and they don’t play “Sit Down”, but why would anyone care about that when they’re as good as they are tonight? I’ve never heard them play “Just Like Fred Astaire” before, for starters, or “Vervaceous”, and when they play “Sometimes”, the crowd sings the refrain back at them for so long after they’ve finished playing, that they pick their instruments up again and join back in. “You don’t forget these moments”, Booth tells us, when we finally finish the song (which will always remind me of my friend Oliver and the time we spent together studying in Venice).

As I watch the show, I’m struck by what an interesting band they are: they mostly shun rock posturing and lyrical cliché, and are instead something fairly unique. Tim Booth is, of course, a mesmerising front man with his own absolutely unique way of dancing and – tonight, anyway – a magnificent pair of trousers. They’re interesting; upbeat; thoughtful and engaging; they demand your attention and wrestle with the big, unanswerable questions of love and life and death, usually in a questioning and upbeat, optimistic way. I can’t listen to “Moving On” without welling up because it manages to be so upbeat about a topic as potentially grim as death itself. Tim tells us tonight that he wrote this about his experience of watching his mother dying over a couple of days in a hospital bed in Sheffield. Far from being depressing, he told us, it was beautiful and uplifting and a joy to watch because she was in her 90s, had her children around her and was ready to go. Watch the video, and I think you’ll understand exactly what he’s talking about.

It was a Tuesday night and I’m tired and full of cold as I fight off the dog-end of this bronchitis and it’s a band I’ve seen dozens of times before… but it was just what I needed. I’m not sure they actually make bands like this any more, if they ever really did. James are a one-off and we should cherish them.

VERDICT: 9 / 10

Setlist: To My Surprise, Waking, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Moving On, Five-O, I Wanna Go Home, Interrogation, Move Down South, Tomorrow, Vervaceous, Feet Of Clay, She's a Star, Dear John, Surfer's Song, Curse Curse, Come Home, Attention

Encore: Just Like Fred Astaire, Sometimes, Nothing But Love, Sound