Thursday, 30 September 2010

a lifetime of promises and a world of dreams....

“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine is a fantastic record. When it was the subject of that Facebook campaign last year to push it to Christmas Number 1 at the expense of the X-Factor winner, I was all for it. It’s not that I had anything against Joe McElderry or Simon Cowell, particularly. I don’t really like the X-Factor or the relatively unchallenging, lowest common-denominator music that it tends to produce, but neither do I particularly begrudge other people enjoying it. And how relevant is the concept of the Number 1 single anyway? I was mostly pleased because I think it’s a great song and I enjoyed hearing it so much more often than usual. As Christmas week wore on, I’ll admit that I started to actively want RATM to get to the top of the chart, but I didn’t go and buy another copy of a song I already own. It was a bit of fun. If they’d picked another record, I’m not sure I would have cared.

Anyway. It looks as though we’ve unleashed a monster.

Try doing a quick google search for “Christmas Number 1 2010” with results only from Facebook.

There are apparently campaigns for Muse, Surfin’ Bird, Rick Astley, Bat Out of Hell, Green Day, Guns n’Roses, Journey, U2, Cliff Richard, Anarchy in the UK.... and that’s just on the first two pages of results. If any of these get any traction, then the Christmas top 40 countdown is going to be very strange indeed.

Yesterday, I accidentally stumbled across a campaign by supporters of Help For Heroes to send “Simply the Best” by Tina Turner to the top of the UK singles chart. The campaign (such as it was, and I've no idea if this is a recent thing) appeared to consist of people on Twitter bombarding the feeds of celebrities – especially DJs – to back a campaign that was somehow nebulously good for “our brave troops”. The tone of some of the requests (and I saw a couple aimed at Greg James, the Radio 1 DJ) was basically quite bullying. Play this record. Why haven’t you played this record? Etc.

I realise that I’m shouting into the void, but enough. Please. Haven't we got enough problems?

And seriously, Tina Turner? Do heroes mainly like crap records or something? If that's true, then what’s wrong with Phil Collins? He is currently  top of the UK Album chart after all....

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

movin' through places....

Last Friday was a colleague of mine’s last day in the office for some eleven months. He’s taking a career break to do some travelling in an attempt to see rather more of the world than he has been managing with his annual holiday allowance.

As you might imagine, this is an impulse that I can well understand. There are some significant differences between us though. My impetus to get up and go was provided by my diagnosis with MS together with the sudden financial freedom that my medical insurance pay-out gave me. I may be fit and healthy for many years yet, but equally I may not be: suddenly I had an extra motivation to break out of the 9-5 and decided that there was more to life than spending time at my desk. Nine months later and I’m back at that desk (well, actually a different one), but I’ve been around the world now, seen a few things, and I think my sense of perspective on life has been slightly, but significantly, shifted.

My colleague was in a quite different position to me, and the decision to get up and go was made over a number of years rather than over a number of weeks. Not having the luxury of a lump sum payout to fund his trip, my colleague and his partner have been planning and saving for two whole years in order to be able to afford to take the time off. They’ve kept to a strict weekly budget and have deprived themselves of all sorts of things. They’ve shopped at Aldi, for heaven’s sake.... hard work, I’m sure, but the net result of this self-discipline is that they managed to save themselves some £40,000 for their trip of a lifetime.

Where we basically did what we wanted (albeit actually not spending all that much money whilst we were away) these guys have got a strict budget when travelling of £50 a day between them for everything: food, accommodation... everything. Whilst this shouldn’t be too hard to manage in South East Asia and Central America, two of their planned destinations, I think they’re going to find it a lot harder in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Mind you, if their self-discipline to get this far is any kind of an indicator, then I’m sure they’ll be fine.

We met a lot of know-nothing, numb-nut GAP year students in SE Asia with ethnic clothes, ratty white boy dreadlocks and a sense of entitlement. These idiots were busy spending mum and dad’s money getting sloshed on cheap booze and then throwing it up into the Gulf of Thailand. They like to think that they’re better than tourists and that they’re somehow “finding themselves” when they aren’t anywhere near being off the beaten track enough to be lost in the first place. Dave and Suzanne couldn’t be more different: they’ve both worked for a while and have had to scrimp and save to be able to afford their trip. In no way has this just fallen into their laps. That has to give you a different perspective on the whole experience, doesn’t it? I think they’re going to have a blast. And I’m not jealous at all.

Not a bit of it.

In no way.

Not me.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

new shoes....

One of the things about tracking the distances that I run, is that I now know exactly the mileage that I’ve been putting onto my trainers. Before I began tracking my runs, I didn’t even have any real idea of how far my normal route was. Short of getting a map and a piece of string out, how on earth was I supposed to know? I suppose I could make a guess based upon how long it took me to run the route, but as I had no idea of how fast I ran either, that wasn’t really much help. Why worry about how old my trainers were? I just went out and ran, and thought that was enough.


You might wonder why this is such a big deal, but if you're a runner and you’ve ever suffered from shin splints or sore knees or a bad back or anything similar, then you’ll probably know that you’re supposed to change your running shoes every 500 miles. After that point, apparently, the cushioning is shot and you’re risking injury.

I’ve run regularly for many years now. Initially I only went out in whatever trainers I had to hand, but as my mileage increased, so too did the accumulated aches and pains I was feeling in my feet and in my shins. I thought that this was probably because I was fat and unfit and putting an unusual amount of pressure through my joints, but a friend advised me to go to a proper running shop where I would be able to get measured for the right running shoes. Until that point, I had no idea that not all running shoes were created equal and that not every type of shoe is suitable for everybody. I ran in a pair of reasonably expensive Nikes, and I assumed that their expense meant they were good.

No. Not neccessarily.

At my local branch of Sweatshop, they put a mat on the floor and analysed on the attached computer how my foot hit the ground as I ran over it. This revealed that I was a mild overpronator, striking the ground with the outside edge of my heel and rolling my foot diagonally across as I took a stride. The right shoes for me, I learned, were ones with a decent amount of support padding that would reduce the massive amounts of pressure I was driving through my foot and up my legs and spine with every stride. The first trainers I got as a result of this analysis were actually half the price of the Nikes that I had been wearing and they made an immediate difference to the impact running was having on my body. It still hurt, obviously.... only now it wasn't making my shins sore and my knees and back stiff. 

Even then, I still had no idea how far I was running or how much mileage I was putting into my trainers. I used a heartrate monitor that told me how hard I was working, but it was not until I started using Runkeeper on my iPhone in November 2008 that I had any idea of distance or pace. Well, the statistics tell me that, since November 2008, I have run 642 miles in some 144 separate activities (and counting....I reckon I’ve used Runkeeper in more than 95% of the runs I’ve done, plus a couple of ski runs). For a man of my height and weight, that’s more than 114,754 calories worth (445 58g Mars bars, fact fans!). I also now know exactly how far I usually run and at what pace, and as a result I know every single time I go out running if I’m having a good day or a bad day based upon the speed I'm running.

I’m naturally a very one-paced runner, averaging about 9-9 ½ minutes per mile. Over the last week or so, I’ve made a conscious effort to run a little bit faster. Runkeeper gives me a checkpoint every mile, letting me know my current pace, and I’ve used this as motivation to try to pick my knees up and to run a little faster. It’s hard work, of course, although I’m fairly sure that most of this is mental rather than physical as I have to fight my natural urge to run within myself. It seems to have been working too, as my average pace is coming down to below 9 minutes per mile, and as a result I’ve knocked 3 or 4 minutes off my time for my usual run. Most of those 140-odd runs have been done wearing the same pair of trainers. When I looked at my overall stats, I realised it was high time I bought a new pair. For the last five years, I’ve settled on Asics Gels as my running shoe of choice, so it was a simple matter of buying this year’s version of the shoe I always buy – the GT-2150, this year in a natty black colour, with elastic triathlon laces, naturally, as the idea of normal laces in my running shoes now just seems weird....

As always, and even though the shoes have yet to mould properly to my foot, the difference in the cushioning between the old and the new added a new spring to my step. I don’t know if this made a difference to my pace, but last Saturday, my average pace for my normal 4 ½ mile run dropped to 8.05 minutes per mile, with my pace for miles 3 and 4 actually dropping below 8 minutes per mile. That's a good five minutes faster than I have been running the route.   I have been a little worried about my physical decline and wondering if I was slowing down as I get older or as my MS progresses. I now seem to have concrete evidence that this is not the case.

It’s not easy, but it’s certainly very gratifying.

Monday, 27 September 2010

you can leave your hat on....

It's been an extremely dull day at work - the worst by far since my return a couple of weeks ago - but it was all made a little more tolerable after I received word this morning that the hat I ordered on 7th July 2008 was next in line to be made by the hatmaker. 

This is, of course, excellent news.  I like hats.

I'm never usually one for delayed gratification, but the hat is, you see, a 100% handmade, 100% beaver felt fedora made to the most exacting standards (just how exacting you can read here), and I knew when I ordered it that the wait would be at least 18 months....but as it was being custom-made by a master craftsman in Germany, this seemed like a relatively small price to pay.  As did the actual price itself, which was a bit more than double what I paid for my existing - machine made, rabbit felt - hat.  Considering the amount of additional effort and the superior quality of the materials being used, it wasn't cheap, but on the whole I didn't feel that the price was unreasonable for what I was getting. 

As things have turned out, I'm going to have waited well over two years before I finally get my hands on this hat.  In the meantime, the pound has collapsed against the Euro and the hatmaker has increased his prices significantly (he has more demand than he knows what to do with, so almost doubling the price was the only way he could think of to keep the waiting list at a manageable level).  In real terms, the hat I'm getting (and paid for in advance) is now probably worth nearly 3 times what I paid for it back in 2008.  Not that it matters much, as I'm more interested in wearing it than I am in its theoretical value as an investment.  Besides, I've been collecting £1 and £2 coins in a terramundi pot since I first placed the order, and there's a good chance that there's already enough in there to cover the cost.


After more than two years wait, to be honest I'm mainly just looking forward to the day when this almost mythical hat actually turns up.  I've loved wearing my existing fedora around the world, and I can only hope that the new one accumulates anywhere near as many miles on my head. 

What does it look like?  Um, same same, but you can never have too much of a good thing, right?  Or, indeed, too many hats generally.

Not with my hairline, anyway.....

Friday, 24 September 2010

I'm the captain of my soul....

Earworms of the Week

> "Northern Sky" - Nick Drake

I just keep on coming back to Nick Drake.  I was listening to "Bryter Layter" and "Five Leaves Left" in the office earlier this week as I struggled to get motivated enough to actually complete the process flowchart I was working on.  I could almost have picked anything off either of these albums as both are magnificent, but I settled on this one.  Beautiful song.

> "Can You Tell" - Ra Ra Riot

As introduced to me by Mandy a few years ago on her shuffleathon disc.  It's an almost perfect pop song and I love it to bits.  Brought to mind by a friend in New York saying that she was attending one of their concerts this week.  She'd never heard of them, but reported that they were excellent.  Good to know.

> "To Lose My Life" - White Lies

Doomy guitar rock?  Check. 

I listen to a lot of stuff like this, and I've decided that the most sophisticated of the doomy, portentous white boy guitar bands that I listen to are probably the National.  I mean, I like bands like Interpol too, but they just seem to lack something in comparison with their fellow New Yorkers.  I'm not sure that White Lies are as good as either, and there's something very naive and certainly uncomplicated about the emotions expressed in the lyrics here, but it's a good song nonetheless.

> "Chocolate Salty Balls" - Chef

Isaac Hayes rarely sounded better on this "joke" record that is ageing surprisingly well.  One of my big Glastonbury regrets is that I didn't go and see him, preferring instead to stay at the Other Stage and watch someone like We Are Scientists.  I like WAS, but that was always a poor decision.... something I knew for certain when I heard he had played this song.

> "California Gurls" - Katy Perry

Stupid song.  Awesomely catchy.

> "Fire" - Kasabian

They're gibbons, for sure, but I love the change of pace in this song.  It sounds almost sloppy, but it just works.  I was singing this one in the car on the way to work. People could see me and everything.

> Theme tune to "The Incredible Hulk" (The Lonely Man Theme)

Wistful.  For the record, it sounds very much like the theme to the 6 Million Dollar Man when played backwards at the pub quiz.  That's our excuse anyway.  And we still won.

> "Shiver" - Natalie Imbruglia

I'd almost forgotten that this song existed when I heard it being played on the PA in a shop I was in earlier in the week.  If you'd asked me to list the Natalie Imbruglia songs I knew, I'm not sure that this one would be on it, but as soon as I heard it, I knew it was her and I even found myself singing along.  I worry about forgetting things, and there's stuff like this in my head.  Good song, actually, and an excuse to post a link to Nat almost pornographically enjoying a Tim-Tam-Slam on the Graham Norton Show.

> "Elephants" - Them Crooked Vultures

I liked the idea of this band, but wasn't sure about the record.  Nine months later, when I listened to it again, it turned out to be brilliant.  Sloppy and a bit loose-sounding, but a fantastic rock album nonetheless.  I love the way this song changes pace about ten seconds in as the drums and bass kick in and start to drive it forwards.  YEAH!

> "Spoonman" - Soundgarden

...Speaking of rock.  I really like Chris Cornell's voice, whether it's married with the RATM guys in Audioslave, solo or particularly with Soundgarden.  It seems almost laughable now that they were often mentioned in the same breath as Nirvana as Seattle grunge bands back in the day: Soundgarden are a classic rock band and that's that.  Every time I go looking for them on my iPod, it's because I want to listen to Bad Motor Finger ("Jesus Christ Pose" in particular, although I have been loving the Johnny Cash cover of "Rusty Cage" over the last couple of weeks....), but I always find that I've only ever got around to ripping Superunknown.  I really must remedy that.  And whilst I'm at it, I need to remember to pull my finger out and rip some Tindersticks and the Billy Bragg and Wilco Mermaid Avenue albums.

> "Say You, Say Me" - Lionel Richie

A Walkers crisps advert Lionel?  Why?  Why?

> "Captain of my Soul" - Electric Boys

I saw the Electric Boys at the Aston Villa Leisure Centre supporting Thunder in about 1989.  I wasn't familiar with their work before I saw them, and although I went out and bought the album, I probably haven't even thought about them, never mind listened to them, in about 15 years.  They were really good, as I remember it.  It was one of those gigs where the bass is so loud that it vibrates you to your very core.  This was always my favourite of their songs, and it was inevitably called to mind when I was reading "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It's an awesome poem, of course, and I was inspired to dig it out the other day after listening to a  wonderful answer Stephen Fry gave at a Q&A session a while ago.  Where some of the humanist/atheist rhetoric of the last couple of weeks has been quite strong, and focused on throwing brickbats at religious organisations, Fry spoke inspirationally about how we are the masters of our own fate, the captains of our own souls..... and some ropey 1990s Swedish funk-metal was inexorably brought to mind.  Perhaps not the response he was hoping for.

Do go and listen to that Fry clip though.  Wonderful.

Have a good weekend y'all.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

yours sincerely, wasting away....

Perhaps it's my imagination, but at some point in my time away from work, I realized that I looked significantly older. I don't really think of myself as an especially vain man, and I've been balding and greying for at least a decade without giving it all that much thought, but all of a sudden, I looked in the mirror and felt as though I had reached some kind of a tipping point: the odd grey hair had become very definite grey flashes, there were now several white patches in my stubble, and the grey hairs on my chest now had a beach-head and seemed to be massing before an advance.

I also am suddenly aware that it's only a matter of time before I'm going to need reading glasses too. As my surgeon warned me, this is something that short-sighted people don't really notice - you can always look under your glasses to read small text that you otherwise can't focus on.  It's now been 2 years since my eye operation, and I've really noticed the change in my ability to focus on things very close to me. I'm at about 20cm now (which is fine), but I'm reluctantly resigning myself to the certain knowledge that one day my arms won't be long enough.....

Well, perhaps that's what taking 9 months off work will do for you.  It seems that it was only my job that was preventing my an even faster descent into decreptitude. In no way did it cross my mind that it could possibly be related to all the additional quality time that I was spending with my lovely wife.

How could you think such a thing?

I'm 36 years old. What else did I expect to happen as I got older? Why should I be different to anyone else?

As I'm never likely to risk my sexual function for the apparent regrowth of my hair, rogaine was out of the question (who the hell thinks that's a trade off worth making?).   I'm also unlikely to reach for a packet of Just For Men. The grey chest hair is a bit of an affront, but I don't actually mind the grey flashes everywhere else (and no, I've not found any THERE yet, although I must confess that I'm not obsessively looking....) As for the reading glasses I will likely have to wear. Well, so be it.

I guess I'll just have to live with the visible signs of ageing. Well, that and stepping-up my already rigorous facial skincare regime, obviously (it was pointed out to me when I was diving in Australia and wondering why my mask was leaking, that I had deep canyons on either side of my nose heading down towards the edges of my mouth that were channeling water in. They're not wrinkles, they're laughter lines, right?)

I've worked with lots of people in my office for several years, and one of the things that I have noticed since my return is how some of them - particularly the ones around my own age - have visibly aged in the nine months since I last saw them. It's not that everyone looks older or anything, it's just that some people look distinctly older since I last saw them. Of course, when you see people every day, you don't tend to notice the gradual changes that happen to everyone: people gain weight, go grey and lose their hair all the time, it's just that normally you see it happening so slowly that you barely notice. I've returned to work to see people suddenly (to me) looking a bit older, a bit greyer and a little more worn-out than when I last saw them.

I imagine they're saying the same about me. At least they've got the excuse that they've been at work, right?  I've been travelling around the world and look at me....

Being slightly wistful about the ageing process is probably par for the course, but trying to do anything much about it is to be like King Canute trying to arrest the flowing of the tide.  Pah. Give me age and wisdom anytime. I wouldn't be nineteen again for all the tea in China. I didn't know what to do with hair when I actually had it.

Besides, now I'm old, grey and married, I'm apparently much more interesting to the opposite sex (so my wife tells me.  I can't say that I've noticed). Where were they when I was younger and might have had a use for them?  Tell me that.

Ah well, in the midst of life we are in death, etc.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

poor, poor pitiful me....

In case there was ever any doubt about the outcome, the cat won. 

The original plan was to keep her indoors for at least a couple of weeks to make sure that she knew where she was after the big move back from my parents' house.  It was a plan that the cat was always going to hate, especially after spending nine months enjoying a large garden in rural Buckinghamshire backing onto some fields.  It was a battle of wills in which there was obviously only ever going to be one winner. 

A short but effective campaign of pitiful yowling followed, accompanied by a lot of fuss about having to use a litter tray and some tactical charging about the house in an apparently permanent fit of pique at the manifold indignities imposed upon her.

In short, we gave up.  There is surely nothing that can convey disapproval more effectively than a cat looking at you sternly with her ears slightly pinned back to indicate her distaste for you and her dismay at all your evidently cruel and unreasonable rules.

In the end, she escaped; leaping through the rungs of a stepladder as it was dragged -- too slowly! -- through the front door.  When she was recaptured, after a short struggle, and dragged back inside, she made such a fuss by her cat flap that we ultimately gave up and just let her out.  We locked the catflap again that night, but one final campaign of yowling incessantly in front of it made sure we didn't try that one again the following night.

It was all over.  She'd won.  Several days ahead of schedule, the cat can come and go as she pleases again.  She doesn't go far, and actually spends most of her time indoors anyway, or within about 15m of our front door, but that was never the problem.  The point is that she is CHOOSING to stay indoors and isn't being FORCED to by her cruel and unreasonable owners.

We had our revenge this morning though: worming drops.


How people manage to cope with teenagers is beyond me.  I can't even manage to control a cat.  She has me wrapped around her paws and everyone knows it.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Shortly before coming back to work, I had a follow-up appointment with the neuropsychologist.  This all stems from a remark that I made in passing to my MS Nurse wondering if I was starting to forget things.  Apparently that's all you need to end up being sent to do a battery of tests to try and determine if you are, in fact, losing your mind.  I actually took the tests as far back as April, but until now I had been unable to attend any of the follow up appointments that they sent me due to being somewhere on the other side of the world.

Actually, since I stopped working back in January, I haven't had much cause to worry about my possible mental decay.  Probably this is entirely to do with the fact that I haven't been at work and have been using my brain in a completely different way.  It's not that I was having any particular problems at work, it's just that I think that being away from the stresses and strains of work - small though they may have been and little though I thought they were bothering me -  has enabled my brain to relax.  Not completely, you understand.... as well as watching daytime antiques programmes, I've also been reading some Dickens.... but not having all those little concerns and frustrations on my mind seems to have been very helpful.  The time away has also given me a little bit of perspective onto exactly what was worrying me, and I've come to the conclusion that, just as my physical decline may be more due to my age than to my MS, the same is likely to be true of my mind.

Still, I'd done the tests, so I might as well go and find out the results, eh?

When I took the tests, I was told that although my results would be compared with other people of my age to see if I was significantly above or below average, essentially they would be used to create a baseline against which my future mental performance could ge guaged.  In other words, don't expect any great insight from these results.  And indeed, there were no great revelations.  I did OK in most of the tests, very well in some and only significantly below average in one particular test: the one where I was asked to make a copy of a complex shape three times.  The first time, I had a drawing of the shape in front of me and was simply to duplicate it.  Once I had done this, I was then immediately asked to do another copy of the shape from memory.  Half an hour later, I was asked to do another copy from memory.  Apparently, even my first copy -- with the shape in front of me -- was shoddy.  Not surprisingly, my subsequent attempts from memory were terrible. 

The psychologist was kind enough to wonder at what point in the sequence of tests I had done this, and to wonder if perhaps I had been thoroughly tired of the whole process by then and wasn't concentrating properly.   He held up one of my drawings, and showed how I hadn't even bothered to join up the lines on the neat, interlocking geometrical shapes of the original in my first attempt.  The corners of my rectangles didn't meet and just sort of taper off sadly.

In fairness, it did look like a piss-poor effort, and if I couldn't get the first copy right, then my subsequent attempts were always likely to be doomed.  In my defence though, if I'd known that they were going to focus on the DETAIL of the copies I made from memory, then perhaps I might have made more effort to join up the corners.  There was me thinking that an approximation would be good enough and they'd appreciate what I was TRYING to draw rather than worrying about why I hadn't used a ruler.  Whatever.  I can't say that I was particularly troubled by my failure in this particular exercise.  After all, if these results reveal anything at all, then they show that I'm good at some things, less good at other things, and average in lots of things. 

Isn't that true of everyone?

Monday, 20 September 2010

sorcerers of death's construction....

On Sunday night, I settled down in front of the tv to watch "Flags of our Fathers" a film that, together with its companion piece "Letters From Iwo Jima", I had stuck onto Sky+ nearly a year ago.  Clocking in at a little over 2 hours and centering around a bloody assault by US Marines on a Japanese Island during the Second World War, this film is not exactly in the tradition of  lightweight Sunday evening entertainment.

 "Last of the Summer Wine" this definitely is not.

What it is, though, is an unflinching portrayal of what it is to be at war and how the survivors cope with the memory of the things that they have seen and the guilt that they lived where other, maybe better people, died.

The film centres around the stories of the six men who raised the US flag above Mount Suribachi during the assault on Iwo Jima.  It was, in fact, the second flag to be raised, but this one was immortalised in an iconic photograph that was used to raise money for the war effort and seemed to show the weary American people that victory was possible with a final push.  Much of the film deals with the guilt that the survivors felt that the real heroes, who raised the first flag, were all dead.

As you might expect from a director like Clint Eastwood, this film is no whitewash affair where the glorious US army wins the war single-handed.  The war portrayed here is bloody and confusing, and we see thousands of young Americans being slaughtered as they try to gain a foothold on a barren lump of rock in the Pacific.  Although the US Government makes heroes of the three surviving flag raisers, the film makes it clear that, although many men acted with astonishing bravery and fortitude under horrific circumstances, war does not make you great.  War is horrible and bloody and wasteful.  War kills young men in a variety of unpleasant ways and forces reasonable people to act in unreasonable ways towards other human beings.

How jarring it was when this beautiful, moving film was interrupted every half an hour or so by adverts for computer games simulating war, where you could command an army and rain death and destruction upon your opponents.  Yeah!

I've played and enjoyed games like this myself, so far be it from me to climb too far onto my high horse, but as I watched the telly on Sunday evening, these adverts felt uncomfortably like they were glorifying war and belittling sacrifice in a way that Eastwood's film was not.

I looked the film up on IMDB this morning, and saw that there was a discussion about what had actually happened to Iggy, a character who disappears from a fox-hole and is found dead in a cave several days later (played in the film by Billy Elliot himself, Jamie Bell).  The film skirts around the issue, whilst making it clear that whatever happened wasn't very nice.  The film is dealing with real people and real events, however, and wikipedia isn't so coy.  I learned that when they found him:

"Both his arms were fractured," Langley [an eye-witness] said. "They just hung there there like arms on a broken doll. He had been bayoneted repeatedly. The back of his head had been smashed in."
Other eyewitness reports further indicated that Ignatowski had been tortured in the cave by the Japanese for three days, during which time they also cut out his eyes, cut off his ears, smashed in his teeth, and cut off his genitalia.

Horrible, I'm sure you'll agree.  The discussion on IMDB focused on wondering how the Japanese could commit such an atrocity, as if the Japanese alone were responsible for committing acts like that in the context of a no-holds-barred war.  Clearly I'm not defending torture, but it's odd how war warps our moral compasses so much that it's somehow acceptable for someone to be disemboweled by shrapnel, mown down by a machine gun or torched by a flame-thrower (all graphically portrayed in the film), but it's not okay to be tortured like that (not portrayed in the film).  Where is the line of what  is and is not acceptable?  The 1949 Geneva Conventions are obviously an attempt to draw that line, but how relevant is it? Are all troops briefed in it and signed up to its application as they fight to survive on the front lines of a battlefield? Surely the very concept of rules for war is ridiculous? Or is it mainly used for after-the-event prosecutions by the winners?

"Letters From Iwo Jima" apparently tells the story of the assault from the Japanese point of view, and I'm very much looking forward to watching it.  After all, young innocent men died in horrific ways on both sides of the conflict and both sides had their own dead to mourn and heroes to celebrate, and we would do well to remember it more often.

As a great songwriter once sagely noted, "We always need to hear both sides of the story".  ALL sides would have been a better way of putting it, but even Phil Collins isn't infallible.

Friday, 17 September 2010

soul, I hear you calling....

Earworms of the Week

Shall we?  It's been a long time, hasn't it?

> Theme to "Thomas the Tank Engine" 

I haven't listened to Chris Moyles in months. As you'd imagine, I haven't missed him at all. This morning, however, I didn't fancy listening to the new Interpol album in the car before I'd at least had a cup of coffee, so I stuck the radio on. He doesn't actively offend me, but I seem to have fallen quite out of tune with the matey banter than he has with his team in the studio. This morning it seemed to be about asking listeners to request their favourite sound-effect, and then playing fart noises. I fairly quickly put Interpol back on, but not before I'd heard a clip of Ferne Cotton making a train noise soundtracked by this. It took me a moment to place it, but since I have it's been stuck in my head.

> The Beta Band - "Dry the Rain"

Rob: I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.'s by The Beta Band.
Dick: Go for it. [Rob plays the record]
Customer: Who is this?
Rob: The Beta Band.
Customer: It's good. 
Rob: I know.

> Elbow - "Audience with the Pope

In my head for fairly obvious reasons, but damn Elbow are a good band, aren't they? I love the idea of cancelling an appointment with the Pope (not to mention then going on to save the world) because your missus wants you to do something. I know that feeling.

In some ways it's very nice to be back at work.

(only joking of course!)

> Joe Dassin - "Les Champs-Elysees

As featured at the very end of "The Darjeeling Limited". This film is entertaining enough, but it's lasting gift has been the soundtrack. Between this and "Where Do You Go To My Lovely" by Peter Sarstedt, it's a wonder that there's been any room in my head for any other songs at all over the last six months. Growing up in France, C. of course knows every word to this song and can't get enough of it. Cheesy as hell, but also somehow perfect.

> Muse - "Undislosed Desires

I heard this song an awful lot when I was in Australia and New Zealand, and although I still think that a little Muse goes a long way, and I struggle to get all the way through an album, this is a damn fine record. They were also AWESOME at Glastonbury in June. Matt Bellamy is a funny little guy though, isn't he? Is he turning into Thom Yorke as he gets older, or what? As long as he doesn't put the guitar away, we can still be friends.

> Manic Street Preachers - "Virginia State Epileptic Colony

I had a listen to the new Manic Street Preachers album on the Guardian website the other day. It's okay, I guess, but they've very much gone back to the sound they had on "Send Away the Tigers". I've liked them for a long time, and I'm not about to stop now, but I come from the school of thought that sees "The Holy Bible" as being their best album (I tried to buy it on the way home from seeing them performing it live at the Reading Festival in 1994). As such, I thought that "Journal for Plague Lovers" - which saw the band revisiting lyrics left behind by Richey - was their best and most interesting work in a long while. It's not that I don't like their other stuff, it's just that I much prefer this sparser, edgier and harder stuff. It's still pretty tuneful though. I'm not sure that James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore get quite enough credit for the job they've done with Wire and Edward's lyrics over the years. That's a tough gig they've got there, and on the whole they pull it off with aplomb.

> Interpol - "Pioneer to the Falls"

Another favourite band of mine with a new album out. I've only listened to the new one a couple of times so far, so I'm not going to rush into judgement, but one thing it has done is to send me scurrying back to their last album. I remember being a little underwhelmed when "Our Love to Admire" came out, but it's really grown on me since. This track, the album opener, has a stately majesty to it that just seems to get better and better as they years go by. The band are in Nottingham before Christmas, and I think I'm going to have to get myself a ticket: they were superb when I saw them at Rock City in 2004, and I really don't want to miss them, even if I end up going by myself.

> Johnny Cash - "Tennessee Stud

You can't go wrong with a bit of Cash, for sure, but this one reminds me particularly of drinking Jim Beam and playing cards on a night train from Hue to Hanoi. That was a fun night. We borrowed Sam's little iPod speaker and got it plugged into Marissa's laptop, and much to my delight I found out that she had a little cache of Cash on there. Bliss. We soon ran out of Jim Beam and moved onto "Wall Street", a blend of whisky and "Vietnamese Spirit", and after that we moved onto the Smirnoff. Steve, our guide, went from being apparently sober to being a total shambles inside about 5 minutes, and then Marissa wouldn't let me sleep until I turned the light back on and helped her finish off the vodka. Even though they turned the air-conditioning off as soon as we were all asleep, and we all woke up in a hideous sweaty mess for a 5am arrival into Hanoi, that was an excellent night.

> Billy Bragg - "St Swithin's Day

For some reason, this was the song that came to mind when Christine O'Donnell won the Delaware Senate Primary. As well as being a creationist who also believes that condoms are "anti-human", this is also the woman who said:

"It is not enough to be abstinent with other people, you also have to be absinent alone. The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery, so you can't masturbate without lust"

[Insert your own "only politician who's not a wanker" joke here]

Well, as the bard of Barking says in this song:

"With my own hands, when I make love to your memory...."

For the record, O'Donnell also said this:

"Creationism, in essence, is believing that the world began as the Bible in Genesis says, that God created the Earth in six days, six 24-hour periods. And there is just as much, if not more, evidence supporting that"

And that, apparently, is a FACT.

I'd laugh, if it wasn't so terrifying. You thought George W. Bush was bad. Now look what's following Sarah Palin into the mainstream.

> Erasure - "A Little Respect"

I watched an episode of "Scrubs" the other day. I've not watched it for a while, but it's a good show. In this episode, the whole hospital is infected by a virulent earworm after the surgeons take to playing this song in the operating theatre. Soon everyone is walking along singing it to themselves. Dammit if they haven't transferred the thing to me.   Great record.

Have a good weekend, y'all.

It's good to be back.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

a city of saints forgetting his name....

In case you haven't heard (which seems highly unlikely given the saturation coverage it has received in the media), today the Pope landed in Britain for a short tour. His visit has been the cause of some excitement, partly because we haven't had a Pope here for 28 years, but also because -- in the ensuing interval since 1982 when Pope John Paul II was here -- people have started to look at the catholic church with greater scrutiny and are wanting answers on various matters of catholic doctrine and their impact upon the world and upon individuals. Child abuse by Catholic Priests and the ensuing cover-ups. Condoms and the spread of AIDS. The role of women in the church. That kind of stuff.

I won't waste my breath going into detail over the issues or what I think of the Papacy in general and of Ratzinger specifically, but I will say this: if there was such a thing as an Islamic equivalent to the Pope (and there isn't), do you think that we would be so quick to invite him over for an official state visit? Do you reckon the government would be so quick to fork out several million pounds to pay for the visit? Catholics represent something like 8% of the population of Britain (although the numbers are falling), so perhaps you could argue that a visit from the head of their religion is something to be encouraged. But if that's the case, then as Muslims represent something like 4% of the UK population, and that number is rising fast, wouldn't they have a case for a similar visit? It's a moot point, but I have a feeling that a muslim leader would not be welcomed in quite the same way.... by the Government, at least....although I am pretty sure that the humanist protestors that lie in wait for the pope would treat a muslim leader in exactly the same way and would be asking the same difficult questions of them too.

Incidentally, whilst I'm on the subject of religion, of the 2,819 people who died on 11th September 2001 in the World Trade Centre attacks, more than 30 of the victims were innocent Muslims (i.e. not the terrorists). Six of these victims were Muslim women, including one who was 7 months pregnant. Many were stockbrokers or restaurant workers, earning a living to care for their families. There were converts and immigrants, hailing from over a dozen different countries and the U.S. There were heroes: a NYPD cadet and a Marriott hotel worker, who sacrificed their lives attempting to rescue others. The Muslim victims were parents to over 30 children, all of whom were left orphaned without one or both of their parents. I mention this for no other reason than to highlight the starkly obvious fact that white christian Americans were not the only people affected by the attacks, although some people would have you believe otherwise. On that awful day, people from 115 nations and adherents of all kinds of religion died.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in the US Constitution, forming the main thrust of the first amendment from 1791. You will note that it even comes before the right to bear arms that is so beloved of many right-wing Republicans that is the subject of the second amendment. The first amendment states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances".

(and I'm fairly sure that by "peaceably to assemble", they weren't thinking of crazed pastors in Florida threatening to burn copies of the Qu'ran).

There are something like 7 million muslim citizens in the United States of America. Their numbers are growing so fast that in some places, like in New York's financial district, they are forced to worship outside as the mosques are not big enough to hold them all. ....And yet the planned opening of an Islamic Centre a short-distance away from the site of the World Trade Centre has been the subject of a furious (and sadly predictable) controversy.

I know this is old news, but I've been away, so I've been saving this rant up. Ground Zero could perhaps be considered hallowed ground (and clearly is by some people), but if it is, then it's certainly not just sacred for christians, as people of all faiths had friends and relatives die here and want their memories to be honoured the same as anyone else.

OK, I'm really getting up a head of steam now. Such is my righteous indignation that I'm not going to be able to refrain from further comment on the Pope's visit, I'm afraid. Apologies in advance, but I need to get this off my chest.

[deep breath]

Religion provides comfort to billions of people and is mostly benign.  It has, however, probably also been the single biggest man-made cause/excuse for much of the hatred and intolerance and murder in the world since we first crawled out of the primordial sludge. As such, I don't particularly care to hear a 77 year-old Cardinal (president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, no less....) saying that "When you land at Heathrow airport, you sometimes think you've landed in a Third World country"  Well, Heathrow perhaps isn't the finest example of British culture and society, but seriously?

I don't know about you, but I'm inclined to think that a democracy like ours where homosexuality is not only legal but where gay relationships can be formalised and celebrated in a civil partnership is a much nicer place to live than a tiny absolutist monarchy populated almost entirely by ageing, celibate male priests but where the age of heterosexual sexual consent is set at 12 (perhaps that explains a lot).  There are lots of things wrong with this country, but we do get some things absolutely right, even though, according to Catholic doctrine, they couldn't be more wrong.

Perhaps this guy would have been better advised to keep his thoughts to himself, but he wasn't content to leave it at that. As he was warming to his theme on the eve of the Pope's visit to the UK, Cardinal Walter Kasper also described England as having a "new and aggressive atheism". The Pope stuck his oar in too, echoing that line by saying on his arrival in Edinburgh that that the UK should resist "the more aggressive forms of secularism".

"As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his destiny"

Well, as Ratzinger looks down on the rest of us from his lofty high moral ground (conveniently overlooking his own past, perhaps because he is canonically infallible and thus beyond reproach), we should remember that history seems to record only stony silence from the catholic church on the subject of the Holocaust and other atrocities committed during the Second World War.... in fact, the Papacy routinely refused all pleas for help on the grounds that they were neutral and didn't want to get involved. Nice moral leadership there, eh?  Besides, as the author Jon Ronson noted on Twitter, "Stupid Pope. 'Atheist' is very very far down the list of things one can label nazis with". 

 On the subject of Ratzinger's own past, the comedian Mark Steel observed, again on twitter: "Lots of people get more right-wing as they grow older, but this Pope's the only one to do it after starting out in the Hitler Youth" Anyway, I doubt that even the most aggressive atheism or secularism has killed anywhere near as many people, directly or indirectly, or stirred up as much hatred as is still done in the name of religion. And in any case, to imply that a mildly worded letter from the likes of Stephen Fry, Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins is in any way comparable to the atrocities committed by supposedly godless people like Hitler and Stalin is just absurd.

And don't get me started on the Daily Mail's ridiculous article on the "atheist campaign of hate" apparently being waged against the Pope. Apart from the preposterousness of the article itself, I won't be lectured by the Daily Mail on hate.   Read "quizmaster" Stephen Fry's response instead.

As that letter to the Guardian says, the Pope has a right to visit this country (although lots of people think he should be arrested for the crimes of the organisation he leads), but it sticks in my throat that he comes here partially at the expense of the UK taxpayer and then feels he has the right to stand there and lecture us about our perceived short-comings.



Wednesday, 15 September 2010

litter on the breeze....

One of the best things about coming home after being away for so long has been the chance to reclaim our cat. Given that she's spent the last 9 months living with my parents and their huge garden that opens out onto fields, I'm not sure that the cat would agree with me, but it's not as though she had any choice in the matter, and we came to claim her as soon as we could after we got back from our last trip to Austria and Switzerland and we took her back home with us.

In spite of her protestations to the contrary, I rather think that my mum is going to miss the cat too. It's funny how quickly these little conceited, self-interested creatures worm their way into your affections. We've travelled to some really amazing places this year, and although it has been brilliant to escape from the mundanity of our normal daily routine, we've both really missed our little cat, sulky madame that she is. My mum actually rang me the day after we took the cat home to ask if she was settling down okay and to tell me how she kept listening out for the sound of the cat's bell in the garden. Having been quietly around for the last few months, there's clearly now a cat-shaped hole in their house.

Once she'd recovered from the car ride north (she's not a great traveller), Minou pretty quickly showed signs that she remembered where she was: she was pawing at her favourite piece of carpet at the top of the stairs, rolling around on her back in the dining room to have her tummy tickled and then staring neurotically out of her catflap. We may not have a huge garden, but we do have one thing that my parents do not: a cat flap. Unfortunately for the cat, this will be remaining shut for the next couple of weeks as we try to re-acclimatise her to living back with us. It's not that I think she doesn't know where she is, it's just that I don't want her compass to get scrambled when she's outside and have her try and look for her OTHER garden and get hopelessly lost.... besides which, she probably hasn't even seen a car in the last 9 months, and it's not as though she was very good with them before that, having something of a tendency to sit in the middle of the road and expect the cars to stop for her. Which, to be fair, they generally did).

This lack of access to the outside was always going to be a problem. Ever since she was a kitten, Minou has shown a healthy desire to want to do her business outside. She hates litter trays and she hates being stuck indoors. When she was very small and was confined to the house, she used to wait until one of us got home from work before she approached her litter to do her business. You can understand this: it smells bad, and who wouldn't want that taken away as soon as possible? It's pretty unpleasant to my human nose, nevermind what it must smell like to the much more sensitive and discerning nose of the average feline. When the day came when we could let her out, I don't think anyone was happier about the situation than the cat. From that day onwards, when the catflap was open for business, there was no problem. With the catflap firmly locked, however, this unfortunately presents a problem for everyone: the cat is stuck indoors and we're stuck with an angry and frustrated cat that probably needs to pee (or worse).

It quickly became apparent that the cat wasn't using her litter. After 12 hours, this tends to arouse suspicion in even the most trusting owner's mind. We had a good look around, but luckily, it didn't look as though she had relieved herself secretly somewhere she shouldn't have. This impression was somewhat reinforced by the fact that the cat seemed to have something of a a look of desperation about her as she stamped about the house complaining. She clearly needed to go. She would sniff around her litter, pawing it occasionally, but she would clearly only go there as a last resort, often turning around to see if she could find somewhere else nearby that wasn't as distasteful. We found ourselves watching her very carefully and trying to follow her as she explored some of the darker corners of the house.

It became a battle of wills, with us knowing that she needed to go, and the cat apparently determined not to go where she was supposed to. After a couple of days of this, with the cat eventually giving up and using her litter, I realised that she was simply being incredibly fastidious and more than a touch neurotic about the whole routine. As the day wore on, she would assume a look of grave dissatisfaction and would hare around the house yowling. Upon gaining my attention, she would lead me to the kitchen, where she would paw and snuffle at her litter before walking away again with a look of great distaste. I would then clean the litter tray and put some fresh litter in, at which point the cat would hop straight on and empty her bowels gratefully before hopping off and pawing at the ground around the litter tray making noises of disgust and running away My job was to now remove the offending articles as quickly as possible before it stank out the whole house (an exercise, by the way cat, that is distasteful to me too). A scatter of fresh litter on the top, and about five minutes later, once the anguish and trauma of the whole process began to subside in her mind, the cat would hop back onto the litter for a pee before running away in disgust and relief. 24 hours later we would go through the whole process again.

It's great to have her back, but do I need to say how much we're all looking forward to the time when we can open the catflap and let her go outside?

It's good to have her home.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

back on the chain gang....

On Monday, I reported to work for the first time since 22nd January.

As you might imagine, in the interim almost-9 months, I haven't missed work at all. Not a bit. In fact, it's amazing how quickly you get used to a routine that doesn't involve working at all.

In "About a Boy", Hugh Grant's non-working character gets through the day by breaking it up into half-hour long units. Countdown: 1 unit. Internet: 2 units. And so on. Funnily enough, I didn't find that kind of thing necessary. Actually, I've been quite busy. I've even been getting out of bed pretty early most days, although it's amazing how much easier it is to get up in the mornings when you're off to do interesting things like to watch the sun rising over the Namibian desert or behind Angkor Wat....

In spite of what you may think, I wasn't really dreading going back to work at all and I didn't wake up on Monday morning with a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Since people first started to find out that I was taking this time off, lots of them have been telling me that there's no way on earth I would ever be coming back to my old job. Maybe, but I've always felt that taking the time off could send me in two directions: either it would give me the time to think what I really wanted to spend my time doing and give me the impetus to get on and do it OR I would report back at the appointed time with a new-found understanding that it's just a job. As it turns out, the latter has happened. I did do some reflection whilst I was away, but I haven't had a brainwave about what I would REALLY like to do, and I'm not in a hurry to throw in a comfortable job, close to home and with a good (if not great) salary, on the off-chance that I might stumble into something better. I'd like to write, but I can write whilst holding down a job and bringing home a regular wage.

This job is stupid, frustrating and ridiculous... most jobs are ...but my time away has given me some perspective on my life. I've lived without a salary for a while, and in spite of all the travelling, we haven't actually spent all that much money. I essentially have more money than I need, and I have realised that I lack the drive, ambition or motivation to go and seek greater financial reward in my career at the cost of the equilibrium I have where I can leave my work behind at my desk when I leave the office, and where I'm home inside 15 minutes and can spend my spare time doing what I want to do.

Don't get me wrong though: saying that I don't want to be managing director is not at all the same thing as saying that I'm not bothered about doing a good job. Of course I am. I have enough pride (and vanity) that I'll always do the best that I can in my job. I just know that it's not my be-all and end-all and I no longer expect a good performance to lead to promotion and to bigger and better things.  It's just a job. It pays my bills, it passes the time and it funds my lifestyle, but it does not define me.

So I reported back to work on Monday (lest, should we forget, disciplinary proceedings were started against me). As expected, nothing much has changed and they weren't really prepared for my return (even if my turning up wasn't an active surprise). My email is broken, and my boss didn't deign to make the time to tell me what he wanted me to work on until about 17:30 in the evening. When we did sit down, in spite of his attempts to cover it up, it was also pretty clear that he doesn't know what I'm going to be doing until a substantial restructure in the department is announced in four or five weeks time. After that, I may find myself in the position where I have a team of people to manage instead of mostly just myself.... but in the meantime I sit in limbo.

Well, at least they're paying me to twiddle my thumbs anyway.

I actually found myself wondering on Sunday afternoon if I would be handed my cards as soon as I turned up on Monday morning. My overriding emotion at the thought, rather than any great sense of disappointment, was that I would probably just feel vaguely cheesed off that I had got up early and put a shirt on.  Couldn't they have told me earlier?

They haven't handed me my cards, not yet anyway. As I wait for work to start trickling back in (which it has already, sadly), I'm developing strategies for passing the time. My email wasn't working until this evening, but the internet was. I've also taken the precaution of bringing one of my own laptops in so that I can hook onto the wireless without being troubled by any bothersome internet filters. Today I brought in my running kit so that I could save an hour of my evening by running at lunchtime. I listened to the new Manic Street Preachers album streaming on the Guardian website and caught up on some albums that have been buried on my iPod for a while. I've also done plenty of catching up with the good people who work here and who, in some cases, I've worked with for many years. 

It's funny how tiring all that was (the run notwithstanding).

Sitting at a desk, it seems, it surprisingly tiring. I clearly need to work on my work fitness.

In the meantime, my c:// drive has never looked tidier.

Monday, 13 September 2010

when weather turns and blue skies reappear...

The Staves / Mt Desolation - Bodega Social, 12th September 2010

Back in the UK and -- thanks to LB -- straight back into the gig-going saddle with this intimate gig by a Keane side-project. I don't know how many gigs I usually attend in a year, but I think I've been to the grand total of one gig in 2010 prior to this one, and that was Lady Gaga, so not exactly typical. Obviously, I've been busy doing other things, but even so.... it's good to get straight back on it now that I'm back in the UK. I'm due to start work again on Monday morning too, for the first time since the back end of January, so it's good to have an excuse to think about something else for a few hours instead of sitting in front of the telly getting slowly more depressed.

I like the Social as a venue: it's small enough to be properly intimate, and in the past I've seen some pretty good bands here. White Denim (twice), Tina Dico, The Feeling, Jamie T..... You also occasionally get to mix with the talent in the bar downstairs as they get ready to go onstage. It almost doesn't matter who the act are (and I used to drink in the same pub as Shed 7 when I lived in York, a band for whom the term "talent" isn't often used unironically), somehow it's still a little bit of a thrill to be so close to someone you're paying to watch perform.

The last time I saw Mr Tickle out of Keane, Tim Rice-Oxley, together with guitarist Jesse Quin, was at the Nottingham Arena. The contrast between the Social and the Arena is quite big enough for me as a spectator, nevermind what it must be for the performers. I imagine that most artists spend their careers dreaming of playing to tens of thousands of people in massive venues, and it's a little strange to think that some bands who have made it clearly crave to get back to a time when they played much smaller gigs.

As Rice-Oxley revealed in an excellent (well done LB) recent interview with the Nottingham Evening Post:

"I love touring with Keane but I do have a hankering to be back as just the three of us hiring a van and finding the venues ourselves. It is an amazing thing to do and you do lose a bit of that when the tour becomes a huge machine. I just wanted to get back to that closeness amongst ourselves and with the audience."

As if to prove the point, when we arrive at the Social, guitarist Jess Quin is manning the merchandise stand next to the bar and chatting with fans. We're there quite early, but already there are a number of fans clustered around the tiny stage. Keane have received a lot of mockery throughout their career, much of it seemingly stemming from indie-snobbery, but they do seem to be the kind of band that attracts devoted followers. On Saturday night I'd watched a recording of the Libertines performing on Jools Holland back in the day, and had laughed at the young girls at the back who were clearly obsessed with the band. Keane, or rather Mt. Desolation here, seem to have attracted a similar kind of following. Well, I say similar, but instead of being 18 year-old girls (the kind of girls who were probably the reason that Pete Docherty and Carl Barat started a band in the first place), the ladies here are rather older and rather - and there's no way of putting this sensitively - larger. You can tell that they're devoted though because they also seem to know all of the words to the songs performed by the support act, The Staves. At least, unlike one bloke here, they're not dressed up as a banana.

The Staves are three sisters who sing in a folk-y style, sparsely accompanied by the odd strum on an acoustic guitar. I didn't know anything about them before I saw them, and I soon learned that Jessica also performs with Mt. Desolation, but I really enjoyed their set. Yes, Jessica, who carries most of the lead vocal duties, sounds quite a lot like Laura Marling when she sings, but that's clearly more to do with singing in a folk-stylee than it is about consciously aping Marling. They are really very good. They're self-deprecating too, introducing one song by saying that they thought they'd do a version of this and then heard that the Fleet Foxes had also done a version and that they couldn't possibly be as good. Well, perhaps not, but it certainly sounded pleasant enough to me (not to damn with faint praise). A very enjoyable set and I don't imagine this will be the last I hear from them, not in a world where Mumford and Sons are so successful with the Ocado Levellers sound (as Dorian Lynskey memorably described them).

Mt Desolation, when they arrive, fill the tiny stage. It's a bit weird seeing Tim Rice-Oxley right at the front when he is more usually to be found hiding at the back on much bigger stages, but there he is. It's weirder still when, from the second song onwards, he begins to sing some lead vocals. He'd probably be the first to admit that he's not half the singer Tom Chaplain is, but he's actually not half bad, and certainly better than Jesse Quin, who's voice is okay if nothing to write home about. The plain fact is that great singing doesn't really seem to be the point of a side-project that is instead simply about the enjoyment of the music.

The songs mainly have a country and western feel to them, but the lyrical themes -- no matter how much they may be hidden amidst references to American geography and the classic iconography of the country song, odd in itself coming from a band largely from Sussex -- are often typically introspective and not really a million miles away from what you might hear on a Keane record. I do find it amusing to be told by a multi-millionaire (in song) that we often spend our whole lives pursuing riches and success only to find out that we had all we needed all along (what is this, "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho?), but on the whole it's a very pleasant hour. I couldn't tell you what a single song is called, but I can tell you that I will listen to the album with great interest when it is released in October. Self-indulgent? Well, the band do certainly seem to enjoy performing these songs with their friends, but as the audience clearly enjoy them too, what harm is there in that?

A good night and it's good to be back in the saddle.

Verdict: 7 / 10.

The Evening Post review of this gig by LB can be found here.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz.....

The original plan was to head back to Africa and explore Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.  Unfortunately, by the time we were back from Canada at the end of July, all of the decent trips were long-since booked up, and so we were forced to think again.  A quick look at the big map on the wall of Trailfinders and we quickly agreed on the last major destination we would visit before my return to work: South East Asia.  I've been to South Korea, but otherwise this is a part of the world that I've only really flown over on the way to other places.  It's hardly off the beaten track, and Alex Garland was writing about the westernisation of Bangkok's Khao San Road way back in 1996, but it remains a part of the world that we were both keen to visit.  So we booked the trip, and barely a fortnight later (after the Trent Bridge Test match, obviously) were making our way back down to Heathrow for our flight out to Thailand.

Day 1 Bangkok

Although we were happy enough to make our own way around places like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, we decided that for the sake of simplicity we would book an organised trip that would take all the hassles of sorting out transport and accommodation out of our hands and leave us to focus on seeing as much of the sights as we possibly could.  As we had a 5% discount on our hands from our Africa trip, and because we'd enjoyed that trip so much, it seemed obvious that we should go with Gap Adventures again.  Whereas the Africa trip had been on an overland truck with almost all meals included, this trip was different in that all that it included was transportation and accommodation: almost all meals were extra and we would otherwise have the freedom to choose our own agenda.  As it turned out, we ended up doing most things as a group anyway, but in theory we were free to do more or less what we wanted at each destination.

We landed in Bangkok at about 7am and were not due to meet up with our tour leader and the rest of our group for another 12 hours, so we had plenty of time to hire a driver and get around some of the sights of the Thai capital... that is to say, temples.

I saw a lot of buddhas.  Huge golden buddhas, tiny jade buddhas and even skeletally thin buddhas.

This is buddha in the Greek style, apparently, after he has been fasting.  Like most people, I'm used to seeing the fat, cheerful buddha, so this kind of iconography was completely new to me.

As the day wore on, it became murderously hot and humid, approaching 40 degrees.... something I was going to have to get used to over the next 20 days.  We met up with the group back at the hotel that evening.  Our guide was a very friendly, Cambodian-based Australian -- Steve, and we then had the usual slightly awkward introductions to our travelling companions.  There were 15 of us in all, including a disproportionate number of teachers and with a younger average age than our Africa trip (although I was again relieved to see that I wasn't the oldest guy, even though C. was again the oldest girl on the trip).  Still, the group wasn't ALL 18 year olds.... A bottle of Chang beer and a Pad Thai at a local night market, and it was a relatively early night before the trip began in earnest fairly early the next morning.

Day 2-3 Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

In Africa, we were on the same truck for the whole journey.  Here, we use whatever transportation is at hand: coach, public bus, motorbike, boat, tuk-tuk or whatever.  For our 4 hour ride to the Cambodian border, we are on a private bus.  The border crossing is painless enough, but I am reminded of how well-beaten a gap year path this is when one of our party is astonished to see one of her university friends travelling across the border in the opposite direction.  So many of the people we see travelling in this part of the world seem convinced that they are forging a path; that they are NOT tourists and that they are genuinely trailblazing a path with their matted, dirty dreadlocks and their ethnic trousers.  They seem genuinely surprised when they meet people they know, although they do seem to spend a lot of time hanging out with other westerners taking advantage of the relative strength of their currencies to get blasted on cheap local liquor.  I'm sure we get viewed with contempt as tourists, but it's hard not to smile at all this inadvertent conformity.  Or maybe I'm just getting old.

I'm definitely getting old.

Compared with the small part of Thailand that I have seen, Cambodia seems less well-developed and considerably dirtier and more rural.  Once across the border, we pass mile after mile of paddy fields filled with toiling farmers and cattle as we make our way onwards towards Siem Reap.  We're here, of course, to visit Angkor Wat, the former capital of the Khmer kingdom, and one of the wonders of the archeological world.  It's one of the biggest tourist draws in South East Asia, and Siem Reap is full of huge resort hotels filled with western tourists.  In a bid to take us outside the tourist bubble, we spend our evening in the hands of a charity, Hope for Cambodia.  We visit the slums and learn about how the charity is working to encourage the families here to send their kids to the school that the charity runs.  Our guides here are two brothers.  They are only tuk-tuk drivers, but their drive to improve their own lot and the lives of the people around them is stark.  The elder brother worked hard and earned a bit of money ferrying tourists to and from the temples, but instead of spending this on himself, he started a school so that other kids could learn English and hope to have a better future.  The charity stepped in to help, and they now have quite an impressive set up with a small school, a children's clinic and a small restaurant.  We have dinner at the restaurant, the aim of which is to teach people how to prepare food to western standards so that they can look to get jobs in some of the hotels springing up around Siem Reap.  We eat traditional Khmer dishes, including deep-fried crickets and locusts, and it's a lovely night.  Inspiring, even.

The next morning, we're back on the tourist trail and are up before dawn to head out to the temples of Angkor Wat.  We only have a day here, and it's patently not enough to explore this Raiders of the Lost Ark style city of ruined temples slowly being claimed by the jungle that surrounds them.  It's huge and it's fascinating.

We're not blessed with a beautiful sunrise, and we certainly don't have the place to ourselves as we've only got time to visit the most famous temples, but it's a fascinating day.

My favourite of the temples is Te Prohm - now popularly called "the Tomb Raider temple" after being used as one of the sets for the film (not-at-all coincidentally, one of Angelina Jolie's adopted kids is also Cambodian).  Here trees a dripping over the temple walls as the jungle slowly reclaims the ruins.  It's tremendously atmospheric, even when I'm surrounded by Japanese tourists wearing hats proclaiming which tour group they are in.  Not that I can talk, being in a group of 15 with a Cambodian guide who speaks in cockney-rhyming slang ("The king had 500 concubines.  He must have been creamy crackered, no?")

One day is definitely not enough. As with so many of our other destinations this year, I could happily come back here and spend more time wandering around these lost temples.  A beautiful, atmospheric place.  Back in Siem Reap, we go out drinking on Pub Street, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

We're not leaving until noon the next day, so we make use of the spare morning by heading to one of the local childrens' hospitals and offering to donate blood.  Well, C. is keen to give blood, but as I'm not allowed to give blood in the UK, I'm only really keeping her company.  They're desperately short of blood products here, so they are enormously grateful for every donor that walks through the door.  To everyone's surprise, C. is unable to give blood as her iron levels turn out to be way too low, but I am able to give blood.  For some reason, they don't bother checking the iron levels of male donors, and after checking with the doctor, they're not too worried by my MS either.  In exchange for a pint of my blood, I get a t-shirt, a pack of biscuits and a can of coke.  Oh, and a sense of supreme worthiness.  A fair exchange, I think.

Day 4-5 Phnom Penh

Today we take a public bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  We take in sights like the National Museum and the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace, and we drink cocktails at the Foreign Correspondant's Club, but for me this trip is going to be indelibly associated with something far more sombre.

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975 and remained there until 1979.  During that time, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into "Old People" through agricultural labor. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.  The numbers are disputed, but it is estimated that upwards of 2 million people died out of a total population of something less than 7 million.  In terms of percentage of population, that's the largest genocide of the twentieth century.

We visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide centre in the city, the site of the notorious S-21 prison where thousands of people were tortured before being sent out to the Killing Fields for execution.   A bare handful of people ever survived incarceration here, and as you might expect, it's a very sombre place indeed, standing as a monument to the people who were tortured and died here.  There are rooms and rooms full of photographs of the prisoners here, and they stare out at you as you pass through the rooms where the floors are sometimes still stained with blood.

Perhaps worse are the photographs of the guards used by the Khmer Rouge: they're children.

Apparently children proved more pliable and were more willing to carry out the appalling tasks they were assigned.  The smile of that kid in the middle row there haunts me.

From S-21, we head some 50km outside the city to Choeung Ek - the best known of the Killing Fields.  Here it is estimated that some 17,000 people were executed and buried in mass graves.  The executioners didn't use bullets, because bullets were expensive.  Instead they used blunt instruments to club people into the pits.  There is a tree here that the guards used to bash babies against before throwing them into the pits with their mothers.  It's horrific.  Not all of the graves have been excavated here, and in the rainy season -- when we were there -- cloth washes up underfoot, the clothes of those in unexcavated graves.  Worse yet, bones and teeth are washed up too, and are frequently seen underfoot.

Some of the skulls have been placed into a monument to commemorate the deaths, and it's a very sobering sight indeed.

It's difficult to look at this kind of stuff, but it is a stark reminder of Cambodia's turbulent past.  If it's a country that doesn't feel as settled as Thailand or Vietnam, then it's worth remembering that Pol Pot only died in 1998 and civil war was waging right up until then.  This is very recent history.

Whilst in Phnom Penh, I also play with a buddhist band.

...and I eat a stir-fried tarantula.

It's served at the end of another lovely meal we share with a friend of Steve's who runs a voluntary after-school school for some of the local children.  It's been fried with a load of spices, but it's still very recognisably a spider, with hairy legs and everything.  Some people in the group nibble nervously at the legs, but I decide that the only approach is to pop the whole thing in and give it a chew.  It's not too bad, actually... a little alarmingly creamy towards the end, I suppose, but it goes down okay with the help of a quick gulp of beer.

Day 6-7 Sihanoukville

A three hour drive by public bus takes us to Cambodia's southern coast and the beaches of Sihanoukville.   The weather has not been great, and it's rained pretty solidly here for the last few weeks, but we're blessed by the sun and we spend a lovely day out on a boat trip to one of the islands where we eat seafood, snorkel and get ridiculously sunburned.  This is one of those towns that is absolutely swarming with westerners and many of the bars along the beach appear to be run by westerners.  It's a nice enough beach (if you ignore the rubbish and the dog shit) and beer is as cheap as $0.25.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this makes Sihanoukville something of a party town, with plenty of people parking themselves on the beach and getting wasted on the cheap booze.  The beach is also patrolled by hordes of children hoping to sell you a bracelet or something.  We are told in no uncertain terms not to buy anything from them, as to do so only encourages more children onto the beaches instead of going to school, but no matter how steadfast you are, it doesn't stop them from hanging onto you and pleading.  The other distasteful sight on the beach are the leathery old white guys with extremely young looking local girls.  There are signs around Cambodia exhorting visitors to let their children be children, and it is here where Gary Glitter was arrested, but it looks as though sex tourism is alive and well.  It's not a pretty sight.

It's a nice enough place, but I'm not really a beach person (as my poor, sunburned chest will attest for the next 10 days).

Day 8 Mekong Delta

From Sihanoukville, we drive 4-5 hours to the Cambodia/Vietnam border. After completing the necessary formalities (which include standing in front of an infrared camera to see if we have a fever, at which point several of us shuffle our feet nervously and try to stand under the air-conditioners for as long as we can....), we continue on to Chau Doc.   The contrast with Cambodia is immediately apparent, as even the rice fields somehow look tidier, and the locals really do wear those conical hats.  We arrive at our hotel in the middle of the afternoon and decide to take a trip up to Sam Mountain on motorbikes to watch the sunset over the Mekong Delta.  This is my first ride on the back of a scooter, and it's not actually anywhere near as hair-raising as I was expecting, and we get a great view of the back streets of Chau Doc and out into the countryside as we climb the hill to watch a sunset that clouds prevent us from really seeing.

Even so, we get a chance to enjoy a local beer and to relax.... some more than others.

Day 9-10 Ho Chi Minh City

After breakfast we head on to Ho Chi Minh City (which most people still call Saigon).   The streets here are reminiscent of the long European occupation, with wide, French-style boulevards and stately hotels and a magnificent Post Office.  Within that though, it is also uniquely asian, swarming with scooters and the vibrant chaos of Vietnamese life.  I don't fancy being an electrician, for one thing.

This is the furthest South that we travel on this trip, and we're still in the rainy season here.  Sure enough, it absolutely buckets it down for a couple of hours in the evening, and we get drenched until we seek shelter in a posh hotel for a cocktail break.  Mind you, the break in the humidity is most welcome.

Whilst here, we take a trip out to the Củ Chi tunnels.  These are a mere 50km outside the city and were a part of the infamous tunnel networks used by the Viet Cong during the American War.  Here I get the chance to discover that I would have made a terrible Viet Cong soldier as I simply do not fit into the ambush tunnels - even the ones widened specially for western tourists.  I'm hardly likely to surprise anyone hiding in here.

We also get to see the various types of traps employed by the Viet Cong against the Americans - all swinging trapdoors and bamboo spikes.  One of the americans on the trip tells us how their father served 14 months in the War, and in all that time never once saw a single shot fired in anger (the only time his platoon was involved in a fire-fight, he was at the dentists).  Standing in the sweltering heat in the jungle and looking at these traps, it's suddenly a lot easier to imagine how he must have felt, walking around in the jungle absolutely terrified of a determined enemy that he was never to see.

When we return to the city, we go to the War Remnants museum.  There's a distinct air of propaganda in here, but it is still difficult to look at exhibits -- bottles containing deformed foetuses -- showing the lasting damage caused by the dropping of dioxins like Agent Orange and not feel tremendously moved at how this little nation stood up to 40 years of war against the might of the French and the Americans.  Whilst browsing the sombre exhibits, I am distracted and a little irritated by some plinky-plonky keyboard music playing awful versions of songs like "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da".... and then I turn the corner and find that it's being played by a kid born with no eyes.

It's one thing reading about the lasting damage caused by the millions of tonnes of dioxins dropped by the Americans during the war, but it's quite another to see those effects so starkly.  From here on, I can't help but notice the number of young Vietnamese people with deformities -- missing limbs, being unusually small or twisted.  More than all the discarded US hardware that you see lying around the place and the GI helmets that lots of people use as crash-helmets on their scooters, this is the lasting human legacy of the American War (I was also horrified to read a few days after returning to the UK, that there has been a sharp rise in birth defects in Iraq since the start of the Gulf War.  Will we ever learn?)  In spite of this, and in spite of the propaganda that we read about the US Imperialists and the glorious freedom fighters, the Vietnamese seem to be a very resilient and welcoming people; they love Americans and the museum itself is filled with many US veterans with their families.  It is clear that the people here understand the difference between American foreign policy and the American people, and posters of the worldwide protests against the Vietnam War are prominently on display.  The Vietnamese were under the colonial yoke of the French for many years, and although they date their independence from 1945, they didn't actually achieve that until they kicked the Americans out in 1975.  In spite of the air of propaganda, the resilience the Vietnamese have shown in their very recent past cannot be entirely obscured.

That said, many tourists just stand in the courtyard taking pictures of the tanks and choppers and gawking at the AK-47s and M-16s.  Hey ho.

All that remains is to go to a karaoke bar, to hire a room and to sing songs like "Hello" by Lionel Ritchie (the most popular karaoke song in Vietnam, apparently), "Beyond the Sea", "Sweet Caroline", "Mustang Sally", "Wannabe" and -- the top-scoring song of the night -- "The Theme from Shaft".  97%?

You're damn right.

Day 11-12 Nha Trang

From HCMC, we take a night train up to the coastal town of Nha Trang.  We arrive early in the morning and head straight out on a diving trip.  

There are no really big fish out here, but it's a lovely spot and we see plenty of trumpet fish, box fish, octopus, eels and the like in the beautiful clear, warm water.  Besides, it's never really a hardship to spend a few hours on a boat admiring the scenery and soaking up the sun.

We have a big night out, and a slow start to the next day, but we take another motorbike trip out into the countryside to have a look at some of the temples and things around the town.  One of the more memorable things we see is a beautiful tiger snake.  Unfortunately for the snake, it's not in the wild but is instead the star of the show.

It is taken from its bag, is bled into vodka and then - still alive - has its heart cut out and placed onto a dish where it is eaten - still beating - by a member of our group.

I try a bit of snake spring roll, but to be honest the sight of the snake gaping as it's insides are pulled out has rather put me off the whole idea.

It's a beautiful spot though (even if riding across that long wooden bridge on the bikes is a little hair-raising).

We finish with a mud bath and to get ready for our next train ride to Danang.  As our train pulls into the station, we see our compartment doors open, and the fully-dressed guards hop off our beds to let us in.  Not surprisingly, our beds have footprints on them.  Hmm.  After the excitement caused by the cockroach that I saw on the last train, I decide to keep the mouse I see on this one to myself....

Day 13-14 Hoi An

From Danang, it is only a short drive to the picturesque port town of Hoi An, once known as Faifo, was an important trading town with strong south Chinese influence and connections. The town is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site, but it's probably best known for it's tailor shops.  The town is full of them, and here it's possible to get almost anything you want tailor-made within a few hours.  I wasn't planning on getting anything made, but somehow I end up with a cashmere suit, a linen suit and a linen jacket.  All tailor made and for buttons.

The town is very close to the sea (although nowhere in Vietnam is very far from the sea), and as we're in the Tcham Islands Marine Reserve, I elect to go diving again as C. takes a cooking course and learns how to make spring rolls.  Once we're past the cloudy water where the river washes out into the sea, it's beautiful.

Again, there are no big fish here, but there's still plenty to look at, including a ship-wreck that's being dived by locals from a small boat in the hope of finding something valuable.

As my usual buddy is otherwise engaged, I dive with Marissa, a teacher from New York, and manage 2 personal bests - the first dive lasts 52 minutes and the second 53 minutes.  I also don't lose my buddy once under the water, in itself something of a record.

We return to town to meet up with the others and to continue to negotiate with the local tailors.

This is where they made my cashmere suit - as you can see, it's not exactly a sweatshop and it's not exactly child labour.  The suit cost me US$90, about ten times less than the suit I had made for my wedding, and not to a much noticeably lower quality.  It's a good price for me, and I'm sure that, compared to what they make from people like Marks & Spencer, it's a pretty good deal for the tailors too.

These guys will literally make you anything you want, and to help you, each shop is filled with catalogues like the Next Directory to help you show the tailor what it is that you want.  After spending 24 hours in the company of some very excited girls, it's probably just as well that we're not staying here any longer (by comparison to this lot, my wife is a model of restraint and only gets a coat, some trousers and a dress made).

It's a lovely town.

Day 15-16 Hue

Just a 3 hour drive to the north of Hoi An is the city of Hue. Our drive takes us over Hai Van Pass and past Lang Co beach.  This is the divide between North and South Vietnam, the 17th Parallel, and as such is the site of a number of bunkers over the pass and was subject to an enormous amount of defoliant during the American War.  The vegetation has largely grown back, but the bunkers remain, commanding a view down onto the beautiful coastline below.

Hue was once the imperial capital, and the town contains both a Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City, modeled on the Forbidden City in Beijing. Badly destroyed during the Tet Offensive (which centred on Hue) in 1968, the Citadel is currently undergoing significant restoration work and isn't much to look at, but we so see some fascinating exhibitions on the war with photographs of the brave freedom fighters, many of them women.  It's a perspective of the American War that we don't often see, as even in films like "Apocalypse Now", the Vietnamese perspective is never really explored as we focus instead on the traumas faced by the American soldiers.

A real highlight of Hue is the surrounding countryside, and we take another bike trip out to have a closer look.

We see locals in their conical hats working to bring in the harvest before the onset of the rainy season, we see an ancient covered bridge.....

We drive through streams of rice straw as it spews out across the road, and we drive past miles of rice drying on the roads.

We watch how the conical hats are made (notice that the lady making them is missing the bottom part of her right arm - another second generation victim of the Agent Orange that was dropped around here during the Tet Offensive).

We tootle through the countryside.

We watch incense being made.

We look out at the Perfume River and we visit the tomb of an Emperor.

It's a lovely afternoon.

...then we buy a bottle of Smirnoff, a bottle of Jim Beam and head off for the 14 hour night train to Hanoi.  Predictable carnage ensues.  It's a fun night, even though they turn off the air-conditioning as we sleep and we all wake up parched and sweaty.

Day 17 Halong Bay/ Bai Chay Harbour

We're only passing through Hanoi briefly as we head on to Halong Bay.

Thousands of islands rise dramatically from the waters of Halong Bay and, to further their beauty, intricate caves have been hollowed out through these limestone karst formations. We board a junk and head out for a cruise....although not before I've been mobbed by a gang of schoolgirls. Again.

Halong Bay is stunning.  There is something magical about the way that these islands rise out of the South China Sea, and even though we're far from the only people here, it's still a magnificent spot.

I'm pretty sure it's also the most beautiful place that I've ever been swimming.... the Great Barrier Reef notwithstanding.

It's another perfect day.  Not spoiled even by the knowledge that Jeremy Clarkson has been here.

Days 18-19 Hanoi

The next day, we head back down to Hanoi.  Initially, this is overwhelming: compared to Saigon, the streets here are tiny and thronging with smells and people and hustle-bustle.  The streets are also swarming with scooters.  At first glance, this looks like chaos, but after a while, your eye tunes into the fact that it's chaotic, but it seems to be an ordered chaos.  Crossing the road here is something of a leap of faith, and it looks to be impossible.... but if you walk slowly and predictably into the traffic without running or stopping, amazingly everything seems to part around you.

After a couple of hours, I really find myself warming to the place.  It's thriving.

Unlike many communist leaders, Ho Chi Minh seems to be universally loved in Vietnam and his picture is everywhere.... well, he dedicated his whole life to the cause of Vietnamese independence, and although he died in 1969 before the defeat of the Americans in 1975, against all the odds he drove his nation to an unlikely success.  He is revered here, and trip to his mausoleum is a must whilst here.

 Uncle Ho left strict instructions that he was to be cremated and his ashes symbolically distributed to North, Central and Southern Vietnam to symbolise the unity of the nation.... but after his death he was stuffed and put on display in a massive mausoleum.  He is displayed with great honour and reverence, and he actually looks pretty good, all things considered, but it's impossible to get away from the fact that it's not what he wanted.  As for the Ho Chi Minh museum.  Well, there's some interesting exhibits in here, but it appears to have been designed by someone with distinctly avant-garde pretensions.  The cave in which Ho Chi Minh hid displayed in the form of a human brain?  What?

Uncle Ho apart, it's a cool city, with its temples, its tube buildings, its wreck of a B-52 proudly displayed in the middle of a lake, and above all its hustle-bustle.  This is a city that is teeming with life and with industry.  I love it.... even though it gives me a nasty case of pink eye.  I buy some weasel coffee (made from coffee berries eaten by civet cats with the beans then being pooped out and roasted - and hopefully washed at some point too) and a few propaganda posters, but mostly we just wander about Hanoi and try to take in as much as we can of the atmosphere of the place before we head home.

It's been another excellent trip, and quite different to anything we've done up till now.  The group dynamics were very different to those we had in Africa, but it's still been an enormous amount of fun.

 Our guide made a short video of our trip too:

Nice, huh?  Another great trip.  I especially loved Vietnam.... although it's changing fast and lots of the coastal towns with beaches are building huge resort hotels and trying to open international airports to bring in an entirely different kind of tourist.  In five years time, I wouldn't be surprised if the country feels quite different.

Enough of all this long-haul travel:  it's time to head back to Europe to see our friends in Vienna and Switzerland before I head back to work.