Thursday, 31 December 2009

his script is you and me boys....

At the risk of labouring the point, if you want to make your voice heard in the Earworm of the Year 2009 poll, then this is probably your last chance.  The big spreadsheet of the year's Earworms as listed on this blog over the last twelve months has now been compiled, and additional votes have been coming in steadily via email (which can be found on my profile) and via Twitter (@swisslet).....

....but there's still time.

If you're interested in taking part, then all I need is for you to send me the 5 tunes that have been bothering your internal jukebox for the longest in 2009.  They don't have to have been released this year, they don't even have to be proper songs.... hell.... you don't even have to like them.  In fact, with lots of earworms, I'm pretty sure that the ones you remember the most, the ones that hang around for the longest time, are the ones that you like the least.   This isn't supposed to be a list of the songs you've liked the most over the last year, only a list of the ones that you haven't been able to get out of your head.  The only thing I ask of your nominations is that they are genuinely things that have been playing on a loop in your head at various points over the last twelve months.  That's all.  The rest is entirely up to you.  Some commentary on your choices would be nice, but the votes are the main thing.

So whether you want to vote for Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, La Roux or the theme tune to Midsomer Murders..... get your votes to me as soon as possible.  I'll put the final countdown up at some point on Friday or over the weekend.

Happy New Year all.

Roll of honour.

2005 Coldplay - "Speed of Sound"

2006 Gnarls Barkley - "Crazy"

Rihanna - "Umbrella"

2008 Elbow - "One Day Like This"

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

And he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down....

Some six weeks ago, I took a bang on my hand whilst playing football. It hurt, and given my track record of breaking digits playing this stupid game, I was initially a bit concerned. However, the unattractive prospect of several hours sat in A&E waiting for an X-Ray deterred me from taking a trip to the hospital, so I took some ibruprofen and decided to sit it out. As the pain subsided a little over the following few days, I thought it was probably all going to be okay.  Another minor ailment to add to the pile caused by playing a game I've never really been any good at and should probably retire from before I really hurt myself....

I did ask a doctor about it when I went for my flu jabs a few days later, but she advised that it could well be deep tissue bruising and that I wait to see if it was still bothering me in a couple of weeks time before taking things any further.  Fair enough.

Two weeks passed, and although all visible signs of bruising were now gone, the pain in my hand was, if anything, getting slightly worse. The damaged area was on the outside of my right hand, just below the bottom knuckle of my little finger. The knuckle itself looked okay, but I appeared to be developing a lump on the side of my hand. Hmmm. Perhaps I should get this looked at properly after all.

I made an appointment to see the doctor, with the expecation that I would probably be given a slip to take to the X-Ray department at the hospital. No chance. The doctor I saw this time - the one I'm registered with, as it happens - hardly looked at me before throwing me out and telling me to come back in six weeks. I was barely in his office for a minute before I was walking back out to my car wondering why I'd bothered. This guy has something of a reputation for this, it's true, but I'd naively expected better this time around. Certainly better than the short shrift he gave me, anyway.  I thought that doctors are supposed to be encouraging people to come and see them, especially men, and not making them feel like their trip has been a total waste of everybody's time.  If many of them are like this, I'd be surprised if anyone went to go and see them at all.  Perhaps that's what he wants?

As the weeks wore on, my hand continued to bother me, becoming stiffer and more sore with every passing day.  I started to become acutely conscious that I was going skiing towards the end of January and then onto Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. If there was a problem with my hand that required treatment, then that doctor's attitude may have delayed treatment by several weeks and was now potentially going to cause me real problems.... but at the same time, I was reluctant to make another appointment and to get it looked at again as I didn't want to waste anybody's time...Perhaps I really was just making a big deal out of nothing?  Even if there was something wrong, by now I was almost afraid that they could do something to help and had visions of being put into plaster. It seemed unlikely, but a plastercast would be a nightmare: stopping me from strapping on a pair of skis and presumably necessitating a trip to a doctor somewhere in the southern hemisphere (they have doctors there, right??)

As a last resort, I decided to ask my dad when I was at home for Christmas. My dad's a doctor and so in theory an excellent person to ask, but in practice he can be pretty unsympathetic himself when it comes to his own family's minor ailments. I can't say I blame him really: when you spend your days examining sick people, the last thing you want when you get home is to be presented with a load more.... and, to be fair, when I've been really ill, he's always been fantastic. In fact, it's a pretty good rule of thumb that if my father is concerned about you, then you know you've really got something to worry about.

As it happens, he was great......he had a good look at my hand and pronounced that there was some significant deformity below the joint and that it was likely fractured. There's nothing much that can be done, but he suggested that I tape up my hand for a few weeks to prevent movement of the joint and to promote healing. He also told me that this kind of break is -- brilliantly -- called a "Boxer's Fracture", and now it's all taped up, I look like I've been in a fight over Christmas.

Just don't tell anybody that I received the injury when the ball bounced down off my chin when I was performingly as incompetently as ever in goal and ricocheted down onto the my hand.  Not quite as a manly as a fight, I'm sure you'll agree....

Given that I also appear to have cracked a toe over the holiday period, it seems that I am surprisingly breakable at the moment. Perhaps I'd best retire to bed and stay there until I board the plane at the end of January?

Tempting..... Very tempting.


Sorry to go on about this, but I still need your 5 votes for the Earworms of the Year 2009 countdown.  At the moment it looks as though Lady Gaga is all over this, although her vote seems split across several songs. If you feel strongly either way about this, then you need to email me your votes without delay!

Details are here.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

20:20 visions and murals with metaphors.....

Morpheus: "The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when you go to church, or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes, to blind you from the truth."

Neo: "What truth?"

Morpheus: "That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. [Produces a box containing two colored pills, one blue and one red]. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you awake in your bed, and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. [Pause. Neo reaches for the red pill]. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more.

[Neo swallows the red pill with a glass of water]."


Sometimes I wonder which the more dystopian world is: the one where Neo is trapped inside the Matrix and having a strange robot bug inserted into his body through his navel and where humans are used as a battery farm, or the one where I have to go into a nearly empty office building to pointlessly count the hours until I can come home again.

At least in his, when Neo takes that red pill, he wakes up in the real world and becomes the saviour of the human race.  The closest I'm get to get to that is by going to work today in jeans and a t-shirt knowing that nobody who cares what I wear will be back in the office before New Year.  Not quite the same thing.

Way to stick it to the Man.

I suppose I'll just have to wait a little while longer before Morpheus comes looking for me to show me how deep the rabbit-hole goes, eh?


Don't forget, I need your 5 votes for the Earworm of the Year 2009. 

Details are here.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

more than I dare to think about.....

Earworms of the Year 2009

“Ohrwurm” - a German word that literally translates into English as “earworm”, and refers to a song or tune that becomes lodged in one’s head.

It's time to start voting for your earworms of the year......Last year saw me picking my way gingerly through something like 460(-ish) different songs by 351(-ish) different artists.... Twelve months seems to be about long enough for me to have forgotten what an appalling, mainly spreadsheet driven task that was, so I'm going to start putting together the list for 2009.

As ever, I need your help!

Here's how it works:

I will exhaustively compile all of the songs that have appeared in the weekly Earworm slot that appears here every Friday -- both the ones that I have done, and the ones that any Guest Editors have done. As I've made loads more choices than anyone else, that will naturally slant things towards what's been going round my head.  That's all well and good, but a bit of diversity is a good thing (and no, I'm not talking about the dance troupe here).  In the interests of opening things up and hopefully making them a tiny bit more interesting for everyone - especially me - I will be delighted to accept votes from anyone who can be bothered to send me an email listing their own choices.  In other words:

I need you to email in your votes for your 5 Earworms of the Year.

Unlike all of the other end-of-year lists, on this one you don't need to feel in the least constrained by a record's year of release.  In fact, you don't even need to be constrained by a record's release full-stop.  This list isn't about anything as mundane as that: we're trying to catch a hold of the sounds that have been floating around our heads over the last twelve months... and there seems to be no internal mechanism that limits this to music created and released in the last year.  If you've had "Hole in My Shoe" by Neil the Hippy in your head for the entirety of the last 365 days, then you should just go with that (and hope that gets rid of it - I've always preferred the b-side, "Hurdy-Gurdy Mushroom Man" myself....)  You don't even have to vote for a proper song... you could go for an advert, a jingle, a nursery rhyme.  It really doesn't matter.  The only qualification is that it has been a tune that has been stuck in your head.  That really is all there is to it. Simple.

So.... send your votes to the email address in my profile.  Five songs, in order.  It would be great if you could also include a few words about each song you choose - I'll try to add a few of them for every song that makes the list.  Feel free to be as rude as you like.... we don't always like the songs that get stuck in our heads, right?

Got it?  Great.

Easy, right?

Need some inspiration?

You can find all of the earworm posts here.
Wikipedia's 2009 in music page.
...and of course, the bestselling album of 2009 is likely to be Susan Boyle.

votes please!  All welcome.

Roll of honour.

2005 Coldplay - "Speed of Sound"

2006 Gnarls Barkley - "Crazy"

Rihanna - "Umbrella"

2008 Elbow - "One Day Like This"

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

better get this party started....

It's office party season.... as I was reminded at 01:30 this morning when C. -- who doesn't usually drink much at all -- barreled into the bedroom, woke me up and breathlessly told me the same story four times, telling me between each telling how she was really very, very drunk.  She'd been drinking cocktails, you see.  Funnily enough, she told me the same story again this morning too....

Not everyone likes to have their office party in the evening though, and plenty of people have been nipping out at lunchtime to grab a meal at some of the exciting venues to be found around the office: Frankie and Bennys, Chiquitos or Nandos in the Showcase Cinema car park, the clubhouse of the nine hole golf-course just outside the main gates.... heck, Hooters is only a short drive away if you really want to push the boat out.

You don't even have to leave the office to have a team Christmas do: the company that provide the overpriced and under-delicious catering in our canteen offer a very reasonable deal where you can have a three course dinner and coffee for a mere £10.95 a head.  Now, I'm sure that their fan of melon, turkey roast and Christmas pudding are all very tasty and everything.... but for me there is no sadder sight in the world than a group of people sat in a meeting room wearing paper party hats, around a meeting room table covered by a white paper tablecloth, being served stale coffee out of a flask by the surly canteen staff wearing santa hats.  I've walked past that room at lunchtime almost every day over the last couple of weeks, and I'm not sure I've seen anyone in there smiling yet.  Happy Christmas team, and thanks for all your hard work, eh?

Mind you, my team aren't having any kind of a Christmas do at all, so what does that say about us? I'd say that it pretty much sums up the team spirit at the moment.  Forget the Christmas break, I can't wait until January 22nd..... my last day in the office for some 8 months...... Although having said that, I'm already starting to think that I might actually miss some of the people I work with, and I spent a little part of today making a special effort to thank a few people for their efforts over the last year.  Almost no one ever says thank you to me at work, so I do try to make sure that I behave a little differently and spread the love around the little.

Good grief.  The onset of nostalgia about my job?  Must be time for a break.


I'm heading off down to my parent's for Christmas at some point tomorrow to enjoy the festivities with my mum and dad, my younger brother and my elder brother, his wife and my niece and nephew.  Should be good.  Noisy, but good.  Whatever you're doing, I hope you have a great time and I'll likely see you on the other side.

For good measure, here are my Xmas Earworms.  They don't change much year-on-year, to be honest, but I love listening to Christmas music... just not the same old shit that you hear in every single shop you go into at this time of year.  I'm even bored of the Pogues record now, you bastards.


> "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - Joseph Spence

Ah, old Sandy Claw himself.  A bravura performance by a Bahamian folk legend who may be drunk and who certainly doesn't know all of the words.  A joyous song and one that fills me with intense pleasure every time I hear it.

> "River" - Joni Mitchell

Beautiful, wistful song from "Blue" with an echo of "Jingle Bells" in the melody.  A magical song.

> "A Great Big Sled" - The Killers

I don't really know why this works, but I absolutely love it.  I think it's because the band perform this so wholeheartedly that they make it practically impossible to dislike them. It's joyful.

> "Sleigh Ride" - The Ronettes

Phil Spector may be many things, but he certainly knew how to put a Christmas album together, and his "A Christmas Gift to you from Phil Spector" is just wonderful.  Released in 1963 and sounding just as fresh today.  I only need to hear the sleigh bells at the start of this record and it already feels like Christmas.

> "Killing in the Name" - Rage Against the Machine


If you've got any good Xmas record suggestions, then I'd love to hear them.

Have a good one y'all, and remember that the Pope has moved Midnight Mass forward to 10pm at the Vatican this year because he's got a busy day ahead of him and needs an early night.

No, seriously.

living in the love of the common people....

I finally received some formal written confirmation of my time off from work yesterday. Given that my leave was all agreed some time at the beginning of October, that's quite some lag.... and the letter has only arrived now because of some fairly extensive chasing and badgering on my part. Quite why this would surprise me, I don't know, as I should know better than to expect anything different. I'm effectively leaving the business in less than a month, and yet no plans have been made to replace me and none of my customers have yet been formally notified of my departure (and until they've put in place a 'plan b' nor do I imagine that they will be).

Of course, HR being the wonderful, efficient department that we all know and love, the letter still only arrived after the following conversation:

HR drone: "According to my calculations, your 26 weeks unpaid leave finishes a week earlier than you have submitted".
Me: "OK, well given that you've had three months to look at this and you've only just noticed that, I'm not changing my plans. We have two choices: either I have 27 weeks unpaid leave, or I take an extra week out of next year's holiday allowance and you start paying me a week earlier"
HR drone: "Discretionary unpaid leave is to a maximum of 26 weeks."
Me: "Well, that's decided then, isn't it."

The letter duly arrived the next day, and although it confirms the dates I will be away - which is something, I suppose - it makes no mention of what's going to happen to my pension, bonus and to any possible salary increase which might happen whilst I'm away. Why not? Well, in a nutshell, it's because they're incompetent and they have no idea. I'm also pretty sure that, like all good HR departments, they don't really give a shit.

What I especially liked was the sign off line in the letter:

"Your discretionary unpaid leave ends on 20th August 2010 and will be followed by three weeks holiday taken from your 2010/11 leave allowance, ending on Friday 10th September. If you do not report for work on Monday 13th September, we will commence disciplinary proceedings against you."

I haven't left yet, but I'm looking forward to coming back to work already.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

ain't about what's waiting on the other side....

I know I said the other day that I wasn't really that fussed if the X-Factor song or Rage Against the Machine made it to Number One in the singles chart..... but at some point last week, I realised that I really, really did care. It's not that I've got anything against Joe McElderry, or that I have a particular problem with people buying his single (even though I find it stupefyingly dull and I'm mildly incredulous that they've chosen to cover a song that was only in the charts in March this year). I'm not even that fussed by the whole idea of the Facebook campaign - I can sort of understand the "silent majority" wanting to hit back against the whole X-Factor dominance of the media, but I've not really been that concerned about what's at the top of the singles chart for a pretty long time now, so why worry about this week in particular? Why care about the Christmas Number One in 2009 when I haven't been that bothered about it in about a decade, long before all those X-Factor songs on the last 4 years.

I reckon there are two main reasons why I find myself suddenly caring: the first is that it's just such an incredible song. I can't really put this any better than Charlie Brooker, so I'll quote him in full on this:

"...I happen to think Killing in the Name is an excellent song, so I've already got something out of it. Most importantly, it contains genuine emotion. Even if the climactic repeated howls of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" put you in mind of a teenager loudly refusing to tidy his bedroom – as opposed to a masked anarchist hurling petrol bombs at the riot squad – there is at least an authentic human sentiment being expressed. Zack de la Rocha is audibly pissed off. 

Compare this to the pissweak vocal doodle that is Joe McElderry's X Factor single. For a song whose lyrics ostensibly document an attempt to gather the spiritual strength to overcome adversity and thereby attain enlightenment, The Climb is about as inspiring as a Lion bar. It's a listless announcement on a service station Tannoy; an advert for buttons; a fart in a clinic; a dot on a spreadsheet. Listening to it from beginning to end is like watching a bored cleaner methodically wiping a smudge from a Formica worksurface."

Yes, there's a lot of funny swearing on Killing in the Name, and yes, it was hysterical last week when Five Live allowed the band to perform the song live on their breakfast show and were then horrified when they launched into all that swearing. Apparently they'd said they wouldn't play that bit.... and then did anyway, to no one except the BBC's surprise..... but just as it did when I first heard it in 1992, what strikes me most about the song is the passion with which it is delivered. It hit me then, and it still hits me now. It's a thrilling song being played by a band who really, really mean it, and I love hearing it.  I've got nothing against anyone who prefers "The Climb", and it's not my intention to sneer at anybody else's taste in music (not today, anyway).... but I simply prefer "Killing in the Name"; I choose the shouty, sweary rock.  If they'd chosen something else, then I might not have been so bothered.  But they chose this, and it's brilliant.

The other thing about the whole campaign is that it has showed that people do still care about music. You can wonder about the futility of the gesture, and you can question people's motives for choosing and downloading this song in particular, but I think there's something marvellous about the fact that the 2009 Christmas chart has been such a talking point this year.  For the first time in who-knows-how-long, the Christmas Number One really seemed to matter, and I don't think it was just a case of everyone wanting to stick one on Simon Cowell. Loads of people will have listened to the chart rundown on Sunday night for the first time in years. Of course, Joe will probably make it to Number One next week, and will no doubt have the biggest selling single of the year having sold at least 200,000 records more than Cowell might have hoped, thanks to all that publicity... but the fact is that more than 500,000 people cared enough to download a track that is 17 years old, and another 499,000 odd people went out to buy the X-Factor single. Lady Gaga, at Number Three in the chart, sold something like 17,500 tracks. For one week at least, people really cared about music. And, let's not forget, that more than £65,000 raised on the Facebook page, plus RATM's royalties for the track, will all be donated to Shelter. Even if you really, really felt that Joe deserved to be at the top of the charts, surely you can't argue with that?

Here's some more Charlie Brooker:

"If the Christmas No 1 turns out to be an angry, confrontational rock track that concludes with an explosion of f-words, it'll be precisely the shot in the arm the charts have been sorely lacking the last few years: something that puts a genuine smile on the face of millions of people; sensitive people, thoughtful people; people alienated by the stifling cloud of grinning mechanical pap farted into their faces on a weekly basis by cocky, clattering, calculating talent shows such as X Factor. It would give these people hope. Maybe only in a very small and silly way, but still: a tiny spoonful of hope. And what could be more Christmassy than that?"

I don't know if I've been exactly alienated by the charts, I just haven't cared about them. I don't really care about them now - Rage haven't changed that - but for the first time in a long time, I DO think we have a genuinely brilliant, exciting record at the top of our festive charts (and I choose to see that as an endorsement of how fresh a 17 year old record still sounds rather than a reflection on the sterility of the 2009 charts).   I'm sure that all this fuss won't amount to a hill of beans in the long run, and I'm sure X-Factor, Cowell and even poor Joe's career will carry on undaunted, but for now at least we get to hear this great song on the radio and hope that a new generation of listeners will discover the brilliance of Rage Against the Machine.  That alone would make the whole thing more than worthwhile in my books.

Now what are the chances of having Killing in the Name added to those interminable Christmas compilations along with Shaky, Macca, Wizzard and Slade, eh? Or, like all of those other festive records, would we get to October already sick of hearing it pumping out of PA systems as we trudge around the shops already bedecked in tinsel and special offers?

Monday, 21 December 2009

we'll make you wish you'd stayed at home tonight....

Supergrass @ The Oxford Regal, 18th December 2009

Apparently "Santagrass" is the annual gathering of Supergrass fans in Oxford for a special Christmas show. This was only the third such show, but -- at least in the minds of the band -- it appears to have become as much a part of Christmas as mince pies, brussels sprouts and Slade.

Supergrass are one of those bands that I've sort-of been listening to for years now. I can remember revising for my finals at University in 1995 and listening to "I Should Coco" as Belinda Carlisle flew in by helicopter to play a show at the student union. If memory serves me correctly, that album was released at about the same time as Radiohead released "The Bends". Where that other famous Oxford band were just hitting their stride and were becoming the serious, credible face of British rock music, Supergrass were young and, as "Alright" jauntily reminded us, they ran green and also kept their teeth nice and clean. Steven Spielberg may have wanted to make them into the next Monkees, but there always seemed to be something more organic about the band, and their biggest hit single was not actually all that representive of what they were about.

Sure enough, subsequent albums saw the band trying to flex their musical muscles and to grab a bit of credibility. Although they couldn't entirely bury their knack for a tune, they have certainly never recorded anything like "Alright" again, seeming to have a mild sense of shame about the song (although actually, "Pumping on Your Stereo" with it's muppet inspired promo video probably comes closest). I actually stopped buying their albums after "In It For The Money", although picked up their Greatest Hits as a lazy way of picking up the songs I didn't have. I had them pegged as a decent band whose impetus had sort of faded away after a great start. I've seen them live a couple of times, each time as a support act at a big outdoor gig, and although they were decent enough, they never really blew me away or otherwise encouraged me to look out for the albums that I had missed.

The Regal is a little further up the Cowley Road in Oxford from the Zodiac (now sadly another Carling Academy). It used to be a cinema, and has a lingering air of faded glamour, as well as a large standing area with a high ceiling, and a small balcony with some seating. It reminded me, oddly, of the Blackpool Empress Ballroom, albeit somewhat less ornate and with more peeling plasterwork. A good place to see a band, I thought. They were serving mulled wine, there were lots of people wearing Santa hats, and the band came on and opened up their set with "Sun Hits the Sky".... this, I thought, could be brilliant.

In the end, it wasn't really. Supergrass were, if you ask me, distinctly average. They stuck around for something less than an hour-and-a-half, made their way through 18 songs including "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus", a decent smattering from their older albums, and a couple of new songs. One new song was called "Hip Replacement" and seemed to feature the lyric:

"Hip Replacement
Down in the basement


We had tickertape at the end and a load of girls on the stage in Santa costumes, but I couldn't help but think I'd have been better off watching the Stoned Roses playing at the Zodiac. Not a terrible evening by any means, but for a special Xmas gig organised by the band in their home town, it was all a bit lacklustre and I couldn't help but think they were going through the motions.

Verdict: 5 / 10 

 (Although, to be fair, the one two punch of "Richard III" and "Caught By The Fuzz" - inspired by an incident that happened about 100 yards down the Cowley Road - sounded great)


'Sun Hits The Sky'
'Diamond Hoo Ha Man'
'Bad Blood'
'She's So Loose'
'Hip Replacement'
'Rebel In You'
'Ghost Of A Friend'
'St Petersburg'
'Brecon Beacons'/'Outside'
'Richard III'
'Caught By The Fuzz'
'Strange Ones'
'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus'
'Pumping On Your Stereo'

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

...nor any drop to drink

Ten days ago, I went to dinner with a few friends round at someone's house. It wasn't a formal thing, but we had a nice joint of roast lamb, a good old chinwag and drank wine. A lot of wine. We started on the champagne, and although the champagne kept on coming throughout the night, at some point we also started on the red and I ended up with two glasses on the go. It was one of those nights and it was a lot of fun.

Inevitably, when I woke up on Sunday morning, I felt a little bit groggy. It wasn't one of those hangovers that completely knock you for six and give you a huge pounding headache and all the rest of it - I hadn't been that drunk - but it was one of those ones where you just feel a touch wonky; off-centre somehow.  I tried dozing for a while, but after a bit, I just gave up and got out of bed to go for a swim. It was as I got up that I noticed that my arms and shoulders were feeling particularly weak. Although the symptoms of my multiple sclerosis affect my whole body, I seem to have been particularly affected in my upper body, and over the last few years I have suffered a degree of muscle wastage across my arms and shoulders and they have become weaker (it's a bit chicken and egg this: the MS leads to weakness, and the weakness leads to muscle wastage...which leads to more weakness). I've noticed in the past that I tend to feel my symptoms a bit more heavily the morning after I've been drinking, and I sometimes have to be quite careful to "feel" the floor as I put my feet down when I get out of bed the morning after the night before. On the whole, it's something that I've tried not to think about too much, but this particular Sunday morning, the conclusion seemed inescapable: drinking seemed to have flared up my MS symptoms.

I did some googling and found out that other people have felt like this too, with red wine apparently being a particular culprit. Some people found it so bad that they had just given up drinking altogether. I like a drink, and I suppose you roll the dice with a hangover every time you have a few, but this was something else. I had plenty of time to think about it as it took a few days for the feeling in my arms and shoulders to return to something approaching normal. Suddenly, the decisions I make about how much alcohol I drink had become more complicated.... a hangover is one thing, but a flare up of these other symptoms? That's maybe something else altogether.

I wasn't planning to stop drinking, but I haven't actually had an alcoholic drink since that night. In the normal course of events, most weeks I will have the odd glass of wine or bottle of beer with my dinner, a few at the pub on a Wednesday night at the quiz, and a few more at the weekend. For the last ten days, I just haven't. It's not actually been very difficult at all, and I've suddenly learned that I sometimes feel that groggy and unsteady first thing in the morning when I'm stone cold sober. On the whole, I'm not sure that's a very nice thought.

This weekend, I decided that I wanted to drink some beer, but I was on something of a no-alcohol roll, and I didn't want to break my momentum, so I popped out for some non-alcoholic beer. My dad used to buy us Kaliber (0.05%) when I was a teenager, but it's not really an item that has featured very highly on my shopping list since those days. Why would it? What's the point? I bought some Becks Blue (0.05%) and was very pleasantly surprised to discover that not only did it taste like beer, but it also tasted very specifically like Becks. I drank four bottles, and it was pretty nice to remain clear-minded throughout and to wake up on Sunday morning all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Well, as much as I ever do.

Carried away, I decided to try some different flavours, and at the supermarket on Sunday afternoon, I picked up a pack of Cobra Zero (0.00%) and a couple of packs of Bavaria Malt (0.00%). Mistake. The Cobra was absolutely foul. Undrinkable. Not only did it not taste of beer, but it was actively unpleasant. The Bavaria Malt was a bit better, but it still had a very strange aftertaste that meant I couldn't finish the bottle. Horrible. Mindful of a Christmas party I'm attending at the weekend, I thought I'd try and find some more Becks Blue to take with me and popped into Asda. They had some Becks, but they also had some Carlsberg Low Alcohol (0.5% - steady now....). Well, whilst not actively unpleasant, the Carlsberg tasted like a watery shandy, and it's not something I'd really go out of my way to drink over, say, a glass of water.

An interesting experiment, anyway.

It's funny how I was totally prepared to risk hangovers with my boozing, but when my MS is factored into the equation, I'm suddenly a bit more reticent. I'm not really sure why. I suppose it's that you know where you are with a hangover, don't you? I'm not off the booze forever, and in fact I'm planning to drink a few proper drinks at the weekend... it's just that it's not such a simple decision any more. Perhaps in time it will become just another possible consequence of a night out, but for now I'm keen to not be reminded of my limitations, thanks very much.

Monday, 14 December 2009

heard it through the grapevine...

Apparently, when some people start in a new job, they like to make an instant impression; to create a legend that will earn them some instant respect and get their new career off on the right foot with their new colleagues.  I once had a history teacher who, in his first lesson with us, made sure to absolutely terrorise us; to make us feel that our lessons with him were going to be a nightmare and that we'd better bloody well behave ourselves.  As it turned out, the guy wasn't really like that at all - he was the best teacher I ever had - but he made sure right from the start that a class of fourteen year-olds knew that he wasn't a pushover.

We have a new IT director at work.  He hasn't really started yet and is going through an induction that means he's spending a lot of time out in our stores, learning the business from the sharp end.  I've barely met the guy, but already he's made a few things clear.  He's joining us (indirectly) from one of the big supermarkets, and he's very big on putting the service to the shops above everything else: if something in a shop breaks, then everyone damn well better jump to it to get it sorted.  Fine.  My job isn't directly related to the service in the stores, but as a retail business, paying more attention to the shops makes a certain kind of sense, even if it's not exactly something we haven't thought of before now.  Make your big impression.  Whatever.

We had a team meeting on Friday, and my boss decided it would be a good idea to try to impress us with some stories about how things were going to change.  He's big into something he calls "personal branding", so he's got a keen eye on how the new director is shaping up and was clearly eager to share his findings with us.  Apparently the new guy was less than impressed at the department's response to one particular issue.  Things, it seems, were not resolved with the requisite alacrity.  So what did our new leader do? He made the team leaders responsible ring the store affected and apologise in person.

I think I was supposed to be impressed and a little bit scared by this: new broom in the department and we'd all better look sharp etc. etc.

I wasn't impressed.

I'm sure it's true that we can and should provide a better service to our stores, but I fail to see what is achieved by this.  What does the store gain by some apparently random people ringing them up and apologising?  Does it resolve the issue any faster? Does it benefit the store any? No.  It's an exercise in humiliation.  I'm sure it would mean far more if the store received an apology from - say -  the Director of IT, but what the store thinks isn't really the issue here, is it?  Presumably we're supposed to see that the team leaders were responsible and should be held to account for their perceived failure to act fast enough.  Well, the thing is that the buck doesn't stop with them, does it, it goes on up the chain of command.... so why isn't the IT Director apologising?  Or the Managing Director? Or the Chairman?  Or the Owner?  Even if it's true that whatever the damn issue was - and exactly what it is hasn't been made clear as it's not important to the creation of the legend - could have been resolved faster, is that any reason to treat grown adults like children?

Still, when my boss tells me a story like this, presumably the sensible reaction would be to smile and nod and make all the appropriate coo-ing noises in all the right places.  That's what any sensible employee would do... right?


Here's what I said:

"Did he bring his own naughty step with him when he joined the company, or is he using one of ours?"

I honestly wasn't trying for a reaction, but something of a shocked silence descended on the room.  Someone actually gasped.  Judging by the look my boss gave me, I may not have exactly enhanced my personal brand.

Oh well.

Friday, 11 December 2009

I think about life and I think about death....

Earworms of the Week

> "Fool's Gold" - The Stone Roses

I haven't listened to this in months, but for some reason, that little drum bit at the beginning has been stuck in my head all week.  You know, that bit before that incredibly loose-limbed groove kicks in.  It only lasts a couple of seconds, but it's utterly wedged.  I used to loathe the Stone Roses, you know.  When I was in my heavy metal phase, and baggy was just taking off, I used to see them as the epitome of everything that I disliked about music.  Apparently I came to my senses at some point after that.  That debut album is majestic.  I'm not convinced by the revisionists who have tried to make out that "Second Coming" isn't actually all that bad, but that first album is one of the greats.

> Theme tune to Terry & June

We've got a new director in my department.  He's been doing his induction and hasn't really spent much time in the office yet, but he's started to make his presence felt around the place already and can be seen hunched over his laptop, looking all serious..... until his mobile phone rings and plays the theme tune to this much-loved sitcom.

Funny, but really?

> "Is It Any Wonder" - Keane
> "Lyla" - Oasis

Some songs, it seems, sound the same underwater.  I recognised both of these whilst swimming this evening.  The first I was quite pleased to hear, and it's stood up quite well over time... the other was by Oasis.

> "Me And Stephen Hawking" - Manic Street Preachers

.....Journal for Plague Lovers" is still on my car stereo then.

"We missed the sex revolution
When we failed the physical..."

> "Killing in the Name" - Rage Against the Machine

Or, as I heard someone describe it the other day, referring to the reason why it was picked by that Facebook campaign to challenge the X-Factor winner for Christmas number one, "Swearing LoLs".

> "Kingdom of Doom" - The Good, The Bad & The Queen

This album just seems to get better and better.  The more I listen to it, the more it seems to sum up the post 9/11, post-Iraq and Afghanistan invasion world that we live in.  Gloomy, downbeat and serious. 

> "Free" - Cat Power

Chan Marshall is rapidly moving up my LastFM charts as my most listened to female artist.  In fact, she's recently overtaken Carla Bruni and Dusty Springfield to sit at the top of that particular pile (scandalously only 25th overall though).  It's not hard to understand why when you listen to this song.  She's got the most amazing voice, for starters.  I also love her slightly downbeat material.  Yeah, so I'm a downbeat kind of a guy.

 > "Hallelujah" - Leonard Cohen

It's a great song, obviously.... but it's taken me a while to come round to the charms of Cohen's original.  Initially, I discarded it as being rather plinky-plonky and not a patch on Jeff Buckley's cover.  I still like Buckley's version, of course, but I'm starting to appreciate the rather less obvious charms of Cohen's original.   Cohen's voice might be an acquired taste, but it's so full of character and it really brings out the poetry of those beautiful lyrics.  It's seems superfluous to say so, but it's an absolutely magnificent record.

> "Nowhere Fast" - The Smiths

It's not their best song, and I can take or leave that stuff about dropping your trousers to the Queen, but I just can't get this lyric out of my head:

"And when a train goes by,
It's such a sad sound...."

The lines, the way that Morrissey sings them, filling them with sadness.  Ah, it gets me every time.   Yup, it's The Smiths again.  An enduring love.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


It appears that there is a campaign underway to try to stop the X-Factor winner having a Number One single at Christmas.  I've got absolutely nothing against X-Factor.   I don't watch it myself, but I don't really care that other people do.  It's just entertainment, isn't it?  For myself, I find it mildly distasteful that someone like Simon Cowell is able to use primetime television as a beauty parade designed entirely to make him money: he owns the acts; he makes money from the phone calls made by the public to vote; he makes money from the guest artists who appear each week to promote their albums released on the record company Cowell makes money from; he even makes money when the songs chosen for the acts to perform on the show inevitably find their way back into the charts the following week.  Why do you think Cowell decided to put Jedward's eviction to the public vote when he had the chance to evict them - this was an act, remember, that he'd repeatedly said was hopeless and bad for the programme?  He put it to the vote not because he felt the people should decide, but because the phone revenues are divided between ITV, Cowell's company, and Cowell himself.   Putting it to the vote made him a pile of cash.  Why would anyone expect him to do otherwise?  Does anyone really think it's a competition rather than a pure entertainment/money-making machine?  You or I might not like it, but people don't have to pick up the phone and ring in to vote, do they?  Nor do they have to go and buy the records if they don't want to.  Cowell ruthlessly promotes his artists and carefully presents them to us so that we will make him piles of money, but we still have a choice.  Lots of people happily give up their money because they feel they have been entertained.  Who can argue with that?  What qualifies us to say that the music we like is inherently better or somehow more deserving?

I don't really like the fact that the output of the show -- to my ears, anyway -- sounds suspiciously like it's aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator; designed to appeal to as many, and to offend as few, people as possible.  Leona Lewis is a decent singer, I'm sure, as is Alexandra Burke, but do you think it's an accident that they sing like the big American divas, all quavers and tremors and high notes?  No, it's because that's what sells.  It's safe.  If that's what people like, then I suppose there's nothing wrong with that.  It's not to my tastes, but live and let live, I suppose. 

....but it seems that someone really, really wants to piss on Cowell's chips this year by getting something else to Number One.  Sort of funny, I suppose.  I was all for Jeff Buckley or Leonard Cohen's versions of "Hallelujah" giving Alexandra Burke's cover a run for its money last year... not especially because I dislike Burke or really wanted to try and stick one to Cowell... more because I thought they are both much better versions of the song.  I suppose a part of me was a bit put out that a song I loved was being used like this, but actually I thought it was good that more people were discovering it and making Leonard Cohen a bit of much-needed cash.  Mind you, I imagine Cowell was smirking all the way to the bank again anyway, as his company owned the song itself... and so he was making money out of every version of the song in the charts, no doubt more than Cohen himself made (and he was reported to have made £1m from it).  I'm sure that taught Cowell a lesson he won't soon forget, eh?  Not.

This year's campaign was started on Facebook by Tracy and Jon Morter:

"Fed up of Simon Cowell's latest karaoke act being Christmas No 1? Me too ... So who's up for a mass-purchase of the track 'KILLING IN THE NAME' from December 13th (DON'T BUY IT YET!) as a protest to the X Factor monotony?"

WTF?  Check out the record they've chosen..... "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine?  Now, I don't know what song the X-Factor winner is going to sing, but I do know that I think that this is one of the finest, most powerful songs ever recorded and I am absolutely delighted that I keep hearing it on the radio.  It's a corking song.  Cowell owns none of it, apparently.

I already have a copy of this song, so I doubt I'll be downloading it on the say-so of someone on Facebook just so I can stick my fingers up at X-Factor....I was mildly amused by the story and pleased to hear the song again, but then Simon Cowell said something this afternoon that made me shake my head in disbelief:

"If there's a campaign, and I think the campaign's aimed directly at me, it's stupid. Me having a No 1 record at Christmas is not going to change my life particularly.  I think it's quite a cynical campaign geared at me that is actually going to spoil the party for these three [the X-Factor finalists]."

What?  Simon Cowell is saying that this is cynical?  


That, my friends, is about the funniest thing I've heard this week.

You tell'em Zack.

Brilliant band.  I hope you download the song because it's brilliant and not just because you're trying to make a point.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

make my way back home when I learn to fly....

My main task for the day, around the inconvenience of my job, was to sort out my medication for our trip.  As you might remember, I inject a dose of Avonex into my thigh muscle once a week in an attempt to slow down the progression of my multiple sclerosis.  As is the way of these things, I will never really have any way of knowing if it's working, but neither do I particularly want to interrupt my treatment to find out.... I have visions of coming off the treatment, promptly having a relapse that costs me the use of a leg or something, and then going back on the treatment again.... Ah yeah, turns out that stuff was working after all.  I'm doing a lot of travelling in 2010, but I will need to be carrying this stuff with me so that I can take a dose each week as usual.

My gear -- the package containing the syringe, the vial with the powdered drug and the bloody great needle -- is delivered once a month in packs of four.  Although I'm not going away from home for the whole 9 months I'm off work, I am going to be away for up to three months at a time and so needed to take some steps to find out how much of this stuff (worth about £1000 a month) the NHS is prepared to let me have in one go.

Given the amount of money involved and the need to get more stuff up front than normal, you'd think this might be problematic in a bureaucracy as large and convoluted as that of the National Health Service, but in the end, all it took was a single phonecall to the MS coordinator at my local hospital.  That's all.  Actually, I was ringing her to shift an appointment at the clinic that is scheduled to take place when I'm in Cape Town in May, but I got chatting to the nice lady and she took down all the details of when I was going to be away and said she would get it sorted.  Less than an hour later, BUPA (who are the company chosen by the NHS to deliver my drugs to my doorstep) rang me and told me that they would deliver me 4 boxes in January before I go to the Southern Hemisphere, 2 boxes before I go to Africa, and 2 boxes when we go to Canada.

Job done.

Of course, having the drugs is one thing, but taking needles and syringes through security at an airport is something else (you can't check them in with the rest of your baggage as you can't take the risk that the liquid in the syringes will freeze).  I have a letter from my neurologist already explaining why I need to carry this stuff with me, but I also had to place a phonecall to each of the airlines we'll be using -- BA, Quantus and South Africa Air -- and get them to make a little note against my booking to say I would have this stuff with me and would be taking it onto the plane as cabin baggage.  They all politely asked me why I would need it, and a couple of the airlines asked me how many I would have and what form the medication took, but basically it was extremely easy and I was very relieved.  I might have to surrender the drugs during the flight itself as they might need to be locked away, but I'm not worried about that if they'll let me bring them onto the plane itself without too much bother.  I'm sure they deal with this kind of thing every day, but I was still very pleasantly surprised at how simple it all was.

....of course, it remains to be seen how hard it's actually going to be once I get to the security screen at a foreign airport (never mind the land borders we'll be crossing in Africa), but -- for now at least -- it's another worry off my mind.  I'm sure travelling used to be a lot easier and more spontaneous than this, but at least it wasn't as hard as I feared it might be.

Tomorrow, I might actually do some work.


It's Albums of the Year time over at The Auditorium.  The number tens have gone up, and you can marvel at LB raving about Mumford & Sons, gasp as bedshaped eulogises The Doves... and feel slightly confused as I write in a distinctly ambivalent way about Morrissey.  It's all over there for you if you want it folks....

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

when we failed the physical...

I had loads of things on my to-do list today at work, but the real task for the day was travel insurance.

As we've been going through the process of planning and booking -- or at least putting a marker on -- all of these fantastic travel plans, it's been something of a worry in the back of my mind that I really need to sort out travel insurance. It sounds as though it should be a fairly straightforward thing, but when you have MS, that isn't necessarily the case.  With every travel plan that we put in place; with every flight that we reserved and each tour that we booked, I couldn't help but worry that I was going to find it impossible to get the insurance that I was going to need to make all these grand travel plans actually come to fruition.  Perhaps not surprisingly, people aren't all that keen to take you on a long overland tour in Africa without knowing they can safely palm you off on someone else in the event that you get mauled by a lion....

When I last bought travel insurance, as opposed to just renewing it, I hadn't yet been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; I had only (only!) been labelled with what turned out to be a transitional diagnosis of transverse myelitis.  Even then, I was worried.  I can remember sitting in my car at work on the phone to some call-centre or other waiting as they tried to see if myelitis was a condition that they would be prepared to insure. 
Had I been hospitalised in the last 12 months?
Was my mobility impaired? 
Had I suffered an attack/relapse in the last 12 months? 
Okay then, you're covered. 

The relief was palpable.  It may not sound like much, but the prospect that something as normal as travel insurance, something that I had previously entirely taken for granted, might be taken away from me, hit me really hard - far harder, in fact, than the actual loss of sensation in my limbs.  I can cope with the physical symptoms alright... I can control that.... but there are other things that I can't control, like the way that society now looks at me slightly differently because of my condition.  That, I find, is much harder to cope with.

So this morning, I got on the phone to find out exactly how hard this was going to be. 

As it turns out.... not very.  Worldwide travel cover including the USA and Canada?  Winter sports?  Multiple trips?  No problem.  The main issue, it seemed, was that I was going to be away for more than 45 days in a single stretch.  Even then, it wasn't too difficult to find an insurer who would cover me for a ninety day stretch.

What about my MS? 
Do you need mobility aids?
Um.  No.
Have you had a chronic relapse in the last 12 months?
Then for a small extra premium we'll cover you.
Yes, including your MS. 

And it was done.

I'm focusing on the fact that I now have the travel insurance that I need.  Why would I worry about anything else?  I am choosing, quite deliberately, not to focus on the questions these insurance companies ask people with MS before they will offer them cover.  Why would I need to? Mobility aids?  Why, this very evening I got home from work and went out on a 4.25 mile run in the pissing rain and they ask me about mobility aids?  But it only feels like yesterday that I was running a half-marathon.....  Somewhat ironically for someone buying an insurance product, something that's all about hedging your bets about the future, I'm not going to think too hard about what tomorrow might bring me.

....Other than a fantastic trip around the world, obviously.

Monday, 7 December 2009

away from here....

Well, after a fruitful few hours in a travel agents over the weekend, the following schedule is now taking some shape:

-> 3 days after we get back from our skiing trip at the beginning of February, we're going to fly to Hong Kong
-> after 4 days in HK, we fly to Sydney
-> some 31 days later we fly from Brisbane to Christchurch
-> another 30 days after that, we fly to San Francisco and then back to the UK a few days later.

...and gather...

-> a couple of weeks after our return we fly to Cape Town
-> we then spend 3 weeks travelling overland through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and over into Zambia to check out Victoria Falls. Stopping off along the way at places like Fish River Canyon, the Namib desert, Etosha National Park, the Okavanga Delta, Windhoek and Chobe.  You know, animals and all that shizzle.
-> we then fly back home from Livingston via Johannesburg

...and pause for a few weeks in June.

-> a couple of days after we're back from Glastonbury and have washed all our kit, we're off to Vancouver...spending 4 weeks in the Rockies before flying back home from Calgary at the end of July (in time for the Trent Bridge Test Match, obviously)

In theory, I'm not due back at work until September, so at some point we're looking at planning another trip to cover off Egypt and Jordan. Although -- like the other Africa trip -- that will probably be more of an organised tour. We're not especially inclined to be luxury travellers, and when we're in Southern Africa we'll mainly be camping.... not sure I'll be too keen to do that in Egypt, but I certainly don't need a five star hotel or a luxury yacht down the Nile, thanks very much.

None of these trips are actually all that far away now... I go skiing in less than 7 weeks time... and I reckon I need your help. At the moment I'm a little overwhelmed by possibilities, so any recommendations you might have will be really helpful. I'm sure lots of you have been to some of these places, and -- if it's okay with you -- I need some suggestions about things to think about doing whilst I'm away. Southern Africa is mainly stitched up, but any tips about Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, San Francisco and the Canadian Rockies would be most welcome.

What kinds of things must we absolutely not miss? Everyone I speak to seems to have something else that I should add to my list, and I'm keen for that list to be as long as possible.... part of the pleasure, I think, is going to be in working out what we should do with our time.

So fire away, as I'm all ears.

Here's what's on the list of suggestions/ideas we've had so far:

Hong Kong: visiting my friend Des and his lovely family

Australia: Tasmania... and probably the top end (we did Melbourne, Sydney and the centre when we went in 2004). The Whitsundays, Fraser Island, Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge.
Erm, and other stuff, most likely....

New Zealand: I've had a few more suggestions here:

-> Bay of Islands (for diving)
-> Waitomo caves
-> Kayaking in Hahei
-> Tongariro Crossing
-> Franz Joseph glacier
-> Mt. Cook / Arthur's Pass
-> Milford Sound
-> Kaikoura to Marlborough (wine country!)
-> Eden Park (for the cricket/rugby!)

San Francisco - um, Golden Gate bridge?

Africa - pretty much covered.  Fish River Canyon, Namib Desert, Swakopmund, Etosha National Park, Kalahari, Okavango Delta, Victoria Falls, Cape Town, Windhoek, Chobe National Park, Sossusvlei.  Etc. etc.

Canada - Not sure here.  We're just really keen to spend some time in the beautiful Canadian Rockies when they're not entirely covered in snow.  We're flying into Vancouver and out of Calgary, but the rest is all beautiful opportunity....

Any ideas?

As well as a decent camera, I should warn you now that I'm going to try to take a netbook with me, and I will do my level best to journal everything as we go.... so if you don't like travel blogging, then you might want to disappear from these parts until September 2010, at which point I'll likely be moaning like hell about having to work for a living.

Assuming I go back to work....

(MS doesn't have many advantages, but that critical illness insurance payment is at least giving us this opportunity to do something other than just work...)

Friday, 4 December 2009

we are ugly but we have the music.....

Earworms of the Week

> Enter Sandman - Metallica
> Too Much Brandy - The Streets
> London Calling - The Clash
> Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger - Daft Punk

It's been "Masterpiece" week on Zane Lowe's show on Radio One, when they dedicate the whole of each show to the making of a classic album, culminating in the playing of that album, uninterrupted, from start to finish. I actually own all of the albums featured this week -- The Black Album, Original Pirate Material, London Calling & Discovery -- but there's something oddly thrilling about hearing them go out live on the radio in full. I didn't even know they were doing this again this year until I flicked on the radio on the way back from the supermarket on Monday night to hear the fantastical sound of "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden. These standard bearers of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal were, of course, hugely influential on a young Lars Ulrich and form a small part of the tapestry of influences that led Metallica from raw thrash band, through prog metal and on to the behemoth that we know and love today. I personally don't think the Black Album is their finest work, but I still got a huge kick out of hearing that classic opening one-two punch of "Enter Sandman" and "Sad But True".

Next up was "Original Pirate Material" by the Streets. I got onto this one surprisingly early, and I'm still not quite sure why I was so drawn that I ended up watching his gig at Rock City on a Thursday night in late 2002 as part of One Live in Nottingham. It's not, let's be honest, the kind of music that usually floats my boat (the other gig I attended that week was the Queens of the Stoneage gig on the Tuesday night - a quote of mine still adorns the BBC website from that night, actually). Mike Skinner was fantastic that night, and this remains probably the best example of his work. "A Grand Don't Come For Free" is also brilliant, of course, but for me he's sort of dribbled out since then. Still, with songs like "Has It Come To This", "Let's Push Things Forwards", "Don't Mug Yourself", "The Irony of it All" and "Stay Positive" are still standouts, in my books. Lock down your aerial.

I didn't listen to the show on the Clash, but good album though it is (and brilliant title track), I can't get away from the feeling that this isn't even the best Clash album.... I much prefer their debut..... but I'll have to give the show a listen simply because I'm interested to hear the history of the record and the interviews with Strummer and the likes.

For me, "Discovery" was something of an odd choice. It's a good album, but I would have opted for "Homework" instead. I like the singles here, but I think the album peters out as it goes on. Still, when they're good, Daft Punk are very, very good.

Not a bad set of songs to have drifting around your head all week, and some quality broadcasting from the BBC. Bravo!

> Let's Get Clinical - Maximo Park

"Quicken the Heart" has been really growing on me over the course of the year after a ropey start when I couldn't warm to it at all. This song in particular seemed to be incredibly lazy, using a hackneyed geography metaphor when talking about shagging. Actually, although some of the lyrics still sound a bit off to me, this has wormed its way into my head to the extent that I found myself humming it to myself as I was trawling up and down the swimming pool. It's still my least favourite of the band's three albums, but it's not the massive drop-off in quality that I feared it was. I'm hesitant to say that this is a good song, exactly, but I'm now pretty sure it's not a bad song. Is that damning it with faint praise? Probably.

> Tears Dry On Their Own - Amy Winehouse

Lest we forget that red-top favourite Amy Winehouse is actually a pretty damn talented singer. This evocation of motown is pretty much perfect. Just try not to think of her cooing over baby mice with Pete Doherty..... Yuck.

> Tear - Red Hot Chili Peppers

"By The Way" is an stunning album. For a band famous for playing funk metal wearing nothing but socks, it displays a lovely touch for melody and sunny californian harmonies. I haven't listened to it for a while, but my ear was caught by the tune that was playing just as I was about to get into the swimming pool today I actually delayed getting into the water until I had sung it down to the chorus and been able to place it. I was almost surprised when I realised that it was the RHCPs, as it sounds so...well, subtle. I haven't been that taken with anything that they've done subsequently to this album, but this one is a keeper for sure.

> Too Shy - Kajagoogoo

Oh, the things that proof-reading a book on 101 lost pop classics of the 80s will do for your internal jukebox..... Not to mention reawakening my pedantic instinct for detecting the passive voice.

That was some haircut, eh?

> It's Still Rock & Roll To Me - Billy Joel

Instantly recognisable, to me at least, when played on the bontempi organ in the LeftLion pub quiz this week. Judging by the total lack of reaction in the pub when the answers were read out, I think we might have been the only team to have got it. Shame on you, Golden Fleece clientele! Your Billy Joel skills are seriously lacking and you need to do some intensive revision.

> Chelsea Hotel #2 - Leonard Cohen

Whenever I listen to Leonard Cohen, I'm always struck by how beautiful his lyrics are. No surprise, I suppose, given that he was a published poet long before he turned his hand to music. This one is about Cohen's (unlikely) liaison with Janis Joplin in the famous hotel in New York, where she was "giving me head on the unmade bed" (okay, maybe that bit's not quite so poetic). When accused of being ungracious about his subject, Cohen responded by saying that Joplin wouldn't have minded, but his mother was horrified.

Me, I just like the lyrics:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception.

That's well-written AND funny! One of the greats.

Have a good weekend y'all.  Stay classy.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

rocking around the christmas tree....

The Christmas period in the office can be something of a trial.  I work for a retailer, so this time of year is a really big deal and accounts for something ridiculous like 75% of our profits.  With that fact in mind, it's really not so surprising that the High Street wants Christmas to start earlier and earlier every year, with the first adverts usually breaking cover in September.  I don't know about you, but I don't really start to feel festive until pretty much the week before Christmas, but now we're in December, it seems that almost everyone else is already there.  Even though our stores are at their busiest now, it's as though the office is starting the long wind-down to the holidays: people are planning their team Christmas parties; putting up decorations around their desks; holding their Secret Santa draws and generally spending as much time as they can doing as little actual work as possible.  Envelopes have now started appearing on my desk as colleagues leave me the Christmas cards that will never be reciprocated.

Now, instead of a tightly agendered team meeting, fuddles are being arranged.  Not familiar with a fuddle?  This is where everyone makes and brings along a dish, and then they're all put together and we all have a big, impromptu buffet and what is normally a stuffy business meeting is instantly transformed into a tremendously enjoyable and spontaneous team social occasion.  In a meeting room.   No, seriously, they're great.  Unfortunately I'll be missing my team's fuddle this year as I'm unavoidably busy doing anything something else.

I'm no Scrooge though, and I'm not one to say "Humbug" entirely to the festive season.  Oh no.  Why, only this afternoon, in an attempt to get into the spirit of the season that seems to be sweeping through the rest of the office like a pandemic flu, a colleague and I decided today to put up our Christmas decorations.

Well, I say "decorations", but really it's "decoration" singular.

We've taken the tiny Christmas tree off the windowsill where it has sat all year and have popped it onto the little table between our desks.

Oh, and we've added a fairy.

Much better, no?

Yeah, well so it is only six inches high and perhaps it is stretching it a bit to describe a Dark Lord of the Sith as a fairy*.... but at least we're trying.

He is wearing a bobble-hat.

Merry blooming Christmas.

*To his face, anyway....

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

streets are uneven when you're down....

You might remember me talking before about a colleague of mine who once insisted on making conversation with me whilst butt naked in the changing rooms at work. You know that scene from "Run Fat Boy Run" where Hank Azaria's character is busy towelling and talcing his bits as he holds a conversation with a clearly horrified Simon Pegg? Well, it was something like that and it was awful.

At that time, this guy had only been with the company for a little while, and he was clearly going through a period of adjustment: basically he was trying too hard. He's settled down a lot since then, helped -- from my point of view -- by a move to a role where I didn't have to work with him on a daily basis (I haven't seen him in the changing room much recently either, which hasn't hurt).

He's a strange fish though, and he never quite seems comfortable in his own skin or in the company of other people. He's capable of holding a conversation with someone, but at the same time he feels oddly inauthentic and unnatural. It's as though he's read a book on how people ought to behave and is trying to act accordingly, rather than having any kind of an instinctive understanding of how to behave. He's clearly heard that us men like a bit of manly ribald banter to help pass the time in the office, but he seems to lack the basic social context filters that tell him when this kind of behaviour is appropriate, and will choose a strange moment to make an extremely explicit sexual comment. It might be the kind of thing that some of my friends who have known each other for years would say after a few beers, but in a business meeting with some very sober colleagues, it's just weird, especially when the comment is about a mutual colleague. I was also told a story by a female colleague of how he had tickled her as she sat at her desk, and then refused to believe that she wasn't ticklish and tried to tickle her again. It's not that there were necessarily any sexual overtones in this move, it's just that it clearly didn't occur to him that it was inappropriate and overly familiar.

I learned this week that this guy has spent the last few weeks living in a caravan near the Water Sports Centre after his wife chucked him out. The immediate reaction of some of my other colleagues was to speculate wildly about what might have happened, and in one case someone expressed a sentiment of some relief that he would no longer be around his young kids, followed by concern that, in his new location, he was now quite close to her kids (although two corner-shops apart, so unlikely to bump into each other. She'd checked.....). Now, I've taken part in conversations about how strange this guy is with the best of them, and the shower story is fabled within the department, but I thought this was a bit much. I have no idea what has prompted this change in his domestic circumstances, but I do know that it's been wet, windy and cold recently and it t can't be very nice living in a caravan, on your own, on a campsite on the edges of Nottingham as we go into December. He seems a bit weird, sure, but we don't really know anything else about him and perhaps it's appropriate to cut the poor guy a little slack and stop talking about how he might be some kind of sociopath who likely has bodies hidden underneath his new patio.... I'm not thinking of inviting the guy around for Christmas dinner or anything, but is a little compassion too much to ask for, do you think? He might have learned his behaviour out of a book, but I've seen him go out of his way to make new people feel welcome in the department when I haven't bothered to do the same. Maybe he is just trying to extend his network and build his brand, but if the result is that he helps someone feel more comfortable, then does it really matter?

Mind you, I heard the Fairytale of New York on the radio the other day, so perhaps I'm just overcome with a premature outbreak of the christmas spirit. Normal misanthropic service presumably to be resumed in January. Or can you get a vaccine for seasonal goodwill as you can for seasonal flu? Unless this is a particularly virulent strain, that should sort me out.....

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

isn't he mr. inconspicuous?

I was just on my way back from a meeting this morning when I was collared by one of the other people in the room:
"I hear that you're taking some time off?"
It was phrased as a question, but really it was a statement of fact.  Although I'm not really one for small talk and I don't know this guy particularly well, I carried out my side of the social obligation by offering up a few words about how long I was going to be away and where we were planning to go and so on.
As the time of my departure from the office draws closer, this kind of thing has been happening more and more often, and I imagine it will continue to do so until the day I leave.

The thing is, though, that my departure hasn't been announced yet.  It was agreed months ago, it's true, and clearly lots of people already know about it, but it hasn't formally been announced.  It's not a secret, but I'm aware that lots of people - including most of my customer's - don't know anything about it.  Until it's fully out in the open, I feel as though I have some kind of an obligation to keep my mouth shut until everyone knows.

I think the reason it hasn't been announced is because absolutely no plans have been made for my replacement.  I'm under no illusion that I'm irreplaceable, but until my department have worked out how they're going to cover my absence, they haven't got anything to tell the people who rely on me as their account manager into the department.  So they haven't formally told anyone anything.

I can sort of see the logic, but as we agreed everything months ago, my patience is starting to wear a little thin.  I could easily say that it's not my problem, that the second I walk out of the door they're on their own.... but there are still two months to go before I leave, and although I'm carrying on as best as I can, I'm becoming conscious that this lack of planning is starting to affect my colleagues, my customers and -- yes -- to affect me too.  Should I carry on as though nothing is going to be happening on 22nd January 2010, or should I be actively working towards that date?

I had a nice conversation with my boss at lunchtime today: he enquired about my plans and I told him the current thinking in terms of places and timescales and so on.  That's all very well, and I'm happy to have that kind of a conversation with him, but he's not my friend: he's my boss.  My boss expects certain things from me whilst I'm at work, but in return I expect certain things from him.  I expect him to have a plan for my departure, and to get things set up for both my absence and for my return to work in September.  We had a meeting in the diary later on in the afternoon to talk about these things, and he didn't turn up back at his desk until our timeslot was already half over.  He sat down next to me for a minute, studied his diary, and then got up and went to talk to someone else for three-quarters of an hour.  Then he went home without a word to me.

Not.  Good.  Enough.

You know what's the worst about that?  That I let him set next to me and check his diary; I let him stand a few feet away having that other conversation; I let him pack up his stuff and go home.  I didn't say a word about our meeting or what I wanted to talk to him about.  You know why not?  Because I've given up on him and I don't want to talk to him about these things because I no longer trust him to do anything about it.  His credit is pretty much gone.

I've taken a step towards the plane.  A slightly reluctant step, but a step nonetheless.